Occupations: Keeping the Flame Alive

For four decades, American de-industrialization and deepening inequality rolled forward like an unstoppable steamroller. There have been only episodic protests, periodic academic studies, and hollow campaign rhetoric against corporate globalization (e.g., John Kerry in 2004 and Barack Obama in 2008) causing minor bumps, but ultimately failing to interrupt the accelerating upward flow of income and the outward flow of jobs to Mexico and China that depleted countless American cities.

America relentlessly became more divided as the super-rich increasingly operated in a dimension of their own so distant that Citibank economists dubbed it the “Plutonomy.” Just 1 percent of Americans earn 24 percent of all annual income, more than the bottom 50 percent of families in the U.S. CEOs of the top 100 corporations earned 1,723 times as much as their workers, according to Les Leopold’s The Looting of America.

At the same time as the plutonomy emerged, America witnessed the parallel growth of a “precariat” of working families whose hold on their jobs, incomes, homes, and retirement benefits became increasingly precarious with each passing day. The loss of middle-class jobs has been severe, and is of course still growing. Former Reagan budget director David Stockman estimated the loss nationally at 12 percent of “high-value” jobs, falling to 68 million from 77 million. Wages have receded to 1973 levels. Half of all American workers earn under $26,340.

Then the Occupy Wall Street movement focused outrage on inequality and its primary source on Wall Street. For the first time in decades, Americans gravitated to a meaningful depiction of the forces shrinking their lives and opportunities: the top 1 percent vs. the bottom 99 percent. This division spotlighted what so many Americans have experienced and deeply resonated with them. The protest on Wall Street spotlighted the top 1 percent to whom all increases in economic growth flowed, to whom all significant tax cuts and bailouts were directed, to whom both political parties supplicated themselves, and who directed the relocation of millions of jobs outside the U.S., the foreclosure of homes, and oversaw the lowering of U.S. wages and living standards despite record profits.

Despite being initially ignored and/or ridiculed by major media, the OWS movement caught fire because it portrayed the massive class cleavage in American life. Polls showed 54 percent public support for the occupation of Wall Street. On a single day, “Occupy” protests took place in 951 cities in 82 nations where the same problem of inequality prevails.

Staying Alight Duringvthe Winter

But how will this flame of resistance stay alight during the winter? How does Occupy Wall Street continue to expand its reach when the news media grow weary of it? Fortunately, the movement has already instinctively found answers to some of the most vexing questions.

Frances Fox Piven, an academic and activist who helped found the National Welfare Rights Movement asserts that America’s protest movements have maximized their gains by engaging in strategic disruption and “mass defiance” in the institutions where their members are located. These disruptions inevitably cause electoral strains and power brokers will grant concessions to the protesters in the hope of easing electoral strains.

However, says Piven, “Major egalitarian reforms in American history were the result of the interaction between electoral politics and movement politics…. Movements were nourished in the first place by electoral regimes that, because they share constituencies with the movement, were inclined to be at least rhetorically conciliatory. And movements won what they won when they threatened to cause divisions and defections among those constituencies.”

For example, the profound structural crisis of the Great Depression brought together a new wave of young, militant workers in the giant auto plants in and around Detroit. Eventually, the workers discovered enormous leverage in sit-down strikes that not only disrupted production, but prevented management from bringing in “scab” replacements or moving out the equipment.

The mass defiance shown in the sit-down strikes was electrifying in its impact on America, and the tactic spread across industrial settings to department stores to other workplaces rarely associated with unionism.

“By the mid-1930’s,” Piven recounts, “mass strikers were a threat to economic recovery and to the Democratic voting majorities that had put FDR in office.

In the present situation, “Occupy Wall Street threatens to activate and polarize the Democratic voter constituencies,” said Piven. “It’s the only way to affect Obama,” who has almost totally ignored the positions of progressive constituencies inside and outside the party, by ardently supporting three “free trade deals” fiercely opposed by labor, prolonging U.S. intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continuing Bush ’s tax cuts for the rich.

 Obama is likely to be forced to take much stronger stands on the questions of job creation and inequality as the 2012 election looms closer and he aims to reassemble the coalition that produced his 2008 victory. Some important aspect of protests movements like Occupy Wall Street is that they project issues that have been submerged.

While the trend toward sharply intensifying inequality and the disappearance of working class and middle class jobs have been occurring over the past three decades, there was no clue that the Occupy Wall Street effort would succeed where other organizing attempts have failed. Since the financial meltdown in 2008, there have been numerous demonstrations on Wall Street and in Washington calling attention to bailed-out banks’ unwillingness to loan money, the $25 billion “earned” by the top 25 hedge-fund managers, the $114 billion in bonuses paid out to Wall Street executives in 2010, and the incestuous relationship between Goldman Sachs and top White House advisors. But they all failed to spur mass action and leave a lasting mark on the public consciousness.

