The Occupy Movement: How the Left almost had its own tea party, but blew it
Guest columnist Peter Mountford is sympathetic with the Occupy movement, although he notes some significant mistakes the movement made to get traction toward real change. He's hopeful the movement can turn things around.
Special to The Times
Baron Rothschild, the 19th century banking mogul, famously said, "The time to buy is when there's blood in the streets." No less than Warren Buffett, a stalwart contrarian investor in a similar tradition, has been buying up billions of dollars in stock all year. Just in case you were wondering: Yes, there's blood in the streets.
Yet, over the last couple weeks, the Occupy movement, which had promised to give voice to those who were bleeding in the streets, very nearly succumbed to self-inflicted wounds. The movement will doubtlessly continue, in regional and minor ways, for months, if not years, but it no longer threatens to substantially alter our country's direction as it did in October, or as the tea party has continued to do for conservatives. For a month, the only national stories about the Occupy movement have involved their evictions from parks and numerous examples of excessive force by the police. Because no one tried to harness or focus the movement's substantial momentum — to do so would have been uncool — it has lost its momentum. We are left to wonder what the movement could have accomplished if it hadn't been an amorphous blob of disorganized people who couldn't gather around a vivid message or mission.
The idea for Occupy Wall Street originated last summer in a blog post for Adbusters, but the movement didn't get underway until September. After a week of patronizing bafflement from the national press, OWS began to successfully command that fraction of media attention that follows large-scale political stories. Initially, the protesters directed national attention toward income disparity (rather than the size of our government's debt, a subject that had enjoyed an enduring run in the top position of national outrage, a primacy all the more surprising considering how dire the economy's many other problems are, and what an abstract issue long-term fiscal imbalances is).
In an ironic twist, the godfather of the Occupy movement, it can be argued, was none other than Warren Buffett, the richest man on the planet, who wrote an oft-reposted opinion for The New York Times in August, "Stop Coddling The Super-Rich," in which he wrote, "If you earn money from a job, your (tax rate) will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot."
Around then, pundits on Sunday talk shows began pointing out that many large corporations, like GE, were not paying any taxes at all. On NBC's "Meet the Press" Sept. 18, host David Gregory pressed U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell about our remarkably regressive tax system. Later, Gregory pointed out that America's middle class had faced declining real wages for more than 30 years, while the rich had experienced an unprecedented surge in wealth.
That was when people started to occupy Zuccotti Park. They showed up on Wall Street with signs and talked into cameras about how they'd been suffering, how their lives had been destroyed. Then, near the end of September, the movement really hit its stride. OWS protesters had landed upon an effective call to arms: they were the 99 percent and they were sick of getting screwed by the 1 percent.
Democratic politicians played it cool, not wanting to get grabby too quickly. On Oct. 3, none other than Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul tried, awkwardly, to align himself with the Occupiers, saying, "I'm all for going after crony capitalism."
But, by late October, things began to unravel.
In New York, police pepper-sprayed some penned-in women on camera, which elicited understandable outrage. In Oakland, a veteran was horribly brutalized on camera.
There were unsanitary conditions in the camps. In Vancouver, B.C., activists were edged out by the chronically homeless, who weren't all that interested in protesting. And then, instead of talking about the plight of the 99 percent, people started talking about whether the homeless were actual protesters or not. The rest of the camps suffered their own degeneration of focus.
In the late-1990s, protesters for the Rainforest Coalition at the World Bank discovered that if they shaved off their dreadlocks and wore suits, the management of the Bank would actually listen to them. When Stephen Colbert interviewed a pair of Occupiers last month, they came off as utterly silly (one earnestly insisted that he call her "Ketchup"). Colbert had no choice but to make sport of them. The story became about a woman calling herself Ketchup, rather than what she was trying to say.
Here in Seattle, our ginger-bearded, soft-spoken mayor, Mike McGinn, who rides his bike to work, repeatedly invited the Occupy Seattle protesters to camp out on the grounds of City Hall. They refused, thinking it'd be like having your mom pack your lunch when you're running away from home. In fact, they would have been symbolically uniting with the liberal government against private-sector greed. Continuing to march from their new camp at Seattle Central Community College to Westlake Park meant the police had to force them to behave, often with ugly results — as when Seattle Police pepper-sprayed an 84-year-old woman.
The original message was lost. The subject at hand, evidently, was proper policing techniques.
Liberals are experts at self-sabotage, often as a result of over-thinking (see, for example, Barack Obama's first term), and this movement proved no exception. The villains, now, were the police. Never mind that police are unionized government employees as firmly within the 99 percent as public school teachers. Millionaire bankers at Goldman Sachs could breathe a sigh of relief that the 99 percent had resumed formation in a circular firing squad.
Briefly, it looked like the left had created its very own version of a tea party, a force that would seize control of the national attention and force intransigent Republican legislators to explain themselves and force real banking reform into existence. But that result appears increasingly unlikely. By the time Republican members of the federal deficit-reduction supercommittee killed any hope of a grand deal because they were unwilling to seriously consider a minor increase on the tax-rate for millionaires, the protesters didn't even appear to notice. The day after that deal died, the Occupy movement should have physically blocked all congressmen from entering the Capitol, but they were busy fighting with the police.
Meanwhile, the tea party, which also began as an amorphous movement sparked by popular outrage and then coalesced into a force that seized the national attention, remains as influential as ever. What did the tea party have that the occupiers did not? They were willing to get organized and form partnerships with existing political structures. Occupiers, meanwhile, have so far rejected the Democratic Party and refused to choose leaders. Perhaps they can still turn it around, I hope so.
But as long as their focus appears to be on building tent cities rather than giving voice to a clear and important message, their national influence will continue to dwindle.Peter Mountford's novel, A Young Man's Guide to Late Capitalism, was published earlier this year by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He lives in Seattle.
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