Occupy Wall Street and the Civilizing of the USA

Portions of this were derived from a blog posting on the Daily Kos  

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”–Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor- 1915 

Samuel Gompers wrote those words 1915, because he knew the labor movement was a civilizing force in the USA. The Occupy Movement is also at its heart a labor movement, different than the one Samuel Gompers knew, but with a similar civilizing function. It’s working class people demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. 

Occupy Chicago 10-7

The greed and brutality of our present economic system has become intolerable to many Americans as it undermines living standards and our democracy itself. The lives of our young people have become filled with uncertainty and dread. Young people feel left out of our political system and yearn for a voice. 

The Occupy Movement strives to be ultra democratic and give voice to those who have been excluded. That’s why Mic Check is so very powerful. It literally gives a voice to people while encouraging them listen to what is being said.  It’s also a very slow way to run a meeting which is a downside.  But the Occupy Movement is new and it is trying to give a voice to the voiceless, those who don’t have the luxury of owning a powerful TV network or expensive lobbyists. It is trying to open a national discussion about the economic and social crisis in this country.   

So people pitch tents in public parks, march on banks and other institutions, sit-down in the street, and submit to mass arrests as happened here in Chicago. My court date is tomorrow. Many of us are asking that  our arrests be quashed on the First Amendment grounds of peaceable assembly and free speech. Chicago has had nearly 350 arrests so far… 

Jane Addams Senior Caucus & Occupy Chicago 07-11


You may have noticed the grinning Guy Fawkes masks on some Occupy activists. It’s from a film about an anarchist revolution against a future fascist government called “V for Vendetta”. The main character wears the mask. It’s a favorite among some of the Occupy Movement supporters.  In it the main character speaks about the importance of of words and speaking   out when he makes a pirate broadcast to a nation that is living under fascist rule: 

There are of course those who do not want us to speak. I suspect even now, orders are being shouted into telephones, and men with guns will soon be on their way. Why? Because while the truncheon may be used in lieu of conversation, words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there? 

Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, think, and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillence coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who’s to blame? Well, certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you’re looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn’t be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you…


This film was fantasy, but the country that V. describes sounds an awful like the USA in the wake of September 11th 2001 when we as a nation fell under the sway of fear and blundered into war and cruel attacks on our immigrant population. 

There was an awakening in 2008 around the Barack Obama campaign, but many of the young people who poured their hearts into it have been disappointed in the results. There is a lot of youthful energy that drives the Occupy Movement and a lot of distrust of leaders, authority and hierarchy. I think disappointment with the Obama presidency is part of the reason for that. 

The economic and social crisis which the Occupy Movement confronts is global and Occupy is now a global movement. There were Occupy events in  951 cities in 82 countries in October. Chicago itself is a global center of finance capital and international trade. What does this global city actually look like? 

When I walk along State Street in the Chicago Loop, I see the gravely wounded from America’s class war lining the sidewalks. They beg for chump change, styrofoam cups in hand, hoping to find a place to lay their heads at night without getting them bashed in by some knucklehead. Civilized society would never tolerate this kind of neglect. 

If I cross the bridge over the Chicago River on Michigan Ave and walk north by the glittering consumer palaces of the Miracle Mile, I can see the gorgeous outfits that just scream power and money. Much of the labor that goes into them comes from 3rd World sweatshops where working conditions would gag a maggot. These objects of splendor may scream money and power, but they can’t even whisper the word civilization. Sweatshops would not exist in a civilized world. Period. 

I would love to live in a civilized country in a civilized world. Really. But truth be told, we’re not there yet. Not even close. Some of us may live in places that have the trappings of civilization: modern plumbing, government, electricity, heating and cooling, houses, rapid transit, taxes, libraries, schools and the like. But don’t be fooled. A democratic global civilization is more than just some of us having modern conveniences  or visiting an art gallery. It’s about all of us having access to such things. 

Folks, it’s time to raise the bar on what the word civilized really means. If you want to live in a civilized society, it takes a labor movement. 

Today we have the Occupy Movement. It is committed to non-violent change and so far has stayed pretty close to that ideal. At its heart it’s a working class uprising that is rejuvenating the traditional labor movement as it forges a path of its own. America’s unions were quick to recognize that a new labor movement was rising up and have joined with it. It has been officially endorsed by AFL-CIO president Rick Trumka. Union members have participated in Occupy demonstrations in large numbers. 

Occupy Wall Street and its many off-shoots are the latest in the historic  labor revolts that have been necessary steps toward building a genuinely civilized USA. Hopefully Occupy will take us a closer to that goal because  certainly is  in a fine American tradition. 

Take the American Revolution for example. Reading and sharing Tom Paine’s popular revolutionary pamphlets in taverns and public squares, the early working class dove into advanced political philosophy, discovering that low and behold, they were smart enough to govern themselves. Goodbye to kings and queens, lords and ladies and the whole sorry lot. Brains and ability don’t necessarily travel down the inbred bloodlines of people weighed down by powdered wigs. A genuine civilization demanded much more than that. 

