Winter is beginning in North America, and the real test of the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests and sympathetic demonstrations is about to begin. Thus far all of the major mistakes have been made by opponents of the protests (e.g.: certain police, media, and politicians), and the movement has gained attention each time. For once the American Left has seized on some actually effective marketing and sloganeering, and even more remarkably have not so far followed their usual pattern of transforming victory into defeat by any means necessary. The problem for the protesters themselves is that they have to now do what they have said they will do if things don't change, they must occupy and be seen to occupy, as continuously as possible for the next full year. That is because unless the protests can continue to move the poll numbers in the electorate and generate a political movement of the terms of debate over the next election cycle culminating in November of 2012, both Republicans and Democrats will continue to provide the economic elite with the privilege of impunity from the consequences of their self-enrichment.
Privilege literally just means "private law," and with the number of Wall Street bankers and brokers serving time amongst the national prison population of millions, for theft, or fraud, or malfeasance, or indeed any charge related to the loss of trillions of dollars in wealth and savings, currently standing at precisely zero, I think that it is safe to say that these are privileged persons indeed! They have not even been "named and shamed" by the free press, which may be fortunate given the vast quantities of firearms floating around this country and all of these millions of people who have been evicted from their homes with no access to mental health facilities. Hollywood has already started cashing in with "comedic" fantasies that revolve around protagonist employees who are seeking revenge against their bosses. But one of the traditional privileges of the rich is not having to associate with poor people, and police at beckon call to enforce this. Another is to smugly assume that one's wealth is entirely of one's own making without a requisite social contract. That last one is at the heart of what OWS is all about, and the rich would be wise to disabuse themselves of this delusional paradigm post haste. Throw the Ayn Rand books away and read some actual economics.
One of the richest men in America is New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and when OWS began over a month ago he clearly figured that if he just treated it like any other protest, it would go away like every other protest before always has. When it didn't go away his administration had no additional options prepared, just lots and lots of cops in riot gear standing around earning overtime, and his peers amongst the rich people complaining about the noise from the crowds. Over decades cities like New York have enacted long lists of laws designed to make persons considered undesirable by rich property owners leave otherwise public spaces. Tops of the list are homeless people and protestors, so the rich are understandably agitated over what appears to be a large concentration of homeless protesters announcing their intention to occupy public spaces adjacent to very high rent property. The irony that proximity to public spaces in one of the world's mega-cities is one of the key factors which make these properties valuable in the first place seems to have escaped them for the moment. It was only a matter of time before pressure from the rich caused a man like Bloomberg to tell his Police Commissioner to make OWS go away. It was only standard operating procedure that prompted the Commissioner to tell his Precinct Captains to make life hard on the protesters.
Meanwhile the media that had come around sniffing for a story when it all began, scoffed at the relatively small numbers of protestors with their signs claiming to represent 99% of society, and after the first week the story was relegated to junior reporters with orders to find the "lighter side" of the news. The late night comedians vied with one another to exploit every tired stereotype about the sad truth that over the last few decades protests in America have been largely ineffective, self-indulgent parades with no practical impact on governance or policy-making. True, many hippies still haven't learned that drum circles make protests smaller, not larger, because unless you have a drum it gets oppressive fast and the only solution is to be somewhere else. Clearly nobody had planned for long term sanitation issues, nor apparently realised that they would by necessity require the cooperation of local small businesses to avoid drowning in their own feces, and thousands of flushes a day costs real money. The whole thing could have been one long running joke to most of the country, that is if they even noticed OWS at all, but privilege had been affronted, and that was apparently not a laughing matter.
Americans are probably the most propagandized people on the planet because they do it to themselves. In the Cold War, where the USSR placed their faith in Pravda, a single government sanctioned version of the truth from which no other media could deviate, the USA went in the opposite direction, flooding their population with media choices, encouraging competition for every conceivable niche market and audience. The result today is that any American of average means who wants to watch or read about nothing but sports, or cooking, or finance, or animals, or cartoons, or whatever they like can easily do so. Even for news junkies it is all too easy to self-select for media which tells them exactly what they want to hear, spinning every event or fact in the national dialogue into one continuous partisan monologue. Americans have been choosing to pay more attention to debt, and conservative politicians should look in the mirror for the blame. All the best economists said that the paradox of thrift would cause consumers to spend less just when the recovering economy needed them to spend more even if they must borrow to do so. Efforts to shift discourse away from overly thrifty policies towards a debate on productive investment versus waste were swept aside by the right wing Tea Party, which insists that national debt is equivalent to personal debt, and in rather puritanical fashion somehow morally indefensible. They have insisted on slashing public payrolls, and deepened the crisis in the process. Sometimes it can be hard to see the trees with that forest in the way.
