Occupy Wall Street Calls Attention To Economic Instability

BY JULIE DAHLGARD — Like Rent brings La bohème into the twentieth century, the Occupy movement brings Les Misérables into the twenty-first century. The first scene of this new musical would open with thousands of people joining the young protagonist, Jean Valjean in a New York park to protest a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

In the new musical, the same feeling of discontent comprising of the gap between rich and poor, leaders with an inordinate amount of power, and a financial crisis created the instability boil over just as they boiled over into the French Revolution and later rebellions like the June Rebellion of 1832 that Valjean fought in. The words “June Rebellion” are simply replaced in the script with “Occupy Wall Street,” but the story is the same. Although it appeared to other characters that the Les Mis Jean Valjean made a success of his life after his criminal past, he empathetically fights with the June Rebellion, an anti-monarchy, student led uprising in a time of similar economic difficulties occurring over three decades after the French Revolution. Our Occupy Valjean pitches his tent in Zuccotti Park, engages in the Occupy community activities, and braces for a cold winter. The final scene closes on a smoky stage, silencing the fight, but the audience is left to wonder which side wins.

Is this protest an uprising against a financial monarchy with a hope of economic liberty, equality, and fraternity? Whether the protest is successful or not, the revolution will not only be televised, but streamed, posted, and tweeted. Les Misérables is one of the few accounts of the unsuccessful 1832 rebellion, but the Occupy Together website follows protesters occupying public areas in the US and abroad. Mother Jones presents this map showing over 462 Occupy locations and over 3200 arrests as of November 20, 2011. The New York Times has a comprehensive portal for the movement. A brief history of the movement is summarized in this Visual Economics infographic. With the stage built, the next step is to understand the brief history of the Occupy protest.

The idea formed a few months ago. Adbusters used social media to catalyze the economic zeitgeist into a protest. The Occupy Movement is a cry for a new kind of national economic security. This movement includes protests, tweets, community gardens, marches, and even a Banksy-backed call for G20 leaders to impose a Robin Hood tax. The Occupy protesters assemble in public places and spread the message not only with their words, but through their art. Whether you consider it the design of dissent or propaganda, the artwork of the movement is persuasive, personal, angry, and hopeful.

This poster is by “Eric”

Occupy Wall Street however, turned down a poster submitted by Shepard Fairey for being too visually similar Fairey’s Obama Hope poster thus creating an unwanted impression of a tie between Occupy and President Obama’s politics. This protest is something other than politics as usual.

The Occupy art sends a broad message of discontent supported by specific economic problems. The protesters are upset that the wealth gap grow larger and that increasing gap threatens our economic security. “If there’s a core message to the Occupier movement it’s that the increasing concentration of income and wealth poses a grave danger to our democracy.” The taxpayers earnings in the top 1% of income, which is an income of approximately $1.14 million and above control 20% of the U.S. national wealth.

In his Vanity Fair article, Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%, Joseph E. Stiglitz explains the dangers of increasing income gap through decreasing opportunity and productivity, economic inefficiencies created by tax cuts for the wealthy, and spending cutbacks harm investment in infrastructure. “While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall.” Stiglitz goes on to say that “The top 1 percent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles, but there is one thing that money doesn’t seem to have bought: an understanding that their fate is bound up with how the other 99 percent live. Throughout history, this is something that the top 1 percent eventually do learn. Too late.” Marie Antoinette learned too late that her fate was tied to all French people.

To continue to spread their message that economic instability threatens our nation security, some protesters legally challenge their evictions from the public spaces. Protesters in many cities have secured an affirmative and acknowledged right to stay in public areas based on the right of free speech and assembly given by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

However, judges have viewed the protester’s first amendment rights differently. A judge in New York ruled the Occupy Wall Street protesters in Zuccotti Park could return after the clean up, but could not live in the park once they returned. The weather in New York is currently in the fifties with some sunny and some chance of showers, but without tents, winter will be challenging.

In Toronto, Canada, protesters found even less judicial support. “Ontario Superior Court Justice David Brown upheld the city’s trespass bylaw on Monday. Toronto Mayor Rob Ford says he expects the protesters to get out of the park immediately.” Similarly, police evicted all but one protester, who was up a tree, in a second raid of Occupy Oakland. A historical note is worth mentioning. Trees in Northern California usually protect protesters in long term protests.

Occupy protestors in Charlottesville, VA, fared better and gained support from their local Congressman to continue their protest. A judge in Ft. Myers, Florida also allowed the protesters to continue their protest.

Ralph Nader supports the Occupy movement and calls for politicians to not kick protesters OUT of public spaces, but to let the protesters IN to power. “It has been said repeatedly that the Occupy Wall Street movement has no specific agenda. Look at their signs and banners. It is obvious; they want IN. They no longer want to be excluded, disrespected, unemployed, defrauded, impoverished, betrayed and in big and small ways OUT.”

Those against the movement see it not as a constitutionally protected protest, but as blight. As the protesters join the homeless in parks, there are bound to be problems, but many of the legally important problems stem from the police interactions with protesters. Just recently, the protests have moved into universities as concern over student debt adds to the economic uncertainty. Campus police pepper-sprayed students during a peaceful protest at U.C. Davis. Those officers were suspended and criticized as using unnecessary force and video of the spraying went viral. Philip Kennicott reports the UC Davis incident in the Washington Post: “It looks as though he’s spraying weeds in the garden or coating the oven with caustic cleanser. It’s not just the casual, dispassionate manner in which the University of California at Davis police officer pepper-sprays a line of passive students sitting on the ground. It’s the way the can becomes merely a tool, an implement that diminishes the humanity of the students and widens a terrifying gulf between the police and the people whom they are entrusted to protect.”

Similarly, in her article ‘Occupy Wall Street’ UC Davis protests escalate after pepper spray use sparks anger, Melissa Bell asks “What does the social contract say about nonviolent protest, and what is the role of police in a democratic society?” Do the protesters need to start a violent revolution to make their point?

Reversing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy and criminally prosecuting individuals responsible for the recent financial crisis would be a good step towards closing the wealth gap and answering the criticisms voiced by the Occupy protest. The news articles allude to historic reasons for revolution, but never come out and say directly, “Hey, isn’t anger over an economic disparity what started the French Revolution?” “Isn’t economic stability something we see in prosperous democratic nations and economic instability what we see in less democratic nations?” We may forget that democracy is fragile or malleable with America’s democratic success for over 200 years, but what’s so funny ’bout liberty, equality, and fraternity?

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