Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupy Movement: Disentangling Fact from Fiction

             When Occupy Wall Street first broke out in the news, I was skeptical. An online article had described the protesters as a gathering of college-age coeds who publicly smoked weed. It also reported that various woman showed up topless and held signs saying, “I can’t afford a shirt.” Initially, I thought it sounded like a group of bored, immature kids trying to gain personal attention via shock value. Like many others, I assumed it would all blow over as soon as the media spotted another shiny distraction.
            This changed when several New York police officers assailed nonviolent protesters with pepper spray. A hundred cops joined the protesters’ ranks to show their objection to the incident. I believe this was when the movement really gained momentum. Otherwise apolitical Americans were shocked to see police officers use unprovoked force. We looked on in horror as a thirteen-year-old girl was arrested for demonstrating peacefully, and Wall Street executives sipped champagne while watching the events from above.
            By this point, the Occupy movement had spread to New Haven. Mike and I decided to check it out, and then attended regularly for about three weeks. We haven’t been there recently because we began to doubt its effectiveness, but we continue to support it. I learned they’ve been a lot more proactive, and plan to return soon.
            Throughout my involvement with Occupy, I’ve seen quite a bit of misinformation circulated by those in opposition to it. I think it’s generated a lot of controversy due to false rumors and misunderstandings, so I’d like to set the record straight. I can by no means claim to speak for the entire group, but I’ll share my impressions on these topics.
            So far, these are the most common complaints about the protests: “It’s disorganized and they don’t know what they want.” “It’s a radical liberal and/or socialist movement.” “It’s comprised of lazy, unemployed people who want handouts.” “The protesters are anti-American.” For the following reasons, none of these claims are accurate.
            For the most part, the Occupy events are actually quite well-organized. We plan meetings by posting them on Occupy New Haven’s Facebook wall. We contact one another by phone and email. The group is segmented into a handful of subcommittees, but they are cohesive and in frequent communication. They include Media (people who have media connections or are especially adept at speaking to the media), Direct Action (those who plan events), Outreach (members who educate others about our movement and try to recruit more people), Food (people who cook for the gathering and offer free food for anyone), Comfort (those who provide clothing, toiletries, and other necessities to the people who camp on the New Haven green), and Medical (members who offer medical attention to anyone in need). I’m probably forgetting some committees, but these are the ones which come immediately to mind. We have regular marches and general assembly meetings. We vote on our decisions and base them on consensus. There is no official leader, but it’s preferable this way. As one man said, “If one person was the face of the movement, it would be too easy for his head to be cut off. With this many heads, it’s unstoppable.”
            The belief that we have no idea what we want could not be more fallacious. We are a diverse crowd with equally diverse concerns, but there are a number of issues we can agree are central to our movement. The stock market, healthcare, house foreclosures, banks, and unemployment are at the forefront.
            Supporters of the Occupation are critical of the New York stock exchange because of its negative impact on the economy. When a company is publicly traded, the corporation makes cuts that are detrimental to the working class. Employees’ wages are lowered, and it’s not unusual for them to lay off a thousand workers so the stock will rise by a single point.
            Protesters at Occupy also frequently address health care reform, because health insurance has become unaffordable for so many Americans. Over half the people who file for bankruptcy have gone bankrupt because they couldn’t afford their medical bills. Most of them worked before they were ill, had to stop working on account of their maladies, and then lost their health insurance along with their jobs. Citizens live an average of ten years longer in countries where health care is less expensive or altogether free. In America, the CEO of a pharmaceutical company can literally own twenty Porsches while others are denied basic coverage or are underinsured.
            For-profit banks are another subject of concern among Occupy members, and some of us have transferred our money to federal credit unions instead. We’re disgusted with the fact that banks received government bailouts but still refuse to give out loans. We’re appalled that Bank of America had planned to impose a five dollar fee on debit cardholders, and that it foreclosed a man’s home after it was destroyed by Hurricane Irene. (Bank of America canceled their plans on the cardholder fee, but only after a major outcry from the politicians as well as the public.)
            In short, Occupy is fed up with our economic meltdown. We want less foreclosures and more available jobs. A number of us want manufacturing work to be outsourced less, since this has deeply dented our economy as well.