Even as the US government flounders in a vacuum of tax revenues, now at their lowest share of GDP in decades, and unemployment rates have risen and remained at highs not seen since before World War II, the richest of the rich continue to see their share of national income grow and to accumulate more and more of the available wealth for themselves. The surviving middle class has been reducing debt at a record pace, primarily by renegotiating home mortgages and paying down high interest credit card balances. The sad realization that the value of their modest homes will not escalate exponentially and magically pay for them to live a lavish retirement has set in, and serious attention is now being paid to job security, pension prospects, and potential for advancement. The promise that higher education would lead to success has proven false for too many, and with tuition rates increasing at 4 times the rate of inflation since 1982, total student loan debts just last week surpassed total consumer credit card debts in the USA. Taxes on the richest Americans are lower than they have been in more than half a century, but they are so blinded by privilege and self-selected media that they are still trying to shift the burden even further on to the poor and middle class. The candidates for the Republican Party nomination to face Barack Obama for the Presidency in 2012 have spent the last few weeks trotting out tax plans which would lower taxes for the top 10% of earners and raise them on everybody else. Part of the problem is that most of the people in charge of the media outlets are themselves a part of the privileged 1%, and so they don't understand why their attempts to shape the narrative about the protests is not resonating with audiences.
Pushing Americans is a bad idea (so much easier to put on another baseball game or cooking show), and a deeply seated objection to state sponsored violence against their fellow citizens is one of the only things that will unify large sections of society. The political powder keg had been placed in lower Manhattan, just waiting for a spark. For OWS to have any effect at all in getting Americans to self-select media about them, Bloomberg and his police force had to ignite the fuse, and true to form on Sept. 24th they got careless playing with fire, as reported here by Lawrence O'Donnell of MSNBC:
Contrary to the usual script, this approach obviously did not make the OWS protest go away. Quite the opposite in fact, and now there are sympathy protests happening across the globe in dozens of countries and more than fifty major US cities. Smart local authorities have made room and tried to show solidarity with the protesters, assigning a few token officers to guard the protesters against potential crimes against each other (otherwise known as policing), and in those places everything is calm and business continues as usual. Panicky mayors in places like Boston and Oakland have not been so intelligent, attempting to evict protesters in the middle of the night by force, which only draws the hungry lenses of competitive media desperate for exclusive original content, especially if it involves violence (because they can't show sex on the news, yet). Both cities are now getting all the wrong kinds of attention, provoking anger from citizens and making tourists and convention planners reconsider plans to visit or locate conferences there. Needless to say, the odds of such mayors winning election to another term in office are dropping with each incident that they provoke. The costs to city budgets to constantly surround protesters with police are mounting, and with the arrested threatening to demand jury trials for all charges, the potential expense of the Bloomberg strategy is looking increasingly astronomical. The protests in New York, Boston and Oakland continue to grow, and show no more signs of stopping than do the more stable occupying populations in calm cities.
Even as I write this the Oakland Police are trying to stop protesters from retaking by day the city plaza that they lost to tear gas assault last night. More teargas, more clubs and arrests, more media coverage. Tomorrow Occupy Oakland will grow, the protesters will adapt and innovate, the police will be more fatigued (it is not easy beating on your neighbors day after day), their budget more depleted, and their reputation more tarnished. Soon they will begin to see a decline in citizen cooperation in policing other crimes, and other police departments will see their own efforts at community outreach undermined by the steady stream of brutality emanating from their misguided neighbors in Oakland. We can only hope that they too make their displeasure known to the skittish and scared Mayor Jean Quan. Apparently she never had any intention of running for re-election or any other elected office ever again. Too bad, just a couple of weeks ago she was marching arm in arm with these same protesters. Someone must have reminded her that she was privileged, and she didn't need to associate with poor people, just call for the police to remove them.
