Skip to content

Listening to the 99 percent

October 27, 2011

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.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 27, 2011 8:35 pm

    Good words and timely coverage as the city prepares to evict Occupy Providence. The city had better be careful not to wake a sleeping giant.

  2. October 27, 2011 8:55 pm

    Great piece offering interesting historical context. The question for the protesters is, what’s next? Because I don’t think it will stop with the clearing of the park…

  3. Craig O'Connor permalink
    October 28, 2011 11:42 am

    “What they do question is 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.”

    Scott – you have perhaps provided the best one sentence explanation of why Occupy Wall Street and its off shoots are happening. thank you for the respectful and informed article. the diverse group staying there – and the thousands more like myself who help out we can – want to see a government that is on the side of the average eople, not the banks and the rich and power elite.

    And to take it a step further – the relationship between this anger and the idea that the pension system can only be “solved” by whacking workers and retirees is that they are the same thing. instead of going after the banks that lost the pension system $2 billion, instead of making sure those at the top of the system (judges etc.0 pay a proportionate share of the sacrifice, instead of undoing the massive accumulation of tax breaks over the last 20 years for the richest – Raimondo and Chafee are going after the average worker and average retiree. that is class warfare, they are the 1%, and we need to stand with the 99.

  4. October 28, 2011 2:09 pm

    Raimondo and Chaffee are going after state pensions. State worker are among the the highest paid employees in RI and they certainly have the best benefit package far more than the average worker engaged in the private sector.

    • Mister Guy permalink
      October 29, 2011 9:26 pm

      “they certainly have the best benefit package far more than the average worker engaged in the private sector”

      …and who cares?? Seriously, you are engaging in silly nonsensical talk that only serves to further split the middle-class wide open while the rich laugh behind all of our backs. The retirees that are currently getting pensions (which may indeed by more generous than at least some of the private sector) are getting that level of benefits because they made a trade-off…earn less during their working lives than much of the private sector &, in return, get a better deal when they retire. A lot of them are represented by unions, and we all know that unionized workers tend to earn more & receive better benefits than non-unionized workers.

      If you don’t like that situation, then by all means…join a union & reap the benefits (pun intended)! Doing anything else is just accelerating the silly race to the bottom that many of us are needlessly on right now.

  5. November 1, 2011 1:45 am

    Mister Guy, If you don’t see the disparity between the incomes and benefits between private industry and state employees here in RI you are blind. If you were a property owner in Providence you would shoulder the burden of highly paid and pensioned city and state employees. Compensation of municipal and state workers has risen disproportionately, what you say about lower pay and better benefits for state workers was once true.

    I find that blind responses online that obscure one’s true identity is a form of cowardice.

    • Mister Guy permalink
      November 1, 2011 2:13 am

      “If you don’t see the disparity between the incomes and benefits between private industry and state employees here in RI you are blind”

      …and if you don’t realize that a huge amount of that disparity is because many in the public sector have advanced degrees that those in the private sector don’t usually have, then you, my sad friend, are just plain ignorant.

      “If you were a property owner in Providence you would shoulder the burden of highly paid and pensioned city and state employees.”

      I’m a property owner in a city right next door to Providence…does that count?? LOL…

      “Compensation of municipal and state workers has risen disproportionately, what you say about lower pay and better benefits for state workers was once true.”

      Nope, it’s STILL true today…you’re apparently too ignorant to pay attention very much. BTW, you really didn’t read *any* of what I wrote above…did you?? Try reading it again…

      “I find that blind responses online that obscure one’s true identity is a form of cowardice.”

      Please…I’ve driven past your bait shop more times than I care to admit. If you’re too stupid to realize that you’re trying to sell bait & tackle in literally the largest city in a highly urbanized state, then there really isn’t much hope for you I’m afraid. Run along now…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: