Milwaukee County Labor Council AFL-CIO

December 19, 2014

In The News

So edgy. So American. The Occupy movement

Hundreds sign their names to the Occupy banner at Milwaukee's Zeidler Park.

By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted October 25, 2011


Let’s not pretend there isn’t something very risky, as well as very American, about taking your issues to the streets.

The most immediate risk is upsetting those in power. The status quo is starting to smell danger embodied in those cheerful, nonviolent, eager to be arrested protesters who threatened the Chicago establishment the weekend of Oct. 22, leading police on orders to incarcerate 130 and even demolish the first aid station at Grant Park. Even New York Mayor Bloomberg found that the media scrutiny usually so precious to him can backfire, forcing him to abort his demand for Occupy Wall Street to clean up a remarkably clean park and disperse, so now he has turned more subtly to quieter legal machinations to chill the growing enthusiasm.

While most grownup officials in hundreds of communities simply let Occupy proceed without incident or interference -- as Milwaukee’s leaders and law officers did in a model of cooperation Oct. 15 – their reward was that the national media didn’t cover any of that. It focused instead on the few pockets where police were encouraged to step in, and camera happy right-wing officials fulminated.

Many civic leaders smartly recognized the control within the movement and the justification behind it (the justification being citizen outrage that the normal democratic process of balance and redress in courts or in elections has so clearly been blocked by big money). But there’s a reason so many of those entrenched forces dependent on financiers and lobbyists are ratcheting the issues up and condemning Occupy.

It’s called fear. For the first time in years, the breadth of Occupy can’t be dismissed as college students feeling their oats, or suddenly resurrected hippies, or newly agitated peace lovers of yore, or illegal immigrants or scruffy poor, etc. Occupy has become far deeper, broader and determined to act like citizens bringing their grievances forward as is their prerogative. The powers that be sense the danger when citizens wake up and get intractable about human rights.

Largely unneeded after working closely with Occupy Milwaukee Oct. 15, police and deputy sheriffs stood heavily on hand to watch a peaceful event of about 3,000 unfold.

America has a history of social movements that have brought changes to our institutions, laws and rules, and have created a deeper understanding of the underlying principles of our country.

Some of these movements were upsetting to the status quo. Some were actually illegal or seem dimwitted when they began. Entrenched politicians called them radicals and extremists. But they marched against slavery, for the right of women to vote, for civil rights, for something other than killing fields as a foreign policy, for the rights of every worker to bargain with management about working conditions.

All at one stage or another were condemned. But many endured, persisted and brought change because they worked sometimes slowly but always deeply on the conscience of America. A few succumbed to the pressures of violence. A few melted in the face of money waved in their face – many believe that is what co-opted the Tea Party – but some like Occupy refused to submit to any one side (and even now resist having their motives and policies too clearly distilled and reduced to cable sound-bite).

In doing so, they reshaped the democratic process so much that many citizens today falsely think we must have always shared these goals. When you tell them the founding fathers tolerated slavery, that most citizens once agreed with miscegenation and opposed women’s rights, they think you’re lying.

It’s inspiring to again see Americans concerned about what their country has become and take to the streets to restore decency in democracy. (It does seem to take every 70 years to finally wake us up.)

But there is a scary side. It comes from worrying whether we’ll ever believe again in the democratic process, the ballot box, changing the laws piece by slow piece, rather than explode in frustration. Given the suffering in neighborhoods, the families losing their homes (and in Wisconsin their full right to vote at the same time), their frail parents’ health care, their kids food and schooling, the gimmicks of big banks and big health providers, how every so-called social protection (like the laws on privacy, like the indecipherable fine print on policies) is twisted to prevent transparency rather than encourage it, there is clearly a conflict at work in the psyche of society.

Diverse faces lined up for Milwaukee's Occupy rally to confront Downtown banks.

It’s true that when emotion is involved, when Jekyll is at war with Hyde, there has to be great care taken in motivation and organizing. That’s why, in so many ways, the discipline within the Occupy movement is reassuring – particularly given an opposition that has proved willing to inflame into violence the national distress that motivates Occupy.

The danger was pointed out by Naomi Klein in the Nation magazine, reminding the protesters:

“The 1% loves a crisis. When people are panicked and desperate and no one seems to know what to do, that is the ideal time to push through their wish list of pro-corporate policies: privatizing education and social security, slashing public services, getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power.”

Within the Occupy movement, which deliberately lacks an official spokesman, some members don’t want the Democrat label wrapped too tightly to preserve independent action.

Some in the movement resist a clean lucid legislative agenda and organized manifesto while others are slowly embracing the sort of direction that leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka are positioned to provide.

It may be healthy that there is mutual wariness since one lesson of history is that moving in the same direction trumps the petty differences within the progress.

Voces de la Frontera's contingent brought their own signs.

Within the Democratic Party, some fear that Occupy could turn disruptive more than productive while others fear it will push the party to the left. Such tension may prove healthy. I know Republicans who long for the same sort of interchange and recognition of factions. It is a sign of political sickness that there is not.

An Occupy veteran who privately wanted to stiff-arm the Democratic Party now thinks differently. “Including the Democratic Party” – and other organized groups, such as unions – “will raise the profile of the movement,” he wrote, “and make it more difficult to be undermined “

However, it will take work to keep Occupy Wall Street positive and under control, because the provocateurs on the other side sometimes have police and government leaders to call on to make even boisterous opposition seem radically over the top. It often seems that the people screaming about agitators on the airwaves seem to be the real agitators.

That power on the right to make trouble and act as if the law is on their side could engulf Occupy in rage when its supporters consider the slick and self-righteous status quo on the other side.

But don’t count on it, right-wingers. And hang in there, 99%. History demonstrates how the open tent, the uncertain journey, is the right stuff of change.

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