What is Occupy? According to the Occupy Wall Street Web site, "We are our demands. #OWS is conversation, organization, and action focused on ending the tyranny of the 1%. On Saturday we marched in solidarity against corrupt banking systems, against war, and against foreclosure." To Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, the protests transcend "left vs. right," despite the efforts of right-wing provocateurs: Instead, it is "a populist and wholly non-partisan protest against bailouts, theft, insider trading, self-dealing, regulatory capture and the market-perverting effect of the Too-Big-To-Fail banks." Justin Elliott of Salon writes that you can't understand the movement without also understanding its "radically decentralized structure."
One thing that's clear is that the various Occupy protests have showcased the militarization of law enforcement, something that has long troubled my older cop friends. Billions of your tax dollars have gone into equipping a nationwide paramilitary force to protect the "homeland" from terrorists — and conveniently from citizens who might be seeking to change the status quo, even through peaceful assembly. A friend emailed me an evocative photo (above, taken by Mauro Whiteman for the Downtown Devil) from Occupy Phoenix showing a phalanx of robocop-looking PPD officers confronting sitting demonstrators. Cal Lash, a distinguished retired officer and assistant to two chiefs of police, was among those deeply troubled. We all should be.
I have been skeptical of Occupy because I remember the march in Phoenix a few years back that attracted some 100,000 to protest draconian immigration laws. The bigots and haters on the right were afraid. Yet what was the outcome: SB 1070 and election after election of more ignorant extremists. Tens of thousands more demonstrated against the hypocritical law, really aimed at voter suppression, in 2010. The result? The defeat of Terry Goddard, who would have made the best governor in Arizona history.
Despite all the sentimentality about Occupy by smart, left-leaning people, the movement hasn't answered The Question. It is posed to Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness by Sean Connery's character, Malone, in The Untouchables:
Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I'm saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they're not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
Ness: I want to get Capone! I don't know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I'm offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Are Occupy's protesters prepared to go the distance, something that didn't happen with Cindy Sheehan's movement or the large Wisconsin protests against Scott Walker? And more importantly, are Americans who are sympathetic but sitting aside willing?
What are you prepared to do? Are you prepared to fill up the jails, over and over, as the civil rights movement did? Are you prepared to suffer the rain of police batons and pepper spray, over and over, until you find a "Bull" Conner to make the whole world watch? Are you prepared to move your money from big banks? To patronize only locally owned small businesses? To give up your car? See, it starts to hurt. Are you prepared to vote and work hard on the ground to reverse the quiet coup that has taken away our government?
Most of all, I am skeptical of the romantic notion that Occupy can succeed without real leaders, who can find the language to shake Americans out of their torpor. The civil rights movement didn't just have Martin Luther King Jr. It had a host of such leaders, including Fred Shuttlesworth, who passed away at the same time as Steve Jobs, so that a new generation doesn't even know who he was. The American Revolution was blessed with Washington, Adams, Franklin, Jefferson, on and on. The usual grassroots are easily crushed under jackboots. Or, in the case today, under popular ignorance, short attention spans and Lindsay Lohan's latest arrest (watch that key word send my pageviews off the charts). We have Elizabeth Warren. That's a start. President Hoover is a lost cause (a product of the Honolulu, not the Chicago, way), and any of his tacks to "the left" are suspect. And Occupy will need a clear platform (Taibbi makes a good start).
Make no mistake: Occupy is a natural outgrowth of America's decline, rising inequality, loss of opportunity and fair play, lack of justice for all. It is part-and-parcel of the Great Disruption. And we will see more such events.
At some point, we may be in Abraham Lincoln territory: "Any people anywhere, being inclined and having the power, have the right to rise up, and shake off the existing government, and form a new one that suits them better. This is a most valuable — a most sacred right — a right, which we hope and believe, is to liberate the world."
It is dangerous terrain, for with the exception of the American experience, real revolutions rarely turn out well (the hopeful Western blather about the "Arab Spring" has been especially grating; for example, the military has always ruled post-British Empire Egypt — it did under Mubarak and it does now). Still, something is coming. Paul Krugman captured part of the motive force in one of his best columns:
Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe realize, deep down, how morally indefensible their position is. They’re not John Galt; they’re not even Steve Jobs. They’re people who got rich by peddling complex financial schemes that, far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens.