This may be an unpopular post with many of my readers and political friends. Let me make it clear from the start that I am not against the Occupy Wall Street movement, I am simply questioning the approach and fear that it detracts from other issues.
For those unfamiliar with the movement, Occupy Wall Street was started by Adbusters, an anti-consumerist group based in Canada (a group I’ve been a fan of for years). The inspiration was born from scenes from the Middle East—demonstrations such as Cairo’s Tahrir Square—spawning visions for an American version of the Arab Spring. The movement has taken hold. Hundreds, if not thousands, have traveled to lower Manhattan to take part in the protest and similar “Occupy” protests have taken place in Boston, Chicago, D.C., Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, and Portland.
On basic principle, the Occupy Wall Street movement is an easy one to support. The is no denying that the large banks on Wall Street screwed middle America in the lead-up and aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown. In short, banks made loans to people they knew were a high risk. Worse yet, the lenders convinced these high-risk borrowers that they could (with the bank’s creative financing) have their own piece of the American Dream and own a home. For the most part, the people these lenders made loans to were not financially healthy enough to afford a mortgage, but the bankers convinced them they were.
As a result, millions of Americans have seen their homes seized by banks, while millions more worry everyday that they will be next to lose their home. Once the collapse began, some of the country’s largest banks began to crumble and the government stepped in to bail them out of trouble. Why? Well, no one was really sure what would have happened if our major investment banks failed. Perhaps the free market would have just corrected itself, or perhaps the entire world’s economy would have collapsed. With no clear-cut answer, the government used our tax dollars to prevent a total collapse.
It seems to have been a success. Taxpayers have even seen most of that money repaid. However, that’s of little comfort if you’re one of the unlucky who lost their home in the wake of this mess. While the banks who made obvious bad loans got their money back, millions of Americans lost their life’s savings and their homes.
It’s not surprising that Americans would want to take to the streets and protest. The basic, original, message of Occupy Wall Street seems to be clear: Protesters are fed up with corporate greed in all its forms. From bad bank loans, to BP oil spills, to companies like GE paying no taxes. However, as the movement grows, so does the message and the list of demands. What started as a call to end corporate greed has grown into a laundry list of complaints about American politics. The list now includes ending capital punishment, ending wealth inequality, ending corporate censorship, eradicating joblessness, stopping police intimidation, stomping out American imperialism, and ending every war.
This lack of focus, I fear, is doing more harm than good. At the heart of things, Occupy Wall Street addresses a hugely important issue: The underlying problems of America’s financial and political system. However, whether it is the media’s fault or the movement’s lack of focus, the arrests of protesters and videos of police brutality become the headline, distracting Americans from other issues. Leading up to this, there had been a lot of media coverage on jobs bills, unemployment numbers, the good that unions do, and the idea of taxing the super rich a fair share seemed to be really gaining traction. Now, protesters being pepper sprayed and drug through the streets of New York fill the nightly headlines.
There is also the issue of the location. Yes, Wall Street is symbolic as the place for greed and uber-capitalism, but not everyone who works on Wall Street is an evil, greedy bastard. I promise you that every weekday morning, there are hundreds of young workers, fresh out of college, going to their Wall Street jobs and struggling to get by just like many of the protesters they pass on their way into work. They no doubt dream of someday running Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase and making millions of dollars, but isn’t that a part of the American Dream? Financial and professional success at work has long been a part of The Dream, wherever you work.
Money isn’t the problem here. In fact, Adbusters is fulled by donations from millionaires and from an indirect link to billionaire George Soros, proof that money isn’t inherently evil. The problems are greed, missus of money, and political corruptness. We need to change the system. Protests are a great way to give people a powerful voice, but for that voice to be heard, protests need to be focused. What made Tahrir Square a success was that everyone there was focused on the same goal. It really didn’t matter where the protesters met, what made it work was they were meeting with a unified message and a unified goal in mind. The “Occupy” movement has the right sentiment behind it, but the message needs to be fine tuned. If corporate greed is the main concern, focus on that and take that message to the streets—not just Wall Street, but any street.