And Time’s Person of the Year Goes To…..

This is the first time in a long time I’ve agreed with Time Magazine’s decision for its annual Person of the Year story/cover. This year, the magazine has chosen “the protestor” as its 2011 Person of the Year.

The article regarding the magazine’s decision can be read here, and it gives a comprehensive overview of the year of protest in the Arab world, the U.S., and mostly recently Russia. As the magazine points out, the year of protest was ignited on Dec. 17, 2010 when Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia, was hassled by police. He walked to the capital building to complain and got no response. So, he drenched himself in paint thinner and lit a match that ignited the Arab Spring. His action came after the country’s dictator continued power grabbing moves and a high cost of living.

The focus of the Arab Spring, though, mostly happened in Egypt, where, after months of protests and complaints about a fraudulent 2010 national election, thousands of young activists were able to topple a dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Since then, the military has taken power, and lately, Tahir Square has been flooded with protestors again, as the country’s citizens complain that the military is refusing to give up power.

Meanwhile, while the Arab spring was forming, thousands flooded the capitals of rust belt states, including Ohio and Wisconsin, especially Wisconsin, to protest restrictions on unions, especially the right for public employees to collectively bargain. Despite the massive protests, the governors in Ohio and Wisconsin still signed anti-union bills. However, in Ohio, citizens voted overwhelmingly in November to restore the union rights. And WI Gov. Scott Walker is likely to face a recall election. The move to collect enough signatures to get him on the ballot is now underway, and activists in that state are already close to getting enough signatures.

All of this preceded the largest protest movement the U.S. has seen in decades- Occupy Wall Street. What started as a dozen or so kids coming to Zuccotti Park on Sept. 17 has now blossomed into a national movement. Across the country during the fall, tents sprang up in nearly every major U.S. city. Since then, the police have shut down most of the tent cities, but the marches and protests continue.

2012 will reveal what’s next for OWS. This Sunday in NYC, the organizers are meeting to discuss where the movement goes from here. But OWS has been mighty successful in the sense it has totally changed the national conversation. Now everyone is talking about the fact the U.S. has the highest rate of economic inequality since the 1920s. President Obama has pivoted towards a more populist tone, and last week, during a speech in Kansas, he said this is a “make or break moment for the middle class.” He has co-opted some of the language of the OWS movement, and the movement has given him the space to be able to address much needed economic reforms and regulation of Wall Street.

OWS dominated the news in the last few months of 2011. The image of students getting pepper sprayed in the face at UC Berkley was all over the news, as well as images of standoffs between the NYPD and protestors in Zuccotti Park and thousands marching across the Brooklyn Bridge and also circling the New York Stock Exchange, nearly shutting it down.

I’ve worked with several OWS activists in the Scranton area, and I’ve visited sites in Philly and Boston. I’ve had my disputes with some activists over the use of tactics, and I would like to see the movement grow into real legislative reforms and people running for office, but while involved, I felt like something really profound is happening in this country and in the world. People have finally had enough, and for the first time in decades, they are finally protesting and getting involved in politics. It’s so inspiring to see young people across the globe speaking out.

Kudos to Time Magazine for acknowledging that 2011 was a year of mass protest, and since it is more than likely 2012 will feature more economic uncertainty and continued assaults on the middle class, the protests will continue.

What’s Next for OWS?

Last night, Occupy protestors in Philly and LA were evicted. According to an article posted on MSNBC this morning, about 200 protestors are being held in LA, though police did say the arrests were mostly peaceful. In Philly, meanwhile, the police issued three warnings that the protestors would have to leave, and nearly all did so, according to the article. But then they started marching through the streets, disrupting traffic at times, and even halting some of the city’s mass transit system.

Now that these two sites have been evicted, there are very few large cities left with ongoing occupation encampments. NYC was dismantled  a while ago, though they still have been meeting at Zuccotti park, though without tents. Occupy Chicago was also evicted a while ago. Occupy Boston still has an encampment, but for how long?

