I’ve been hesitant to comment on the Occupy Wall Street movement, mainly because I haven’t quite figured out how I feel about it. It’s provocative. It’s inspiring. It’s annoying. It’s many things wrapped up in one and nothing in particular.
On the one hand, I feel I understand and can relate to the underlying message of the movement. Wall Street got greedy, banks got bailouts and Main Street got the shaft.
The great majority suffered the consequences of the privileged minority. The middle class is left struggling in uncertain times with sky-high unemployment, paying more in taxes than their wealthy counterparts and shrinking into oblivion.
The protesters have every right to be mad. They have every right to take to the streets and demand the media and politicians hear their voices and pay attention to their cause. On all of this, I agree.
But every movement needs to bring more to the table than just a message of discontent. It needs a solution as well.
This is where some in the media and some in politics have intervened, putting their own spin on the movement’s demands and needs, while many protesting on the streets have declined to be singularly joined to a specific resolution.
The Occupy Phoenix movement brought together a diverse group of protesters, some angry with Wall Street, some angry at anti-immigration policies, some angry at the privatization of prisons, some angry at the Tea Party, and some angry with the entire movement. It was a healthy show of democracy and the First Amendment in action, but I fear this is where it will end… on the streets.
While change cannot happen without the type of motivational, grassroots effort OWS enjoins, it also cannot happen through protests alone. If the silent majority, otherwise known as the 99%, want to wrestle control from the lobbyists and the 1% of America that occupies the vast majority of political and monetary power in this country, it must move from the streets to the ballot box.
In order to accomplish this, OWS should reach out to conservatives, many of whom agree with the overarching concerns and message of the movement. However, if OWS wishes to expand its message and its base and institute change, it needs to recognize where its message conflicts with its methods.
On a recent The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, the OWS movement was comically portrayed through the eyes of Manhattan business owners who have complained about the protesters using and destroying restroom facilities without patronizing the store and in some cases, driving other patrons away. The humor was at the expense of the protesters and highlighted the disregard some have shown to those trying to make a living in the wake of an uprising. This type of behavior has turned away some who would otherwise support the movement.
Another distressing component is the arrests of those assembled in parks. Demonstrators speak of peaceful protesters carried away without cause while failing to address the reasoning behind the arrests.
Here in Phoenix, city parks close at designated times. Some, including Margaret T. Hance Park, the site of a recent gathering, are located in the middle of neighborhoods with properties backing to the park. All night demonstrations are not just against park rules but also infuriating for residents who have the right to request peace and quiet.
Purposefully getting arrested doesn’t always send a positive message and can make officers look bad. In this case, I don’t think protesters wish to come down on law enforcement, or at least I would hope that’s not the case. Public safety workers have been demonized by the Tea Party as leeches with cushy pensions and overly generous benefits all while many have undergone pay, benefit and staff cuts.
Many first responders have the same frustrations as the protesters, but they don’t condone knowingly breaking the law in order to prove a point. And let’s be honest, the arrests aren’t really adding to the credibility of the protesters but rather distracting from the message.
The breakdown of our political system, the undue influences of lobbyists and corporate donors should concern all citizens. But America is still a democracy, and if we truly wish to reform the system, we must start by getting involved in the process.
While marching through the streets and occupying the nation’s parks is an effective way to garner publicity, organizers and protesters should consider how to transform the message into action. A good first step would include setting up voter registration booths to promote ongoing political participation. Another would be to use the sit-ins as a way to educate current and future voters on the issues of the day and the names and voting records of city, state and national politicians. Demonstrators should be encouraged to stay involved by actively engaging in campaigns, attending board meetings, reading newspapers and responding to media stories.
The OWS movement has the nation’s attention, but if it wishes to affect change, it must do more than call attention to the problem. It must act. It must move beyond the parks and to the school boards, the state legislatures and Congress. The majority has been silent for too long. Now that they’ve found their voice, let’s hope they follow it with action.