Update on 10/5 @12:30: Our publisher, Rinku Sen, talks about building explicitly inclusive movements in an essay today. She articulates the point better than I have below, so check it out.
I also had a good discussion with Indypendent writer and movement organizer Arun Gupta on Democracy Now! this morning. Gupta feels strongly that I’ve misrepresented the Occupy Wall Street movement in the post below by, among other problems, focusing on confrontations with police. He makes the fair point that it is in fact the cops who are harassing protestors. I agree wholeheartedly and certainly don’t want to dismiss that fact. But I continue to believe that the best way to avoid any misrepresentation is by building a movement that puts the people most affected at the forefront—and does so explicitly, rather than just saying they’re welcome to join if they wish.
Update on 10/4 @ 3:15p: I’m glad to see this post stirring lots of smart conversation. I do want to make sure I’m clear about one thing: The more people standing up and demanding economic equity and financial sector accountability the better—in the streets, as lobbyists, as elected officials, wherever. So the Occupy Wall Street movement is a welcome development. As I write below, I believe its overall message is deeply, urgently important. But I also believe the details matter, and I hope that they will come to matter within this movement. The current economic crisis didn’t just happen; it resulted from specific choices of both policymakers and financial sector players, and a great many of those choices involved preying upon the communities left most vulnerable by an unjust, rigged economy. That means that any effort to fix the problem, whether it stems from policymakers or reform movements of all stripes, must also explicitly deal with these realities.
There are now mounds of evidence that financial players, backed by big banks, targeted black neighborhoods with a wide range of predatory lending products—and that they continue to do so. They did not target black people exclusively, but it’s plain that they targeted black people with unique intensity. As a result, black America is now facing a uniquely acute economic crisis. That’s not only a problem for black neighborhoods; it also means the broader country cannot sustainably recover. Our politics must honestly address these facts in order to create meaningful change. I hear more everyday about exciting efforts to plug the Occupy Wall Street movement into campaigns that put the homeowners, the jobless and the most devastated communities at the center of the debate. That’s exciting. Because, as I write below, those are the people who have been consistently ignored in national political discourse, and as a result we’ve not solved the problem.
The recession and the striking economic inequity that created it left many people frustrated, confused and full of questions. How’d we get here and how do we get to a better place are two that I hear often. But in the scores of panel discussions, media interviews and simple bar conversations I’ve had on the topic over the past three years, one question recurs the most: Where’s the outrage?! Or, more specifically, why aren’t people in the streets demanding justice—shady financial players locked up, foreclosed homes returned, new rules written to protect us? The president says his newfound populism isn’t class warfare, but a whole lotta people would be happy if it were.
Now, a deliberately amorphous and steadily growing movement to “occupy” Wall Street has many folks on the left hopeful that, finally, the revolution is upon us. Optimistic political comparisons are proliferating. It’s the upheaval of Tahrir Square, or the defiance of the Wisconsin statehouse brought to the devil’s door. It’s the left’s tea party moment. It’s the spirit of the Sixties revived. And so on. I wish I felt like any of those things were true.
The whole thing began in mid September as an odd nuisance for lower Manhattan’s commuters. A small band of largely young and white protestors shouted angrily at us as we made our way to and from work, taking circuitous routes because, in typical overreaction, NYPD has cordoned off as much public space as possible. Gradually, and predictably, the police overreaction has come to define the moment. In fact, the Wall Street-based protest over economic inequity has morphed into a roving, citywide conflict with the cops.
Reports of police brutality circulated early on. They were confirmed when video emerged of an officer needlessly using pepper spray on protestors in the Village. This weekend, NYPD arrested a reported 700 people as they marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s been lots of back and forth over whether cops actually encouraged protestors to move into the street on the bridge, to create a pretense for rounding people up. NYPD has circulated its own viral video this time, purporting to show that cops did all they could to avoid making arrests.
It’s clear to me that NYPD could and would behave dishonestly. It’s less clear, however, what any of this has to do with the fact that millions of people have lost their homes—many in fraudulent, illegal foreclosures on fraudulent, sadly legal mortgages. It’s also unclear what it has to do with the jobs crisis. Or the trillions of dollars in taxpayer money that banks ran away with, while ignoring congressional orders that they ramp up mortgage modifications and small-business lending in return. I mean, I can’t rightly say I know a thing about organizing a movement and I’m all for “a symbolic gesture of our discontent,” as organizers have described this one. By all means, take over the park, the bridge, the street—you name it. But it’s hard to imagine how this becomes anything more than what it is now: a running battle with individual cops over the right to public space in Manhattan.
Which, by the way, is an important issue. NYPD systematically undermines public protest of any sort, often using unnecessarily aggressive tactics. It happens widely enough to suggest it is driven by policy. You see it everywhere from anti-war marches to the Gay Pride parade. So this city could certainly use a movement designed to pressure the mayor and the police chief to change their “crowd control” policies and respect the right to public assembly. We could also use a movement against police brutality. I’d love to see a national movement ally, for instance, with organizers in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy and Brownsville to help the hundreds of young black men who get harassed daily as a matter of NYPD policy. They could stand in solidarity to occupy precincts until that racist policy changes. But none of this is happening, at least so far.
Nor is it what the movement declared itself to be about. It’s supposed to be about the deeply entrenched economic inequity that has come to define our lives in the 21st century. I argue this inequity grew out of decades of predation on black families, specifically. But the organizers were wise to make room for as wide a range of perspectives on the problem as possible. The point, as organizers have so movingly put it, is that everyone gets screwed by an economic system that amasses so much wealth in so few hands. “We are all races, sexes and creeds. We are the majority. We are the 99 percent. And we will no longer be silent,” they have written.
That seems to me a terribly urgent message. It’s one that has consistently been lost in our national politics. Lost in manufactured culture wars. Lost in lawmakers’ outsized concern for the well-being of a bloated financial sector. Lost in both political parties’ fake obsession with so-called responsible spending. Lost in presidential politics and Democratic Party positioning. And now lost in fights between these protestors and the working-class cops carrying out the shady crowd-control orders of NYPD brass.
So the question I’m stuck asking is this: Why is it still so hard to get folks to focus on the crisis at hand? Which is that we’ve built an economy on a foundation of predation and inequity; that it is by definition unsustainable for everyone other than the few who profit greatly from it; that it has fallen apart over the past three years and our response, stunningly, has been to frantically put it back together in the same manner. Why, still, is it impossible to bring our politics—left, right and center—in line with the challenges these realities present?
I fear I know the answer: Because the people most affected by it aren’t meaningfully involved in the nation’s politics—left, right or center. There are literally millions of people who have been kicked out of their homes, laid off or forced to work multiple part-time jobs, caught in predatory debt traps and, yes, so harassed by cops that they have petty criminal records that make them unemployable. These millions are neither lobbying Congress nor marching across the Brooklyn Bridge; they’re trying to make it through the week without another crisis. They are also overwhelmingly and not in the least bit coincidentally black people. And I suspect that until we build our politics around their participation, we will continue to miss the point. Everyone will continue to suffer as a result. Well, everyone except the Wall Street fat cats who have gone right on with their theft throughout their occupation.
Post-script: There have been and continue to be real efforts to put the people most affected by this crisis at the center of our national politics—they just rarely garner national press. This weekend, over 1,000 people (according to organizers), marched on Bank of America’s headquarters in Boston. It was part of a series of actions around the country by a coalition of community groups and labor organizers that’s trying to put Wall Street accountability back on the national political agenda. Learn more here.