WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Stucknation: OWS Learns That Nowadays, Trade Trumps Democracy
Saturday, November 26, 2011 - 10:38 AM
Early last Sunday morning, after the NYPD's forcible removal of protesters at Zuccotti Park, the scene was cold and surreal.
As the Brookfield Properties' holiday crew strung the Christmas lights on the trees in the park, plainclothes bouncers removed blankets from a sleeping protestor still curled up in the fetal position. (The blankets could be reclaimed once the protester left the park.)
As the Christmas lights twinkled in Zuccotti, I wondered which side the historical Jesus would have been on in our 21st century have/have not tug of war.
From the very beginning of the movement, Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has been taken to task for not coming to an agreement on their goals. Meanwhile, our nation's well-compensated Congress and their so-called super committee, failed to agree on anything. And we collectively shrug it off as "politics as usual."
As Brookfield worked to make the scene change, from the fall of dissent to the winter of holiday consumption, there were about 100 committed protesters remaining to represent the “99 percent.” It was mostly a mix of college-educated twenty somethings and people who had lived on the street for years.
Some were angry and taunting the police with the observation that the posted Brookfield rules prohibited sleeping bags but NOT blankets.
Zachary Williams, who had been abruptly awakened by the security detail, looked dazed. A fellow protester berated him for "partying" and not going to bed earlier at an off-site location.
Williams, a Los Angeles native, says he left the West coast "in search of a better life. I thought if I moved to New York, I'd get a better paying job."
But Williams says he got caught up on the wrong side of the law and now has a felony and misdemeanors on his record.
Nearby a group of articulate twenty-somethings were having an intense discussion about the status and direction of their movement. The political banter focused on defining their own quests for surviving in a world they feel has marked them as labor "surplus."
McCarthy Roberts is from a rural community near the border between Massachusetts and Vermont. He came down to Zuccotti because he "was tired of having his future pissed away by bureaucrats."
He and his fellow protestors say they know that there is a global unemployment crisis for people their age. They know that global markets and economies generate great wealth for a select few, but seem unable to create broad-based, sustainable prosperity for the many.
They know what's amiss. The future of the world’s nations has been subjugated by crippling debt, as contrived by the global traders with allegiance to nothing but their own enrichment. The big banks went from engineering and profiteering off of the bubble and bust of our housing market to turning national governments into pawn shops.
They have wrapped the collective imagination of the developed world into debt instruments that only they understand and control.
For these OWS folks, it boils down to something as simple as "rich people shouldn't run the government." They are just coming to terms with the reality that rich people actually “own” government.
Roberts says he is watching as vital parts of the government's basic obligation to the public, as defined in the Constitution—like mail delivery, are dismantled because they are deemed too labor-intensive and too costly. As Roberts sees it, the widening gulf of inequality manifests itself in other tangible ways, other than just wealth disparity.
"I am from a rural area. A lot of people in rural areas don't have broadband or like any form of internet, you barely have TV." He wants a government that protects the public from capital interests, not one that is subservient to them.
"I want to see this country prosper as best it can while hurting as few people as it can," says Roberts. For himself, he wants employment. "I want a job. I don't want a handout."
Omna Shikh is a nurse who splits her time between OWS NYC and Occupy Philadelphia. She says the use of police force to clear Zuccotti Park generated images that would normally come from repressive countries.
"You see people in their tattered jeans and their hoodies walking around trying not to shiver," she said, "and you see the cops running in on these [protestors], who have nothing to defend themselves but their bodies."
Shikh says she is headed back to Philadelphia, because evidently the “City of Brotherly Love” is more hospitable to the OWS movement.
"[Occupy] Philadelphia is in in front of City Center," she said. "We have lots of energy. We have lots of space. We have tents. We have internet."
While OWS has become a global reference, it has its roots here in New York City, which always has had its thumb on the scale in favor of commerce over other values.
In the 18th century, during the American Revolution, the City was divided by concerns over the potential loss of trade. Many locals chose to remain loyal to King George, even as their neighbors put their lives on the line to challenge his authority and fight for their own self-determination.
Scroll forward to the 21st century, and we have Mayor Bloomberg, the consummate stage manager, who had the OWS encampment scene "struck" before Santa's arrival way up town at Macy's annual Thanksgiving Day parade. By "Black Friday," local TV news channels showed bargain-crazed shoppers camped out at shopping malls with homemade signs that read "Occupy Blockbuster" and a deranged shopper who used pepper spray for a competitive edge.
Today, the value that appears to have captured the world's ambition is the accumulation of ever larger amounts of wealth, increasingly more concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. In a world now totally spread out on the altar of free trade, our global "religion" leaves us with just greed and gravity as our definers. Trade totally trumps democracy and any other transcendent value by which humans try to steer their lives.
Perhaps that explains why allowing the Greek people the chance to vote on their nation's austerity package—which will define a generation—was uniformly cast as a threat to global stability. Evidently, the tradition of participatory democracy, with its 2500-year old roots in Athens, is a luxury the world can no longer afford.