Saturday, October 15, 2011


Darkness falls on Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan.
photo: Ove Overmyer/The Voice Reporter
If anything, OWS has changed the national debate  

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. What is happening in America right now is not a protest—it’s an occupation. On October 4, I was told by many “occupiers” in Zuccotti Park that rebellions don’t have specific demands.

This year we have witnessed a global wave of social and political turmoil and instability, with masses of people pouring into the real and virtual streets. While these actions have no specific theme, they express in different ways the serious concerns of the world’s working and middle classes about their prospects in the face of the growing concentration of power among economic, financial and political elites.

Citizens like never before are publicly speaking to each other and listening. Global news organizations and mainstream media have no choice but to report on this movement--a national conversation has been started much to the dismay of Wall Street executives and certain conservative politicians. Because of OWS, we are finally talking about what really matters to the folks who live on Main Street.

“This occupation is first about participation,” said a 29 year old unemployed bank teller as he frantically hammered away on his laptop in Zuccotti Park near that big orange sculpture thing-a-ma-jigy. That being said, with the advent of organized labor now backing the Occupy Wall Street movement, the direction of this effort will certainly increase it's global visibility and give it more credibility.

Just a few short weeks ago, the political narrative of deficit reduction, less spending and getting rid of big government went completely unchecked. The House GOP agenda, in its effort to try and pass bills to problems that don’t really exist-- are pushing bills like no federal funding for abortion and voter integrity laws-- while the 99 percent of Americans have been screaming, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” The GOP is only interested in rallying its base and keeping Obama from being re-elected-- these are all just political calisthenics-- they could care less about actual governing and improving American life for the middle-class.

Public spaces are vital to democracy

In the great civil protests the year has seen thus far, there’s at least one common element: ample public space for the peaceful protesters to gather. These spaces, from Tahir square in Egypt to the Capitol building in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, give citizens an integral venue to gather and be heard.

It is a hallmark of a strong democracy when occupying such physical public spaces like city squares or government capitals is tolerated-- or better yet, encouraged. In a way, Egyptians, Tunisians, and now Yemenis, Bahrainis, Libyans, and so on, are fighting for the right to peacefully occupy these public squares. More often than not it’s been dangerous for civil protesters to do so-- and in some cases they’ve been cleared out with gunfire and other violent means. But occupying a presumably public space-- taking it back for the people-- is a symbolic gesture that says, "You better take us seriously." The occupation on September 17 was no different-- people chanting, praying, and channeling their anger peacefully.

NYC Solidarity March to Foley Square
OWS activist looking for followers for his
social networking site on Oct. 5, 2011.
photo: Ove Overmyer
The right to occupy is the most patriotic thing I know.  To show discontent and engage our peers and our government on issues of the day with the hope of a better understanding of our complex society defines true democracy.

Labor unions and OWS

Over the past several decades, America’s unions have been relentlessly attacked. The Koch Brothers, Gov. Scott Walker and Tea Party folks thought earlier this year they could run us off the cliff altogether. That didn’t happen, even though the master plan was in full swing. The thought is, if you eliminate labor’s role in democratic politics, it can only give rise to the conservatives and Tea Party ideals that want to privatize every public service under the sun. What better way to keep your political funding streams intact than to offer big contracts to the same people who put you in office?

However, the workers’ revolt in Wisconsin and Ohio showed that wasn’t about to happen—and what we’re seeing now in Manhattan and elsewhere is further proof that labor is retooling its ambitions, sharpening its message and getting ready to move the country forward. I believe labor folks are emboldened by the participatory assembly in Zuccotti Park and Liberty Park. Average folks, the 99 per centers, now have something to identify with—a common cause if you will.

The occupation movement here in the United States was jump-started in 2011 by public employees in Madison, Wisconsin when they occupied the capital and that has given labor the green light to do more, to become more active, more militant, and take back ownership of defining exactly who we are and what we do. For far too long, labor leaders in the United States have been less than proactive getting our message to the average guy on the street. It’s about time we frame the debate in our own words.  Interestingly enough, it took OWS one month to accomplish what organized labor has been trying to do for decades.

Now that the majority of labor unions endorse OWS, you will see this movement slowly evolve-- and give voice to middle-class working Americans who are suffering like never before.

15,000 people fill Foley Square

15,000 marchers fill Foley Square on October 5, 2011 in support of OWS.
photo: Ove Overmyer/The Voice Reporter
What we saw on Wednesday, Oct. 5, when 15,000 people filled Foley Square before marching en masse to Liberty Square, was the unions’ first visible show of solidarity with the occupation, and it really mattered. For the first time since September 17, I really felt that I was witnessing history in the making. This is the beginning of a long road back to recovery-- or at least, this moment I was sharing with thousands of other disenfranchised Americans could be viewed as a tipping point. Alongside the thousands of students and teachers who engaged in a citywide walkout that afternoon, our collective voices added power to the call resonating across the nation that big finance and big politics need to gear up for a big change.

Cementing that support, two days later AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka visited Liberty Square where he stated his support and his union federation’s unanimous decision to back Occupy Wall Street. Feeling betrayed by free trade agreements that hobbled domestic manufacturing under Democrat Bill Clinton and a false promise to allow workers to unionize via “card check” under Obama’s watch, organized labor has been on the ropes; the assault on pensions and collective bargaining has diminished our potency-- but that is all about to change. History has shown that the arc of justice does bend toward equality.

What Trumka’s endorsement of the occupation means is that unions, with millions of members and a formidable political apparatus, now have the coalition allies to take a lead role to facilitate policy change all in an effort to get income disparity, tax reform and unemployment under control.

A better question: where we ain't goin' to go

The occupation, which has now spread to hundreds of cities across America, grew from the desire to reshape a criminal and bankrupt financial-political landscape that favors the 1 percent over the rest of us. Where precisely is this movement going? Perhaps that isn’t as important as the question about where it’s not going-- no one will completely define this movement nor should they.  That's what really gets under the skin of the Wall Street CEO's, corporate elites and the media conglomerates they own, including FOX news.

We’re not going to settle for one reform demand that can be conceded later down the road.  Those who oppose the occupation would then have the argument and opportunity to shut us down-- no one demand can meet the goals that have been set by this diverse group that is trying to readjust the balance of power in this country. This effort will focus on the welfare of the people, and not the accumulation of wealth and profit for those who are insulated from any financial harm, regardless of how the economy is doing.

The other place we’re not going is electoral politics, weighed down into waiting for the next election when everything will be just fine. For now, we’re going to keep engaging in direct action, tell our stories, continue to organize and march; again, it’s all about the "act of occupation."

Labor’s traditional power is mobilizing bodies in the street and at the ballot box. How much they’re engaging in support for this movement-- and how much they’re becoming part of it-- have yet to be measured. Much has been accomplished in a very short period of time and only time will tell if this movement bares any fruit.  I say it will.

Today is October 15. It is being called a global day of revolution. One that will, it appears, be televised. Stay tuned.

-Commentary by Ove Overmyer
This commentary is the expressed written opinion of the author only and does not reflect the views of CSEA as an organization.

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