Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Working, working

Are all these Occupy Movements working? I think they are.

To say that right now, as they are closing down encampments in Oakland and San Francisco as well as in Zuccotti Park in New York and elsewhere, may sound unduly optimistic. But I really think they are.

Yesterday I blogged a quick impression of the goings on at Sproul Hall at the UC Berkeley campus and the start of the march down Bancroft to downtown Berkeley. I’ve said before that I think this movement is too big and complex for neat and tidy summaries, so let me continue with some more pieces, without tying them together, necessarily.

After my snapshot of the happy crowd yesterday getting their start at Telegraph and Bancroft I note with pleasure that by later in the evening they had swelled to five thousand by police estimates, up to ten thousand, by organizer estimates. They remained peaceful, and focused on information exchanges after they had circled back, including a speech by Robert Reich on the steps of Sproul Hall, made famous around the world by Mario Savio, and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Reich’s message was that when the Supreme Court can make corporations equal to citizens we all lose, and when there are tuition increases as sudden and as steep as there have been recently, equal access to information and to power disappears. The threat to democracy is the same now as it was then. In that moment Reich became the voice of the Occupy movement.

It’s part of the story that those steps were officially named the Mario Savio steps in 1997 and everybody who gathers there today gets to stand on his shoulders. Today the events in Berkeley are part of a larger movement centered in New York, even though the heart of the protests here are the radical increases in tuition at UC and California State University campuses.

While this was going on, a man at the Haas School of Business, a five-minute walk away, pulled a gun out of his backpack and a cop shot him. He died in hospital a short while ago. Unlike the killing last week at the BART station near Occupy Oakland, this story didn’t even make the front page of this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle. (It was there, but on page 14.) As with the Oakland killing, there doesn’t appear to be any connection with the protest march. Just random acts of violence, the Oakland one apparently a gang related thing, the Berkeley one apparently a nut case. Nothing new there. Just more evidence of social decay.

Among the information being generated – whether the Occupy movements are responsible for this consciousness, I can’t be sure, but it seems likely – is the heightened awareness of how many of our leaders are in the 1%. Mayor Bloomberg, for example, the man shutting down Zuccotti Park. And Nancy Pelosi. The paper this morning reported that her family has assets of some $43.4 million, and that includes holdings in Alcoa and Dow Chemical Company, among other big corporations.

I sent Nancy Pelosi $50, and have a thank you note with her alleged signature to show for it, when the health care bill passed. Now I’m seeing her in the same light I see Diane Feinstein. She’s another local democrat who does so many things I admire. But they both work for the system and the system is revealing itself to be not just broken, but for all intents and purposes, unfixable. The fact that Diane Feinstein’s personal fortune was a mere $23 million in 2003, but by 2005 was, by some estimates, as high as $99 million may be no reason to rank her with the greedy bankers of Wall Street, but we’re wondering now. How does this system work, where her husband gets award after award for being a philanthropist, but the state she represents is about to stop educating many of its children and taking care of many more of its poor.

I know she’s fighting a good fight – and so is Pelosi - to turn this around, but as we move into the Occupy Wall Street era, when the argument that if you’re rich you earned it has started to make people’s blood boil, we’re going to want to hear a lot more people asking the kinds of questions Steve Croft of 60 Minutes just asked Nancy Pelosi. 60 Minutes ran a piece this week on the way Congress has made it possible for its members to do insider trading legally. She may have a better answer to the question than she was able to come up with at the spur of the moment, and I’d rather be governed by a philanthropist than a Scrooge, but the questions of wealth distribution are beginning to take shape.

After years of battling with my friends who voted for Ralph Nader, years of arguing our system leaves us no choice but to vote for the lesser evil, I’m no longer buying the argument. Like many who represent the heart of the Occupy Movements, I see the valiant efforts of Feinstein and Pelosi as ineffective. It’s not that the system once was equitable and has now become inequitable. It’s that when everybody was moving on up the inequities were masked. Occupy Wall Street has forced us to look at the system, and we’re beginning to see more clearly it was broken all along.

It’s an unanswered question how many people have started seeing the superrich in a new light, and asking questions they haven’t asked in a while, but it’s clear that’s just what’s happening. Money, like fire, is both necessary and a two-edged sword, and I think maybe the fact that Diane Feinstein’s wealth can go from $22 to $99 million in two years suggests the country is burning down.

Look almost anywhere and you find more evidence. Behind the scandal at Penn State is a story not just about child abuse but about big money and a university defined not so much as an educational institution but as just another piece of corporate America.

Occupy Wall Street may not be the only reason for this sudden focus on the corruption of big money and America’s plutocratic government, but it's got to be the main reason.

When the nice young man from the Democratic Central Committee asked me why I had not sent in my contribution to the party this year, I was able to tell him I’m not a Democrat any more. I’m with the Occupy movements, I told him, hoping to take our political life to a higher level of effectiveness. He gave me a good argument. You need clear goals you can implement, he said. Right, I said. And your implementable goals are...?

OK, so it’s pretty much all consciousness raising at the moment. But it feels like the right path, at least. America’s two-party system doesn’t seem to be taking us anywhere.

Every day I see criticism of this attitude in letters to the editor. Like the folks in the coffee shop yesterday asking, “Do they even know what they want?” “What ARE they after, anyway?” Lech Wałęsa spoke out yesterday and offered the advice that you can’t just ask questions, you have to provide answers. He says his Solidarity Movement that began at the Gdansk Shipyards worked because they had a plan and Occupy doesn’t.

But what he is missing, I think, is the fact that by the time he got Solidarity started the will to fight the tyranny of the Polish leadership and Soviet imperialism was already there and well developed. His supporters had watched their colleagues shot and killed by gunfire raining down from helicopters.

The American situation is radically different. Americans are just beginning to realize how fat and lazy and uninformed we are. We are still coming to terms with the fact that what we learned about our great democracy in high school simply isn’t true. Sometimes it’s harder to fight the naïve than it is to fight the tyrannical. And it gets even more complicated when you see how naïve the Occupy folks themselves can be, with their insistence on a complete lack of a power structure, for example. Warren Buffet is making their case, and so are, I suspect, Pelosi and Feinstein, whom I just sort of scattered some anti-glitter on for possibly not the best of reasons.

Dig a little deeper for detail and some interesting things show up. The fact that a judge ruled that the Boston Occupy could not be shut down, for example. Or the fact that one of the Occupy cities is Salt Lake City, of all places. Or the fact that in Berkeley a city councilman sent out an e-mail urging Berkeley citizens to support the Occupy movement. And then it turns out that an Oakland city councilwoman tipped off the Oakland demonstrators about Monday’s police raid on their encampment. Support is coming from a broad front, including from within the system, in other words.

Stay tuned. Occupy, despite its name, isn’t about territory; it’s about an idea, and it’s pretty clear the time for that idea has come. They’re being dismantled at the moment, but they’ll be back. Have a look at their website, if you have any doubt. And at the other places in Spain, Germany, and Belgium where the spark has been kindled.


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