Occupy Wall Street: a beginner’s guide

As the American political season rears its head, we asked Emily Chase-Sosnoff to look at the foundations of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In the first of two articles, Emily will analyze the foundations of OWS, the building of a community, the evolution of politics, and how a protest became a movement.

This protester represents the "1%" of people that are redheaded. Image courtesy of Mike Fleshman.

To the OWS protester I’m part of the 99%. I am a 24-year-old law student living on a modest budget with little outside financial support. I am a big-D Democrat. I even wrote my college honors thesis on political participation among China’s youth in the wake of the Tiananmen Square Incident. And yet, despite having all the credentials of an avid OWS supporter, I originally harbored serious doubts that the movement could successfully promote real societal change.

Most of my doubts initially stemmed from the fact that I did not understand the movement. Despite the conceptually all-inclusive rhetoric about the 99%, OWS seems to have had limited success in drawing the support of 99% of Americans. One illustration of this is the 53% movement, in which a group of 99-percenters sought to publicly distance themselves from OWS. I thought that this fragmentation among the 99% likely stemmed from the lack of a clear message or list of demands from the protesters.

To learn what the movement is truly about, and in order to make an informed decision about my own position, I decided to ask other 99-percenters – both inside and outside of the movement – what they thought about OWS. Here are some of the answers I received.

It’s About Building a Community

The more radical of my left-leaning friends focused not only on the future impact of OWS, but also on the present community that it has created in Zuccotti Park and other public spaces across the nation. One friend wrote, “OWS is not only about changing society, it is also about providing a forum where radicals can meet, discuss, and work on their society-changing ideas. People used to be black-listed for their participation in such gatherings, and it is a huge step for American democracy that OWS is not being suppressed whole-scale.”

This friend emphasized the physical community that OWS created. In Zuccotti Park, the protestors set up an anti-consumerist society with communal food, power, and supplies. He explained, “Occupy Wall Street not only provided the means of physical sustenance, it also created a social environment, where young radical liberals could focus on helping each other and getting to know each other, instead of facing the isolating menace of wage-slavery powerlessly and alone. Thousands of people met lifelong friends, had the opportunity to try their ideas in the court of public discourse, and, most importantly, discovered first hand that socialized services are not an impossible dream. This is an end in itself.”

This friend also emphasized that the term “protest” may not be accurate to describe the OWS movement. “I agree with the implication… that the term ‘protest’ should be reserved for responses to institutional action rather than appied baselessly to any public gathering. Otherwise the Thanksgiving Day Parade might qualify as a protest. Indeed, just like Thanksgiving, Occupy has thought provoking values that should not be dismissed simply because it can not always be properly classified as a protest.”

It’s About Changing Politics

Other 99-percenters claim that the physical community of OWS is simply a means to achieving political change. In response to the common complaint that OWS has no message, Naomi Wolf of The Guardian polled hundreds of protestors about what they hoped to achieve. She organized her responses and found that the top three agenda items were all political in nature:

“The No. 1 agenda item: get the money out of politics. Most often cited [in the protesters’ responses] was legislation to blunt the effect of the Citizens United ruling, which lets boundless sums enter the campaign process.

No. 2: reform the banking system to prevent fraud and manipulation, with the most frequent item being to restore the Glass-Steagall Act – the Depression-era law, done away with by President Clinton, that separates investment banks from commercial banks. This law would correct the conditions for the recent crisis, as investment banks could not take risks for profit that create fake derivatives out of thin air, and wipe out the commercial and savings banks.

No. 3 was the most clarifying: draft laws against the little-known loophole that currently allows members of Congress to pass legislation affecting Delaware-based corporations in which they themselves are investors.”

These three agenda items, if presented as a list of demands, would destroy the perception that OWS is a disorganized group of vaguely anti-establishment idealists. Currently, it is unclear who the protesters are speaking to – the public? the banks? the politicians? This list would clearly link OWS to the political sphere, and would put the onus on our politicians to answer to the protestor’s demands. If the protestors’ goal is achieving real change, a list of demands like these may be the most effective way to ensure that the protestors’ voices are heard.

 It’s About Lack of Opportunity

Another branch of OWS is composed of frustrated college graduates, many with liberal arts degrees, who are unable to obtain high-paying jobs in their fields. As one friend explained, “Many of the OWS participants … played by the rules, went to college, and now are not able to enjoy adulthood as promised.” Although college graduates face unemployment at much lower levels than the average American, these graduates regularly contend with underemployment. An underemployed college graduate may work part time, or without healthcare, or in a job that does not require a college degree. The lower wages associated with underemployment make it difficult or impossible for these graduates to pay their exhorbitant student loan debt.

A proposed list of demands that made waves on the OWS website includes several points related to this lack of opportunity for college grads. Demand one, entitled “Restoration of the living wage,” proposes raising the federal minimum wage to 20 dollars an hour. Demand three simply states, “Guaranteed living wage income regardless of employment.” Demand four (free college education for all) and Demand eleven (immediate debt forgiveness) voice the frustrations of many underemployed college graduates who are finding that their college degrees did not guarantee them jobs that could pay off their student loans.

However, not all college graduates share the frustrations of their protesting peers. Emily Heist Moss, a 2010 college graduate and blogger at RosieSays, explained that she sympathizes with the protestors, but does not empathize. Her day job allows her to live simply until her student debt is paid off, which is a sacrifice she anticipated as a recent graduate. On her blog, Emily wrote, “I am well aware that most, if not all, of the comfort I have found is the result of the very lucky hand I was dealt. Most people don’t start out this way, that much I recognize. But I see a lot of faces that do look like mine, and a lot of dealt hands that were equally lucky. Of those people, I am skeptical. I don’t know what you expected your life after college to look like, but mine is pretty much as I anticipated….Live simply until you can afford to do otherwise. I don’t feel misled, and I don’t feel manipulated.”

In trying to understand OWS, I have asked other friends if they feel misled or manipulated because liberal arts degrees no longer lead to guaranteed employment in this poor economy. Many directed their frustration not at Wall Street, but at the educational system itself while others direct their anger about the educational system at certain political groups. On a blog post about OWS and income inequality, one commentor wrote:

“I honestly believe that income inequality isn’t a symptom of inequitable tax burden between rich and poor, it’s a symptom of how … governments have, by and large, completely abandoned America’s children because the lobbies like the AARP … (who just keep demanding more social security) divert attention and funding away fom these kids who JUST want an incrementally better future.”

The problem of underemployment among liberal arts grads is so complex that it’s difficult to blame any one institution. The current generation will struggle, but hopefully OWS can help younger students plan ahead more effectively for an unexpected economic downturn.

Emily Chase-Sosnoff holds a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of Chicago and is a second-year student at Chicago-Kent School of Law.

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