Column, 604 words

Dispatch from Occupy Wall Street

Resourceful young people have lit our pathway out of the morass.

William A. Collins

Time to offer
Heartfelt thanks;
To those bold youth
Who fight the banks.

America needs a new phenomenon every once in a while. Now it has one: Occupy Wall Street.

At first glance it doesn’t look like much. The mode of dress at Liberty Plaza (the patch of green and concrete the authorities still call Zuccotti Park and the occupiers want everyone to call Liberty Square) is one you pray that your own kids won’t adopt. But their laser-like focus on civic morality is an intellectual mode that you pray that they will.

Masters of the Universe, Unite! An OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.Even before entering that now-famous space, it’s clear that something revolutionary is going on. You can tell by the armada of police. Such a vast show of force only appears when corporate and political elites fathom that dangerous ideas have somehow gotten loose and are infecting innocent passers-by.

Scarier yet, the press finally showed up. No, not the local apologists for plutocracy like The New York Times, which are financially dependent on the banking moguls for advertising revenue. Much worse; magazines and foreign media are wading in, sifting the intellectual sea like so many waving corals, screening for bits of rebellious policy reform.

Talk of such reform constantly swirls through the park, though not as part of any manifesto. The largely faceless organizers had the wit to avoid specific demands lest they be too easily pigeonholed. Instead they cite a mile-long list of corporate abuses and let the visitor pick his or her own favorites. The overall global theme is one that rings simple and true: The big banks are running the country (into the ground).

A few crucial elements have made this protest go viral. First is the shift in focus from war to those banks. Other than military families, veterans, and peace activists, no one cares much about wars anymore. Since the draft is gone, most Americans are no longer engaged. Plus, the Pentagon has largely succeeded in concealing most of the deaths and dismemberments from the public.

Banks, however, resonate. Millions of us have a mortgage story. Millions more have an unemployment story. And for the kids, unpayable student loans dominate. Banks have once again, as in the 1920s, become the common enemy.

Then there are the lessons of this year’s Arab Spring. It illustrated how occupying a public place and not letting go, even under orders from the authorities, could serve as a winning technique.

Unlike one-day marches that the press and government cheerfully ignore, encampments go on. Sooner or later even The Washington Post has to admit that the occupiers are not simply hippies, and elected officials have to explain why things are so bad. The kids have figured all this out.

But what’s next? Winter is coming — can they keep it up? Can all those occupations that have sprung up in cold climates sustain this action in the snow? Will progressive congressional challengers to Wall Street-funded politicians be able to gain traction? Will timid incumbent Democrats develop some backbone? Or will they face primary challenges?

Big obstacles remain. The banks have the money for a spirited defense, and President Barack Obama apparently has no spine. So how does this outburst of public outrage get translated into serious political reform? It’s not easy.

The goals aren’t as clear as they were in Egypt. Elections need to be won. Money needs to be raised. Reform candidates need to be identified and supported.

Nonetheless, even if reform fails and economic repression finishes sweeping our land, we will still owe a debt to the resourceful young people who have at least lit our pathway out of the morass.

OtherWords columnist William A. Collins is a former state representative, former mayor of Norwalk, Connecticut, and a member of Veterans For Peace's national board. otherwords.org