Friday, October 28, 2011

The Occupations Continue

I'm sure that a few Vegas odds makers have taken it in the shorts lately. A few weeks ago, good money said The Occupation Movement would be history by now. With only a few days before Halloween, many people, including me, expected America's parks and city blocks to be back to normal. I thought former occupiers would be back at their customary espresso bars sipping lattes and blogging about their most recent stand against "the man" and his corporate system. WHOOPS, I called that about as wrong as the newspaper man who wrote the headline, "Dewey Defeats Truman," in 1948. I got it wrong, partly because I under estimated the frustration level of the masses.

Of course they're frustrated. According to the latest U.S. Census Data:

  • The official poverty rate in 2010 was 15.1 percent — up from 14.3 percent in 2009. This was the third consecutive annual increase in the poverty rate. Since 2007, the poverty rate has increased by 2.6 percentage points, from 12.5 percent to 15.1 percent.
  • In 2010, 46.2 million people were in poverty, up from 43.6 million in 2009—the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate increased for non-Hispanic Whites (from 9.4 percent to 9.9 percent), for Blacks (from 25.8 percent to 27.4 percent), and for Hispanics (from 25.3 percent to 26.6 percent).
  • The poverty rate in 2010 (15.1 percent) was the highest poverty rate since 1993.
  • The number of people in poverty in 2010 (46.2 million) is the largest number in the 52 years for which poverty estimates have been published.
  • Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate increased for children under age 18 (from 20.7 percent to 22.0 percent) and people aged 18 to 64 (from 12.9 percent to 13.7 percent).
Meanwhile, banks & insurance companies, including Bank of America Corporation, Bank of New York Mellon Corporation, Citigroup Inc., The Goldman Sachs Group, JPMorgan Chase & Co., Morgan Stanley, State Street Corporation, Wells Fargo & Company........, were bailed out by The Troubled Asset Relief Program or "TARP" to the tune of 700 billion tax payer dollars. Theoretically, once the financial companies used the public funds to stabilize their books, money was supposed to "trickle down" in the form of an increased number of refinancing plans and small business loans, which would be used to prevent foreclosures and create jobs. However, loan activity has declined and foreclosure rates have sharply increased, since the bailouts occurred. Yet, bailout recipients are still awarding multimillion dollar bonuses to top executives. The increase in poverty and lost homes while such bonuses are being handed out, is reminiscent of people filling their bowls with wine from a broken cask in the street as Marquis Evrémonde attends lavish parties.

When the top 1 percent of earners in the United States saw their average household incomes grow a whopping 279 percent from 1979 to 2007, as the number of working poor rose dramatically, it's easy to see how, "I am part of the 99%," has become such a battle cry. When that same 1% owns 38% of the nation's wealth, and that wealth fails to "trickle down" in the form of an increased number of refinancing plans and small business loans, which could be used to prevent foreclosures and create jobs, it's easy to see why thousands of people are crying for change in our economic and banking system.

The Movement's Message:
What began as a rally for change in our economic and banking system, has become a bully pulpit for everyone with a liberal cause. In my blog, The Occupation Of America, I outlined the 13 demands listed on OWS' website, some of which contradict each other. One can't claim to be advocating for the working poor of America while demanding that borders be opened to foreign workers. Can anyone say, "cognitive dissonance?"

Since that posting, a number of other causes from veterans rights to Democratic campaigns have attached their banners to the Occupy Movement. Just today, I was listening to Anne Saxelby's "Cutting the Curd" Podcast, and her guests were arguing the Occupy Movement should also be rallying, on behalf of small dairy farmers, against "Big Food."

This, "everybody's welcome, bring your issues with you & hop aboard," attitude has its benefits. A policy of inclusion makes it difficult for critics to paint occupiers as "bad guys." Occupiers will welcome and accept anyone who wants to support the movement, regardless of; age, race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or national origin; which is a value many Americans struggle to instill within their children. The policy also makes it easier to boost its numbers. Since its inception, we've not only seen the movement spring into being in multiple cities across the country, but we've seen the movement grow within each city. An estimated 10,000 people occupy Portland alone, giving the impression that the populace at large supports the cause. 10,000 Oregonians can't be wrong, can they?

The policy of inclusion has its drawbacks too though. The policy necessarily excludes the possibility of weeding out undesirables. Since the formation of Portland's camp, reports of vandalism, drug dealing, and hindering traffic have been rampant. According to KPTV, "Portland police released crime statistics for the area of downtown Portland that includes the Occupy Portland encampment and the numbers showed an 81 percent spike in crime compared to the two weeks before the protest started." Plus, with 10,000 people camped in one tight knit area, provisions must be made for food distribution, medical care, and waste disposal. To their credit, Portland's occupiers have formed governing bodies, which have established and maintained a soup line, founded a camp library, dealt with local businesses to secure the use of toilet facilities, and scheduled a number of protests & events. Of course, there's some conjecture as to whether the camp's governing body has "misplaced" 20,000 donated dollars.

Aside from management & law enforcement issues, there exists the more fundamental problem of the movement's message and goals being blurred. As the core members rally for banking reform, individual protesters are making their way in front of news crews to advocate for the causes they've brought to the party. When such a wide variety of liberal causes is being fought for, a clear vision of a victory becomes impossible. Even if movement organizers obtain their picture perfect idea of banking reform, odds are that many newcomers to the movement won't see their issues addressed.

Reactions To The Movement:
As confusion over a single unified message plagues the movement, confusion about how to react to the movement plagues government officials and law enforcement. Many mayors and town councils want their parks and streets back, but don't want to compared to Governor Rhodes during the Kent State protests, which saw 13 protesters shot by the Ohio National Guard. In order to avoid such comparisons, many mayors have remained lenient with protesters by allowing their camps to exist. At one point Mayor Bloomberg, of New York City, announced that Zuccotti Park would be cleared of protesters on the morning of October 14th to facilitate maintenance. Yet, when it became clear that protesters wouldn't leave without being physically forced to do so, Mayor Bloomberg allowed the deadline to expire without a confrontation.

Similarly, while Portland's Commissioner of Parks, Nick Fish, wants to evict occupiers in order to address the $19,000 worth of damage which has already been done to Chapman and Lownsdale Squares, Mayor Adams has adopted a "day by day" approach to dealing with the occupation. Even though, Adams is content to allow occupiers remain, as long as they behave, he's made it clear they won't be allowed to expand into the trendy Pearl District.

Not all officials have been as congenial as Adams & Bloomberg however. Police in Oakland have fired tear gas and beanbag rounds to clear camps, going so far as to hit 24 year old war veteran, Scott Olsen, in the head with a mortar propelled gas grenade. Likewise, police in Atlanta, supported by hovering choppers, have arrested dozens of camping protesters.

Federally speaking, President Obama has expressed acknowledgement of the goals of the movement. Yet, as far as I can tell, little has been done to address the movement's issues. The President HAS unveiled a plan to reduce the debt burden of student loan borrowers. Yet, the plan only addresses the debt of future borrowers of federal loans without relieving the debt of current graduates or reforming the structure of the overall student loan system.

Predictably, the private sector has responded to protesters with an array of merchandise. Amazon's shoppers can order an inventory of; T-shirts, posters, decals, phone covers, bumper stickers, and books; which all celebrate the protests against corporate America. Someone is even marketing an "Occupy Wall Street: I'm Getting Arrested" app for the Android phone, which has sold over 9,000 copies.

Closing Thoughts:
I don't know how this will all end. I do know that children in history class will be reading about the fall of 2011 sixty years from now. Whether those lessons will be about the months that changed society, or a historically long venting of mass frustration, remains to be seen. The romantic in me hopes they'll be learning about the former. It would be nice to think they'll be learning about the catalyst which led to the equalization of wealth in America. The skeptic in me though, reminds me that the primary function of "the system" is the perpetuation of itself; when the tents are finally gone, and headlines broadcast the newest celebrity tryst, the rich will still be rich and the working poor will still be poorer.

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