Monday, September 26, 2011

Ten Days and Strong: Occupy Wall Street Takes on Wealth Inequality

Last week, I spent every day going down to the Occupy Wall Street protests in downtown Manhattan. “Bankers got bailed out, we got sold out” is one of the most popular chants, as is: “We are the 99%.” The “99%” is a reference to the percentage of people who do not benefit from the expanding income inequality, which is the target of the protests. The Forbes 400, a compiling the richest 400 people in the US, are said to own 60% of its wealth.

More and more tax policies, such as the ones being discussed in Congress today, involve cutting taxes on the wealthy—a group whose income is sorely needed to maintain current tax revenues. While they see hundreds of thousands of dollars returned to them by tax cuts, communities around the nation are losing vital human services (police and fire departments, school closures, etc.). Much of the problem is it feels like the government is run by and for corporations, not regular people. Years before Citizens United, it felt like corporations ran the world. In recent years, many have taken to organizing to challenge this proposition.
Today a new movement is taking shape, loosely described as #Occupy Wall Street. Meeting in a park in downtown Manhattan for the last ten days, this group represents an extension of both the global justice and anti-austerity movements which converged in Wall Street on May 12, 2011. “#OCCUPYWALLSTREET is a people powered movement for democracy that began in America on September 17 with an encampment in the financial district of New York City. Inspired by the Egyptian Tahrir Square uprising and the Spanish acampadas, we vow to end the monied corruption of our democracy … join us!notes Adbusters, which put out the first call for the actions now taking shape from LA to Chicago and New York. Now, in its tenth day, the group, the movement is largely comprised of activists from all over the country who have come to ignite some of the power of both the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests seen in Europe. They have come to challenge the growing social and economic inequalities ranging from disparities in wealth to access to democratic institutions. “Democracy not Plutocracy” declared a sign carried by one of the activists last Saturday. “I see Republicrats… I do not see democracy or the voice of the people” explained one observer involved in the movement. So, many are taking it back to the streets.
“GET MAD” reads a message painted on the back of a Pizza Box. On the north side of Liberty Plaza, many have posted messages on pieces of cardboard explaining why they are there. Many resemble the messages seen in the Democracy Wall movement in Beijing from 1978-79, when thousands of people posted messages in about the problems of modern China along an open wall along Chang’an Avenue, just West of the Forbidden City. “Citizens United Against Greedy Bankers” reads another one. Many address the influence of money on our politics. “Who Funds Our Senators: Wall Street.” “Corporations are People Too: RIP McCain Feingold." Others rage at the system itself: “”Occupy Wall Street: Time to Change the System.” “Kill the Corporate Worm.” “The Rich Get Richer The Poor Get Poorer Flawed System.” “Wall Street Doesn’t Pay.” Some recall the generation of 1968: ““Revolution is Poetry, Poetry is Revolution! Imagination!!!” Others hearken for a Velvet Revolution type moment in which we tear down the wall: “Rip Down Wall Street and Make a Just Street.” The central theme of the messages is that democracy is bought, sold and controlled by Wall Street.
This call to globalize democracy rather than corporate rule reverberates throughout movements. When Reclaim the Streets New York targeted Wall Street with a similar ambition for an action on June 18, 1999 (which also began at Liberty Plaza), we were swept off the streets as soon as we stepped off the sidewalk. We had better luck on May 12th, 2011 when a larger coalition of anti-austerity activists converged on Wall Street to continue the work seen from Wisconsin to Albany to establish a counter assault to the war on pensions, public service unions, public education, and the public sphere in general.
In the weeks before members of my union, the Professional Staff Congress (PSC ) including myself, were arrested at Governor Cuomo’s office chanting, “Tax the Rich, Not the Poor: Stop the War on CUNY.” At a time when education for training and other human services are more in demand than ever, funding for these programs are more under threat than they ever have been. The prime attack on these programs is from the Koch Brothers, number four on the Forbes list, who funded the Tea Party and the subsequent push for austerity programs seen around the country. The Koch Brothers also helped fund the campaign of Governor Cuomo in New York.
“We made the decision to risk arrest because we cannot allow the injustice of this budget to stand,” said Barbara Bowen, president of the PSC, who was among the protesters. “We have lobbied and rallied and written in support of a fair budget, but our voices have not been heard. Albany is on the verge of passing a budget that is so damaging to our students and so fundamentally unjust that we had to take a stand. We are educators – we spend our lives teaching students how to challenge false premises, and the false premise of this budget must be challenged.” The governor would later succeed in pushing through this austerity budget. Senior colleges at CUNY would end up losing $95.1 million if the budget passes without change. CUNY’s community colleges another $17.5 million.
The CUNY faculty and staff were joined in their act of civil disobedience by CUNY students. Members of New York Communities for Change, the Real Rent Reform Campaign, and Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY) also took part in the protest. We collectively argued that the state budget should not put the interests of corporations, the wealthy and the super-rich above the needs of ordinary New Yorkers.
Research from the Fiscal Policy Institute shows that the richest 1% of earners receives 35% of all income collected in New York State. In New York City, income inequality is even more dramatic: 44% of all income is collected by the top 1% there.
The financial services industry is once again making record profits and real estate interests have spent millions on PR and lobby campaigns to weaken rent control, undermine teachers’ contract rights and cut services for working New Yorkers. The wealthy, we argued, can afford to pay their fair share.
"We need a budget that protects kids and not millionaires,” noted Gail Gadsden, a parent leader from New York Communities for Change. “This budget contains the largest transfer of wealth from low-income communities to wealthy individuals in New York State history. Governor Cuomo really needs to search his soul and rethink these cuts."
Bowen and members of the PSC would later support the efforts of the Occupy Wall Street movement, speaking out in support. “We’re honored to be here with you today,” noted Bowen during last Thursday’s delegate assembly. And there is good reason for this solidarity among movements fighting the influence of Wall Street and the ever expanding inequality taking hold.
