But What Do They Want?

In which our reporter joins Wall Street's new occupants

Photo: David Shankbone

The media’s portrayals of the quickly spreading Occupy Wall Street movement have been inconsistent—and sometimes outright contradictory. Depending on who’s reporting, the attendees are disgruntled radicals, a dangerous mob, anti-American, pro-American, savvy, well-educated, organized, chaotic, shiftless youth, aging hippies, socialists, anarchists, libertarians, peaceful, violent. Depending on whom you listen to, their movement is powerful or quixotic or misguided or the great protest movement of our time. Especially in the early days of the movement, journalists kept insisting that the protesters provide a list of concrete policy demands, so that they could report exactly what the fuss was all about. The protesters steadfastly refused to offer one, insisting that their movement is not a political party and does not have a platform. What exactly is happening in Zuccotti Park?

One reason it’s been hard to sum up Occupy Wall Street is that in fact a variety of motives has brought people there. This movement is nothing if not diverse. Almost every one of the photos I took at the ten-thousand-strong October 5 march turned out to have both old and young people in the frame, as well as people of different races and genders. Still, among all these people of different backgrounds, there are a few policy ideas that seem to crop up over and over. Most protesters think our wealthiest citizens don’t pay their fair share of taxes, and should; most think the 2008 corporate bailouts did not hold powerful financiers sufficiently responsible for the wreckage they caused to the economy by irresponsible trading; a great many support a transaction tax to discourage irresponsible high-volume trading.

Then there are demands that are the particular hobbyhorses of smaller contingents within the movement. During one rally I met a group lobbying for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, a cohort of old-school socialists hoping to recruit new members, labor-union representatives, anarchist punks, anarcho-syndicalists with elaborate political philosophies, and college kids happy for any excuse to take the afternoon off. There were representatives from the Catholic Worker promoting the idea that the charging of interest on a loan is intrinsically evil (which was, incidentally, the teaching of the Catholic Church until the Reformation, and is still the teaching of Islam). This latter was a minority voice, but probably all the protestors would agree that it may indeed be time to re-examine what we think qualifies as criminal usury. It seems everyone occupying Wall Street agrees on one thing: that when the amount of money you have equals the amount of power you have, your society is no longer a democracy. What they are opposed to is, in a word, plutocracy.

One reason the goals of the protesters have baffled the political and media establishment is that those goals are often more sophisticated than anyone expects them to be. One of the major grievances, for example, is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which the protesters believe is anti-American because it has made influence in democratic government a thing for sale. The Court ruled in January 2010 that corporations are people under the first amendment, and must be allowed to make unlimited financial contributions to political campaigns in the name of free speech. It took some time for knowledge of this decision and its implications to spread. Now that it has, it’s been enough to make people take to the streets.

The fact that the protesters are angry about Citizens United speaks to what makes Occupy Wall Street unique. In the past, major protest movements have arisen to counter obvious, visible injustices: institutionalized racism sparked the civil-rights movement; the horror of unjust war sparked Vietnam-era demonstrations. Occupy Wall Street has arisen in response to, among other things, a Supreme Court decision regarding a complicated point of campaign-finance policy. It’s not the sort of thing one would expect a mob of scruffy youth to understand, let alone be outraged by. Yet they are. In fact it seems to be one of the things that angers them the most. Many of the protest signs I’ve seen address this issue: “Corporation$ Are Not People!”; “Money talks too much!”; “I’m not allowed to use a blow horn...Why are the corporations protected under the First Amendment & not me?” The protesters have come together because they think strength in numbers and nonviolent civil disobedience are the only way to get their message heard—they don’t have deep coffers to pay for lobbying on Capitol Hill and time on the airwaves. I find it hard to disagree.

Another near-universal grievance worth mentioning has to do with student-loan debt. This complaint is perhaps easier than the others to criticize. After all, if people chose to borrow money for school that they now cannot repay, that is unfortunate, but it’s their own fault: they signed the paperwork and must live with their decision. But there’s a bit more to this issue than first meets the eye. A significant number of protesters feel that school officials and lenders used deceptive tactics to get them to go deeply into debt when they were young and vulnerable, and that powerful lenders like Sallie Mae continue to treat them in a predatory manner while their elected representatives look the other way. Over the past fifteen years, student loans have gradually been stripped of even the most basic consumer protections. If a private citizen or business owner makes a bad investment in good faith or even racks up irresponsible credit-card debt, the bankruptcy process affords some opportunity for a fresh start. Student loans are the only noncriminal debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy: there is no escape. Occupy Wall Street is not primarily a protest about student loans, but while the protesters’ main demands have to do with corporate power and campaign finance, no one should underestimate how much of the emotional energy fueling the movement has to do with anxiety about debt.

The thing that has surprised me most about the people occupying Wall Street is their robust patriotism. Many of the protesters I’ve met express concern for the democratic ideals enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. They are protesting because they believe those ideals are now in jeopardy. There are socialists in the group, but many of these would describe themselves as libertarian socialists, advocating the decentralization of government and a more locally-based approach to providing for the social welfare. Members of the Tea Party would find common ground here, if they could get over their reflexive horror at the word “socialist.”

If the protesters have not put forth a bullet-pointed list of policy demands, it’s partly because their concerns go deeper than the level of policy. They—or most of them—seem to want fundamental changes to the system, not just a few addi-tional rules. In any case, a reluctance to propose a specific set of reforms may work well for a grassroots movement still in its infancy. Too much definition too soon can keep a movement like this from growing. Only time will tell whether, and to what extent, Occupy Wall Street will eventually be able to wield real political influence, but for now time seems to be on its side. The demonstrations keep getting bigger, and some of the demonstrators are evidently willing to be arrested for acts of civil disobedience. They aren’t the violent mob some conservatives have accused them of being, but neither are they the motley crew of fickle exhibitionists the mainstream media wanted to ignore or condescend to in the first weeks of the protest. A month into the occupation, on October 14, thousands turned up before dawn to prevent the city from evicting the protesters camped at Zuccotti Park. On October 15, the movement went global, with coordinated protests in cities worldwide. There are now Occupy encampments in dozens of cities here and abroad. The occupiers are serious, and they’re sticking around.


Related: Occupying Force, by William Pfaff

Published in the 2011-11-18 issue: 

Christine Neulieb is a former Commonweal editorial assistant.

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