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October 10, 2011 | by  | in Features |
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Why We Should Care About Occupy Wall Street

‘Occupy Wall St’ is the name given to the demonstrators congregating on Wall St in New York City, in the USA, and has spread worldwide with various demonstrations occurring around the globe.

Somewhat confusingly for many, it has no leaders and no single list of demands or requests. What they do all have in common is that they are “the 99%”, a group of people (which includes you and I) who have financial concerns, largely as a result of the top 1 per cent of society who have amassed large amounts of wealth and aren’t sharing. The protestors are using the Arab Spring tactic, essentially a wave of unrest involving strikes, marches, occupations of land and use of social media to create enough unrest in a region to force extensive change—this tactic has been credited with the overthrow of three governments (Tunisia, Egypt and Libya).

Currently, protestors are occupying Zuccotti Park in Wall St, New York City. They began the occupation on 17 September, and the number of those residing in the park nightly fluctuates around the 200 mark. The occupiers have set up everything from a kitchen and medical booth to a library, have met with local apartment dwellers/owners to ensure their living arrangements don’t clash, and are daily donated enough food for the entire movement. Various websites broadcast requests to ensure the occupiers can remain safe and healthy, for example, use of washing machines and driers after rainy spells. There is talk of how to ensure the occupation doesn’t peter out throughout the fast-arriving New York winter. Occupiers are in for the long haul. Per the Arab Spring process, marches and rallies occur almost daily, and many other groups use the occupation as a springboard for their protests. On September 27, over 700 uniformed pilots protested heavy pay cuts in the wake of the recession, and even the Canadian Postal Union wrote to express full support. Occupy Wall St is a resolutely peaceful occupation, as opposed to a prolonged protest awaiting the city to meet specific demands.

Occupying Wall St was started by the website Adbusters, who per their website are “a global network of culture jammers and creatives working to change the way information flows, the way corporations wield power, and the way meaning is produced in our society.” The aim, in short, is to “end the monied corruption of our [the USA’s] democracy.” So, as the financial centre of New York, Wall St was chosen as a target to occupy. Wall St, an eight-block street, contains the New York Stock Exchange, and has historically housed four other exchanges, such as the New York Board of Trade. John Robb, of the Global Guerillas movement, writes,

“What’s the real goal of this protest? Frankly, it’s probably a recognition that the center of power in the US doesn’t reside in Washington anymore. It’s on Wall Street. This protest dispenses with the middle men (the US Government) and goes straight after the real power.”

Most importantly, Wall St symbolizes the entire financial and banking systems for most Americans. When the corporation Enron was found guilty of fraud, for example, “Wall St” was blamed despite Enron not having any headquarters near the street itself. The occupation of Wall St as a location highlights financial corruption as the thread running through all protestors’ complaints.

So what’s the point? Where is the piece of paper everyone can refer to, to tell you why this is necessary? Everyone protesting has a slightly different cause. While there is a document everyone supposedly agrees on, it isn’t published on the official Occupy Wall St site, nor is it necessarily useful to those trying to summarize the movement, as it simply lists everything from objections about the cleanliness of the water, to wars overseas, to workplace discrimination. To put it in a sentence, the protestors at Wall St are furious with the system—economic and political, which allows wealth and power to be so unevenly distributed, with catastrophic results for humans and the Earth alike. They have been put into situations which they have no control over as a result of the world as it stands. The idea of the slogan “We are the 99%” is to help with the knowledge that few of us choose our situation, and most poor people are not poor as a result of some bad choices, or any choices, they personally have made.

How did poor people get to be so poor, then? Well, in the case of the USA, remove the safety nets we New Zealanders take for granted, and add a few generations of poverty to the family line. As an example, if you get sick, your ability to get medical assistance is largely based on the amount of money which you have—in 2009, individual insurance costs averaged $4,824 annually, or $92 weekly. With no insurance, a hospital visit for a birth, broken bone or similar can cost around the $10,000 mark. The Commonwealth Fund’s 2010 survey found that 33 per cent of American adults went without needed healthcare because they couldn’t afford it, and 20 per cent were struggling to pay existing medical bills. A friend in Wellington recently visited the Accident and Emergency Medical Centre. After the taxi, doctor’s fees and medication, he was out of pocket by $160, because one of the two drugs he needed were unsubsidized. We would consider that an expensive visit, and at that price many of us would be unable to afford such care, while an American would be unsurprised and out of luck for better options. Protestors old and young have no unemployment benefit to fall back on, and left university with debt on their tails to find that previously thriving industries have no job openings.

