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Graduate Student Weighs in on Occupy Wall Street

Photo by David Shankbone.

In the third interview in a series on the Occupy Wall Street movement, history graduate student Jay Weixelbaum weighs in on why so many people are identifying with the movement and describes the atmosphere at the DC and Baltimore Occupy camps.

 

Do you identify with any of the movement's sentiments? If so, which ones and why?

I think some of the roots of this current movement actually go back in February to the occupation of the capitol building in Madison to resist Scott Walker's plan to curtail union rights. Here, people were expressing two sentiments: upholding the right of workers to organize and collectively bargain, and expressing the disgust in the exercise of arbitrary, non-democratic power, behind which people saw private, corporate interests as major forces. In the most general terms, the Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) represents a call to reform American democracy. Huge corporations have far too much leverage over our politics, economy, and culture.

I identify deeply with this sentiment. In 2000, I was an art school dropout looking for a "real job" to support my creative ambitions. I was doing well, working for Sony PlayStation as a graphic designer, but when the dot-com bubble burst, my company went under. I was subsequently hired for my computer experience by a large multinational bank to process mortgages for their whole U.S. market. