Saturday, September 22, 2012

Looking back on Occupy Wall Street

This week marks the one year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street and I wanted to share some brief reflections on the movement.

I knew that this was a polarizing issue and wanted to judge things for myself so last year I visited three different protest camps within the movement to talk to people about why they participated. As expected, what I saw was different from the way others painted the movement. The American left naively portrayed the protests as noble, courageous and reasonable while the right skewed what the protesters stood for.

As can be expected, I came out in opposition to the protests. The version portrayed by the political right was closer to my perception, but still inaccurate. Conservative commentators said the protesters just wanted free services and money from the government. There were those types, but there were plenty of people that felt they were being screwed over by corporate influence on the government and just wanted it to stop. Right or wrong, that's not the same as wanting a handout. None of the camps I went to were love-fests for the Democrats either.

There were some legitimate complaints raised by the protesters at the beginning. The bank bailouts were an early central issue and I was on the same side as the protesters. The calls to end the Federal Reserve or burden it with more government oversight were dead on too.

There were also a lot of young people with college tuition debt and my heart goes out to them. They followed the path recommended to them by the public education system, that if they graduate from college with any degree that they will find a good paying job and be better off. Now we have a slew of young people with worthless degrees and crushing debt while the available job openings require specific skills no one has. That's a legitimate complaint and I hope it taught them to question the wisdom of government authorities.

Despite those reasonable complaints, the movement was started by anti-capitalist lawbreakers and that element proved to be a liability. The whole premise was to trespass by camping out in public parks until the police pull them out. The Marxists always spoke up and declared the group wanted to end capitalism, harvest the rich and end the concept of property rights.

The lack of property rights did a lot of damage to the movement. Thieves, rapists and parasites infiltrated their camps and caused lots of internal damage, but without a formal ability to restrict access the serious protesters had few options to deal with them.

Wikipedia gives the protests a body count of 32 deaths. Vandalism and violence were common, but these elements were usually excused by moderate liberal supporters who projected their own values on the movement to the point of being naive and blind. Actions like shutting down West Coast ports only make sense if your goal is to destroy. The alliance between progressives, anarchists and socialists always forces moderates to defend bomb-throwers or break away.

They failed to back up one of their central claims with evidence, that the top 1 percent of income earners have shaped policies to suit their own needs at the expense of everyone else. Their popular claim that the top 1 percent pays a lower federal income tax rate than the middle class is completely false, even when capital gains and dividends are included as income.

Physically, the Occupy protests were reckless frat parties with obnoxious drumming as a heartbeat. When the weather started getting cold I saw them take on the mood of the Donner Party, but it's hard to deny that some of the original appeal was to have fun with free-spirited people.

Towards the end the focus of the protests seemed to be on itself. Occupy protests were suddenly about the right to camp overnight in public parks without permits. This was mischaracterized as a free speech issue and the villains turned from rich bankers and Wall Street executives to middle class unionized police officers.

Ultimately, The Occupy protests were a magic mirror that allowed people to see what they wanted. Conservatives saw lazy, selfish leeches; Anarchists and socialists saw a popular uprising that they hoped would crush capitalism as predicted by Marx; and progressives saw an enthusiastic movement that could rival the Tea Party and advance the cause of the Democratic Party. None of these were completely true, but they all had true elements.


  1. An even handed piece. There were some Occupy folks at the Common Ground Fair this weekend. It was interesting that one 50-ish guy advocated reverse taxation (redistribution), but then a 20-ish guy said he didn't think govt could do anything for people and instead advocated self-suffiency (growing own food, etc.) and intentional community. I don't know if these two strands are representative, or if it shows an internal division (I don't have any experience with Occupy), but it does seem like there's dissonance between localism and federal solutions.

  2. That's a good point. The different factions never reached anything close to a consensus. The only real message to emerge was that the protesters didn't like the world the way it is now.