A Zuccotti Park Education

On October 2 a few of the participants of Occupy Wall Street invited me to speak to the protesters in Zuccotti Park, a little below Wall Street, right next to the building Merrill Lynch once inhabited. Some of my friends were concerned. Seven hundred people were arrested during the protest march the day before. Others wondered why I’d lend myself to this seemingly ragtag group. It took little—in fact, no—courage. Wall Street excess was the principal cause of the current economic strife. Essentially, the protestors are right. And what they are seeking is information, not more slogans.

There was no need at all to worry. Joe Stiglitz, the Nobel laureate economist, and I did a “teach-in” together at Zuccotti Park. It was two Sundays ago now. We were introduced to the echo chamber many are now familiar with. The police prohibit the use of microphones or electrical amplification, so those listening repeated each phrase of ours loudly so that all can hear. You speak in half sentences, but it forces you to encapsulate your thoughts. What struck me most was how eager and attentive the audience was, and how courteous. Somewhere between 75 and 125 people, I’d say, listening to Joe and me. I spoke later to what Occupy Wall Street calls its General Assembly. That group was much larger—several hundred people, at least— and phrases were repeated loudly and twice. In the dark, it was stirring.

Since the beginning of last week, the shift in the attitude of the press toward Occupy Wall Street—and the support across the country the movement is suddenly drawing—is remarkable. The occupation started on September 17 and grew from the beginning. But since two Sundays ago, unions have joined a large and boisterous march and few if any hesitate any longer to visit Zuccotti Park. Friends now bring their children. The press, almost uniformly derisive during the initial weeks, shows signs of understanding that the group touches a deep-seated anger and confusion in America. President Obama had to respond to a question about it last week, and said he understood the concerns. Occupy Wall Street is truly national—indeed international. Journalists in Australia and Switzerland have called me for interviews. I am sure others are receiving many such calls.

How could this have happened? Two reasons. The mostly young people who are driving the movement are very well-intentioned. They are almost all well-behaved. Many are highly-educated. They want to learn. And they perceive profound injustice in the land. The crisis they see is not just economic. It is about fairness and democracy. How could one blame those in their twenties for frustration when they can’t get a job with youth unemployment rates so high while Wall Street doles out enormous bonuses? How can one explain bank bailouts while politicians are talking about cutting Social Security and Medicare? Surely, it makes no sense that poverty is continuing to rise two years after economists and politicians tell us the recession over—and just this week we find out that average incomes are still falling—dramatically. Is this fair?

Thirty years ago, the wealthiest 1 percent of the population earned less than ten percent of national income; today they control nearly 20 percent of national income, while at the same time paying far lower income and capital gains tax rates then they did then. That leaves the other 99 percent, as the protesters now call themselves. Has the rise of income for the top 1 percent made America a better place, as they often argue? Why should the other 99 percent be anything but angry when they hear such claims when wages sag and unemployment stays high?

Most unusual is the nature of the organization. As a group, they are determined not to have leaders, only “facilitators.” No one seeks to dominate or is allowed to dominate. They like especially the word horizontal. No hierarchies here. All of this is part of their determination to be inclusive. 

Many observers are frustrated that they do not seem to have a clearer agenda or to make specific demands. But they have issued a set of principles or assertions. Among them, “They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage,” and “They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.” There are some two dozen such assertions they unanimously approved on September 29 and they say it is not a complete list of the concerns of those among them. They are determined, as I say, to be inclusive. But they are concerned that a specific agenda or a list of demands may shut people out or misrepresent too many.

Over this past weekend, I and others met with a few of their representatives privately. Several of them have advanced degrees. What struck me immediately is how thoughtful they are. They want to make a different kind of protest. Time and again, they make clear their devotion to this principle of inclusiveness and horizontal organization. And they are right now gathering strength around the world. There is no pressing reason for them to come up with a formal agenda. They have voice. Even Washington has to listen.

I also think it is likely their direct influence on the nation’s lawmakers and the media is underestimated. Senators talk about a millionaires’ tax. Morning Joe talks about whether banks should be broken up or nationalized. Nancy Pelosi does not fear talking on national television about the protestors in complimentary ways. There is now a new institution to answer to, and its essence is its “non-institutionality.”

But soon it will get cold in Zuccotti Park. The protesters may also face the more practical problems of sit-ins: frictions with the police that could escalate, infiltrators from the outside, a loss of control in general. Eventually they will have to make tougher decisions. They seem to know this.

I think they want to go wherever they perceive serious injustice and bring attention to the matter. If it is unfair foreclosures, they may well be there. Shedding light on the matter may be enough. But at some point, at the least, they will probably have to develop specific demands, or perhaps a set of desired reforms. There is a lot to do in America: a true jobs policy, more serious regulation of Wall Street, mortgage relief, tax increases (eventually), a truly reformed health system, a meaningful energy policy, more equal educational possibilities, and student loan relief.

They haven’t spelled out a list such as this one for the reasons I mention above. But so much is changing so fast, this too could change. The protesters are eager to hear from many people on the issues and policy options facing the nation. I will go back down to do another teach-in or two. I feel lucky to be witnessing this. It is one of the exciting social experiments of our time. And it shows how our conventional institution—Congress, think tanks, the media—did not reach the deep concerns of the American people. It shows that our democracy has been stunted. It took this group of mostly young people with an empathic vision about American suffering to build an institution spontaneously that expresses the grievances and concerns of what must be the majority of Americans.