Bank Regs and Park Rules

Occupy Wall Street already has won in the first phase of its revolution against the 1%. Before the rag-tag army assembled in Zuccotti Park on Wall Street on Sept. 17, with the slogan, “We are the 99%,” all we were hearing from Washington and the corporate news media was about the need for cuts in government spending to close the federal deficit. Occupy Wall Street drew attention to the growing economic and political inequality between the great expanse of the American people and the financiers who buy and sell them.

Before the Occupy movement seized the public stage, Tea Party Republicans blamed the economic collapse on the working poor. Right wingers claimed the Community Reinvestment Act forced banks to give low-income homebuyers mortgages for houses they could not afford. Of course, that is nonsense; the law only prohibited banks from discriminating against otherwise creditworthy borrowers based on their neighborhoods, which was a common practice when the law was passed in 1977. But it was unscrupulous lenders such as Countrywide Financial who sold subprime mortgages to the working poor and upwardly aspiring middle class, and it was Wall Street firms who bundled those subprime mortgages into mortgage-backed securities, and other financial speculators who bet against those securities with “credit default swaps” and other financial derivatives, that inflated the housing bubble that burst in 2008.

But the Tea Party faithful have been inoculated against the facts. So to hear Rush Limbaugh and Fox News propagandists tell it, ACORN, which advocated for low-income homebuyers, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which bought mortgages originated by firms such as Countrywide, were marked for the blame when the bubble burst. Republican members of Congress were only too happy to play that blame game. The Occupy movement entered the scene this past fall to help set the record straight. They aim to bring Wall Street to account for the greed and corruption that has led to high unemployment and the undue influence of corporations — particularly those in financial services — on government.

At first the corporate media largely ignored Occupy Wall Street, but when a New York police deputy inspector was videotaped pepper-spraying non-violent female protesters as well as a photographer Sept. 24, the videos went viral on the Internet and news coverage spiked. Occupy Wall Street got reinforcements from unions and other progressive groups and allied camps were set up in cities around the country and the world.

The heavy-handed attempts by paramilitary police teams to evict Occupy camps from public places in Oakland and Portland on Nov. 14 and Zuccotti Park on Nov. 15, along with other police attempts around the country to crack down on the protests only increased attention on the movement, which has stressed its commitment to peaceful protest. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that police crackdowns in mid-November resulted in the biggest week of Occupy Wall Street coverage since the protests began two months earlier. The US economy was the No. 1 story, filling 22% of the newshole from Nov. 14-20. The majority of that coverage was focused on the confrontations between protesters, law enforcement and city governments responsible for the public spaces that have become encampments. The previous week media attention to the protests had dropped to 1% of the newshole, Pew noted, so the police actions clearly helped put the spotlight back on the Occupy movement. On the Internet, there were many comments along the lines of, “If they enforced bank regulations like they do park rules, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

But the most memorable image of the movement was the video of a dozen Occupiers who were sitting peacefully on a walkway at the University of California-Davis on Friday, Nov. 18, while a campus police officer brandished a red canister of pepper spray and methodically doused the seated students in a thick, choking orange mist before they were hauled away. Other protesters shouted, “Shame on You! Shame on You!” over and over again at the police, who finally retreated.

The Occupy groups around the country have shown admirable discipline in their non-violenceas they have resisted provocations. Scott Olsen, the 24-year-old Marine and Iraq war veteran whose skull was fractured by a police projectile when Oakland police tried to break up an Occupy Oakland protest with tear gas on Oct. 25, was greeted as a hero when he returned to the plaza outside Oakland’s City Hall Nov. 27. Asked if he had a message, he replied, “To all of them, I would have to say, ‘Stay peaceful,’ because that’s what this is about. Working together, working with one another. And it’s about being open with each other. That’s how we can solve our problems.”

Occupy Wall Street has created a leaderless social movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions that is opposed to the greed and corruption of the 1% and the politicians who do their bidding. The Occupiers resist categorization and make it clear that they are not a partisan organization, but they are interested in raising progressive populist issues and that debate offers opportunities for progressive populist politicians. They aren’t far from a political agenda that a Democrat could feel comfortable embracing. Republicans, on the other hand, are still defending Wall Street from government regulation.

William Greider wrote in The Nation (Nov. 22), “I see similarities with earlier movements that led to significant reforms. Odd as it may seem, Occupy’s situation resembles in some ways the agrarian revolt of the late 19th century. I say odd because the Populists were poverty-plagued farmers; but like today’s protesters, they were getting crushed by the banking system and monopoly capitalism. For an inspiring portrait of what ordinary Americans can accomplish in adversity, read Lawrence Goodwyn’s epic history The Populist Moment. The Populists well understood that nobody was on their side, neither the government nor the bankers. As industrial capitalism advanced, the brutal credit system was converting yeoman farmers of the South and Midwest into landless peasants (a bit like the foreclosure crisis impoverishing homeowners in our time). In deep crisis, the Populists had to save themselves. They launched agricultural cooperatives and developed farsighted reform proposals, many of which were ultimately embraced by the New Deal. The Populists lost in their own time, but they planted seeds for the future and changed the nation in the long run.

“Like the Populists, the Occupiers are acting in the American spirit of self-reliance, doing whatever they can to counter a destructive system and force change upon it. In the absence of serious financial reform from Congress, for example, the “move your money” campaign uses direct action to take money and power away from the megabanks. But Occupy is also demanding a new kind of government, one not captured by corporate power and rigged against ordinary people. Occupy DC, for example, has proposed a humane plan for deficit reduction. Others urge a constitutional amendment that would disarm the money power’s capture of democracy. OWS can bring about a change in laws, but first it must cleanse our degraded political culture. This is a staggering challenge, of course, but radical reform will originate only from ordinary citizens—not policy experts and their Wall Street supporters, who led the nation into ruin. The movement can inspire the people to become creative citizens again. Are we up to it? Let us find out. Let the democratic conversations begin.”

The 1% hoped the Occupiers would disperse at the first whiff of pepper spray, but police thuggery against peaceful protesters only demonstrated the protesters’ courage and brought reinforcements. Now the elites are counting on winter to break up the rebellion. It’s up to the Occupy assemblies to decide whether they will try to keep their camps throughout the winter; we think they’re entitled to declare victory, go home or find a refuge for the winter and make plans for a new offensive in the spring, but whichever way they go we’re with them. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2011


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