Stop the presses. Last Sunday on Christine Amanpour’s This Week, George Will made what appears to be an accurate statement. He declared that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were two distinct groups. Tea Party, he argued, was an essentially bourgeoisie phenomena content to work within the electoral structure to affect the changes they wanted, like gutting Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security and slashing taxes. Curiously, all of these ‘changes’ fall well within the scope of Wall Street’s own wish list. Conversely, Occupy Wall Street stood outside electoral politics. I have to say it: George Will was right. Do not worry; it did not last long. He went on to suggest that Occupy Wall Street could hurt Democrat’s chances at the polls in 2012. That may or may not be true, but it is hardly the point.
The more I watch the Occupy Wall Street movement, the more I believe it operates as a kind of Rorschach test for many, allowing them to see whatever they want to see. Democrats no less than Republicans are subject to the phenomena. Democrats try to leverage the populist rancor of the movement and call it their own; despite many of them swimming in cash contributions from the very Wall Street entities the 99% are decrying. Republicans caste the peaceful and specifically non-violent protests as a riotous mob of unthinking Lefties. Neither assertion is honest, of course. In fact, both Republicans and Democrats are purchased entities: the former just a tad more transparent in their willingness to destroy the middle class. But the Democrats aren’t far behind. Here’s a fact that should be front page news. That Super Committee of twelve members, chosen by either party to close the deficit on pain of severe automatic cuts has been saturated by Wall Street money—to the tune of 41 million dollars in campaign contributions. Democrats are as likely to be recipients of these campaign funds as Republicans. The New Bottom Line, a financial industry accountability coalition has produced a report showing the influence enjoyed by Wall Street banks on Capitol Hill. The two top recipients are on the Democratic side: Max Baucus, chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, and John Kerry, former Democratic Presidential nominee, averaging a little over six million dollars each.
Wall Street is clearly the most powerful lobbying force on Capitol Hill. According to Bernie Sanders, from 1998 through 2008, the financial sector spent over $5 billion in lobbying and campaign contributions to deregulate Wall Street. More recently, they spent hundreds of millions more to make the Dodd-Frank bill as weak as possible, and after its passage, hundreds of millions more to roll back or dilute the stronger provisions in that legislation.
Given this, most pundits ought to know that current ‘reform’ policy ideas such as a financial transaction tax, re-enacting Glass-Steagall, breaking up ‘too big to fail’ banks or repealing the 1986 Tax Reform laws will never see the light of day without a movement like Occupy Wall Street. The current saturation of Wall Street money to committee members ensures this outcome. It also shows in microcosm the true nature of our broken political system. Medicare will suffer losses, and the poor will bear the brunt of a ridiculous set of austerity measures because our politicians have been effectively purchased. The only other word for this is less kind: they have been bribed.
So, yes, the entire Occupy movement remains decidedly wary of working within the current electoral system to effect change. The reasons should be obvious as a heart attack.
But if they will not work within the current electoral system, how will they effect change? By highlighting the corruption and injustice of the current economic and electoral system. That’s part of what their presence at Liberty Park and across the nation is about. As an example, if you were to hit their website today you would see that they are asking for a moratorium on auctions of foreclosed homes in New York City. They write:
Every week in New York City, in all five boroughs, homes are put up for auction and sale. Speculators purchase homes at discounted rates and flip them. Banks buy back homes to balance their books, evicting the homeowners and letting the homes lie vacant.
It’s well that they are making this call – but that’s not the only injustice they want to highlight. Two weeks ago, they disrupted Sotheby’s auction decrying the billionaire dollar art auction’s use of underpaid scab workers in violation of union rules. Two days ago they placed checks in front of the home of billionaires in New York City in a “Billionaire’s March”. The objective of the procession was to protest the expiration of the “millionaire’s surcharge” tax enacted by the New York State legislature under Governor David Paterson in the spring of 2009. The tax was designed to “temporarily raise taxes on New York’s highest earners in order to close the state’s yawning budget deficit”. According to the New York Times, march leaders carried oversized checks, symbolizing the “millions in tax cuts” the millionaires are slated to receive “on behalf of us, the 99%” when the tax hike lapses at the end of this year.
For their efforts, thus far, well over one thousand of their members have been arrested, they have been pepper sprayed, and beaten. Compare this to George Will’s favored ‘Tea Party’ movement whose acolytes carried weapons—shotguns, rifles, pistols, side arms — to Presidential conferences and Congressional Town Hall meetings, they advocated violent revolution, spit on legislators (Cleveland) and yet no one was arrested? That’s because they weren’t a real threat to the current electoral nor the current economic system. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Tea Party members are part and parcel of the electoral and economic system. Indeed it’s well documented that they received funding from the infamous Koch brothers who tried to destroy the Unions of Wisconsin. Here’s one blushing member on the wonders of the Koch Brother’s munificence. “The Koch brothers gave the money that founded it [the Tea Party]. It’s like they put the seeds in the ground. Then the rainstorm comes, and the frogs come out of the mud—and they’re our candidates!”
No one at Occupy Wall Street has the funds or the ideological inclination to play this kind of game. They are truly 99%–which is to say largely middle class and blue collar workers and students. They are all the rest of us.
While they highlight economic injustice at Wall Street and across the country, we should be aware of the forces arrayed against them. One thing that should be more widely known: the ‘police’ that are doing the ‘arresting’ in many instances are actually hired guns of Wall Street. In New York City, where the vast majority of the arrests have been made, it is no secret that JP Morgan recently donated 4.6 million dollars to the NYPD. That buys a lot of favors, especially within the officer corps. But it goes beyond a simple one time contribution. For those who have been watching the excruciating videos of white shirted ‘supervisors’ abusing the marchers (the quintessential example is Officer Bologna’s gratuitous pepper spraying of innocent female protestors), it is obvious that the white shirts are the aggressors. Pam Martens in Counterpunch suggests many of the ‘white shirts’ are likely hired guns. She describes a program which allows private firms to pay the city to put a cop on the street to police for them. The program has its origins in 1998 when Rudy Giuliani developed the so called ‘Paid Detail Unit’. This allows the New York Stock Exchange and Wall Street corporations, including those repeatedly charged with crimes, to order up a flank of New York’s finest “with the ease of dialing the deli for a pastrami on rye.” The corporations pay an average of $37 an hour (no medical, no pension benefit, no overtime pay) for a member of the NYPD, with gun, handcuffs and the ability to arrest. The officer is indemnified by the taxpayer, not the corporation.
In this endeavor, despite false arrests by a hired ‘privatized’ police force, the 99% have unilaterally declared non-violence. To the extent that they hold to their ideals: participatory democracy, non-violence, faith in the human conscience, in justice, I suspect they will be successful. They will ultimately prevail, not because they have bought the police officers, or purchased the media, or paid for the politicians. Those are the old methods of the old power structures. They have neither a Koch brother sponsor, nor a favorable media environment nor a hundred ‘think tanks’ ready to write clever talking points for them. All of that is a given. They are powerless in the ways that we typically understand power. But I suspect they will prevail because they will not stop telling the truth; and as long as that truth is faithfully recorded and decimated so that others will understand it, those who have a conscience will ultimately side with them. That is the meaning of Gandhi’s Satyagraha or Truth Insistence. They will prevail because we all have a conscience – that is also the reason Martin Luther King said that the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice. Someone else long ago said something very similar: something about the truth that will set you free.