The first labor unions demanded more than than just better wages and working conditions. They demanded public schools and free public libraries. How could anyone have a decent family life and enjoy cultural or intellectual activities without time and education? 

The abolitionist movement was a labor movement. Slavery was the worst form of labor abuse in American history. When Jubilee came and slavery was finally abolished what was one of the first things free slaves demanded? Teachers. Teachers and books. The more the better. Freed slaves wanted to do their part in bringing democratic civilization to a nation that so desperately needed it. 

The workplace sit-downs and strikes of the Great Depression paved the way for the GI Bill which gave working class veterans a chance to obtain a college education and a modest home: those things which today which seem like an impossible dream to so many of us. 

The abolition of child labor, the women’s equality movement, the Native American movement to reclaim their lands and the civil rights movement all further extended and deepened the ideals of civilization. 

What chance did a young child working in a damp dark coal mine or a dusty dangerous textile mill have to enjoy the pleasure of reading or the joy of creating art or music? 

How many women were worn down with toil or trapped in loveless even brutal marriages, imprisoned by custom or law and unable to let their imaginations wander free? 

How many Native American young people have been lost to unemployment, poverty and to the constant insults to their traditions, traditions that offer the wisdom of thousands of years of experience on this continent? 

When Dr. King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, it was at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO. 

The civil rights movement was also a labor movement, a movement to open up economic opportunities on an equal basis, to end the terrible racial divisions that were tearing America’s working class apart and to unshackle minds from the mental chains left behind by racism and oppression. 

A labor movement is about much more than just wages, jobs, hours and work rules.

A labor movement is  freeing working class minds so that people may achieve their authentic human potential. It’s like what Karl Marx said, “The traditions of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.” 

Just look around at our evolution deniers, our climate change deniers, our racism deniers, our gender equality deniers, our poverty deniers, our labor haters, our war makers and our surreal TV reality shows? Ask yourself, “Why are so many minds chained to such folly?” 

And who exactly benefits from this willful and militant ignorance? Good thing I’m not a conspiracy theorist or else I’d start thinking this was deliberate—– an attempt by the 1% to keep us just trained enough to turn a profit for some soulless global corporation, but not smart enough to ask why. 

Why does our society put so many obstacles in front of people trying to educate themselves? We know that poverty is the single biggest obstacle to education. So why does our society make its poverty even worse? Why does our society demand a new indentured servitude of student debt for our college students? Is society trying limit the talent pool of smart creative people to the affluent and well born? Didn’t we have an American Revolutionto deep-six that kind of so-called “thinking?” 

How fast the Occupy Movement  spread surprised not only the banksters on Wall Street but to the small group of anarchists who started the whole thing.

The Occupy Movement now draws support from a very wide range of people. From the  plumbers who keep our toilets flushing to the art students who passionately want to reshape our culture as media workers. 

If you are serious about civilization you know that plumbers, farmworkers, factory workers, janitors, bus drivers, office workers, nurses, teachers and bridge inspectors are vital to that. So why is their work being so devalued. Their wages cut, their healthcare costs skyrocketing, and their homes foreclosed while being subjected to indignities both great and small while they attempt to carry out their duties? 

If you’re serious about civilization you must know that literature requires writers. Music requires musicians. Theater and dance requires actors and dancers. The visual arts require visual artists. Has anyone else noticed how our arts and music programs are being cut in schools across the country? If people can no longer get the education, the  time or the monetary support to create art,than the arts will wither. 

Scientists and engineers need an education not just in their specialized fields, but in the ethics and morality of how their work is used. The more that a university education becomes an impossible obstacle course or a distant dream, than science and engineering suffers. The more universities are starved for funds, than the more science and engineering shrivels. 

Is this any way to build a genuine democratic civilization. Not just a mockery of one? 

So enduring bad weather, bad media coverage, mass arrests, rubber bullets and tear gas, The Occupy Movement seeks to fix our broken economy through national discussion and national civil disobedience such as this nation has not seen in generations—and at such a speed, thanks to the Internet. This is a labor movement carrying out its civilizing mission in our best traditions. By going global Occupy Wall Street is now part of a global labor resistance movement, necessary in today’s faster-than-light-speed globalized economy. 

When the New York Police Department penned in 3 peaceful young women demonstrators on a public sidewalk and maced them so that they were screaming in pain, it went out over YouTube and was seen all over the world.  Videos of hundreds of people being arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge, including many who thought that police had directed them to that route, also went out on YouTube. Both of these events help to grow the movement, not stop it.When a young Iraq war veteran was shot in the face with a rubber bullet by the Oakland police department, the videos of this outrage generated the closest thing to a citywide-general strike since 1946. 

The coverage by the corporate media also changed as the movement grew.  Occupy could no longer be ignored and some of the corporate owned media even began to give it reasonably fair minded coverage. I saw a recent article in Bloomberg Business Week that was not a hatchet job, but a sober well written reporting job that took Occupy seriously. Of course FoxNews and the Murdoch Empire went totally ballistic, which only proves my point. 

