Occupy Wall Street
By David Cay Johnston
The views expressed are his own.
Pay close attention to the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York and around the United States, especially if the protests endure through the cold months into the election year spring or if the New York police are ordered to violently end the demonstrations, which would ensure they spread.
The protests show signs of sparking a major change in U.S. politics by creating common ground among people with wildly divergent views. The key to their significance will be whether they foster a wholesale change in political leadership in 2013 or whether Americans return a vast majority of incumbents in both parties at all levels of government.
Occupy Wall Street differs fundamentally from the many demonstrations I have covered over more than four decades. Instead of people with similar specific interests — anti-war, anti-rape, Tea Partiers — these demonstrators come with widely varying views, experiences and backgrounds, yet unite around a common theme: bankers are ripping off America.
Two secondary themes also emerge in talking to some of the hundreds of people occupying Zuccotti Park. One is that the super rich own the politicians. The other is that the news media, almost across the board, view events through the eyes of the rich.
The protests have grown from a few hundred people to the thousands who marched on Wednesday evening.
Even Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve chairman, sympathizes with the protesters. He told the Joint Economic Committee of Congress on Wednesday:
“Very generally, I think people are quite unhappy with the state of the economy and what’s happening. They blame, with some justification, the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess, and they’re dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington. And at some level, I can’t blame them. Certainly 9 percent unemployment and very slow growth is not a good situation.”
In a television interview Warren Buffett sided with them. While many of the demonstrators seemed ill-informed, he said, the “feeling is real and there is enough basis in that feeling that we want to get rid of that basis,” which he described as unfair taxes and lack of jobs.
Listen to the people packing Zuccotti Park, a privately owned urban space just off Wall Street, and you will hear common themes from libertarians and liberals, truck drivers and college professors, atheists and believers.
Some are articulate, others inchoate. But there is absolute agreement that the super rich, especially the financiers, are sophisticated thieves who steal not with guns, but something called derivatives.
Dan Halloran, a New York City councilman from Queens with an affinity for libertarians like Republican U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, waded into the crowd and kept people interested in his views on the economy’s failings and the need for markets.
“From what I saw on TV I would have thought that everyone here would be a communist, under 30, never held a job,” he said, describing that media image as cartoonish. He said people with whom he had spoken, including those with whom he disagreed fundamentally, were both eager to work and afraid, not knowing what happened exactly, but insistent that they needed work and that their elected leaders seemed not to care.
NO ‘FAIR SHAKE’
Brendan Burke, a truck driver and punk rock musician who studied philosophy in college, said since the protests began almost three weeks ago, “I have heard a thousand different things people are concerned about — inadequate teacher pay, no jobs, the rich not paying their fair share of taxes and all of it was about how we working people are not getting a fair shake.”
Burke said he expected the protests to gather strength because “this oppressiveness has been going on for years; its quiet, the way the bankers constructed this mess — and nothing is being done to them.”
When I went down there on Tuesday, some asked me why no bankers had been indicted. Excellent question with no answer unless you believe the financier class exercises control over the government, enabling financial crimes through incomprehensible rules.
Each person I asked, including some in suits who came by for a gander, said they expected the mayor eventually to order the park cleared, possibly on the pretext of public sanitation. Never mind that the Constitution safeguards the right to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for a redress of grievances without a time limit.
New York’s billionaire mayor found time and money to have police barricade the Wall Street bull, that bronze symbol of faith in growing stock prices. But Michael Bloomberg has spent not even a dollar on portable restrooms to help citizens exercise their constitutional rights while maintaining sanitary conditions in his fair city.
Aristotle taught, “Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.” That ancient insight may be unknown to many of the demonstrators, but the concept imbues Occupy Wall Street, which has the potential to change America from what Aristotle would describe as an oligarchy back into a representative democracy.
PHOTO: A demonstrator sits near a make-shift tent during the Occupy Wall Street protest outside the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, California October 5, 2011. REUTERS/Stephen Lam