            In addition to the claim that we’re disorganized and ideologically fractured, I would like to answer the rumor that we’re mainly comprised of socialists. As I’ve mentioned, we are a diverse crowd. We welcome people of every race, nationality, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. I’ve heard Occupiers express the desire to include Republicans and facilitate dialogue with the Tea Party. Some are antagonistic toward conservatives, but certainly not all of us are.
           Specific issues within our cause do relate to socialism, such as the endorsement of free healthcare and education. However, not everyone in the movement advocates for those things. Some simply wish that those services were more affordable. We don’t hate the rich, but we despise the tremendous divide between the wealthy and poor. We believe that homeless people shouldn’t have to die of exposure, and that a basic standard of living needs to be available to everyone. Many critics are conditioned to believe that the middle class would have to pay for this to be remedied, but this is not true. The funds would only be skimmed off the income of the wealthiest one percent. The one percent does not consist of people who earn at least $100,000 a year. It’s composed of the tiny fragment that earns millions of dollars annually. Currently, millionaires pay significantly lower taxes in proportion to their income. A slight tax hike for the richest Americans would not rob them of their affluence. It would simply require them to contribute according to their ability. Some say that “the world doesn’t owe you anything,” but that seems to be another way to say “I  don’t owe you anything.” If those who are in a position to offer assistance do nothing to help, we will devolve into either anarchy or totalitarianism.
           This brings me to another common complaint about Occupy: that we refuse to work and are demanding handouts. I’ve heard a great deal of anti-Occupy statements along the lines of, “Stop sitting on your lazy asses and get jobs.” First of all, there is no one in this movement who I would describe as lazy. It takes a whole lot of time and effort to organize these events. Secondly, the idea that we should all just “get jobs” rests on several false assumptions. It presumes that everyone involved in the Occupy movement is unemployed, which is not so. It also jumps to the conclusion that anyone who’s unemployed has not tried to find work, and that everyone is equally capable of finding and keeping a job. This is a clear example of victim-blaming. Granted, there are some attitudes that can contribute to one’s own poverty. Some people really are lazy. Some expect instant gratification. Others spend impulsively, take no responsibility for their choices, or give up as soon as anything becomes difficult. However, there are plenty of impoverished people who don’t have those attitudes, and one’s poverty is not inevitably due to their behavior. Conversely, plenty of wealthy people display irresponsible and entitled attitudes because they can afford to. Not all rich people have earned their wealth by grit and good work ethic, and no one has become affluent without help. Those who started lucrative businesses have received loans and relied on construction workers, security, and countless other people to ensure their success.
            In the US, “self-made” billionaires are idolized, and wealth and fame are the ultimate goals to pursue. We’re fed rags-to-riches stories from the time we’re old enough to read. This may feel inspirational at first, but there’s an insidious undertone: these tales dangle a next-to-impossible ideal before our eyes and make us feel inadequate. They teach that our economy doesn’t need to change; that it can benefit us if we ally ourselves with corporate culture. These stories also encourage us to blame others for being poor, because they infer that anyone can amass a colossal fortune with the aid of a positive outlook and a little elbow grease.
            Not only are very few fortunes entirely earned, but not everyone is capable of earning an income. Those who are unable to work wish more than anything to be employable. They don’t relish the idea of taking “handouts.” It’s very difficult to get disability, and people often must apply multiple times before their claim is accepted. They may wait for years beforehand, and are treated as if they choose not to work. This is incredibly demoralizing. Disability money may only amount to $600 a month, and the recipient is required to account for every cent. Rent alone usually costs more than $600 per month. Those who are not disabled but earn minimum wage often cannot manage without government assistance. Most people who collect food stamps have to juggle minimum wage jobs to cover their most basic expenses. This especially applies if they have children. People don't collect welfare out of idleness, and they're not living in luxury off of government funds. They can't afford luxury. In the vast majority of cases, they work harder and endure far more stress than middle-class Americans.
            For the aforementioned reasons, many within the Occupy movement propose an increased minimum wage. This would decrease the need for welfare assistance. With additional free healthcare, medical bills would plummet. If regular checkups were more accessible, no one would be forced to wait for a dire illness before seeking medical treatment.
           These are the issues we stand for. Some may call us anti-American, but the Constitution promises us the right to assembly. By engaging in this sacred right, we’re furthering our democracy. For a great many of us, these protests are born of a love for our country. We care enough about our fellow citizens to pursue this vision. We want to polish this nation until it gleams like the beacon that we know it can become.

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