The activists of Occupy Wall Street have captured the imagination of the world, focusing a spotlight on economic inequality and the role of big banks and corporations in hijacking democracy and plundering the economy. What is fascinating is that they have succeeded where so many of us have failed, and they have done it by violating many of the cardinal rules that have dominated past thinking about how to raise and popularize issues of inequality and out-of-control corporate power. They didn’t focus-group, poll and then milquetoast the message to appeal to the middle. They didn’t stay away from conflict, arrests and disruptions out of fear of alienating potential supporters. Nor did they play it safe and set out modest demands and goals so they would seem “reasonable” in the hope that they could influence the politics of the country from the margins.
In some ways, Occupy has more in common with the mass industrial strikes of the 1930s than with most current political and union organizing. It may seem counterintuitive to compare strikes of the old industrial economy to the wired world of online organizing, tweeting and instant YouTube videos, but there are strong parallels. Just as the auto strikes and plant occupations of the 1930s continued until they achieved their objectives, the occupiers have said their movement will go on indefinitely, and it won’t be won in a day, or through a few demonstrations, or by electing more sympathetic politicians alone. They have a center of activity, the Occupy site, which like a picket line in a mass strike is a place anyone can show up at any time to help and get involved. And they have spread their energy far and wide, knowing they can’t win just by being at Wall Street, any more than garment, auto and steelworkers could have won by striking just one plant at a time.
Most important, they have been crystal clear and uncompromising in naming the bad guys: Wall Street and the big banks. Just as workers knew that they had to beat GM and US Steel back then, so Occupiers know we must beat Wall Street if we are to win a fair economic and political system now.
I’ve spent the past month participating in meetings, marches and actions across the country from Boston to Chicago to Los Angeles to Jefferson, Missouri, with students, unemployed Americans, union members and other folks fed up with the gross inequality and lack of opportunity in our economy. And what I have seen again and again is that more people than we ever believed possible are showing up and sitting down, risking arrest in long-planned as well as spontaneous actions in unlikely places from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Jackson, Mississippi. All of this has been magnified by a massive level of media attention. By supporting but not trying to control or co-opt Occupy Wall Street, groups long committed to challenging inequality and the power of big banks can join and strengthen a movement already changing the direction of our country, in a mutually reinforcing relationship.
Over the summer, as Occupy was being conceived, community groups, unions and other organizations, many part of the New Bottom Line—which includes the Alliance for a Just Society, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment and National People’s Action—were planning actions across the country starting in September. The actions, involving nonviolent civil disobedience unfolding as weeks of overlapping events, took aim at Wall Street, big banks and runaway corporate power. In Washington State, sit-ins at JPMorgan Chase in Seattle and actions in three other cities coincided with hundreds crashing a meeting of the state’s business elite at the posh Suncadia resort. The action quickly spread to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, New York, Minneapolis, and on to Denver and Honolulu.