It was only a friendly meeting in early April 2009:
When President Obama welcomed the chief executives from thirteen of the nation’s biggest banks to the White House last Friday, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs billed it as a “good, productive, and frank” conversation. Emphasis, it appears, on the frank. As first reported by Politico’s Eamon Javers, and confirmed by ABC News with industry sources, some bankers gave explanations for the industry’s high salaries, such as “competing for talent on an international market.” But, President Obama cut them off. “My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks,” the president told them.
By all accounts those chief executives from thirteen of the nation’s biggest banks shrugged. Those who didn’t consider Obama the enemy considered him a fool – although there’s nothing on record. Maybe it wasn’t worth more than a chuckle. They were, after all, the heroes of American life – they provided the money for mortgages and loaned money to businesses to fund ongoing operations and to expand. They kept America running. They provided its lifeblood. And they created vast wealth where none had existed before – out of thin air. Sure there had been some mistakes. With those collateralized debt obligations and many far more exotic investment instruments, and credit default swaps and the like, the thin air turned out to be nothing but thin air. But much hypothetical wealth has been created, and bus drivers were living in multimillion dollar mini-mansions, and a good number of folks in the investment world had become fabulously rich. And they did that. Yes, it all came crashing down, but they had done the heroic – the good times were good times because of them, and maybe because of them alone. And surely people saw that. They, and the titans of industry that they financed, had made America fabulously fabulous. Without them America would be North Dakota in 1848 or something. What was Obama’s problem?
And of course there were no pitchforks. Nothing happened, other than Michael Moore and the like grumbling, as usual. No one revolted against the bankers. They knew better.
But as many have noted, Obama famously plays what is called the long game. He’ll concede this and that to his opponents, infuriating his base, in order to win the larger game, in order to get what he wanted in the first place – the big overarching deal. And in this meeting he was looking far down the road, sensing the overall trends, and giving these guys a heads-up. He was telling them they were stuck in the immediate present. But something was up. And they’d be wise to think a little more broadly. Maybe they weren’t the heroes they thought they were.
But it seems Obama was right. It may be pitchfork time, two and a half years later. Now something really is up. Maybe it’s just starting, and hasn’t received much coverage in the press – as the news media is for the most part owned and operated by three or four major corporations – and maybe it’s not well-organized at all – but it is there:
Occupy Wall Street, a diffuse group of activists who claim to stand against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other disparities between rich and poor, converged on the financial district on Sept. 17, 2011, encamping in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public park at Liberty Street and Broadway.
Okay, try to wrap your head around the concept of a privately-owned public park. But this is America and one gets used to permutations like that. Maybe they can keep the riff-raff out of their park if they choose to, or maybe not. A few miles north there is Gramercy Park, a public space where only homeowners in the area get a key to the gates. But things are open to all in Zuccotti Park:
The idea, according to some organizers, was to camp out for weeks or even months to replicate the kind, if not the scale, of protests that had erupted earlier in 2011 in places as varied as Egypt, Spain and Israel.
On the group’s Web site, they describe themselves as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent.”
The 1 percent refers to the haves: that is, the banks, the mortgage industry, the insurance industry. The 99 percent refers to the have-nots: that is, everyone else.
In other words, said a group member: “1 percent of the people have 99 percent of the money.”
What are they demanding? Nothing much, and everything – and the police made scores of arrests thirteen days ago when this started. And hundreds of demonstrators, those who had been bivouacked in the financial district as part of the ongoing protest, marched north to Union Square without a permit. That was a bad move. The police beat and pepper-sprayed many of them, and those passing by. And now NYPD officers are deployed on streets near the encampment in Zuccotti Park, where hundreds more people had gathered.
And it is getting hot:
Efforts to maintain crowd control suddenly escalated: protesters were corralled by police officers who put up orange mesh netting; the police forcibly arrested some participants; and a deputy inspector used pepper spray on four women who were on the sidewalk, behind the orange netting.
The police’s actions suggested the flip side of a force trained to fight terrorism, but that may appear less nimble in dealing with the likes of the Wall Street protesters. Even as the members of Occupy Wall Street seem unorganized and, at times, uninformed, their continued presence creates a vexing problem for the Police Department.
But Occupy Wall Street plans to continue the protest indefinitely and the NYPD is flummoxed. And now the New York Transit Workers Union has voted to support the Wall Street protestors – a member of Local 100 told a reporter that they would join the protest Friday afternoon – and there’s this from Business Insider:
Occupy Wall Street has been picking up some decent support from unions in the past few days. Yesterday we reported that the Teamsters Union declared their support for protestors, and we also found out that the United Pilots Union had members at the protest demonstrating in uniform. Today we learned the Industrial Workers of the World put a message of support on their website as well. Verizon union workers have joined the protestors in New York.
