The leaves have come off the Arab Spring, and now we see, perhaps, the colors of an American Fall. The people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Syria are still poor, still hungry, still imprisoned, tortured and dying despite their revolutions begun this spring. Now, in the fall, in numbers and diversity not seen since the Vietnam War era, American people are in the streets, railing against their economic overlords. Walking like Egyptians (in the phrase coined by supporters of Wisconsin public-employee unions). To what end?
For many, the first question that comes to mind is, Why now? (Although many of us have been asking, Why not five or ten years ago? Where have they been?) It is the same question asked about Tunisia, Egypt and the rest; their people had endured oppression and poverty for decades. What touched them off just now?
For the Arab countries and now for America, the answers offered by pundits and politicians have been unsatisfactory. Tunisia’s dictator did not fall because an oppressed merchant set himself on fire, any more than the sun came up this morning because a rooster crowed. Egypt did not rise because of its longing for democracy, any more than terrorists attack because they hate our freedom. People go into the streets when they are hungry, and they have lost hope.
So why Occupy Wall Street, and why now?
First, let’s back up and see where this thing came from. “Occupy Wall Street” is the name of the demonstration in the financial district of New York City that started on September 17. The impetus was apparently a call from a Canadian (!) group called Adbusters urging people to go to Wall Street to demand separation of money from politics. The idea went viral on the Internet and gathered adherents like lint.
The different folks who showed up at Zuccotti Park (predictably, named for a super-rich real-estate developer) had many different strokes. Some condemned the disparity between rich and poor; some the greed and corruption of the big corporations and investment banks; some, globalization; others, the lack of regulation of financial institutions., Some advocated taxing the rich, strengthening the social safety net, investing in infrastructure; and on, and on. ON the first Saturday there were about a thousand of them there, in what they insisted on calling “Liberty Park,” and 200 spent the night.
Then, instead of wilting like a neglected potted plant, this thing, whatever it is, began to grow and morph. Within a few weeks, 15,000 people at a time were marching in the streets of New York (several getting pepper-sprayed and hundreds arrested by police) while similar protests flared in cities across the country. Coordinated demonstrations around the world are scheduled for October 15.
Media coverage and commentary has gone from (as Jon Stewart put it on The Daily Show) “blackout to circus. They only have two settings,” he explained. Actually, he missed one: derision, almost universal in the initial coverage. The protesters’ outlandish costumes, grotesque headgear, disruptive behavior — they blocked traffic, for heavens’ sake — and lack of coherence drew scorn not only from Fox News and CNBC, but from more typically even-handed folk at CNN and NBC.
As the protests grew, and spread, and became too big to rail at, they started to garner respect, and before much longer a little bit of fear, from politicians and pundits. If they were not just a ragtag bunch of aging hippies, if they could not be put down by the NYPD, if the President of the United States was taking sympathetic note of them, then who in the hell are they?
And why did they appear on September 17? Five months earlier, in a piece (The Empty American Street) decrying the absence of events such as Occupy Wall Street, I wrote:
There’s much more that no one seems to care about. The progressing failure of industrial agriculture, the progressive poisoning of air, water, soil and food by companies too big to care, the advanced decay of our roads, bridges, water lines and power lines: all threaten our future, our very existence, yet none motivate a government, a political party, a civic club, or a person to take to the American Street?
Two months before that, in The People, Sir, Are a Great Beast, I warned that people will not suffer fools as leaders forever:
[T]here is an amount of misery, an extent to miserable times, a degree of deterioration, that, when reached, suddenly reminds people that there are more of them than there are of the elite, and propels them with breathtaking suddenness and efficacy into the streets and the palaces and the homes of the people who have been treading them down.
Whether it was the reaching of that point that caused the ignition on Wall Street on September 17 remains to be seen. What this movement is, and where it is taking us, remains to be seen. But the possibility that it presages a great American fall should not be discounted casually, and certainly not contemptuously.
People go into the streets when they are hungry, and they have lost hope. Famine may not yet be abroad in America, but the people occupying Wall Street — the unemployed, the underemployed, the under-water homeowners and the homeless — are standing very close to hunger, and very far from hope.