I woke up at 4:00am one morning this week thinking about the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. It was less than 24 hours after I learned that the New York City police had evicted all those camped in Zuccotti Park. OWS has been full of surprises, but why was I not shocked by the wave of evictions sweeping the country, and why had the initial spark of the September protest in that park set off a nationwide firestorm? My pre-dawn musing did not produce clear-cut answers, but I did come up with one very modest proposal that I’ve decided to act upon.
The most obvious answer is the brilliant simplicity of the occupiers’ principal slogan: “We are the 99%.” That all-inclusive phrase rang true to tens of millions. This, coupled with their primary tactic of non-violently occupying public space to carry on a 24/7 conversation about how to fix our broken system, enticed others to join them. They did not start with an answer or a program, but rather proposed that we discuss the problems brought about by the increasing concentration of wealth and power in our nation. Moreover, the tactic of indefinitely occupying public space demonstrated both the occupiers’ commitment and their rejection of the authority of those in power. Finally, by refusing to articulate a set of legislative demands and embarking upon a standard political campaign to achieve them, they served notice that this movement would be unlike any we’d seen before.
It is not surprising that OWS became intolerable to the authorities the movement refused to recognize. Such public naming of capitalism as Public Enemy Number One could not be countenanced. Beatings, tear-gassing, property destruction and thousands of arrests were inevitable, despite the protesters heroic non-violence. If the movement persists and grows, as I hope it will, the attacks upon it are sure to intensify.
And the recent attacks demonstrate another fact that we should not overlook. OWS is being attacked because of its success! Our nation is for the first time in my lifetime collectively engaged in a national dialogue about growing financial, social and political inequality. And it is engaged in a discussion of the major progressive questions of our time.
When I founded the Rosenberg Fund for Children, I listed four guiding principles the pursuit of which we’d use to define progressive activism: 1. People are more important than profits. 2. All people have equal worth. 3. World peace is a necessity. 4. Society must function within ecologically sustainable limits.
The recognition that our nation had elevated profit over people is what set OWS in motion. Those occupying Zuccotti Park seem to agree that all people regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or documentation status, should enjoy the same rights. They recognize that we must stop the wars before we can solve our problems at home, and they have a growing understanding that any civilization that benefits any one species, even if it is our own, at the expense of all others, is not sustainable.
I believe the current wave of evictions, coupled with the coming winter, will force OWS to evolve. I expect to be as surprised by what comes next as I have been by events of the last two months. In the meantime I make one very modest suggestion that I hope will help it to endure.
I’m about to contact a progressive button-maker to ask them to produce hundreds of union-made 1.75” diameter buttons that read “99%”. I’d like some to have black backgrounds with the 99% in red, some to reverse that color scheme and the rest to substitute the color green for either the black or the red. I chose those colors because I approve of their political symbolism, but some readers might prefer others. I’m going to wear one such button and carry a bunch of others with me.
I’ll give one to anyone I meet who indicates they’d like to wear one. I encourage others to do the same. I might be too old to camp out in the cold and even to demonstrate for long periods of time, but I can engage with others who respond to a 99% button. This is just one small action thousands of us can take to keep the discussion going. It is also a way to show support for what might become the most important movement of our lifetime.
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