This is gathering momentum. And Obama did warn of this.
But if you go to We Are The 99% site you get a lot of vagueness. There’s the fellow in a lab coat with a stethoscope around his neck with a sign saying this – “Ivy League medical student over 100,000 in debt committed to a life of helping the homeless and mentally ill. We are the 99%.” And there is the young woman with a sign saying this – “They say you can be anything you want if you work hard enough. The truth is you can only be what you want if you can pay enough. Only twenty and already drowning in debt because I want to follow my dreams. I am the 99%.” And another woman holds up a sign saying this – “I’m a single mom of four, college graduate 3.6 GPA, shelf-stocker, I go hungry daily, I am the 99%”
Yes, but what do they want? Tina Susman in the Los Angeles Times is working on that question:
Michael Moore and Susan Sarandon have dropped in. A seasoned diplomat dispenses free advice. Supporters send everything from boxes of food and clothes to Whole Foods gift cards. They even have their own app, for the legions of fans following them on iPhone and Androids.
But Occupy Wall Street is at a crossroads:
The number of protesters on scene so far tops out at a few hundred, tiny by Athens or Cairo standards. But the traction they have gained from run-ins with police, a live feed from their encampment and celebrity visits is upping expectations. How about some specific demands, a long-term strategy, maybe even … office space? So far the group, which generally defines itself as anti-greed, has none of those.
And they know it:
“At a certain point, there’s a valid criticism in people asking, ‘What are you doing here?’” protester Chris Biemer, 23, said on Wednesday, Day 11 of the demonstration. In an exchange that illuminated one of the dilemmas that any movement for change faces in trying to sustain momentum, Biemer and protester Victoria Sobel made it clear they had different visions for Occupy Wall Street.
Biemer, who recently moved to New York from Florida with a degree in business administration, says that ideally the group should team up with a nonprofit organization and get office space.
“It’s possible to stay here for months or longer, but at some point we’re going to become a fixture,” he said of their home in Zuccotti Park…
Sobel, who like Biemer serves on Occupy Wall Street’s finance committee, disagrees and said the group’s strength lies in its ability to remain highly visible and in a place where anyone can visit and participate. The 21-year-old New York University student happily reported Wednesday that bookshelves had been delivered to the UPS store where the group receives mail. They’ll sit beneath a tarp in the park, all part of Sobel’s vision to solidify the group’s foothold.
“It’s a moment of clarifying for us,” Sobel said, confident that as autumn’s chill turns to winter’s subfreezing temperatures, Occupy Wall Street will stay put. “We’ll layer,” she said with a laugh, when asked how they’ll manage the cold.
This is hardly a revolution:
Now, its settlement has gelled into an organized community that hums along almost Zen-like, coexisting with the city that rages around it and ignored by many either too busy or too uninterested to stop. Harried commuters seem to barely notice the mishmash of humanity a few feet away as they rush down the sidewalks skirting the park. Tourists stroll in to snap pictures and read the protest signs scattered across the ground, then wander off to their next sightseeing stop. Executives drop in on lunch breaks to talk politics and economics. Police hang back on the sidewalks, and follow along when groups of protesters stage marches.
Protest numbers vary as people drift in and out of the park. Some live in the area and come by for a few hours each day or week. Others stay there around the clock, their sleeping bags, guitars and clothing bundles spread on the ground. On Wednesday, they included a sleepy-eyed young man in a rumpled t-shirt cuddling a pet rat, and a woman who pranced about in her underwear.
But Susman reports that there are committees, including one for finance, food and comfort – blankets, dry clothing and that sort of thing. And there are twice-daily meetings where anyone can make a brief announcement:
The assemblies draw everyone together in a tight huddle. To avoid violating a ban on bullhorns, the crowd obediently repeats in unison every phrase uttered by the main speaker, to ensure everyone hears. Each morning, protesters stage a “morning bell march” through the neighborhood, to coincide with the clanging at 9:30 a.m. of the bell that marks the start of trading at the Stock Exchange. Most days, a “closing bell” march also takes place in the afternoon.
So all this is organized, or it isn’t:
“The one thing we all have in common is that we are the 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent,” the website says. The posters in Zuccotti Park speak to the lack of a narrow platform: “End financial aid to Israel”; “End greed, end poverty, end war”; “No death penalty”; “Tired of racism.”
Some supporters of the premise wonder how far Occupy Wall Street can go in galvanizing others if it does not translate its anger into specific demands.
But maybe that’s the whole point. What did the French peasants want before what happened in 1789 – other than something to eat and a chance to do some honest work and obtain some of the goodies the folks out in Versailles enjoyed for doing nothing in particular at all? The agenda, or agendas, came later. And Obama warned these guys.