Westerners often fail to consider the state of the USA to be bleak because we are comparing it to the previous belief that there is a minimum level of poverty in Western society. There is perhaps a minimum level of poverty in New Zealand, but certainly not in most countries. Wealth disparity in the United States of America is the highest in the developed world, so while 13.7 per cent of Americans live on less than $15,000 a year, the top 1 per cent live on $350,000 or more. The money is there, in the country, but not remotely evenly dispersed in one of the wealthiest countries in the developed world. G. William Domhoff writes,

In the United States, wealth is highly concentrated in a relatively few hands. As of 2007, the top 1 per cent of households (the upper class) owned 34.6 per cent of all privately held wealth, and the next 19 per cent (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.5 per cent, which means that just 20 per cent of the people owned a remarkable 85 per cent, leaving only 15 per cent of the wealth for the bottom 80 per cent (wage and salary workers). In terms of financial wealth (total net worth minus the value of one’s home), the top 1 per cent of households had an even greater share: 42.7 per cent.

Hence, for Occupy Wall St, the cries “We are the 99%” hold meaning beyond income or class level—they reflect the absence of assets, of control, of power, for the 99 per cent of the population who are affected by the economy on a daily basis, and literally do not own the country they live in.

Anyone may successfully argue that Occupy Wall St doesn’t have the answers as to how to fix the problems the movement highlights. No plan of action to change society, and the world, has been released by the movement. There are, by design, no leaders in this movement, so no single person to ask, and no fixed ideology to recommend. While the culture of a leaderless, demand-free movement is incomprehensible to many, its strength lies in these aspects. To pull power out of the hands of the top 1 per cent of society, Wall St has to lose its grip on the Government, and the lives of the bottom 99 per cent. This will require more than a few bills passed in Congress, and significant reforms in most areas of society. To do so, the cry “we are the 99%” must be heard and repeated by most of the 99 per cent, something which can only happen when those occupying Wall St, and various locations in the world, bring enough awareness to the atrocities happening in the financial sector to make our lives so different to those in the top 1 per cent.

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  1. Electrum Greenstone says:

    ” It is not only the economy that needs to be transformed, because there is no longer any real separation between our economic and political systems. With the “Citizens United” Supreme Court decision last year – removing limits on corporate spending to influence elections – corporate power seems to have taken control of all the top levels of federal and state government, including the presidency. […] Today the elite move back and forth easily – from CEO to cabinet position, and vice-versa – because both sides share the same entrenched worldview: the solution to all problems is unfettered economic growth. Of course, they are also the ones who benefit most from this blinkered vision, which means the challenge for the rest of us is that the people who control this economic/political system have the least motivation to make the fundamental changes necessary. “

  2. Electrum Greenstone says:

    One thing that annoys many people about Occupy is that it’s trying to raise their consciousness. The scenario is akin to the Sufi story in which a young fish asks the queen of the fishes, “I have often heard about the sea, but where is the sea?” The queen replies: “The sea is within you and outside of you and you are made of the sea.”

    That’s fine for fish, people say, but what landlubber wants to be told – particularly by Occupy – that he’s blind to his own social milieu? We want to trust our leaders and to believe we live in the best of all possible worlds. Who wants to know, for example, that the Big Tobaccos, Big Pharmas, Big Oils and the like routinely buy the votes of Congressmen and women of our most powerful ally?

    Citizens and leaders are at one on the issue: people don’t want to hear nasty truths and politicians don’t want to tell. Out damned Occupy! Don’t mess with our consciousness.

    Another thing that unnerves people is uncertainty. Occupy courts doubt. It sees dissent as basic to democracy. When the media’s “nothing’s-happening” act faltered, it switched to attack. The Occupy movement, it said, ought to have produced a clear agenda before clogging up the major arteries of the global Body Economic […] like reprimanding Jesus for lacking a 10-point plan to evict the Romans […]

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