A co-worker and I were engaged in the kind of softball, quasi-political small talk that two quasi-intellectual working stiffs volley back and forth to pass the shift, when it occurred to me to ask him if he'd heard anything about protesters in New York and the Occupy Wall Street movement. He said he'd heard something about it and he wasn't impressed. Moreover, he said that he didn't get it. Get it? What's not to get? Full disclosure, I'm the grandson of a former revolutionary and a southern pastor, my mother ran programs for at risk kids in Philly and my friends nearly shut down our school for trying to infringe on our “freedom of speech” by restricting our hair styles (seriously, we won that one too by the way), so I know that I'm genetically predisposed to those who cause a ruckus in the name of social justice. And I said as much, to which he responded, “So... Why are they fighting, who are they fighting, and what are they fighting for?” I had no canned answers at the ready because it's as hard to describe the goals of Occupy Wall Street in a neat blurb as it would be with any true grass roots movement in its infancy.
Grassroots movements are often disparate interests with different agendas who only came together to rally against one common enemy or institution. They are almost always amorphous, leaderless things with many equal voices in the beginning. Consequently, they are for a lot of things right now, some of them smart and some of them not so much. This is normal as political movements often have to sift, weigh and refine their ideals as they mature. A great example would have been the Tea Party, who were initially ridiculed as rabble by the political elites and who now wield decisive power within our government. There was so much that I wanted to say to him about it, but all I could come up with in that moment was, “Basically, they're trying to get guys like you and me to give a damn.” He said he'd Google it later when he walked away and it was only as I was driving home that I realized what I should have told him. I should have told him that Occupy Wallstreet is the reawakening of the American spirit in an increasingly apathetic age. I should have said that they just might represent his last, best hope in a class war that he didn't know that he was fighting and is, largely, already losing.
I know the problem, I was enthralled with the philosophy and he wanted policy. He's looking at the world from the eyes of a college educated guy in an economy where he's lucky to have a job that he's drastically over-qualified for (like me). He's staring down the double-barrel shotgun of what could be a double dip recession and a real unemployment rate of 16%. Oh, and the juice is still running on the college loans that he got to get the degree that forecasters say won't get him hired for the next decade or so. He's watched the Wall St. tycoons play roulette with grandma's pension (and lose) and get bonused with his tax dollars for their troubles. An economist would probably say that although US employers have a record stock pile of cash due to lay-offs and increased efficiency in the remaining workforce, they're not going to hire more people due “uncertainty” in the market. My friend would just say that it seems like he's working harder for less everyday. He voted. He participated in his representative democracy, yet it seems like his representatives don't represent him. Because his supreme court broke all legal precedent and gave corporations the ability to funnel unlimited secret money into campaigns, he knows that his politicians typically only represent whoever is writing the biggest check at the time. Like many Americans, he is as upset and disconnected as anyone marching in New York, he doesn't care where the answers come from, he just wants someone to do something! It occurs to me that the Occupy Wall St. protesters are A: Someone(s) who are B: Doing something. And in a democracy this messy, sometimes this is what something looks like. Now, I'm not saying that Occupy Wall St has all the answers, but I do think that they have the right idea.
I should have said that O.W.S. is, as per its website, a leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions, or just a bunch of regular people who recognize that we are at a pivotal point in our nation's history. They fight because the top 1% now own 40% of our nation's wealth and take home nearly a quarter of all national income. They march because over 46 million Americans now live in poverty and nearly a third of all Americans raised in the middle class will fall out of it by the time they reach adulthood. The American dream is fast becoming a fantasy. They protest because not only has there not been this kind of income disparity since the 1920's, but that disparity ranks us as 4th in the world (right behind Turkey, Mexico and Chile respectively. Yay?). They stand and demand a reckoning for the Wall Street elites who robbed our country blind and to prove that we are still a nation of ideals, and not dollar bills. And they are doing it with the only effective weapon left to the masses. Each other. In a time where the people's will is often circumvented by political lip service and corporate cash, the only way for commoners to exert their will is to unify and speak with one loud voice. Speak until the very walls fall down around the politician's ears and they receive the message loud and clear. The message that we the People are still paying attention, haven't given up, will hold them accountable and finally, that we still give a damn. Which brings me back to what I told my friend initially, so I guess it might have been a pretty decent response after all.