The ongoing Occupy Wall Street protest in New York and its spinoffs, such as Occupy OKC, are part of a broader movement expressing general frustration and even outrage with growing wealth disparity and a lack of economic justice in this country.
The movement’s strength, of course, is just what the establishment pundits and media claim is its weakness, which is a decentralized, inclusive and local focus. It seems messy and without a precise frame but any movement that can really challenge the status quo will be diametrically opposite in shape and tone to what it challenges.
Its historical roots are protests in late nineteenth-century Gilded Age, which came after similar, growing wealth disparity between the wealthy and the middle-class, and protests in the 1930s in the Great Depression era, which led to worker protections and Social Security.
In an interview with Salon.com, Gary Gerstle, a professor at Vanderbilt who studies social movements, noted that the current Gilded Age has, at least until now, lacked protests. According to Gerstle:
The major difference between this Gilded Age and the last one is the relative absence of protest. In the first Gilded Age, the streets were flooded with protest movements; questions regarding economic inequality and the very viability of capitalism were the defining issues of American politics.
But that could be changing, Gerstle said, with the recent protests in Wisconsin and New York that have spread throughout the country.
The question now, with Occupy Wall Street and the labor protests in Wisconsin this year, is whether the United States is beginning to emerge from that quiet period and whether there will be protests on the left that in some ways match what occurred 125 years ago.
I think the evidence suggests we are entering into a phase of sustained protests-the right labels it “class warfare” as if that’s going to make it go away somehow-as unemployment remains high, salaries stagnate or drop and health costs become prohibitive. Meanwhile, investment bankers continue to enjoy exorbitant salaries after taxpayers bailed them out in 2008 for ruining the economy and the same banks who received federal money are refusing to lend money.
What this country needs is exactly what Occupy Wall Street brings to the table, which is a broad-based protest movement that combines labor interests with modern concerns, such as the environment, in local, specific settings. Labor groups have now marched in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street group and a growing number of politicians have expressed support for the protest.
Here in Oklahoma City, about 300 people met Friday evening in downtown Oklahoma City under the Occupy OKC rubric. Individuals expressed their specific protests at the meeting. Oklahoma also has its own, specific historical roots to protest movements in the 1930s and was once home to two of the country’s most well-known populists, Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie, pictured right, during that period. (Here’s the first installment of my 2004 series on Oklahoma populist heroes.)
What’s interesting to note, as well, is the intersection between Tea Party supporters and Occupy Wall Street supporters, both of whom were generally against the bank bailouts and think the middle-class has been in a severe financial decline even as corporate fortunes soar. In addition, poll after poll shows Americans want higher taxes on the rich in this country.
Can what has been called “the 99 percent” coalesce around economic injustice despite differences on other issues? This is exactly what the corporate establishment doesn’t want to happen.