Sunday, November 27, 2011

Time-Warp II - An Old Guy Looks at the Occupy Movement

"Why compare OWS to the Sixties?" my wife asked.

Well, because that was the last time people took to the streets in large numbers to advocate change; but it’s a good question. In the long-running war between the 1% and the 99%, 1890-1912 and 1930-1941 were also times when the 99% made progress. Some of that progress got undone by pro-business eras that followed, but other accomplishments (Social Security and unemployment programs from the 1930's; and from the early 1900's the direct election of Senators, enforcement of anti-trust laws, the 40-hour work week, some attention to safety in mines and factories, and federal inspection and regulation of food and drugs) grew so familiar that people forgot they were once controversial – at least until the recent Republican attacks on social security.

My last column discussed the 1960's. This one notes some impressions of OWS, based on time spent with the folks down at Albert Johnson Memorial Park and on reading about what’s going on elsewhere.


Don’t expect anything comprehensive. It’s too early. My first-hand knowledge of OWS is limited. Most importantly, OWS so far is a movement determined not to define itself. That’s one difference from the 1960's.

In the 1960's, as in the 1930's, doctrinaire leaders or would-be leaders struggled to fit everything into their particular ideology. They argued at length. OWS seems determined to have neither leaders nor ideology. I see apparent leaders working to help others emerge, and to listen to all points of view. By having no set ideology, OWS may minimize internal squabbles and maximize its public appeal. OWS also seems aware of its own uncertainty on just how to fix things. As one local OWS person said, "We create the atmosphere for change." He noted that as sympathizers moved $35 million to other institutions last month, Bank of America and Wells Fargo rescinded new ATM fees.

A by-product of OWS is that the park becomes a sort of old-time town square, lively with discussions of political and economic issues. I’d urge anyone with a mind to stop by – not merely to satisfy curiosity about OWS but to exchange ideas with some of the people committed to it. My visits to this tent village have been invigorating. The folks I’ve met there don’t agree on everything – and are willing to listen. I even had a lively discussion with a local businessman who’s somewhat involved with the Tea Party.

I see several differences between Occupy and the Sixties Movement.

First, this movement is global. Although the youthful rebellion of 1968 struck a lot of European and Latin American nations, not just the U.S., it was no global movement. Issues differed, and communications were not what they are in the age of Internet and cell-phone video, texting and tweeting.. OWS is aimed at the financial inequities of our country; but it’s not unrelated to the Arab Spring, and the "Occupy" movement exists around the world.

Second, it has the support or indifference of the average person. As cars passed the tents the other day, a few of them honking in support, an older OWS supporter noted that in the 1960's they’d have been throwing garbage or rocks at us.

During the Cold War, people, particularly southerners, believed the lie that civil rights workers were working for the Communist Party and thus for the Soviet Union. People believed that anti-war protestors were a danger to the U.S., particularly to soldiers our government had mistakenly placed in harm’s way. Many saw us as dangerous enemies, and some acted accordingly. Police, some of whom were veterans or had friends or brothers in the war, believed we were helping the people who were shooting at those friends or brothers. Many hated us.

OWS may seem silly or misguided to some; but no one believes that the occupiers are helping Soviet Russia dominate the world or are in league with Al-Quaeda. The police officer evicting a group from a park may dislike disorder or get nervous surrounded by an angry group, but s/he doesn’t hate us. Saying "we’re all being duped and exploited by the 1% who have the real wealth and power" hardly makes you seem "the Enemy" to an underpaid cop watching politicians "fix" tickets and other problems for people with means. S/he may not support you, but s/he’s unlikely to hate you.

None of this guarantees success. Politicians bought and paid for by the 1% have won many elections by telling the 99% "We won’t allow abortions," "We’ll be tough on illegal immigration." and "We’ll keep gays from marrying," convincingly enough that many of the 99% cheerfully vote against their own basic interests. Who cares if the Koch Brothers own the candidate if s/he’ll stand up against immorality, non-whites, and the scapegoat of the moment?

Occupy strikes at the heart of the 1%’s power.

In the battles we fought and more or less won in the 1960's, we didn’t win anything that was essential to the 1%. Integration and ethnic equality weren’t going to make much difference to the income of the 1%. The war? Defense Secretary McNamara and others had secretly concluded it was an unwinnable mistake. The War wasn’t essential to the 1%’s wealth.

Occupy is an awakening. People are fed up with the deep unfairness of our economic system and by the use of our supposed democracy as a puppet show that keeps the 1% prospering and the 99% placated, subservient, and not too clear on what’s actually happening. Frank discussion and dialogue may awaken more people, which could only help to effect real change.

Occupy folks don’t claim to know exactly h ow to fix things – and that’s probably good, at least for now.


[The foregoing appeared today, Sunday, in the Las Cruces Sun-News, and is the second of two related columns. The second, published two weeks ago, appears immediately below, since I've been unforgivably lazy about posting here of late.   I had also planned to inclue additional comments on OWS in this post, but I'll add 'em some time soon.  Meanwhile I recommend the piece in the most recent New York Review of Books on OWS in New York, which I read after completing the column above.] 

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