What Occupy Wall Street wants


Occupy Wall Street protesters commemorated the one-year anniversary of the 99% movement Monday, marching down the streets of Manhattan’s financial district wearing masks and party hats. Though some protesters were arrested, it was a muted affair in comparison with the demonstrations that took place while OWS was headquartered in New York’s Zuccotti Park for several months.

In a Times story by Tina Susman and Andrew Tangel about today’s demonstrations, Wall Street worker Robert Nicholson is quoted as saying: “I think they’re idiots. They have no agenda. […] They have yet to come out with a policy statement, and now, who are they disrupting? People who are working, people who are trying to pay a mortgage or put their kids through school.”

True, OWS has yet to draft a policy statement. And true, OWS has weakened its message by pedaling a hodgepodge of ideals. But it would be idiotic to say OWS has been ineffective. Like the recent Republican and Democratic national conventions, OWS has concentrated on communicating an overriding message.


PHOTOS: Occupy Wall Street protesters

In a powerful open letter that appeared on GlobalGrind earlier this month, Russell Simmons explains the Occupy Wall Street movement to his friend Jay-Z, who admitted to the New York Times he didn’t truly know what OWS was after. Simmons writes:

If we look back at the accomplishments thus far of Occupy Wall Street, there are many. For one, the national conversation that preceded September 17th, 2011 was dominated by a manufactured political fight in Washington to raise the debt ceiling and avoid a credit default. Within the first weeks of OWS, the conversation had been changed to the real issue that is eroding America; economic inequality, a topic that hasn’t been discussed for decades. Within the first few months of OWS, the conversation evolved into an examination of how Wall Street’s money has destroyed our political system and took control of our democracy. The prison industrial complex, lower taxes for the rich, the outsourcing of jobs, Wall Street running rampant, poisonous foods for our children, even some wars and almost everything that disempowers the poor, is a result of money passing from lobbyists and corporations to our politicians. And that is what Occupy Wall Street is fighting against. It is a sad state that the politicians work for the people who pay them, not for the people who elect them. That is not democracy.

Further down, he continues:

So, Jay, here’s the deal. You’re rich and I’m rich. But, today it’s close to impossible to be you or me and get out of Marcy Projects or Hollis, Queens without changing our government to have our politicians work for the people who elect them and not the special interests and corporations that pay them. Because we know that these special interests are nothing special at all. In fact, they spend millions of dollars destroying the fabric of the black community and make billions of dollars in return. For example, the prison lobby paid politicians to create a so-called “War On Drugs” that resulted in a prison economy that disproportionately locks up black and brown people, including many of your friends and mine. They took drug-infected, diseased people, locked them up, educated them in criminal behavior and dumped them back into our community, thus producing a jail culture for our streets. There are more black people under correctional control (prison, jail, parole, probation) today, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War. This is just one issue that has been bought and sold. If we have to occupy Wall Street or occupy All Streets to change the course of direction of this nation, then we must. We must take our democracy off the market and let the world know that it is no longer for sale!

The central message in Simmons’ note is not unlike what we heard from the speakers at the DNC. “Opportunity today, prosperity tomorrow,” said San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro in his keynote address about how we need safety net programs to level the playing field. (Watch it here.) He continued:

We know that in our free market economy some will prosper more than others. What we don’t accept is the idea that some folks won’t even get a chance. And the thing is, Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are perfectly comfortable with that America. In fact, that’s exactly what they’re promising us.


The Romney-Ryan budget doesn’t just cut public education, cut Medicare, cut transportation and cut job training.

It doesn’t just pummel the middle class -- it dismantles it.

Castro gave an inspirational speech, one that would hopefully inspire people to vote on Nov. 6. But when Melissa Harris-Perry recently confronted these threats to our safety net programs on MSNBC, she channeled the rage that many rightly feel.

What is riskier than living poor in America? Seriously! What in the world is riskier than being a poor person in America? I live in a neighborhood where people are shot on my street corner. I live in a neighborhood where people have to figure out how to get their kid into school because maybe it will be a good school and maybe it won’t. I am sick of the idea that being wealthy is risky. No. There is a huge safety net that whenever you fail will catch you and catch you and catch you. Being poor is what is risky. We have to create a safety net for poor people. And when we won’t, because they happen to look different from us, it is the pervasive ugliness.

It’s easy (and incredibly thoughtless) to say that poor people are hunting for handouts. As Castro reminded us, Republicans haven’t cornered the bootstraps market. There are self-starters and rags-to-riches stories all across this country, and across both parties. For Castro, for Simmons, for Harris-Perry, the issue of safety nets is about creating opportunity.

In Sunday’s Opinion pages, the editorial board addressed a new Census Bureau report that points to a widening income inequality. “[A]s the report shows, things could have been considerably worse. Without such safety net programs as unemployment benefits and food stamps, millions more families would have fallen into poverty.”

What’s the solution? The board sees a clear path to closing the gap between the 1% and the 99%:


The best solution to these problems is returning to full employment. Not only does lower unemployment translate reliably into less poverty, but a tight labor market drives up wages, raising the median income. That’s when the rising tide would truly lift all boats. A second focus for policymakers should be preparing workers better for the jobs that are being created, which means improving education and training programs.

In the meantime, though, lawmakers should resist the impulse to cut spending on unemployment benefits, tax credits and other targeted aid to the poor. The demand for that aid will drop on its own once the economy is back at full strength, but we’re not there yet.


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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier