“This is really powerful.” Michelle, a transit worker from New York City, was standing near Broadway and Liberty, taking in the hundreds of people packed into Zuccotti Park. “This” was Occupy Wall Street.
She was right: It was extremely powerful. Power is a central concept – a basic human need – driving the #OWS movement spreading around Michigan and America.
As Mitchell Rivard and I walked through the crowd, though, we were thinking of it in much more concrete terms. “My phone’s dying,” Mitch yelled at me, trying to be heard over drumming and boisterous chants of “All day, all week, Occupy Wall Street.” Mine was running out of power, too.
Our smartphones were drained from us tweeting, Facebooking and taking videos since we’d arrived after an 11-hour drive from Lansing. We traveled with a group of state workers who came to add Michigan voices to those standing up for the 99 percent of us who aren’t millionaires or corporations – and to tell them and the politicians who fail to represent us that enough is enough.
Our tweets, photos, videos (more to come) and this blog post can never convey all we’d like to tell you about our experience. Being there is, of course, a lot different than reading about or seeing it on TV. Some depictions are distorted; most are simply inadequate. That’s the reality of the media and human filters.
I can confirm what we thought all along, though: The folks at Occupy Wall Street are regular people demonstrating some of the finest qualities of our country. They are peacefully assembling to express their opinions, exercising their rights to challenge their government, modeling a mode of discourse based on respect and inclusion, and using the time-honored action of nonviolent disobedience to effect change.
You could call the Occupiers dirty hippies or granola greenies or angry malcontents. But you’d be missing the diversity of who is actually there. More importantly, you’d be missing the whole damn point. You’d be looking at labels instead of seeing the dots.
A serious game of ‘connect the dots’
What do the Occupy Wall Street people want?
We heard a wide range of answers, from the concrete to the abstract. Themes we heard repeatedly: fix the injustice of wealthy and corporations thriving while regular people suffer; understand we have a corrupt system where elected officials answer to money instead of the people; get people to recognize that their voices matter and that they can – and should – speak up and be heard; inspire the 99 percent of us who aren’t millionaires or corporations to reclaim our country from the other 1 percent.
Solutions that floated around included campaign finance reform, direct voting, a tax on Wall Street and making millionaires pay their fair share. Frankly, though, there was more energy than answers. That’s OK, in a world where things are complicated, and where so many people are just awakening to their personal power.
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads, though, that promising energy could either sputter out or spin into division and even violence if it has nowhere to go.
#OWS, now evolving into the 99 percent movement, is a patchwork of individual stories and opinions. It truly DOES have a unified message, though: the 99 percent of us who are not millionaires or Wall Street corporations want to reclaim our country from the politicians who abandoned us and let greed hijack our democracy.
Some folks are better than others at connecting the dots to draw the big picture. I could see this struggle playing out in the minds and mouths of many of those we talked to. To keep the 99 percent message from falling into the gap between words and action, it will be important to make these connections clear.
A few examples:
Giving our homes to Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are publicly traded corporations that guarantee most new mortgages in America. They lost billions of dollars because of mismanagement and risky lending, and Congress concluded that they contributed to our country’s economic crisis. The federal government gave them a $141 billion taxpayer bailout in 2008.
Let’s be clear: This was our money. Made and paid by hard-working people like you and me. Thanks to us, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are back on their feet and are supposed to be leading the government’s efforts to prevent foreclosures, including the $29.9-billion Making Home Affordable program.
Instead, a Detroit Free Press investigation found that Fannie Mae is violating government rules by pressuring lenders to foreclose on homeowners even if they are trying to get a loan modification and keep their homes. Why? Maybe because Fannie Mae can assess lenders fees if they can claim there’s a “delay” in foreclosure.
If the numbers are any measure, their tactics are working. More residents lost their homes in Michigan in 2010 than in years – 72,810. Yet Fannie and Freddie’s top six executives received a combined $35 million in compensation over 2009 and 2010. And we’ve all read the horror stories about the illegal robosigning of foreclosures. Yet no one has been held accountable.
So, you decide: Are elected officials looking out for you, the 99 percent, or millionaires and corporations?
Dave Camp, Wall Street’s Rubber Stamp
U.S. Rep. Dave Camp of Midland is one of only 12 members of the Super Committee that will decide how our federal government’s $1.2 trillion deficit will be resolved. He supports dismantling services like Medicare that the 99 percent depend on and, as Chair of the House Tax Policy Committee, cutting corporate taxes to prop up the 1 percent. Those votes are why the financial, insurance, health and real estate industries have given him more than $4 million. Meanwhile, Michigan’s unemployment rate keeps rising.
There’s another important vote pending in Congress: the repeal of Wall Street reform that will regulate regulate giant corporations like Goldman Sachs that profited from taxpayer bailouts. Bottom line: Goldman Sachs, the most profitable securities firm in Wall Street history, received a $12.9 billion taxpayer bailout that it used in good part to support overseas banks and hedge funds and repay itself. It’s doing so well, in fact, that it spent $450 million this year to buy a huge chunk of Facebook. Again, that is money made and paid by us, the 99 percent.
Since being bailed out by us, Goldman Sachs has made billions in profits ($2.7 billion the first three months of this year alone). Enter Wall Street greed, because apparently that’s not enough: The company announced earlier this year that it would outsource 1,000 American jobs to Singapore, where labor is cheaper. No elected official would put up with that, right? Wrong. Dave Camp recently accepted a $5,000 campaign donation from Goldman Sachs. How do you think he’s going to vote on repealing that Wall Street reform?
And who can even get access to talk to him? The last public town hall he held wasn’t even for his own constiuents; he held it with fellow fat cat Sen. Orrin Hatch in Ohio. And watch how regular citizens trying to visit Camp at his D.C. office are locked out and lied to. The 99 percent movement is about exactly this: people fed up with politicians not doing their job. It’s almost impossible to be heard when corporations can spend unlimited money on campaigns. No PAC, no power.
Bringing it home: Corporations get the breaks in Michigan
In Michigan, where the economic collapse caused in good part by Wall Street greed continues to cause suffering for unemployed workers and struggling families, our Governor and the Republicans who control the Legislature are national leaders in blatantly ignoring the opinions of the 99 percent. They gave a $1.8 billion tax break to corporations using money taken from our schools, seniors and working families – under the false promise of creating jobs. We’ve seen no jobs, only more suffering: more unemployment, more poverty, and more slashing of the safety net – and yet another big tax break planned for business that will drain our schools and communities even more.
People in Michigan are rising up to say no, that’s not the path to how we can be great together – and we want that. We don’t want to leave some of us behind. We realize there is more that unites us than divides us. These are hard times. Anger, sadness, fear, hope – all that emotion and energy – let’s work together to channel it into action, together, the 99 percent of us.
Where do we go from here?
A movement moves unpredictably; that’s its nature. It evolves. Hopefully we’ll evolve with it – all of us, Democrat and Republican, Independent and Green Party, and yes, even those Occupy Wall Streeters I wanted to strangle because they didn’t vote in 2010.
I like this map of all the Occupy events around the world. It’s another way of connecting the dots, because we’re all connected. Hey, sorry to be cheesy, but you can’t help it when you come back from Occupy Wall Street. You’re reminded that we’re all responsible for this world we live in, and you think, well, it couldn’t hurt to have a little more peace, love and yoga.
But here’s my point: Wherever we go from here, we should recognize Occupy Wall Street as a place and time that woke a lot of people up. It’s reminded them they have a voice. They have personal power. That’s valuable in itself.
As a young guy named Ethan said in trying to explain why he was camping out in “Liberty Park”: “I want people to know they’re strong.”
Yes, you are.