By Barry Sheppard, San Francisco
No one predicted the phenomenon that has become known as Occupy Wall Street (OWS), nor could it have been predicted.
A small group of anarchist-minded people in Canada first proposed that there be an attempt to set up an "occupation" near the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. They were inspired by the tents and encampments set up earlier in the year in Cairo's Tahrir Square and the spread of similar tactics in Spain and other countries.
Their targets were Wall Street itself and the richest 1 per cent. Wall Street is well known as the symbol of US finance capitalism. The 1 per cent were singled out as the people who own and control the economy and the government, the big capitalists. (The actual figure is more like the 0.1 per cent, but that is a quibble.)
But the idea that the enemy of the 99 per cent is the richest 1per cent and the financiers symbolised by Wall Street caught on. From this small spark a conflagration erupted. Occupy Wall Street grew to encompass thousands who participated in marches and other activities centred around the Wall Street encampment.
Then the movement rapidly spread to other cities across the US, larger ones at first and then even into hundreds of small towns. Now it is spreading to many college campuses.
That the thrust of this movement is against Wall Street and the 1 per cent is quite profound. It is an elemental anti-capitalist consciousness. It is rooted in the growing understanding that the economic catastrophe the 99 per cent have been living through since the Great Recession began was caused by the system that serves the 1 per cent. "They got bailed out, we got shut out!" is one of the popular chants.
Paul Krugman, a liberal economist, recently wrote in The New York Times, "As the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to grow, the response from the movement's targets has gradually changed: contemptuous dismissal has been replaced by whining. The modern lords of finance look at the protesters and ask, Don't they understand what we've done for the U.S. economy? The answer is: yes, many of the protesters do understand what Wall Street and more generally the nation's economic elite have done for us. And that's why they are protesting."
Polls show that tens of millions sympathise with the objectives of the protesters. This is a mighty shift in sentiment by people who have been shoved around by the capitalist politicians and press in the last three years. We were told that it was our fault, that we spent too much money we didn't have, that the only way forward is drastic cuts to our standard of living. The fact that the richest were growing even richer since 2007, while we were growing poorer rubbed salt into the wound.
Interviews with those who have joined in the actions have given a glimpse of the underlying issues. Some say they have joined in because they have been unemployed for a long time. One young woman I saw being interviewed explained that she got her PhD two years ago, and has been unable to find a job. An older blue-collar worker says he has been unemployed for years and has no prospects. Others say they had their home mortgages foreclosed. Many are now homeless, people who never thought they would be on the street.
Blacks and Latinos have been especially hard hit by foreclosures, unemployment, bad schools, homelessness and so forth.
College students are protesting drastic increases in tuition costs, and huge debts they have amassed in student loans. Parents and public school students and teachers see cutbacks to education across the board.
Many older people carry signs about their fear of drastic cuts to social security and the Medicare health scheme that both capitalist parties are saying are necessary.
I have a niece who recently graduated from law school. She owes $90,000 in student loans. Recently married, the house she and her husband live in is "under water", which means they owe more on their mortgage than the current market price of their house.
A raft of headlines and articles have appeared that have helped workers understand the extent of the economic catastrophe. Poverty and near poverty is increasing, we have been told.
But it is not only the increase in the very poor, and an increase in pauperisation. Reuters reported on November 23, 2011,"Nearly half of all Americans lack economic security, meaning they live above the poverty threshold but still do not have enough money to cover housing, food, healthcare and other basic expenses, according to a survey of government industry data ... 45 percent of U.S. residents live in households that struggle to make ends meet. That breaks down to 39 percent of all adults and 55 percent of all children…"
A New York Times article reports, "In a grim sign of the enduring nature of the economic slump, household income declined more in the two years after the recession ended than it did in the recession itself … Between June 2009, when the recession officially ended, and June 2011, inflation-adjusted median household income fell 6.7 percent … During the recession -- from December 2007 to June 2009 – household income fell 3.2 percent." For a total of nearly 10 per cent. And that is median household income. If the top 1 per cent, whose incomes went up, are not included the income of workers has dropped even more.
The news from Europe is threatening. Many fear a new recession is coming, starting from the terrible level most workers are in right now.
I have gone to the occupations in San Francisco and Oakland. But I also went to an action in the small Bay Area city where I live, Hayward. There were about 75 of us, standing on a street corner at a busy intersection during rush hour, holding signs. What struck me was the response from the majority of people driving home from work. We were greeted by cheers and waves, and the honking of horns in support. There was a din of noise over the hour we were there. Around the country there have been many similar smaller demonstrations that don't get reported nationally.
All this anger has been building up in the depths of society, but it wasn't being expressed. Suddenly, OWS provided the catalyst that crystallised in a leap of consciousness among tens of millions who understood that their private sufferings were shared sufferings, and they knew who was to blame.
The Occupy movement has also given heart to those protesting around other issues. One of these was opposition to a proposed pipeline to carry an especially dirty form of crude oil from Canada down to the refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The extraction process in Canada itself is very polluting, but the pipeline would also pose a danger to the environment all along its thousand-mile stretch. A planned demonstration at the White House mushroomed into 10,000 people surrounding the presidential abode. President Barack Obama was forced to put off a decision to go ahead with the pipeline for a year. This initial victory was made possible by the spread of the Occupy movement, according to the organisers of the action.
The official labour bureaucracy did nothing to organise the discontent rumbling below, but has come out in support of the Occupy movement, at least verbally. This has also encouraged more left-wing unions to raise their own issues, and to sometimes join the actions.
The world has seen the brutal response of most of the city governments and campus administrations, using the police to break up the encampments. Videos have gone viral nationally and internationally of the use of tear gas and other "non-lethal" weapons (one of which almost killed a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War) as well as the beatings, pepper sprayings and mass arrests. These have only increased the anger of, and sympathy with, the protesters, who have gotten hard lessons about the role of the police.
Like in every mass movement, there have been problems and mistakes. But there has also been an outburst of creativity in shifting to new forms of protest, as well as in expressing all the issues that come to the fore in the framework of opposition to the 1 per cent and the centre of finance capital.
Some of this creativity has been quite humourous. One example is the many photos circulated on the internet showing the cop who pepper sprayed non-violent students at a California campus super-imposed on works of art and other pictures, pepper spraying the people picnicking in a Seurat painting, pepper spraying the members of the Constitutional Convention and so forth.
There will be lulls and ups and downs. But already the Occupy movement has introduced into the US national dialog the class question, which was suppressed in the discourse of politicians and the press -- and done so in a powerful way.
One old radical told me "politics is back on the agenda. I've been waiting for this for 40 years".
[Barry Sheppard was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party for 28 years, and a central leader for most of that time. He is the author of The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 -- A Political Memoir.]