 But this time around, Occupy Wall Street and its message about  the richest 1 percent managed to detonate outrage. Occupy Wall Street made a particularly important innovation in its strategy: their prolonged stay made it impossible for the corporate media to keep ignoring short-term rallies and allowed the movement to keep building from increasingly diverse streams of support. As Piven pointed out, “The brilliant innovation of this movement is an extended occupation instead of a march or a rally or a one-day general strike. They said that they were occupying a public space. That gave them time to attract attention and build public support.”

As the occupation of Wall Street has extended, other “unusual suspects” joined in: former Marines in uniform, Iraq vets wearing T-shirts reading “This is the Only Occupation I believe in.” Orthodox Jews, Arab-Americans, Asians, and countless other nationalities turned the occupation into a diverse and expanding coalition.

“The extended occupation also has given them enormous communicative opportunities,” Piven added, because they were located so close to the headquarters of so many media outlets.

The media coverage of Occupy Wall Street has also meant that TV crews were on hand to record instances of unprovoked police brutality, and to film a remarkable dressing-down of aggressive police officers by a uniformed African-American Marine, an Iraqi war veteran. Drawing a contrast between combat with armed enemies and the police attacks on peaceful civilians, the Marine demanded, “Where’s the honor in attacking people who are doing no harm?” His speech soon had the officers staring at their shoes.

On Wall Street, the extended presence of the protesters created a non-confrontational, but still very visible disruption of the routine of everyday life. The constant presence of thousands of anti-corporate demonstrators made news and prompted animated discussions across the country.

In much the same way, earlier this year, pro-labor demonstrators in Wisconsin made the State Capitol a scene of unceasing protest both inside and outside the building. Arising spontaneously from teachers, highway workers, nurses, and a variety of others in response to Governor Scott Walker’s bill to strip public employees of any meaningful union rights, the crowds at the Capitol managed to win over a majority of Wisconsin citizens, based on polling data.

The action at the Capitol was not labeled an occupation, but Republican legislators certainly felt under constant siege for six weeks in February and March when the protests were most intense, drawing crowds of 100,000 or more.


Like the sit-down strikes of the mid-1930s, the Occupy Wall Street movement has had a galvanizing effect, shifting public discourse and engaging tens of thousands of new activists. It has inspired hundreds of local efforts across the U.S. and the world challenging inequality and the power of the 1 percent. Here are some of the movement’s most notable successes:

Changing the discourse: Not only has the movement gained majority support in the polls, but it has produced a turnaround in media coverage of economic issues, according to a study done by Zaid Jilani of Think Progress. When Washington, DC was debating the debt ceiling in August, discussion of the national debt almost entirely pushed discussion of jobs and unemployment off the table. Jilani’s study of news on CNN, MSNBC, and FOX revealed 7,583 mentions of “debt. In stark contrast, “unemployed” was mentioned 1,000 times less—75 times to be precise.

However, the October 10-16 period “finds that the word “debt” only netted 398 mentions, while ‘occupy’ grabbed 1,278, Wall Street netted 2,378, and jobs got 2,738,” Jilani discovered.

“This sea-change can’t be attributed only to the Occupy movement—it also correlates with the White House’s “pivot” toward jobs and the economy —but there is no doubt that Occupy Wall Street has played a major role in bringing attention to the plight of working America, noted Joshua Holland of Alternet. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) acknowledged the occupiers’ grievances when his office announced that he would be giving an address “about income disparity and how Republicans believe the government could help fix it. Mitt Romney moved from condemning OWS to discussing the “frustrations” driving it and rightist presidential also- ran Rick Santorum discussed declining social mobility.

Inspiring new allies: Meanwhile, the OWS movement has expanded its base of allies into mainstream organizations, shedding the counter-cultural image with which rightist media outlets like FOX had tried to isolate it. OWS has gained prominent backing from groups like the NAACP and AFL-CIO. AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka pledged: “We will support them in every way we can.” Trumka noted that unions had mobilized 15,000 marchers on Wall Street a year and a half ago. “We believe, as they do, that the economy is shutting out 99 percent of the people.

“But the rest of us with stagnant wages, lost jobs, home foreclosures, kids that can’t go to school, lost health care, pensions taken away and retirement security destroyed, we think there’s a different and better way,” said the AFL-CIO leader. “We aren’t going to try to usurp them in any way but support them. And we certainly hope they support us on our America Wants to Work campaign.”

The AFL-CIO and affiliated unions participated in a major Wall Street march just as Mayor Bloomberg was pressuring the original contingent of protesters to leave Zucotti Park.

Escalating Impact: The International Longshoremen’s Association, long regarded as a left-of-center union, played a key role in the November 2 Oakland general strike and was responsible for shutting down the nation’s fifth largest port. Police officers in the city, according to reports on MSNBC, were voicing resistance to containing the Occupy Oakland protests, contending that they, too, are part of “the 99 percent.”

Growing more diverse in composition and range of concerns: While initially criticized as overwhelmingly white, people of color have become an increasingly visible and vocal presence in Occupy Wall Street and across the nation. Issues of racial justice have become much more prominent, as shown by developments in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The range of concerns raised by the movement has expanded to link corporate globalization and high unemployment and poverty in African-American communities. In Milwaukee, an African-American-led spinoff of Occupy Milwaukee called “Occupy the Hood” staged a march of about 400 young people to the former site of AO Smith, once one of the biggest providers of stable employment for African-American union members. In the 1980s, AO Smith shifted more and more production to Mexico and the last 500 jobs were relocated there  in 2004.

Unemployment among black males in Milwaukee stands at over 60 percent, according to Marc Levine, an urban economist at UW-Milwaukee. “In 1970, median African-American family income was 19 percent above the national black average. Thirty years later, it was 23 percent lower,” R.C. Longworth grimly notes in Caught in the Middle, America’s Heartland in the Age of Globalism. Moreover, “Black median family income in metropolitan Milwaukee plummeted from 65 percent of white family income in 1970 to 39.5 percent by the 1990s,” according to a study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Economic Development.

In addition, Professor Pam Oliver of UW-Madison has documented how blacks face harsher punishment in every interface with the criminal justice system. They are far more likely than whites to be stopped and frisked, to be formally charged with a crime, to be convicted, and to be sentenced to jail.

Another racially-charged issue is Wisconsin’s new voter ID law, labeled by Wisconsin Common Cause director Jay Heck as “the most restrictive, blatantly partisan and ill-conceived voter identification legislation in the nation.” The new law will tend to disenfranchise people of color, college students, the elderly, and others who tend to lack drivers’ licenses or some other official form of photo ID.

Expanding organizing opportunities: The capitulation of President Obama and top Democrats to the Republicans on the deficit issue appears certain to be a major focus of Occupiers across the nation, as it illustrates the gulf between the opinions of the vast majority, which are ignored and those of the top 1 percent, which shape debate and most often get translated into official policy.

 As Noam Chomsky declared in a speech to Occupy Boston, popular opinion clearly favors raising taxes on the rich over cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. But following the agenda favored by the wealthy few, leading Democrats are still pressing ahead with deficit-cutting proposals that will be devastating. “For the public, correctly, the deficit is not much of an issue. The issue is joblessness, not a deficit. Now there’s a deficit commission, but no joblessness commission. As far as the deficit is concerned, if you want to pay attention to it, the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls. The public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply during this stagnation period. The public wants higher taxes on the wealthy and to preserve the limited social benefits. The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite.”

Strong senior-citizen organizations are prepared to fight this unprecedented set of attacks on the safety net for senior citizens, countering that Social Security is running a surplus and that Medicare is far more efficient than the government-subsidized private care under Medicare Plus championed by Republicans and conservative Democrats. Activism by the senior-citizen voting bloc may force Obama to make major concessions to them instead of appeasing his corps of Wall Street- based advisors.

The situation facing Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans has also emerged. These vets have returned to a nation with few job opportunities at the same time many are forced to cope with wounds, including the hard-to- treat traumatic brain injuries caused by explosive devices. Job creation and adequate funding for veterans hospitals will be primary issues.

Be Alert To Attacks

While the Occupy movement is building bridges to broader audiences through its inclusive approach, right-wing media outlets and politicians will be working overtime to burn those bridges and create wedges that divide the movement from potential constituencies.

Karen Nussbaum of Working America, whose members are pro-union workers employed in non-union workplaces, says that the movement must be alert to these attacks and combat them with a consistent focus on the powerful themes attracting people to Occupy. “One way to prevent the wedge is to make the issue the themes and not the tactics, such as the right to have tents, property rights or police brutality,” she says. “That’s changing the subject. The issue is the 1 percent versus the 99 percent.”

By locating new spaces to occupy—issues which highlight the illegitimate influence of the 1 percent—and finding new levels of disruptive power, Occupy can activate new people in shifting political debate to the Left and winning important new concessions for the poor and working families.

The 2012 Democratic national convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, already being boycotted by several unions, could offer considerable leverage to the Occupy movement. As Frank Rich cynically stated in the New Yorker, “Just in time for election season, Obama has recovered his populist rhetoric (if not populism) and will say the right things about Wall Street, about that ‘frustration’ out there, about the modest reforms of Dodd-Frank, and about millionaires who don’t pay their fair share of taxes.”

Given Obama’s record as president, “he may have a tough time co-opting Occupy Wall Street now to plug the so-called enthusiasm gap in his base,” stated Rich. “There’s a serious danger that the anger could co-opt him instead…. Occupy Charlotte could be a far more telegenic show than the one happening inside the hall.”

Building For The Future

Rich was undoubtedly right when he observed that both political parties are hoping that Occupy Wall Street will disappear with the winter snow. But by continuing to display an inclusive approach to the entire 99 percent, applying creativity and flexibility in choosing tactics and targets, maintaining a democratic and non-violent spirit, Occupy can expand into a massive movement that speaks directly to the needs of the excluded majority in American society and responsively reflects their hopes for a far more egalitarian society.

By finding new spaces to occupy, new levers of non-violent disruptive power, and new sources of impact on the electoral coalitions that sustain the domination of the 1 percent, America’s massive inequalities and its divergence from its democratic promise can finally be addressed.


Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer, publicity consultant, and former editor of the Racine Labor Weekly.