The tents in Oakland are collapsed, the libraries and food kitchens of New York dismantled. And while Occupiers hold ground in some cities, in many others the Occupation has become a state of being rather than a place. But while the police may have won the battle of the continuous occupation of public space – and whatever spin the right-wing pundits may come up with – the Occupiers have already won the more important battles of the times.
In only a few short months these intrepid souls, not willing to be spectators, have fundamentally exposed what many knew already: That America’s crisis was not a natural disaster but the result of three decades of calculated policies that enrich a small percentage of the population while impoverishing the many; that democracy is subverted by the influence of corporate monies that pervert the process both of elections and law-making. In other words, the Occupy movement has taught us an important civics lesson.
While much has been written about how the Occupiers have changed the conversation, they actually deserve far more credit. By changing the conversation they’ve also done what no one has in the past two years: changed the outcome of legislative debate. Three weeks ago, Congress rejected the balanced budget amendment. This was no accident or the result of an epiphany among Republican (and Democratic) lawmakers. Rather, after two months of consciousness-building, legislators were forced to vote against a measure that would have only worsened the burden of the 99% with cutbacks on the already weakened safety net and government services on which we rely.
A less obvious, but just as important, victory was the failure of the so-called congressional “Super Committee.” The change in popular consciousness gave Democratic members of Congress the backbone and sea of support needed to reject the draconian cuts in domestic spending proposed by the Republicans and to insist that if cuts were made, they be made in the Pentagon’s budget (to the tune of $600 billion). Those involved attest to the fact that the growing voice demanding that the über-rich pay their fair share and that the Pentagon budget has no more sacrosanct standing than Americans’ need for fundamental “homeland” security (health, housing, etc.), were a determining factor in the eventual outcome.
And no less important, the Occupy movement has strengthened the voice of the anti-war movement, which was a pivotal (albeit unrecognized) presence in the Senate on November 30, when legislators passed a measure (http://www.latimes.com/news/politics/la-pn-senate-afghanistan-20111130,0,355364.story?track=rss) to require an accelerated withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. This was certainly a recognition that legislators need to heed the sentiments of the 99%.
Why are these things important to note? Because they speak to the issues of power and empowerment and suggest a strategy for the future for those who want to restore fairness and democracy to the United States.
Disgust with the war in Iraq and the lies that led the nation into it and fury at the antics of the (then less understood) 1% fueled Barack Obama’s ascendancy to the presidency. Millions of volunteers, young and old, not only leapt into electoral action but also projected their hopes for change on this one man. It didn’t happen – at least not fast enough.
While the progressive movement and the Obama administration made many important gains – the passage of the first healthcare reform in 75 years, the passage of real tax relief for working men and women – the economy continued to fail for millions of job seekers and small businesses. Recovery happened mostly for the 1%, whose egregious actions seemed to be rewarded and who used the nation’s loans for greater self-enrichment rather than the welfare of the nation. And the political process proved useless.
What was missing, as it turns out, was not some messiah, but the people themselves. After the election of Obama, millions of his supporters demobilized – both because they were tired and because the administration apparently didn’t realize the importance and value of citizen organization. Into that breach stepped a well-organized reactionary GOP machine, ready to sacrifice the nation’s well-being for its own political gains. And they, by the way, understood the issue, spending the last year working to pass legislation that would exclude and disempower the young, the old and the poor from the voting process.
The result was a sense of despair about the possibility of real change. The Occupy movement has changed that perception. The protests have pulled away the wizard’s curtain, allowing the articulation of the real forces at work in America, and stirring the consciousness and passions of the many. Protest has led to awareness and has changed the political calculus. This is what power, of and by the people, looks like.
The Chinese have a saying that a man (read: person) must walk with both feet. That should be a lesson to us. We do need to Occupy – but not only Wall Street, Main Street or any other street that is both symbolic and handy. We also need to Occupy Congress, the White House and the voting booth. Each has its value; each its limitations. But taken together, like thumb and fingers, they yield a mighty fist.