Throughout the last two weeks, journalists, activists and observers alike have asked what those in #Occupy Wall Street want. “A Message From Occupied Wall Street (Day Five)” published on September 22 by OccupyWallSt, laid out a few of the movement’s demands in a poetic fashion.
This is the fifth communiqué from the 99 percent. We are occupying Wall Street.
On September 21st, 2011, Troy Davis, an innocent man, was murdered by the state of Georgia. Troy Davis was one of the 99 percent.
Ending capital punishment is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, the richest 400 Americans owned more wealth than half of the country's population.
Ending wealth inequality is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, four of our members were arrested on baseless charges.
Ending police intimidation is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, we determined that Yahoo lied about being in spam filters.
Ending corporate censorship is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly eighty percent of Americans thought the country was on the wrong track.
Ending the modern gilded age is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly 15% of Americans approved of the job Congress was doing.
Ending political corruption is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of Americans did not have work.
Ending joblessness is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly one sixth of America lived in poverty.
Ending poverty is our one demand.
On September 21st, 2011, roughly fifty million Americans were without health insurance.
Ending health-profiteering is our one demand.
Today, one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. And poverty has increased to 15.1% nationally. The poverty threshold for a family of three is: $15,205.00, for a family of four is: $19,307.00. Conversely, the wealth of the top 1% of the population is greater than the bottom 90% combined. Such inequality directly impacts any number of the health and risk factors among the poor. Economic policy is health policy. If we do not address this problem, it will only grow larger.
Recent numbers, however, suggest poverty is on the rise. Yet, instead of following a Keynesian strategy to address the issue as we have done in the past, we’re still fighting the shadow Reagan, whose first budget director who suggested that faced with deficits, that government’s would rather pay off the debt than expand programs. So he allowed Reagan to turn Carter era surpluses into deficits; Bush did the same thing with Clinton era surpluses. Stockman would later confess this approach is less than helpful. Starving the beast is a way to gut programs, even when a party is out of power. And today, it has found its fate accompli with the shadow of the Bush deficits overwhelming the Obama agenda in congress.
In response to debt, federal and state governments are supporting austerity measures which gut programs for the poor and working class, including housing, social security, pensions, and education. From California to New York and even London, public education has been on the chopping block with tuitions rising and class size increasing. Students did not create the economic crisis of 2008; the bankers did. They should not pay for their mess. The poor should not bear the brunt of austerity measures. Today, college students see programs, such as pensions, Social Security and public education which their parents took for granted whittled away. Yet, not everyone is just taking this sitting down, as the Occupy Wall Street Movement demonstrates.
My favorite chant at last week’s morning rally to Wall Street was "We are the 99%" not benefitting from the Bush/ Reagan era tax policies, those not listed on the Forbes 400. "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out," everyone chanted. And many, many of the working people acknowledged that we had a point.
"All day, all week: Occupy Wall Street!!!!" everyone chanted as the march made its way through New York’s financial district yesterday morning. The movement is getting stronger. More and more people are turning out. And so are police. On Saturday, the march up to Union Square from Liberty Plaza ended at 12th and University, where it was “met with arrests and police brutality,” noted my friend Brennan Cavanaugh, who was later arrested for photographing police. “Occupy Wall Street is a peaceful demonstration against international corporate greed at the expense of 99% of the world's human population.” And for this message, eighty paid by being arrested, some enduring pepper spray, and spending the night in jail.
By Saturday, it looked like the police were ready to start cracking down on Occupy Wall Street. Lots of netting out. police surrounding the space, yet everyone stayed in the square. A group of cyclists played music on their sound bike and circled the space. When the media arrived, the police seemed to leave. Yet, the police have distributed papers saying “camping” or “laying down’ are prohibited in the park. The police sent out similar messages during the RNC before Critical Mass Bike rides saying it is “illegal” to ride a bike in a procession. They did so before mass arrests of Cyclists in 2004. I hope they are not planning a similar move today.
This is a movement organized to address the biggest issues of our times. Without such a movement, it is difficult to imagine considering the issues of social justice and increasing poverty. Old approaches – from the Earned Income Tax Credit to Micro Financing - feel limited. While the tax credits help support the working poor and micro finance supports innovation, today, an injection of vitality is sorely needed in our approaches to poverty reduction. One of the functions of social movements is to infuse innovation into organizational practices. In this case, a new dose of creativity could help us deal with the assault on the social safety net. Already we are seeing calls for a “new mutualism” in which people share resources and support each other throughout the Great Recession. Through such movements, we share, build support, and create solutions. This is what Occupy Wall Street is all about. The very future of the US social safety net is under attack. If you care about it, get down to join the young people who have chosen to take the solution into their own hands by Occupying Wall Street.
I just got back from the morning march around Wall Street. One woman carried a sign which declared: “In Debt: Join the Union.” Another announced: “Debt is Slavery.” The sign resonated with many observers along the march, many of the workers. Many of the young people marching know there is something vastly wrong with this system which seems ready to trade away their future, pensions, and public education, while creating more tax cuts for the rich. Yet, instead of resignation, they are engaging, organizing, and expanding a democratic conversation about public space, financing, and economic policy. “AIG, Goldman Sacks, Give the fucking money back!” a few chanted right behind the women carrying the debt signs. Few of our leaders are speaking up for those with increasing dept, yet the banks are bailed out. Many recognize this is wrong and are willing to speak up about it, while offering alternatives. “End the War, Tax the Rich, how to pay this deficit!!!” others screamed. There are alternatives out there. And those organizing Occupy Wall Street are pushing to make sure their ideas are being heard.

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