‘It’s a dream-sharing’: Can Occupy Wall Street spark a broad-based movement?

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Lookout

"More and more people are joining the Wall Street occupation," an article in the Occupied Wall Street Journal, the new house organ of the nascent protest movement, reports."They can tell you about their homes being foreclosed, months of grinding unemployment, or minimum-wage dead-end jobs, staggering student debt loans, or trying to live without decent healthcare."

Those are issues that The Lookout has covered closely over the last year, as America's bleak economic climate has endured. If a social movement can help draw attention to problems such as joblessness, wage stagnation, and growing inequality, we're interested. But despite the newspaper's assurances, few of the several hundred mostly young protesters in Zuccotti Park Wednesday morning seemed to have kitchen-table issues on their minds.

"This is a great group of young people, isn't it?" asked one older man who was handing out copies of "1917: The Journal of the International Bolshevik Tendency." "It makes me feel like I felt during the Vietnam War."

"The medium is the message," one of those young people, Drew Hornbein, said when asked what issues he was most concerned about. "We don't have demands, but we're building a process to get demands."

"It's a dream-sharing," another young man said during a small organizational meeting, to general approval.

In recent days, Occupy Wall Street has started to attract support from progressive politicians and labor unions, and to generate respectful coverage from the mainstream media. Even Fed chair Ben Bernanke said he "can't blame" the protesters. As The Lookout has reported, the sit-in, now in its third week, has been compared to the popular demonstrations that overthrew Arab dictators earlier this year, and to the broad-based, labor-backed protests that shut down the Wisconsin capital building. Occupy Wall Street, some have suggested, could be the start of a much broader mobilization against growing inequality and the corrupting influence of money in politics.

Those Wisconsin protests were designed to block an anti-union law that stood to directly affect the lives of many of the teachers, nurses and other public workers who turned out to oppose the measure. That's crucial, veteran organizers say, for the success of any movement. "There's a better chance [protesters] will keep showing up if they think that the movement connects directly to their everyday lives, that if it succeeds, those lives will be changed in an obvious and better way," Rich Yeselson, a research coordinator of Change to Win, a coalition of labor unions, wrote on The Washington Post's website Wednesday.

For many of the Occupy Wall Streeters, by contrast, the grievances and goals appeared far less organically connected to the lives of the protesters. One woman told The Lookout she wanted to abolish fiat currency and fractional reserve banking. A man railed against the Swiss-based Bank for International Settlements, which he described as the epicenter of the corrupt system of international finance. Hornbein said his initial goal was for the world to produce zero waste by 2020, but now he just wants everyone to practice what they preach.

Some labor unions, including the heavyweight American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have backed Occupy Wall Street. But only one lone AFSCME representative was in evidence Wednesday morning, and he fit in uneasily with the crowds of twenty-somethings huddled in blankets and sleeping bags. A larger labor presence was expected Wednesday afternoon.

Paul Buhle, a veteran leftist writer and historian who arrived in the park this morning, told The Lookout he's writing a book about the Wisconsin protests, called "It Started in Wisconsin." He pointed out some differences between the two events: The Wisconsin crowd, he said, had included many more older people, as well as parents with young kids. There was also, he said, "an identification with Wisconsin and Wisconsin traditions. These were enormous strengths." Buhle acknowledged that, at least for now, that kind of organic engagement is lacking in Zuccotti Park.

That doesn't mean it can't develop, either there or in any of the numerous other "Occupy" groups that have sprung up around the country. One veteran progressive activist, Bill Johnson, said he was optimistic.

"Forfeiture and foreclosure in the face of record profits on Wall Street is simply evil," he said, adding that he was bowled over by the staying power of Occcupy Wall Street.  "I expected a one-day event, but this is beyond all expectations," he said. "This is the voice of the people rising up."

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