Sunday, October 9, 2011

Occupy Wall Street: What Does It Mean for the Country?

  Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.
                                       ~ Howard Zinn

Occupy Wall Street” is a movement that appears to be gaining ground in cities across the country.  It began in New York City in the middle of September and has been growing much like the “Arab Spring” did in Egypt. For the first few weeks, it garnered little attention from the media, even though streets were crowded with protesters.  Some began asking, “Where is the liberal media?” Others began muttering that the lack of media coverage just shows that the corporations own the media, from Fox News to CNN to MSNBC and all shades in between.

Looking back to other citizen protests

Perhaps our comfort level has diminished to the point where people are
once again taking to the streets to state their cause. As one who grew up in the 1960s, I saw the difference that street protests could make – first with civil rights, then with the anti-war movement to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.  In those days, there was much at stake. Those of us in high school and college knew people who had been drafted into military service, and we knew people who had died in a war that we saw no reason for (in spite of all the hype about the domino theory and communist world dominion).  I became aware of Vietnam when I was in the 4th grade. By the 9th grade, with the war still raging, I was hearing from some of the adults the traditional line about the honor of military service as a way for young men to give to their country. At the same time, having no skills on the athletic field, I failed to see how I could be of service to the military, and I began to wonder how a Baptist might claim conscientious objector status.  I was a senior in high school when I turned 18. Congress had ended the draft that same year, though young men still had to register and carry cards with them at all times (I guess in case the government changed its mind). I had those cards in my wallet for about ten years, and then I decided I could toss them. At any rate, I was quite relieved that the war ended, and thankful for all of those student protests that most people in my hometown had scorned.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was surprised at how many of the “hippies” and protesters of the ‘60s had settled down into comfortable corporate jobs. I saw no pressing desire to right wrongs or end injustice now that our generation was free from the draft and with no conceivable notion that the country could ever get embroiled in such a conflict overseas again. In recent years I have continued to wonder where that spirit went, that desire on the part of young citizens to make things right in society.

Perhaps we were inspired by the Arab Spring, seeing what peaceful protests can do in another country. Perhaps it is a convergence of the social media and growing fear and discomfort on the part of ordinary citizens.  I know that in the 1960s the fear of being drafted into war in a far off jungle, and the uncertainty of what the future held, combined with an unprecedented number of students gathered on college campuses helped to ignite the fires of protest.

Great market numbers, not so great outcomes for people 

For many years now, we have seen Wall Street numbers looking a lot better than what the average person on the street was seeing.  During the boom years of the 1990s, while jobs and the economy were growing, we were losing manufacturing jobs as companies shipped production overseas. There was not a big outcry – for one thing, people enjoyed being able to by goods at lower prices. This was also the time when Walmart, which once had “Buy American” painted on all of their delivery trucks, began getting most of their products from China.

From 2000 to 2008, the market continued to climb upward, while workers’ salaries remained stagnant and their benefits were reduced. Then the financial crisis hit and the market came crashing. Not only was Wall Street bailed out, corporations have continued to post profits while workers have seen no relief from layoffs and unemployment.

Will there be real change ahead?

Perhaps we will see a difference now, with momentum gaining in the Occupy Wall Street movement. (Jonathan Cohn in an article in The New Republic, tells why he is cautiously optimistic.)  Those protests on the streets back in the 1960s and early '70s changed a few things, but many things remained the same. We did have civil rights laws passed, and we did end the draft, but the corporate mind-numbing materialism that was called into question never skipped a beat. Even though we ended the draft, we redoubled our military efforts with a leaner, more efficient "volunteer" military. Consequently, it became even easier to send our young to battle because it never directly affected the population at large. Families were not called upon to offer up their children to fight; only those who made the choice to enter the armed forces had to make the sacrifice. With the Iraq invasion, and the "war on terror," our leaders even told us that the best thing we could do for our country was to just go shopping.

However things turn out, and whatever direction events may take, at least the voice of the people is finally being heard. Someone said that unlike the Tea Party movement, Occupy Wall Street has no big financial backers – and because of its message, will not likely attract any big-monied donors. There is, however, a sense of excitement and hope, similar to that day a quarter-century ago when the people took to the streets in The Philippines to usher in as new day with Corazone Aquino; similar to the sensation of the Arab Spring; and similar to the excitement of the 1960s when a new day was envisioned by the people in the streets. As we know from history, any number of turns can come about. The important thing for us as a people to remember is what Howard Zin stated, "Dissent is the highest form of patriotism." When people publicly let their voice be heard, it means they have hope that we can do better.


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