Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Occupying a Movement

Movement: a (1) : the act or process of moving; especially : change of place or position or posture 2a : tendency, trend (movement toward fairer pricing) : a series of organized activities working toward an objective; also : an organized effort to promote or attain an end (the civil rights movement)

You say you want a revolution

Stop talking about a revolution - circling away and around from something only to end up back where you were in the first place - and look, instead, to the idea of movement.

I'm a history nerd so my instinct is to view current events through a much more macro lens - what actions over the decades, centuries, even millennia, got us to this point here? This kind of thinking can be instructive, as it helps to build a more comprehensive understanding of the structures and motives that underlie everything that happens in human society (which is, for better or for worse, terribly cyclical). It can also be somewhat limiting, since it excludes the micro view of the needs, right now, on the ground - so I'm constantly reminding myself to look at both.

In the case of the Occupy Wallstreet movement, the long-term machinations that led to this moment are incredibly complex but could have only really ever led to this one outcome, this situation on the ground right now.

I can't help but see the OWS thing as heavily connected to what went down in Wisconsin earlier this year - and it is, just as it's connected to the Arab Spring, to the riots in London, to the major protests of the last century, really: from WTO Seattle to Haymarket 1886.

The system of the world has been on a collision course with itself for a long time now.

You've only to look at the numbers to get a handle on why:
  • The top 20 percent of Americans now holds 84 percent of U.S. wealth
  • The 400 richest Americans have more wealth than half of all Americans combined
  • "Two-thirds of the nation’s total income gains from 2002 to 2007 flowed to the top 1 percent of U.S. households, and that top 1 percent held a larger share of income in 2007 than at any time since 1928"
  • Charts!
  • The richest 2 percent of adults in the world own more than half the world's wealth
OK yeah, but those are just numbers, what about the human face of this massive wealth inequality? Some of the same people bringing us the OWS movement have also put together the "We are the 99 Percent" campaign - simple messaging from regular people, explaining what the current economic and social climate means for them in their day-to-day lives.

People buried under tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt they'll never be able to pay off, homes foreclosed on, jobs lost, children to feed, injury and illness to pay for, the list goes on and on.

Here is the human face behind the numbers - all the frustration, despair, anger - and, ultimately, hope. After all the big banks got their bailouts (funded by us, the taxpayers, who should be the real "too big to fail" group), after the endless, trillion-dollar wars, after all of the deregulation (campaigns bought and paid for by a wealthy few, the natural environment sacrificed in the name of profit and short-term, low-wage jobs), after years and years of being on the receiving end of what's actually trickling out of the backsides of the wealthy, powerful few - of course people are fed up.

Of course they're taking to the streets and parks in New York City, Washington D.C., Boston, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Madison, Colorado Springs, Wichita, Louisville, Buffalo, Richmond, Santa Cruz, Omaha, New Orleans and dozens of other cities and towns across not only the U.S. but worldwide, too.

Because the 99% have skin in the game. We're tired of being crushed under debt, told if we get sick we should just die already, given only more of the same out-of-touch millionaires to vote for, being sent off to fight wars on behalf of people who could care less if we live or die, losing our homes, losing our jobs, losing our families, losing our minds.

The trouble is, the one percent that remains mostly in charge can still afford to ignore us.

We're taking to the streets, more and more every day, because we're suffering - our daily lives have been affected. Sadly, maddeningly, it takes serious upheaval before lasting, hopefully positive change can come. We have to reach a critical mass of people giving enough of a shit to take action before progress can be made. We have to make sure our tactics make the entrenched interests at the top sit up and take notice - without resorting to the kind of violence and personality cults that too often sabotage otherwise well-meaning causes.

It's a tall order. What OWS and related movements are talking about is nothing less than a fundamental reshaping of the way we do business in this world (a major paradigm shift, if you will). And if the protests in Wisconsin taught me nothing else, it's that strong, lasting movements are built from the ground up - not top down.

They also require diversity - of age, of ethnicity, of sexuality, of affiliation, of everything. One of the main reasons I tend to avoid otherwise well-meaning lefty gatherings (like Fighting Bob Fest and the like) is because they tend to feature the same handful of typically white, typically boomer-or-older speakers and attendees and don't really engage with the community as a whole. It's a lot of talking in circles.

I recognize this is dangerous critical territory, but let me set the record straight: I strongly believe in respecting and listening to one's elders. People who've been fighting the good fight since before I was born have a lot of crucial insight and experience to offer and they should never be written off.

For a movement to be sustainable, and to achieve any real forward momentum, we need to see far, far more involvement by younger people, though. And since younger generations are trending toward being less white (therefor on the front lines of the massive cultural shift that's already in process, and all the growing pains that entails), more open about their sexual orientation, and more aware of environmental issues - they're/our involvement is absolutely crucial.

Plus, as a friend of mine recently reminded me: Gen X and younger are the ones dealing with the massive fallout of the student loan policies enacted by our parents' generation. We are being crushed by debt that they never experienced. Student loan debt in the U.S. is right around one trillion dollars - far outpacing credit card debt.

I've got tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt that I've long since resigned myself to never seeing paid off. It's likely that my expensive degree will result in my just struggling to make interest payments for the rest of my life. And I'm far from being alone. (And at least I even got to go to college in the first place)

All that money we're shoveling over to the banks could be going toward starting new businesses, buying houses or cars, raising families, travel - in other words, toward contributing to a healthier society. Instead, thanks to the continued hacking away at funding for public education and kowtowing to big banks, my generation exists in a kind of invisible debtors prison.

They told us to go to college so we could get jobs so we could earn retirement so we could die well.

What they didn't tell us was that they were busy dismantling that system, bit by bit, so that when the time actually came for us to graduate there were no jobs, and when the time came/comes for us to retire, there would be no safety net. Neat trick.

So now we're in the streets and the parks because we don't know what else to do. How else can we get their attention?

If they don't listen soon, and if we don't start energizing a wider array of the people most affected by these inequalities, then I'm afraid we'll end up with just another revolution that deposits us back in the same place where we started--but not before people get hurt.

So it is, then: Keep moving. Keep moving. Keep moving.

(photo by Mat McDermott on Flickr)
The Lost Albatross