Over the winter, the protests in the calm cities will shrink to token occupations, largely symbolic and staffed in shifts, seeds for spring and summer protests in the lead up to November elections. Attempts to evict the tokens in panicky cities will result in full scale occupations that will draw the most committed activists from the calm cities sooner or later. Continued failure by the Republican Party to embrace the OWS message (or mimicry of Ron Paul's futile attempts to shift their focus onto the Federal Reserve instead of the private sector bankers), will result in very high voter registration and turnout from population demographics which were very favourable towards President Obama and fellow Democratic candidates in previous election cycles. Efforts at the State level to reduce registration rates and to exclude otherwise eligible voters through technicalities will only deepen the resolve of such persons to not only vote, but to vote against the Party that tried to deny them, and also to persuade others to do likewise. Smart politicians like Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren are already positioned firmly alongside the people and the grievances being voiced at OWS:
Only FoxNews and the financial networks (one of which is owned by Mayor Bloomberg after all) are still trying to mock the protesters, even going so far as to read copy claiming the police did not use flash grenades while showing pictures of riot police apparently firing flash grenades. Result: more protesters. Hundreds of videos of alleged police brutality continue to circulate, yet in spite of repeated claims by the police that protesters assaulted them first, threw bottles or stones, or otherwise provoked a violent response, I have yet to come across a single piece of video evidence to indicate even a single instance of such behaviour by the protesters. It would be truly remarkable if no such incidents occurred at any of the protest sites, but the fact that the sea of cameras seem to unerringly omit every instance of protester violence towards police boggles the mind. Journalists always dutifully report that the police claim to have been attacked, but none that I have heard can claim to have witnessed any of it themselves even if they didn't get it on camera. I have just received reports that Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed has now entered the panicky column, and has begun forcible evictions from parks in that city. This after announcing on Oct. 17th that protesters could stay for at least three more weeks. We can therefore expect lots more protesters and a new mayor in Atlanta's future. If the nation's police departments don't make it clear to the politicians soon that they will not be used as weapons against the very citizens that they are sworn to protect, then we can expect a lot of new Police Commissioners and Chiefs in the wake of the next election as well.
Occupation has become the dominant tactic for peaceful protesters worldwide, especially those who are young, healthy and unemployed. They literally don't have anywhere else to be, nothing "better" to do, or anything to "go back to." The only way to get them to stop will be to put them to work doing something productive at wages that will allow them to live a middle class lifestyle and retire in relative comfort and security in their old age. That can't happen for as long as the privileged 1% are permitted to claim half of all income with impunity. That can't happen for as long as the fiction persists that anyone could possibly amass, let alone hold on to their wealth without the consent of the 99%. The 1% cannot win by attrition, new potential protesters are being born faster than the police can arrest the current ones. The 99% can theoretically keep this up for generations if necessary. The 1% cannot win by escalation, because the more resources put towards stopping the protests simply further reveals and reinforces the argument that the 1% is hoarding resources for their own benefit and co-opting public officials to do their bidding, thus convincing even more of the 99% to oppose them directly. The 1% cannot win by co-opting the protesters, because the 1% is exclusive by definition and cannot be expanded. They have become conspicuous through shameless self advancement at the expense of everyone else, and they cannot pretend to have wanted to bring the rest of us along with them, because they have already accepted rewards obviously out of proportion to any conceivable individual contribution of value to the whole. The 1% cannot win by controlling the message in the broadcast or print media, because there are too many camera phones and no way to effectively censor social media. The 1% should surrender now and cut their losses, drop the privileges, pay their fair share of progressive taxes towards the common good, and stop running for election to political office using their personal fortunes and a few billionaire donors. It is the only way to avoid spending the rest of their lives in their crowd-proof "panic rooms."
The above post was written by our resident special contributor - L Yakima.
Zambian Economist encourages special contributions from leading thinkers on matters relevant to Zambia's national social, economic and political development. The purpose of these notes is to stimulate discussion and ensure logic and impartial critique plays a leading role in shaping public debate.