By now many have seen the picture of Dr. Cornel West at Occupy Wall Street holding a sign that reads, “If only the war on poverty was a real war then we would actually be putting money into it.” Or, more recently, video was released of Dr. West being arrested during a protest outside the Supreme Court, his message being that the court system gives too much power to those with the most money.
The movement, which began in mid-September, is focused on this idea of the national interest having been construed to satisfy the top 1% first—hence the slogan “We are the 99%.” While this serves as the main, somewhat vague binding issue, there is no set agenda. Some are protesting the difficulty of finding decent health care coverage, some the impossible debts they’ve incurred, some budget cuts to important institutions, and some who don’t face these circumstances simply standing alongside those who do. The breadth of the protests have led many to believe the cause lacks unity and coherence, possibly even reminiscent of the riots that broke out in England this past summer. Others have branded the movement far too disorganized and idealistic to make a difference.
While change has yet to be achieved in the way of legal action (i.e. legislation, or Supreme Court rulings), the month or so of protests has had quite an impact on culture, the media, and even the world. The protests quickly gained a popular following through social media sites, and have since spread to the rest of the country. The beginning of this month saw a string of similar protests across the nation in major cities like Los Angeles and Seattle. There was even one woman who held an “Occupy the Tundra” march by herself (with her dogs accompanying her). This past week, the movement spread beyond the U.S. to Europe. In cities across the continent, people protested the massive cuts and the mishandling of the current financial crisis that threatens to plunge the E.U. into another downward spiral. Thousands were reported to have gathered in a peaceful protest (which they named “Occupy the Stock Exchange”) against the financial system. While it was hardly greeted eagerly by police forces, the London protest did get a visit from WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange.
Speaking of police forces, in its first weeks Occupy Wall Street brought a lot of unwanted attention to the NYPD and their sometimes unnecessarily brutal tactics for maintaining order. Numerous videos were posted all over the Internet of police picking and choosing protesters to arrest, with or without provocation; and one officer was seen spraying mace at two women in an orange police pen. Such events have called into question the methods being used in New York City by police forces to prevent crime, including the question of racial profiling as a way of identifying possible “criminals.”
As with the Arab Spring Raid, Occupy Wall Street gained a lot of momentum through the use of social media, particularly Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Interestingly, it has also sparked opposition movements, such as “We are the 53%,” where middle-class Americans blame the protesters for creating their problems and being too lazy to work to fix their situation. The same dichotomy is reflected in the news media. “The Last Word” with Lawrence O’Donnell on MSNBC aired a piece highlighting the violence being displayed not by protestors but by police officers, from an obviously empathetic point of view. Sean Hannity, on the other hand, told a protester she was “trying to destroy America” and “did not believe in freedom.” (For those interested, Jon Stewart highlights Hannity’s seemingly contradictory opinions on Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party movement’s beginnings in 2009.)
As with most issues, it has sparked quite a bit of debate, specifically over the implications as regards the Obama administration and the 2012 presidential race. Some feel it is a display of dissatisfaction with the policies and the legislation (or lack thereof) of the current president and his party; this, presumably, is good news for Republicans. However, most say it is not disapproval of only one party or any one person, but of the government as a whole, of the way people have perceived the relationship between the wealthy and the leaders of the country.
While Occupy Wall Street may be controversial, naïve, and lacking direction, there is no denying that it is commanding the attention of people across the nation and around the world. As the year of revolution draws to a close, the 99% are commanding the stage. No one can be sure how it will end or what will become of the movement, but to see so many people from so many different backgrounds come together peacefully for change is, in the least, a testament against the idea that people don’t care enough to try.