Opinion – Berlin, November 22, 2011 - What began as a small gathering of anarchists, bored youngsters, and aging hippies in early September has grown into a worldwide protest movement against everything but the redistribution of wealth: Occupy Wall Street. While it is true that the United States has seen growing social inequalities, falling wages, and a transformation into an active welfare state since the 1980s, this is not a conspiracy of government and Wall Street. It is rather a result of Main Street’s failure to organize effectively and engage the political sphere. After decades of low voter turnout, people suddenly realize that they have no say in decisions. But hey: if you don’t vote, don’t complain about the outcomes! The American system in particular offers numerous opportunities to participate, intervene or contact one’s representative and thus get heard in the decision making process.
While the basic idea of the Occupy Wall Street movement might in some respects be legitimate (working five jobs to make ends meet is not the real deal; government bailouts for banks and corporations must not become the rule), however, the OWS folks will not achieve much with their current modus operandi. First of all, a relative majority of Americans (45% in a recent Public Policy Polling poll) opposes the movement, so claiming to be “the 99%” is pretty misleading. Moreover, according to Gallup, more than six in ten Americans do not really know what OWS is all about, and hence have no idea what they should think about it. The most interesting fact of these polls, however, is that Democrats are overrepresented in the samples, so basically they are not more supportive of the movement than Republicans.
But why is the Occupy movement losing its support? The most obvious answer is that it has never had much support to begin with and it was inflated by early media coverage. Thanks to more objective reporting on the movement, including social and economic explanations behind the rise of the movement, many Americans may have made up their mind and now tell pollsters what they (do not) like about OWS. A second answer might be last week’s unsuccessful “Day of Action”, when protesters tried to literally “Occupy Wall Street”, but in fact were not even able to get near the New York Stock Exchange. This day has shown that the movement has few clues when it comes to achieving or explaining what they are actually protesting for. While asking to stop government-financed bank bailouts, they also demand student loans and private consumer debts to be bailed out. Anyone else see a contradiction here?! A second point is their protest against banks “taking away homes”. Apparently the protesters forget that many of the so-called 99% had gratefully taken (risky) loans to buy homes, even though they had (or should have) realized that they could hardly repay them. Furthermore, even though they claim to be hit hardest by the current economic situation, most of the protesters actually do have a job and rather prefer to redistribute the wealth in favor of “poor people”, to which they count themselves.
Another important aspect not to be overlooked is that the Occupy Movement is a rather heterogeneous group, of which OWS is only one part and not a national phenomenon. In New York City people might call for tougher regulation of Wall Street, but in other cities across the U.S., protestors have their own agenda, tailored to their specific regional problems: Occupy Oakland focuses more on the perceived unfair treatment of port workers, whereas the more recent “Occupy Infrastructure” organizes itself around the demand of renewing infrastructure in their counties, thereby creating (much-needed) jobs.
Even though the United States has some serious economic – and maybe political – problems, camping and protesting in private-public-spaces, such as Zuccotti Park, does not change much. If the Occupy Wall Street movement actually wanted to change something about “corporate greed”, economic inequality or the excess of banks, they should participate in the political process, rather than continue to bash those who work hard. The 2012 elections might be a worthy start.
Gerrit Kettel is a graduate student at Freie University Berlin and he is involved on the YTCA Berlin Committee.