All of the recent publicity and rhetoric about the Occupy Wall Street movement just begs a comparison with the Arab Spring protests of several months ago when most western democracies including ours were cheering the courage and bold action of thousands of citizens in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Libya. Besides risking beatings, imprisonment and torture they were also placing their very lives in jeopardy to achieve the same democratic liberties we enjoy here in America, among them the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression which Occupy Wall Street exemplifies. Setting aside for the moment whether you agree with the OWS message, do you not find the police reaction of forced removal and arrests in some cities (most notably Oakland, Denver and Nashville) to be similar to the police conduct in the Middle East? It's as if we are becoming them instead of the other way around. I thought riot gear, tear gas and over-whelming police force were part of our past, not our present. And for Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain to label the demonstrators as "un-American," "anti-capitalism" and "anti-free market" just shows a total ignorance of history, as well as what this initiative is all about.
So, exactly what is driving this Occupy Wall Street movement? Well, you can start with the huge income and wealth disparity between the top one percent of our population which has grown by 275% over the past generation while the remaining ninety-nine percent has grown only 18% during that same period. One of the reasons cited for this disparity by the Congressional Budget Office is the lack of college degrees among our young people who, in this climate of ever-changing globalization, are simply unable to compete with the more educated Chinese and Indians who will work for much less. Compounding the problem of those diminished job opportunities for our youth, which robs them of their dreams for the future, is the mountain of student loan debt incurred by those who do seek to achieve that very college education that is being sold as the key to one's economic success. Then there is the loss of existing jobs which has caused financial devastation among millions of adult Americans who are unable to pay the mortgages on their homes, as well as just meet day-to-day living expenses for their families. And, finally, there are the ethical lapses and criminal activities within the financial community that almost brought down the major economies of the industrialized world which have gone largely unpunished. Conversely, our masters of the universe seem to have gone right back to the same questionable practices and exorbitant personal enrichment of the past that are further widening that income gap and creating an elite economic imbalance which Alexander Stille of the New York Times calls "....one of the most unequal democracies in the world". Frame all of these concerns within the context of a feckless and paralyzed congress that seems either unable or unwilling to address these systemic problems in a bold and meaningful way and you've got yourself the platform for all of the dissatisfaction, frustration and anger now being expressed by Occupy Wall Street.
One of the main criticisms being leveled at this movement is its lack of common theme or central voice. Those of us old enough to have lived through the Vietnam War and the anti-war demonstrations that raged across America in the late 60's and early 70's will recall a somewhat similar critique in the early stages of that initiative, but it did not take very long for those disparate anti-war actions to meld into the central message of "End that war". We all know what happened as a result - it ended. The same thing happened with civil rights abuses. It's all about raising the national consciousness and public debate to the point where corrective action is forced on our policy makers. I suspect that as the Occupy Wall Street movement spreads and gains support, both moral and financial, we will see a more effective organization that may well play a significant role in the 2012 elections not unlike that of the Tea Party in 2010. In fact, Elizabeth Warren's senatorial race in Massachusetts may well be the bell-weather test of this possibility, as evidenced by the outpouring of support from OWS sympathizers at one of her recent rallies. Surely, these impassioned citizens will at least be allowed to exercise their lawful right to peaceful protest and expression without fear of intimidation and arrest at these legal assemblies, if not public parks and spaces.