It would be a mistake to think that the Occupy Movement can be reduced down to a set of bullet points or “demands” that its enemies can chew over. It is an exploration of possibilities and the creation of the new. The new will always have rough edges and mistakes, both large and small. Any scientist will tell you that most experiments fail, but that those failures help illuminate the road to eventual success. 

It is also a movement propelled by the young: noisy, boisterous, exuberant and exceedingly rude at times. The young apprentices who gathered in the streets of Boston and Philadelphia before the American Revolution would recognize them immediately . So would a young Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. The young Susan B. Anthony or Alice Paul would too, as would the young radical sit-down strikers of the 1930’s labor uprising…and so on and so forth. 

But this the 21st century with a whole new set of challenges.  The Occupy Movement uses consensus rather than majority rule. This can be a beautiful process, but it is slow and frustrating. It favors those who come to their General Assemblies and participate in all kinds of weather. Many of us have pressing work, academic and family responsibilities, so this tends to exclude those people. 

The Occupy Movement is very suspicious of establishing clear public leadership. This has advantages, at least in the beginning and the Occupy Movement is very young. Less than 3 months old depending on when you think it started. Leaders can be bought, knocked off or burnt out. There is leadership in Occupy but it tends to change a lot and is often behind the scenes where manipulation and cliques can dominate. But sooner or later a movement must spawn organization and an accountable public leadership or it will die out, at least in  my opinion. Youthful enthusiasm can only take you so far. So people are asking, where do we go from here? 

There are encampments in smaller cities and towns where the relationship between the Occupiers and the local government is holding up pretty well. But in the larger cities where there is serious corporate power like Chicago, Boston, New York and the SF Bay area, there have been mass arrests and sometimes police violence. A lot of energy has been poured into defense, making it more difficult to focus on the economic and social issues that caused people to come together in the first place. I was at a meeting last Sunday of the Occupy Chicago defense committee and this issue was raised and discussed.


Occupy Chicago 10-23

 There have been problems within the camps as they are open to all, and there are a lot of people out there in our American cities who are very damaged and simply can’t function well in a tense closely packed environment. How do the tent cities hold this movement together & deal with these people? There have been incidents  in camps,including sexual assault, that made women no longer feel safe and this needs to be addressed. How will the local Occupy Movements survive over the winter and beyond? What about cities like Chicago, which after over 300 arrests has no encampment?  Occupy Chicago is as homeless as some of its activists. How do we deal with that? 

I believe that the strength of the Occupy Movement lies in its political independence. From here on I will judge all political parties whether its the Democratic party, the Green Party or any of the small communist and socialist parties  by how well they respect that. Yes, be our allies but respect the non-partisan nature of this broad and still evolving movement. That goes for the leadership of the AFL-CIO unions as well. Be allies. Offer advice and material support, but don’t try to take it over, because you’ll kill it. 

The Occupy movement is still overwhelmingly white.  Imagine if Occupy were mostly people of color and had minority white participation. Does anyone seriously think it would get the same kind of media coverage? That the police would behave in the same way? That the demands would even be the same? I wager that everything would be quite different. 

We are seeing a lot of discussion about the racial politics of Occupy especially among activists of color. There is an offshoot of Occupy called Occupy the Hood that has been doing actions within city neighborhoods, especially around foreclosures and police brutality. There was a demonstration a couple of weeks ago in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago over a foreclosure and planned eviction. 

This raises another issue of critical importance. What if this Occupy Movement does evolve into a genuine multi-racial movement with more direction and focus. In the past these kinds of interracial movements have encountered ferocious repression. 

Check out Reconstruction after the Civil War, the populist movements of the 1890’s, the civil rights movement of the the 1950’s and 1960’s or the Black Panther inspired rainbow coalition of the the 1960’s and 1970’s. Fred Hampton was assassinated not far from here when he had  success organizing a interracial revolutionary youth movement.  

Racism has been a critical aspect of American-style capitalism since the beginning. There are Occupiers who believe that the reason the police violence in Oakland has been so savage is that more people of color are in involved in the movement there. I don’t know if that is the reason why, but it does sound plausible to me. 

The Occupy Movement is trying to be the voice of a very diverse working class which has divisions that stretch back to before there was a United States of America. 

I sometime think of the Occupy Movement as a fire bell in the night.  

It’s a warning of how bad things are now and how much worse they can get if Occupy is  unsuccessful. So I have a very specific  warning to Wall Street. You may not like the annoying disruptive non-violent demonstrations of Occupy, but you know, if you don’t listen to them, the kind of protest that could come after them you’ll like even less. Americans are not a patient people and not everyone has Gandhi in their hearts. 

The Occupy Movement knows from its brief existence that the road they have chosen is not an easy one. 

A labor organizer by the name of Eugene Debs said this in the early 20th century: 

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”


We are the 99%. Keep on keepin’ on!

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