It would be easy to write off the Occupy Wall Street protesters as flakes, kids and professional malcontents with no coherent message and nothing better to do than bait cops to get attention. That may all be somewhat true, but dismissing them would be a mistake.
Calling themselves "the 99 percent," they claim to represent the bulk of the nation's people who, they say, get only crumbs from the tables of the richest 1 percent. The protesters are animated by the belief that the economic system is stacked against ordinary people, and the political system is co-opted, paralyzed and irrelevant as the American dream slips away. There's an uncomfortable amount of evidence for that view.
The top 1 percent of Americans now earn nearly 25 percent of the nation's income and control 40 percent of its wealth, compared to 12 percent and 33 percent, respectively, in 1986. Bankers who made wild risk-taking part of their business plan were complicit in the 2008 economic collapse. The federal government did bail out financial services companies, and while most have since returned to profitability and otherworldly compensation packages, many Americans are mired in the fallout of joblessness, underwater mortgages, foreclosures, and shriveling expectations for careers and retirements.
Despite their zombie makeup, pizzas and lack of focus, the Wall Street protesters are becoming the public face of a growing sentiment in this country. Their ranks have grown in lower Manhattan over the last three weeks, particularly after the international publicity from the arrest of 700 people on the Brooklyn Bridge for protesting without a permit. Their message has been disseminated via Facebook and Twitter, and the protest has inspired others across this country. Demonstrators have marched on Federal Reserve Banks and camped in parks in cities from Portland, Maine, to Los Angeles.
The frustration driving the protests is not so different from that bubbling on the right. Their political ideologies may be different: Tea party types blame government for most of the nation's woes while "the 99 percent" blame plutocrats. But they appear to share the belief that something fundamental has gone haywire in this country.
There's something happening here. What it is ain't exactly clear. But elected officials should take heed. The Occupy Wall Street campaign is relatively small, leaderless and unfocused right now. But so was the tea party not so long ago. That's often how grassroots movements look at their inception. hN