William A. Collins: Occupy Wall Street paved the way
Don’t hear our woes;
To cars and clothes.
The Occupy movement seems somewhat subdued these days. That’s largely because the 1 percent is ready for them. Consider how Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel prepared for the May NATO conference in the Windy City, which drew countless Occupy protesters: He outfitted his troops with new laws, new military equipment, and new surveillance gear — and authorized them to make old-fashioned trumped-up arrests.
And while Occupy Wall Street and other branches of this new movement have brought attention to our nation’s rampant inequality, where do you go next to address the concentration of extreme wealth in the hands of too few individuals? It’s shattered both our economy and our democracy. But there’s no congressional committee in charge of that.
Sure, President Barack Obama himself has dipped into the debate over inequality. First, he called for every American to have what he called “a fair shot.” More recently, he ridiculed Mitt Romney’s tax proposal during an address to supporters in Stamford, Connecticut as “Robin Hood in reverse,” or “Romney Hood.” But really tackling the problem? That’s probably above his pay grade.
In an earlier era, we had a president born to privilege who helped weave the fabric of America’s safety net. But unlike Franklin D. Roosevelt, Romney isn’t interested in addressing the challenges our nation faces because of extreme inequality. He’d rather hide behind’s his wife’s saddle, complaining that the media is picking on her for being into million-dollar, Olympic-contending dressage horses.
The Occupiers smartly chose to first camp out on Wall Street, rather than Pennsylvania Avenue. The big banks are the center of the problem, so why not simply confront them on their own turf? Activists rightly guessed that the coverage would be better in Manhattan, where the media is less inured to protests than their jaded brethren in Washington. By now, however, the Big Apple’s reporters are bored with flamboyant efforts to shine a light on the power our outsized banks wield.
Of course, the scourge of inequality harms all Americans, not just activists residing in media-saturated cities. And it’s only one of a panoply of crises. Median family income is declining, the foreclosure epidemic rages on, we’re still exporting manufacturing and service-sector jobs at a brisk rate, health insurance remains out of reach for millions, highly profitable companies like Caterpillar are declaring war on their unions, Romney’s advocating a tax plan that would cut taxes on the rich and raise them on the rest of us, and public schools and college students are being squeezed by spending cuts.
No wonder thousands of disgusted citizens have taken to the streets. Since young people are the best-equipped to camp out in the rain, they tend to lead the charge, especially if they’re stuck with big college debts and no job prospects. In fact, total college debt now exceeds total credit card debt. Can you imagine what would happen if a movement grew to stop paying?
Anyway, to foment serious change in the face of militarized police departments and a media that increasingly caters to the 1 percent, the Occupy movement needs more allies. Even peaceful revolutions require song writers, bloggers, political operatives, and upper-crust dissidents. Not to mention more people on the streets.
But most Americans aren’t yet comfortable on the streets. They have no sufficiently hated target like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. And while millions are suffering, most of us haven’t been evicted or foreclosed on. This spring, preparing for the day when we will finally be ready, Occupy and its allies ran hundreds of activist training sessions, getting the protest infrastructure all lined up and fired up.
But when will we see really huge crowds out there? How impoverished will we have to be before we join in? Beats me, but Occupy has beaten the trail for us, mapped the course, and is impatiently waiting.
William A. Collins is an OtherWords columnist who is a former state representative and former mayor of Norwalk, Conn.