Listening to the 99 percent
The ragtag army that is the Occupy Wall Street movement has been ridiculed by politicians, talk show nation and many in the media. But with a Congressional Budget Office report showing the top one percent nearly tripled their wealth in the last 30 years RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this amorphous protest seems to be resonating with much of the remaining 99 percent..
Mark Simmons lost his job in September when his employer, Borders Books, went broke. Now he spends his days looking for work – and manning an information table at the Occupy Providence protest that has turned Burnside Park in downtown Providence into an encampment.
Simmons doesn’t fit the stereotype of disenchanted college-age anarchist that conservative critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement are so fond of. At 41, Simmons, who lives in Providence, decided that he would spend his free time working with the Occupy Providence protest, which is an offshoot of the national Occupy Wall Street group.
The 200 or so protesters in Burnside Park have erected a makeshift village. About 100 tents provide shelter. There is a kitchen, a media center and tables piled with literature and pamphlets urging people to patronize credit unions instead of big banks. There are even voter registration forms for those who aren’t registered.
It isn’t a traditional protest. There are no 10-point plans or specific political demands. There are no elected leaders. Decision-making is diffusing. Protesters seek consensus, reminiscent a Quaker meeting or the anti-nuclear power Clamshell Alliance that sprung up in the 1970s after the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
What they do question is the yawning gap between the rich and poor in American society and the priorities of a national government that always seems to have enough money for bank bailouts and foreign wars, but not so much for Pell grants and aid for those foreclosed out of their homes.
Mark Simmons said he was drawn to Burnside Park because he was tired of complaining about the nation’s skewed priorities and thought maybe he could do something about it by joining the protest.
“I don’t have all the answers, but I do want to be part of the solution,’’ said Simmons.
Mary Blue, a 35-year old small business owner from Providence, said she joined the protest to argue against corporate control of politics. “The government doesn’t seem to represent the people’s interest, just the corporate interests.’’
Occupy Wall Street protests have been caricatured as latter-day Woodstocks for rebels without a clue.
The protesters may be illegally taking over a public park and they may face the consequences. In some cities, police have already forcibly removed them. But those who recall the real Woodstock or the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations of yore will be surprised by a visit to Burnside Park. There is none of the nimbus of marijuana that hovered over so many 1960s protests. And there is scant rowdiness. The park protesters have voted to ban alcohol and pot. And some of the protesters have been passing out pamphlets directing the homeless to local social service agencies. (There is arguably less drinking and drugging since the Occupy group moved into the park than before, when Burnside was a magnet for the homeless and the daytime imbibers).
These protests have ample historical antecedents in American society. From Tom Paine and the rabble rousing of the Revolutionary era, through the Abolition and Populist protests of the 19th century and the 1930’s Bonus Army encampment in Washington, D.C., our citizens have often exercised their First Amendment free speech prerogatives when they believe their government isn’t listening.
In the immortal words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis: “We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a very few, but we can’t have both.’’
The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office on Wednesday released a new study showing that the nation’s economic gains have been increasingly concentrated in the households of the top one percent.
For the one percent of the population with the highest incomes, average income grew 275 percent between 1979 and 2007, according to the report. Middle-income Americans saw less than a 40 percent rise during the same period, while the 20 percent of the population at the bottom saw an 18 percent hike.
Nobody knows yet whether the Occupy Wall Street protests will fizzle as the weather turns cold, the leaves fall and snow blows through the tents. And nobody knows yet whether this informal corporate greed protest can evolve into a mainstream change movement.
But a funny thing has happened to public opinion as the protests have gained steam. No less a tribune of the Establishment than the New York Times/CBS public opinion poll shows that the Occupy grievances about banks, income inequality and a sense that the poor and middle class are being left behind are gaining traction.
The nationwide poll of 1,650 adults, which carries an error margin of 3 percent, shows that almost half the public believes the sentiment at the root of the Occupy movement generally mirrors the views of most Americans. A similar poll in February showed that just 27 percent of the public said the views of the conservative Tea Party reflected the views of most Americans.
Maybe average citizens are finally getting fed up with a system that too often decrees socialism for the wealthy and capitalism for the rest of us.
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35. You can also follow his political reporting at the `On Politics’ blog at WRNI.org.