As the sun rose on Monday, the park that housed Occupy Wall Street was quiet, except for the ruffling of tarps and sleeping bags, some construction noise in the distance. The protesters roused from their slumber. The park was teeming with tents, and the ground covered with sleeping young people. Cooks prepped the makeshift kitchen to feed the mass of protesters. The early risers gathered on the edge of the camp, discussing protest tactics or economics. Some waved signs at people passing on their way to work.
Twenty-four hours later, the park was empty, surrounded by steel barricades. The protesters were kicked out by city officials citing health and safety concerns. A state appeals court denied the protesters a court order to reestablish the camp, weighing the rights of the property owners against the group’s rights. Occupy protests in cities around the country have been broken up by police, and many are asking how the movement will persevere. Though there may be legitimate concerns about the group’s tactics, its overarching goal of drawing attention to economic inequality is too important to be abandoned. As their numbers exploded, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) planners struggled with a multitude of problems – public health, keeping track of funds, food supply, finding volunteers, divisions within the group. The most damning problem may have been that all of these people brought such varied agendas. The movement’s ideals require it to let everyone have a say, but some of the protestors’ causes, like discrimination against transgendered persons, seem far removed from the initial goals. No one can really be sure what OWS stands for.
Some protesters said they want to force the public and policymakers to address growing income inequality. “We’ve changed the dialogue around the country and around the world,” said Sherman Jack. Others, like Laura Kelber, seemed intent on broader goals of rejecting capitalism or demonstrating how a different society might function. Kelber said OWS is “something that belongs to all of us.” The protest’s diverse agenda is compatible with this broader goal, but it hurts the goal of keeping the country’s focus on economic inequality.
Some protesters had specific ideas for improving our political system. Edward Ryan argued for a constitutional convention to start anew with a parliamentary government, because our system “allows the elites to take wealth from everyone else.” Ed Kirby argued for a drastic increase in the number of Representatives in the House, as a means of making Congress more responsive. “These problems are so obvious, and Washington isn’t doing a damn thing about them,” Kirby said.
Some passing Wall Street employees, like Jerry Warshaw, said the protest lacked focus and welcomed the group’s eviction. “I think [Mayor Mike] Bloomberg has been too nice to them,” Warshaw said. Dave Barranco said he may not agree with OWS, but he supports their right to protest Wall Street: “I think there’s always room for questioning an industry that has had such an impact on the economy in the last few years.”
Though the protest seemed to lack focus, the Occupy movement is not going away. Representatives from Occupy chapters around the country were in Zuccotti Park a few days ago, seeking advice on maintaining their protests. Occupy Atlanta is looking to the city’s civil rights leaders to help sustain the movement. Protesters in New York are regrouping for a series of marches today.
OWS must continue forcing the issue of economic inequality onto the national agenda. The protests are shining a light on an ugly, uncomfortable truth: the American middle class is disappearing. The rich saw their incomes skyrocket in recent decades, while everyone else’s incomes stayed flat. Then came the 2008 financial crisis, caused by the reckless decisions of banks. Millions lost their jobs in the ensuing recession. Wall Street got a $750 billion bailout, while much of America struggled to put food on the table.
In the midst of economic despair, it seems that Congress’ only priority is cutting the budget deficit. Republicans reject any tax increase on the wealthy to help balance the budget. Democrats pay lip service to concerns about “shared sacrifice,” but seem unable to address them. Since the Supreme Court has opened the door to unlimited spending on elections, our elected leaders could become even more unresponsive to the needs of ordinary Americans.
OWS must keep screaming that this system is not fair. Like protests before them, OWS can help make our leaders understand the pain of ordinary Americans. The protesters built a shanty-town in the center of global finance. Let’s hope the group can refocus and stick it out through next year’s election. If they make it through the harsh New York winter, Occupy Wall Street may emerge to find Americans rallying to their cause.