Justin Elliott, however, explains the conflict here:
This is a movement in search of a message, a community trying to define itself by listening. There seem to be two broad camps: one believes Occupy Wall Street should adopt a specific demand to address unequal distribution of wealth in America (views vary, of course, about what policy should be advocated to achieve this); while the other camp is focused on creating a spectacle that will create its own momentum, grow larger, and define its goals at some undetermined point in the future.
But Glenn Greenwald offers this:
Does anyone really not know what the basic message is of this protest: that Wall Street is oozing corruption and criminality and its unrestrained political power – in the form of crony capitalism and ownership of political institutions – is destroying financial security for everyone else?
And he sees the lay of the land:
It’s unsurprising that establishment media outlets have been condescending, dismissive and scornful of the ongoing protests on Wall Street. Any entity that declares itself an adversary of prevailing institutional power is going to be viewed with hostility by establishment-serving institutions and their loyalists. That’s just the nature of protests that take place outside approved channels, an inevitable by-product of disruptive dissent: those who are most vested in safeguarding and legitimizing establishment prerogatives (which, by definition, includes establishment media outlets) are going to be hostile to those challenges. As the virtually universal disdain in these same circles for WikiLeaks (and, before that, for the Iraq War protests) demonstrated: the more effectively adversarial it is, the more establishment hostility it’s going to provoke.
Of course folks will make fun of these protesters. And he points to Why Establishment Media & the Power Elite Loathe Occupy Wall Street – Kevin Gosztola recounting how many of the most scornful criticisms of all this “have come from Democratic partisans who – like the politicians to whom they devote their fealty – feign populist opposition to Wall Street for political gain.”
The revolution is against all of them, as Greenwald notes:
A significant aspect of this progressive disdain is grounded in the belief that the only valid form of political activism is support for Democratic Party candidates, and a corresponding desire to undermine anything that distracts from that goal. Indeed, the loyalists of both parties have an interest in marginalizing anything that might serve as a vehicle for activism outside of fealty to one of the two parties…
And what did Obama say? My administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks?
The very idea that one can effectively battle Wall Street’s corruption and control by working for the Democratic Party is absurd on its face: Wall Street’s favorite candidate in 2008 was Barack Obama, whose administration – led by a Wall Street White House Chief of Staff and Wall-Street-subservient Treasury Secretary and filled to the brim with Goldman Sachs officials – is now working hard to protect bankers from meaningful accountability (and though he’s behind Wall Street’s own Mitt Romney in the Wall Street cash sweepstakes this year, Obama is still doing well); one of Wall Street’s most faithful servants is Chuck Schumer, the money man of the Democratic Party; and the second-ranking Senate Democrat acknowledged – when Democrats controlled the Congress – that the owners of Congress are bankers. There are individuals who impressively rail against the crony capitalism and corporatism that sustains Wall Street’s power, but they’re no match for the party apparatus that remains fully owned and controlled by it.
Obama did warn them. He’s one of them. And the chickens have come home to roost:
Financial elites and their political servants are well aware that exploding wealth inequality, pervasive economic anxiety, and increasing hostility toward institutions of authority (and corresponding realization that voting fixes very little of this) are likely to bring London-style unrest – and worse – to American soil; it was just two weeks ago that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned that the unemployment crisis could trigger “riots.” Even the complacent American citizenry – well-trained in learned impotence and acquiescence to (even reverence for) those most responsible for their plight – is going to reach a tipping point of unrest.
And this may be the tipping point. And it may be being handled badly, as John Cassidy argues here that the NYPD made their jobs much harder by pepper-spraying protesters:
If the cops had kept their cool, the occupation, which is meant to last several months, might well have declined over time to a hard core of a few dozen. Now the protesters’ numbers are growing, presenting a dilemma for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and his billionaire boss Mayor Bloomberg. Should they leave the kids alone or present them with another publicity coup by attempting to break up their encampment?
Well, that’s the problem with revolutions at their birth. A map in Zuccotti Park pinpoints other cities with Occupy Wall Street events either underway or planned, including sit-ins planned for here in Los Angeles on Saturday and Washington on October 6 and events in Boston and Chicago. And see this video clip from Digby – Wall Street folks sipping champagne from a balcony as they watch the protesters walk by. As she says, you cannot make this stuff up. Marie Antoinette, anyone? And Digby adds this:
Wall Street has been like this from the very beginning of the financial crisis, going out of their way to scoff at average people in trouble in this economy. (“We’re doing God’s work!”) I guess they just don’t see any need to keep a low profile and ride this out without inflaming the polloi. These “winners” want to rub their noses in it. They just keep proving over and over again, in so many different ways, that they aren’t as smart as they think they are.
And Obama did warn them.