Finding Occupy Wall Street: Democracy, Elephants and Jackassery
Two weeks ago, my bandmate Anthony [Green] and I visited Occupy Philly, playing some songs for the occupiers and anyone else who showed up. The event was a success: We brought out hundreds of people to the protest site who otherwise wouldn’t have been directly exposed to the OWS movement. It was a powerful and educating experience I hope to repeat in many forms in the future. While the reason I was asked to write this piece is because of the band I am in, the reason I am passionate about this movement is because of what I personally believe to be right. It would be easy to dismiss this as the rant of a token liberal artist/musician, but I am writing this as a law-abiding American—as a hard-working, tax-paying, registered voter who loves his family and country.
There is an elephant in the room. That elephant? Our government and big business are obviously sleeping together. The resulting relationship has created an obscene financial imbalance between the ultra-rich and the rest of America. According to a study by the Congressional Budget Office, since 1979 the top one percent has increased their income by 275 percent while comparatively, the rest of American households saw their income increase between just 18 to 40 percent. Beyond this imbalance, the arrangement has seen an increase in government policies, laws and even wars imposed that seem to directly benefit the interests of that one percent. I seriously can’t believe I’m quoting statistics to reveal facts we should all know by now. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street, this type of information is becoming more common knowledge. We as a people, have found our common ground and, proverbially speaking, the shit is about to hit the fan. That little crack in our windshield was ignored for far too long—it has now splintered out of control.
The working-class people of the United States have been patient or complacent, but now it is finally time for true change. Not the kind of change that Barack Obama’s campaign promised us in 2008, but the kind of change that abolished slavery in 1865. This change will restructure our entire way of life for the better. I believe the Occupy Wall Street movement is the first visible sign of this approaching change. Whatever your race, religion, sex or creed, there is a very simple universal matter at the core of this conflict. If you value human beings over financial gain, then you should support this movement. At the very least, we should all respect its right to exist.
I first became aware of Occupy Wall Street while on tour as I stumbled across a re-tweeted photo from the now infamous protest on the Brooklyn Bridge. I saw the image of a thousand-plus people crowded with signs and bullhorns “occupying” the entire bridge and almost wept. It was an immediate feeling of relief. I sighed internally, and if translated it would have said, “Finally.” Finally it was time for that change everyone was talking about and waiting for.
It is important to note that while Obama’s election and the abolishment of slavery are both representative of the word “change,” there is a wide gap in their degree of connotation. The roots and meanings of language is a discussion in which I believe our country needs to re-engage. Words like “freedom,” “capitalism” and “democracy” are especially temperamental and should be reexamined if they are to remain terms we associate with America. For instance, when was the last time you looked up the definition of “democracy”? One definition says: “Democracy is generally defined as a form of government in which all adult citizens have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives.” Does that sound like what we have going on here? The roots of the word come from a Greek word that means “rule of the people.” This sounds a lot like one of the commonly cited characteristics of democracy known as majority rule. In reality, our so-called “democracy” is riddled with nepotism, favoring those with wealth and privilege and has abandoned its majority.
At the base of the Statue of Liberty, there is a plaque that quotes poet Emma Lazarus’ commissioned sonnet, “The New Colossus.” The lines chosen to forever serve as the welcoming message of our symbolic gatekeeper were, “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Sadly, in our current state of affairs, these words seem more ironic than iconic. It should be just a matter of time until the entire 99 percent realize what OWS is fighting for and joins in. For now, they are either misunderstood or propagandized by the right, and just beginning to educate the left.
The Occupy Wall Street movement is not what you would call media-friendly. They are an ever-evolving group of people who defy categorization; it is difficult to place a catchy, all-encompassing headline over them. OWS is as complex and amorphous as the systems it criticizes. It is fitting that this protest movement, a bastard child born out of American capitalism, would mirror the nebulous and contradictory ways of its mother—or more appropriately, its stepfather. Critics of the movement were quick to label it hypocritical, that the same people protesting were avid users of corporate products like iPhones and laptops. This attempt to paint them as anti-consumer frauds doesn’t hold up. After all, it has been through the use of smartphones/social media that the most recent uprisings in Egypt and Libya were successful. The general response from the movement is that they aren’t protesting capitalism as much as [they are] corporate greed and the sort of corruption documented so clearly in the award-winning documentary, Inside Job. OWS is far from utopian, but it is also far from reaching its full potential.
“Disorganized hypocrites,” “freeloading hippies,” “anarchists” and “puppets for the Obama administration” are all epithets spit at the protestors by the conservative media. But most of these gross overgeneralizations of the movement fall flat with the slightest bit of research and analysis. For instance, when Yahoo! News asked L.A. protestor Joe Briones how the movement expects to make decisions or progress as a movement without an appointed leader or spokesperson, he responded that it is more even-handed and that “If an idea comes up and the majority don’t like it, it gets tabled.” That actually sounds democratic, doesn’t it?
