When I was in university, a cool guy who was an activist/folk singer asked me out on a picnic. He picked me up, and we drove slowly through an affluent neighbourhood, stopping in front of a very grand house. “Let’s eat in the backyard,” he said. “Is this your parents’ home?” I asked, confused. “No,” he replied,” I don’t know who owns it, but the land belongs to all of us, doesn’t it? So we have every right to eat on it.”
I spent the whole time nervously looking around, waiting for the cops to arrive, and was as relieved to be dropped back at my apartment as he no doubt was to say goodbye to a date who had not yet cast off the rules of the bourgeoisie.
This memory popped unbidden into my head when I read about the Occupy Wall Street movement, a series of protests that are coming to Toronto and Vancouver this weekend. It started small last month, with a couple of hundred protesters in Manhattan, gathering in Zuccotti Park near the financial district, coming together to form a “leaderless,” nonviolent community, sleeping over and attempting to draw attention, with no set of specific demands, to many of America’s ills, economic, environmental and political.
At one point protesters paraded on the Upper East Side, past the homes of the rich and famous. Were they imagining their own picnics on property that did not belong to them? More likely they were protesting the ongoing picnic that some of the most wealthy financiers have been enjoying at the rest of society’s expense.
In fact the real question about the exciting, disturbing, sometimes baffling and definitely growing Occupy Wall Street movement is not, what do they actually want, but what took them so long?
Conditions have been ripe in the U.S. for some kind of pro-democracy movement that focuses on the growing gap between the tiny percentage of people who keep getting richer – what the demonstrators call the 1 per cent– and the so-called 99 per cent.
That’s supposedly the rest of the populace (although we know the numbers are more nuanced) stymied by a staggering unemployment rate, a politically bankrupt congress that can’t pass a jobs bill (“No Jobs Bill and No Ideas” ran a recent gloomy headline in The New York Times), the shameful fact that the financial masters who presided over this financialmess are still in many cases benefiting from it, and an economic prognosis that offers up not glittering futures for the young, but more of the same.
As filmmaker Michael Moore, looking pleased as punch that his exhortations in his film Capitalism: A Love Story have given rise to some street action, said in an interview after he visited the demonstrators: “There’s a shared feeling among people there that this economic system that we have is unfair, and it’s unjust, and it’s not democratic. We don’t have a say in how this economy is structured and run. That’s at the core of everything else. That’s why the group is not saying one thing.”
Trying to understand Occupy Wall Street is keeping commentators overcaffeinated. New York Times columnist David Brooks loftily declared that the Occupy movement “may look radical, but its members’ ideas are less radical than those you might hear at your average Rotary Club.” Really? Which chapter?
And historian Niall Ferguson, while dismissing the “leftist positions” taken up by the demonstrators as “eerily reminiscent of the ones their parents adopted in 1968,” framed the whole thing on the Daily Beast website as a generational issue – a financial crisis caused by the baby boomers who are about to dump a massive amount of IOUs on the next generation. So why don’t the demonstrators just forget about Wall Street and “occupy the Tea Party” he suggests and “wrest it from the grumpy old men who currently run it.” (Maybe because they believe in diametrically opposed things like public health care and the wealthy paying their fair share of taxes?)
Nobody knows where the Occupy Wall Street movement is going. (The title is symbolic, and changes with each location.) But because everyone is in knots over the current economic situation, it’s a movement people should have time and sympathy for. Yet many of us are scared of even good change because we don’t want to lose what we’ve got. In other words, “I’m with you so long as you don’t think it’s my house or office you’re going to occupy.” While a lot of relatively affluent people are also outraged by boundless executive compensation, they have worked hard to get what they’ve got, thank you very much, and are struggling to keep it.
How can the Occupy movement not touch a chord? Put plainly, there is something completely screwy about a society in which, to take a current Canadian example, airline attendants, some of whom barely make $50,000 a year, are being challenged on their legitimate right to strike while, as Toronto Life magazine recently reports in its hot-off-the-press Who Earns What issue, certain fund managers in Toronto raked in salaries up to $34-million last year. Is what they are doing so exponentially more valuable than everyone else?
The real value of the Occupy movement is that it could help mark an end to the apathy and loneliness of people who feel economically disenfranchised.
There is also the challenge of how to keep the movement focused and peaceful. Nightmare visions of the June 2010 G20 magnum-force police pushback or even, God forbid, Kent State are easy to conjure when you think of rolling demonstrations and each city stepping up its own law-and-order agenda.
It may peter out as the weather gets cold, it may self-destruct because of its unwieldy structure, it may dissipate out of frustration, cynicism and despair.
But whatever happens as this good-natured but persistent street-level pressure for change manifests itself in Toronto and Vancouver this weekend, the Occupy movement is its own thing. Not your father’s sixties revolution, and not the Arab Spring.
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