Three Important Lessons of the Occupy Movement

The youth movement is back, the elite have damaged democracy, and always carry a camera.

The Occupy movement has been the most important event in American society in 2011. Its ability to shine a light on the transgressions of the elite and to reaffirm the unity of the eclectic hopes and needs of the 99 Percent has been momentous.

Much will continue to be said about the Occupy movement, especially in the East Bay where police attacked the occupiers. Given our love of trying to predict the future, whether in politics or sports, many will opine on what comes next. But whatever the future holds, it is not too early to see three important, yet very different, lessons that have come out of the inspirational activities of the occupiers.

First, no matter how audaciously hopeful one is, the future looks bleak for the youth of America; and this generation is waking up to their sorry lot. Second, the form of governance and ethical activity in the Occupy events signal a challenge to a blind faith in electoral democracy and to the utilitarian view of individual “rights.” The occupiers’ actions of consensus, self-help, and a willingness to take a physical stand with others have been reaffirmed as crucial requirements for social change. Third, regardless of the speed of electronic forms of dispersal, striking images remain a crucial tool of social protest and a necessary counterweight to our increasingly authoritarian society. A little about each.

The youth of America are in trouble and a bleak future awaits, different but not dissimilar to that which faced American youth in the 1960s and 1970s. Many in that earlier period were forced into the military to fight and die in an unpopular and harmful war. The youth of today are growing up in a period of seemingly endless war, while at the same time the Great Recession continues to strip accumulated wealth from Americans at an unprecedented rate. Stop and think — how can the recession be lasting so long? We still have great and creative discoveries in the Bay Area, and people are working and working and working. True wealth continues to be produced but we have less money to spend. What is happening? It is no exaggeration to say that the problem began and continues because the wealth that is being produced is just going to a tiny group. Paul Krugman argues that it is not the One Percent, but the 0.1 Percent.

Like Russian oligarchs, the American super-elite finds its source of wealth not in productive activities but in its influence and control over important governmental regulatory agencies, like the SEC and the IRS. The youth and underemployed older Americans will suffer the most from this asset stripping. Many young adults today will be paying for their college education for years and years, as incomes stagnate, an impossible task for many.

But as a group, the youth move quickly. A movement is growing to renounce school loan debt and the Occupy movement is coalescing with the student movement generally. This awakening student activism has the potential to be powerful and breathtaking.

The second lesson can be seen in the ways that the occupiers have organized themselves. Using the consensus model of governance is often frustrating and time-consuming, but with the hijack of American “democracy” by the One Percent, it is a perceptive response by the occupiers. What is most interesting is that it is an acknowledgement that “democracy” today is not the radiant concept that we are taught in school. Through its abuse by our government in its overseas actions — foreign politicians that we like are “democratic,” but those we do not are “anti-democratic” — and, combined with the gross and obvious corrupting effect of money on the American political process, the bloom is off the democratic rose.

Even the best “democratically” elected politicians, such as Jean Quan and Barack Obama, have no choice but to look out for the large moneyed interests first. Our recent story by Robert Gammon showed the true nature of the local corporate interests that are sure to have influenced Quan. And President Obama and the democratically controlled Congress in late 2010 shamelessly extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. His appointees have been currying favorites with the Wall Street moneyed elite ever since, refusing to investigate crooked bankers or use the power given them by Congress after the 2008 crash. To be fair, with the current election financing scheme, politicians like Obama who want to be reelected must kow-tow to the financial elite for campaign contributions. The choice of the occupiers to use a consensus model of government, even with its frustrating flaws, is a recognition by them that the elite have tainted democracy.

Through the use of their organizational model, the occupiers have taught us more. In order to build a world safe for our families and neighbors, we must do the “right thing” in all aspects of our life. A full ethical and moral gaze, not just when it serves us personally, is a requirement for a just and equal society. Too many of us — myself included — often cut corners for our own benefit. “It is just a little thing,” we say. But one of the lessons of our modern period is that there are many things — from the failure to pick up your dog’s poop to the creation of exotic financial instruments — that have little harm if done by only one person. But if done by too many, the results are messy or catastrophic. The occupiers worked hard to do the “right thing” in all they did. Like all humans, they made some mistakes. But a recognition that we all must try to live by a holistic creed of compassion and concern for others is the only way to make this world work for the 99 Percent.

Finally, there is a third, and quite mundane, lesson: Carry your cellphone with you at all times and become proficient with the video function. The photographs of UC Davis police pepper spraying protesters and the 84-year-old woman who was sprayed at Occupy Seattle have evoked images akin to Christian descriptions of the suffering of Jesus. Like the iconic pictures of the Vietnamese children that our country napalmed in the Vietnam War, these images will live on, long after words have been forgotten. Images affect the body, and a good argument can be made that ideas need to be felt in the body in order to move us.

Our nation is becoming more and more authoritarian. One of the reasons that the cops have been so violent in the Occupy protests is that over the last few years they have been fed a steady diet of anti-terrorism training and weapons. Implicit in their instruction is that the old rules of the treatment of American citizens are changing. Twentieth-century civil rights are being discarded. Combine this with an increasing number of Nixonian governmental whitewashes, and you can bet that the police assault on Iraqi veteran Scott Olsen at Occupy Oakland is the subject of a behind-the-scenes cover-up today. In our image-laden society, one of the only ways to protect ourselves is to take pictures and video of violent or inappropriate police activity. Sometimes cops are going to arrest people for doing this, but — at least for now — such prosecutions will fail.

No matter how scruffy some of the occupiers seem, or how kooky some of their tactics may appear, all of us in the 99 Percent owe them a debt of gratitude. We are in an extended “emperor has no clothes” moment, and the occupiers are playing the role of the little kid who stood up to royalty. The kid in that story did not have a full-fledged plan for the emperor. Sometimes, pointing out the obvious in a way for all to see is enough.


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