The persistent smear by right-wing media has been that OWS was made up solely of unemployed degenerates who contribute nothing to American society. This criticism is quickly refuted upon any visit to OWS; my visit to Occupy Philly revealed a community made up of college students, teachers, social workers, retired police officers, war veterans, lawyers, doctors, union rights groups and more. A survey conducted on occupwallst.org showed that over 90% of supporters have at least some college, a college degree or a graduate degree, and that 70% of supporters were at least employed part time. (50% of them were full time.) With this said, it will take far more than statistics to shut the critics up.
When we announced on Facebook that Anthony and I would be performing in solidarity with the Occupy Philly protestors, we received a variety of responses. Most were supportive, but a few were quite critical of our involvement. One critic said, “All these occupy protest(s) are nothing but a political ploy from our beloved president; get a clue.” This would infer that OWS is an insincere, partisan movement supported mainly by Democrats enacted by the Democratic Party. But this doesn’t add up. The demographic surveys conducted showed that 70 percent of OWS supporters are politically independent. Given that in 2008, Obama took roughly $15.8 million in campaign contributions from Wall Street firms, it is highly unlikely that he has any involvement in OWS. In fact, other than a few vague comments of sympathy towards the protestors, the president has side-stepped the daily issues of the movement completely.
That being said, after the massive coverage of—and subsequent outrage caused by—the most recent OWS eviction in NYC, it is difficult to imagine President Obama remaining silent if he wants to be re-elected. He has held positions on this matter that echo OWS sentiments, but the real question is this: Can he take action against these criminals and return justice to our financial system? Taking campaign contributions from Wall Street firms is not acceptable if we are ever to hold them accountable.
Another common complaint against these protests is they cost taxpayer money for police overtime and sanitation, as well as get in the way of everyday life and or business for many. This is the entire point of the tactics OWS employs. It is meant to be inconvenient. It is meant to show a constant presence. It is to say, “This will not just go away.” In the words of author and social activist, Naomi Klein, “Only when you stay put can you grow roots.” For a better understanding of this mentality, go to YouTube and watch Mario Savio’s famous words during the 1964 Berkeley protests known as “Put your bodies upon the gears…” speech.
As progressive as most people view the OWS movement, it is important to admit and realize that it is not without its own flaws. While many controversies reported by the mainstream media are unrelated to the actual camps, there have been isolated incidents of violence, sexual assault and even complaints of internal suppression of minorities within the camps. When I was asked to write this piece, I asked my Twitter followers to email me their thoughts on the movement. I received many emails with a wide range of opinion, but one email in particular from a social activist and participating protestor opened my eyes to the many hurdles still left for the movement to jump. Please read her important statement here.
In our modern society, it is easy to remain numb. It is easy to wrap ourselves in a cozy blanket of false comforts made up of junk food, celebrity gossip and reality television. Now it is time to ask ourselves what we truly stand for. The amenities we often take for granted—no matter how ridiculous—would not be here if it weren’t for the activism of those who fought for social change before us. We are approaching 50 million people without health insurance. Close to seven million Americans are behind prison bars or are being monitored by the correctional system. This means one out of 32 Americans is under some form of correctional supervision. As of 2010, an American home is foreclosed upon every 13 seconds. Since 2001, the US has spent close to $3 trillion dollars on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve lost over 6,000 American soldiers lives and have over half a million veteran disability claims in those same wars. All of these statistics are horrible on their own, but if you take into consideration that people are getting rich off of these tragedies, well—if you aren’t furious, then you can stop reading now. Lastly, these same corporations making billions in gains off of American loss are among the highest contributors to political campaigns. We can’t allow ourselves to miss the “big picture” any longer. The elephant must be called out.
A protestor in Zuccotti Park holds a sign that says, “I’m not here protesting money, I’m protesting corruption.” There it is, plain and simple. Corruption has taken hold of our financial sector and those same corporate influences have their mouths glued to our politicians’ ears. Corporate greed has turned the so-called “American dream” into a nightmare, and the time has come for all those still sleeping to wake up.
There are OWS sites in over 185 cities across the United States and in almost 1000 cities worldwide. The movement is growing every day. It is not necessary to physically go to a protest to support this movement. Spreading the word through social media or donating funds/supplies to camps are a way to “occupy from home.” If you want to be involved, go to occupwallst.org for info. There are massive non-violent, direct-action protests happening worldwide today, Thursday, November 17. The whole world is watching now. No matter what becomes of OWS tomorrow, they’ve already made a dramatic impact on the political climate of our nation today. As Al Sharpton put it, “They have already achieved something great. They’ve changed the conversation.” It might still be in the room, but you can’t take a step without someone talking about all the elephant shit.