Occupy’s goals only as complicated as problems they address

by Beacon Staff • October 27, 2011

strongMatt Durham, Beacon Correspondent/strong

In Sept. 2010, Timothy Noah of Slate published a series of articles titled “The Great Divergence,” centered around the steep rise in income inequality. Working with economists from the MacArthur Foundation and the Paris School of Economics, Noah found that between 1980 and 2005, more than 80 percent of our nation’s total increase in wealth was going to the top one percent of earners. In one of his last entries in the series he posed the following prophetic question to his readers: Why aren’t the bottom 99 percent marching in the streets?

One year later, Noah’s query has finally been answered. At the time of his writing, the United States was mired in recession, but the idea of collective action had not taken root. Over the past few weeks, however, all across the world the Occupy Wall Street movement has begun the process of giving a voice to the combined grievances of the 99 percent fed up with a system that continues to give so much to so few. Like most movements involving a shift of power and privilege from the haves to the have-nots, the Occupy movement has not been without its detractors.

Some harp on the idea that the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations will accomplish little because of a perceived lack of focus. Sentiments like these echo the criticisms against grassroots social movements of the past.  The demands of the 1960s civil rights movement were also unclear at the start. Congressman Jim Clyburn, who worked with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organizing demonstrations across the South, recently told the Associated Press that many demonstrators from that era felt the same backlash: ““They all knew something was wrong. They knew that it just wasn’t right to have to get up out of your seat and give some white person your seat on a bus. They may not be able to explain to you exactly why.” It was only after prolonged debate among participants (precisely what is happening now at Occupy locations across the country) that a tangible set of demands emerged.

The pressure to distill the frustrations surrounding income inequality speaks to the sound bite generation we’ve evolved into. If a group can’t succinctly sum up its message to appease producers of cable news shows, they’re written off as disjointed. I understand the media’s need for clarity, but until the complexities of inequity in our financial system are sufficiently condensed, we should not expect the same from the Occupy movement.

Pinning down one specific scapegoat to blame for our country’s financial woes is an impossibility. Broad terms like “the one percent,” “corporate America,” and even “Wall Street,” are now synonyms for the collective powers-that-be who have manipulated the system to their advantage. “They” are responsible for allowing the wealthiest of Americans to prosper over the past few decades, at the expense of middle and working class families.

If naysayers need specific cases of corporate wrongdoing to take the Occupy movement more seriously, they are readily available. Our nation’s largest financial institutions (and their CEOs) all committed egregious crimes that cost our country and its citizens billions of dollars, and left us to foot the bill. Alan Greenspan, the former head of the Federal Reserve and one of the chief architects of our economic collapse, is on record during a financial forum held in Nov. 2010 saying that actions taken by financial giants were “certainly illegal and clearly criminal.”

Since 2007, a quick sweep of financial news during the time our economy faltered reveals a rap sheet of unprosecuted crimes that would make Bernie Madoff blush.

Merrill Lynch reported its subprime mortgage holdings at $15.2 billion in 2007. That number was actually around $46 billion, as reported by The New York Times. Lehman Brothers under reported their debt by around $50 billion in an effort to remain solvent before its 2008 collapse. In fact, The Wall Street Journal found in 2010 that Lehman was among 18 banks that underreported their debts by an average of 42 percent. In Feb. 2011, prosecutors dropped charges against former Countrywide co-founder Angelo Mozilo, a man largely responsible for the subprime mortgage crisis and the infamous “Friends of Angelo” favorable mortgage program highlighted in Michael Moore’s emCapitalism: A Love Story/em.

The laundry list is actually much, much longer (and dirtier). Charges like these are not conspiracy, but very specific cases of institutions that have systematically silenced the voices of many. The problem lies not in the vagueness of demands as suggested by some commentators, but in the highly nuanced and specific grievances that can’t be summed up in the first two minutes of the nightly news. It is becoming harder for the media to write off the movement as “fringe” or “extremist,” as data continues to show growing, widespread support for the movement—a National Journal poll showed that 59 percent of adults now agree with the protests.

Our government does have to deal with reality. The truth is that $700 billion was spent to propagate corruption and a status quo that allows, as Vanity Fair’s Joseph Stiglitz highlighted, a government to operate “of the one percent, by the one percent, for the one percent.” That $700 billion could have gone to pay for better teachers, higher Pell grants, preservation of our National Parks, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, green energy, firefighters, universal healthcare, textbooks, healthier food access, and yes, police officers. Couple the bailout with the $1.2 trillion dollars spent so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the overtime pay for law enforcement guarding the Occupy encampments some point to as “waste” suddenly seems like far less drastic of a cost. A lack of taxes, regulations, fees, and accountability are precisely why we are in this economic quagmire. Financial giants test their ability to bend and break the rules time and time again, and a toothless federal government turns a blind eye without a moment’s hesitation.

America’s short-sighted media have inundated us with comparisons between the Tea Party and the Occupy movement. In general, yes, both movements deal with disagreements with how our government should operate. But the Tea Party measures its success by how many Congressional seats they manage to overturn, and how much of a ratings boost they can give cable news. Occupy is a true populist movement based around the idea of consensus and fundamentally altering the way our economic system works. Success will not come at a predetermined date by our government, but when the American people join together and make real the promises of our democracy.

America does need solutions, and they’re going to come from Dewey Square, Zuccotti Park, and all across the world where the marginalized many are finally standing up for ourselves.

emMatt Durham is a senior writing, literature, and publishing major. Durham can be reached at                        matthew_durham@emerson.edu/em

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