These evictions pose a question for the Occupy movement: what comes next? The encampments were successful in the sense that they changed the national dialogue and sparked conversations among Americans and in the media about economic inequality. They also helped create a community of diverse people that have been exchanging ideas about how to fix this country.

However, it’s my belief after visiting occupation sites in Philly and Boston and working with some local activists that for this movement to succeed, it has to grow beyond encampments. The Tea Party succeeded in   a sense that people within the movement ran for office, and about two dozen Tea Party members now occupy the federal House of Representatives. They’ve been able to derail legislation and push their agenda. At some point, the Occupy movement needs to consider running people for office, working with the system, and coming up with clear legislative goals. So far, the movement has been against creating clear demands, but there has to be more than just protest. The Civil Rights movement succeeded in getting desegregation legislation passed. The 1930s labor movement succeeding in getting FDR to pass the New Deal programs and creating Social Security. Occupy can push for certain legislative goals, including a constitutional amendment to ban the notion of corporate personhood, which would counter the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United in 2010, which made it possible for corporations to funnel an unlimited amount of money into politics. The movement can also push for even greater regulation of Wall Street and lobbyists, a higher tax rate for millionares, and a more comprehensive jobs bill than what Obama has offered.

OWS is about three months old now, a very new movement. But for it to stay relevant and continue getting media coverage beyond arrests of protestors, it should move beyond encampments. Recently, the encampments have created issues between police and protestors, and how sustainable will encampments even be when winter comes?

Beat Poets, not beat poets

Over the last few days, there have been countless clips on the news and videos that have gone viral of Occupy Wall Street protestors getting arrested, pepper sprayed, and hit with clubs in various cities across the country. Today, I came across an article in the New York Times written by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass about how he was at the University of California, Berkley late last week, when he witnessed the police assault some of the protestors, and he, his wife, and another poet/professor were also assaulted, according to his first hand account. In the article, which you can read here, he states, “They had hit me hard enough so that I was sore for days, but not hard enough to leave much of a mark. I wasn’t so badly off. One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O’Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.”

That same university was also in the news because a group of protestors were sitting on the campus, linking arms, when a police officer in riot gear walked in front of them and sprayed pepper spray in their faces. You can see that video here.  After that happened, the chancellor of the university forced that officer to take a leave of absence, while the school investigates whether or not excessive force was used. Students have also called for the chancellor’s resignation.

These mass arrests and the video of protestors getting pepper sprayed marks a week in which NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg evicted protestors from Zuccotti Park, but then allowed them to return, but without tents. The irony is that after he did that, the protestors had a large day of action on Thursday, one capped with a march across the Brooklyn Bridge.

In Berkley, the Occupy Movement continues, even after police tried to evict the protestors.  Hass sums this up beautifully at the end of his New York Times article:

“On Thursday afternoon when I returned toward sundown to the steps to see how the students had responded, the air was full of balloons, helium balloons to which tents had been attached, and attached to the tents was kite string. And they hovered over the plaza, large and awkward, almost lyrical, occupying the air.”

 We’ll have to see what the next page in the history of this movement will be, but every time the police try to crack down on it, it just seems to get bigger; however, the Occupy Wall Street Movement does need to ensure that the police crackdowns and mass arrests don’t overshadow the overall message of income inequality. That’s the real danger.

I was at Occupy Philly this weekend, after I had a reading at the Doylestown Bookshop Friday. I saw a few hundred tents surrounding City Hall, but very few police officers. The officers I did see were talking to some people on the street, and there was generally little tension. Maybe the organizers in that city have done a good job reaching out to police, communicating with them, and making clear they are not the enemy. Maybe Occupy Philly has been strictly non-violent. I don’t know, but I wish and hope the issues of economic inequality, high unemployment, and corporate money in politics all become more of  focal point than mass arrests.

Occupy Boston/Occupy Wall Street Movement

This weekend, I visited Boston to see friends, and while there, we checked out the   Occupy Boston rally, located in Dewey Square, the heart of the city’s financial district. Occupy Boston is an off-shoot of Occupy Wall Street, the movement that has formed to protest corporate greed, bank bailouts, and budget cuts, especially to education and other domestic issues.

Upon arriving at the scene, we saw a sea of tents and a huge Occupy Boston banner, as shown in the picture above. The tents had various signs that read “Main Street,” “We are the 99 %,” and “Tax Wall Street.” The population of the crowd was pretty diverse and included the good, the bad, and the ugly. There were some teachers and nurses there, as well as representatives from local unions. There were also folks in tie dyed shirts and dreadlocks, and some punk rockers with black bandanas over their faces. It was also  a mix of young and old.

I was especially surprised at the organization. Occupy Wall Street is now in its fourth week, but Occupy Boston is younger than that. But already,  Occupy Boston has a detailed schedule of events for each week, major union backing, and tents set up marked media, medical, food, logistics, and legal.  They’re also conducting marches through the downtown, which we took part in, teach-ins, and media training.

The movement is also doing a good job keeping itself unaffiliated with either political party. I didn’t see a sign for Obama or the Democratic Party. I did see a Ron Paul campaign worker handing out literature, but that was it. All of the signs were aimed at the abuse of corporate power and the high unemployment rate.

It has yet to be seen the effect this movement will have. I hope it produces some kind of effective legislation to regulate Wall Street more and prevent corporate bailouts that are used to give bonuses to CEOs or buy corporate jets. I also hope it encourages Congress and the president to produce a broad jobs plan that will lower the unemployment rate.  But movements take time to coalesce and produce results. Civil Rights and pro-labor legislation took a while to happen after those movements formed. But it’s clear the Occupy Wall Street folks aren’t going anywhere. This movement has now spread to several cities. There’s even an Occupy Scranton movement, and the Facebook page has over 600 likes. The leaders of this movement need to ensure that as it grows, it stays non-violent and focused. One brick through  a window will generate a swarm of bad press and end this.

A New Movement Taking Shape

I’m sharing yet another post about politics/social issues. I promise I’ll do something on writing again soon. 

Anyone that has been paying attention to the news lately has probably heard about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Over the last two weeks or so, protestors have come to NYC’s financial district to protest the growing income disparity in the U.S.  What intrigues me about this movement is that it considers itself “leaderless,” and so far, it hasn’t designated a spokesperson, unlike the Civil Rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, or even the more recent Tea Party Movement. According to the movement’s website, what the protestors have in common is that they are “the 99 % that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 %.”

Coverage of the movement was slow at first, but after a NYC police officer pepper sprayed some of the protestors, the video was seen all over the web and gained national media attention. “The Daily Show” even spoofed the incident. You can see that video here.  

Now, the movement is spreading to other parts of the country. It’s already started in Boston, according to a recent blog post at Forbes, and it also spread to San Francisco, according to a Huffington Post article.  

Furthermore, the protestors in NYC may soon have a powerful ally. According to another article, some NYC-based unions are considering teaming up with the grassroots movement. If this happens, the numbers on the streets could swell, especially in NYC.

What surprises me about this movement is that it didn’t happen a few years ago when the economy nearly crashed, and then Congress bailed out the banks and Wall Street, yet the same problems still persist. But maybe all of the union busting in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states finally sparked this, as well as the daunting 9.1 percent unemployment number, which is even higher for young people and the black community.

There are still a lot of questions surrounding the movement, including its general list of demands. But the fact this movement is so organic and grassroots is exciting. It hasn’t been co-opted by either political party or  a single politican, at least not yet.

I will be in Boston next weekend visiting friends, and we plan to stop by one of the protests to check it out. I’ll probably blog something about that when I get back.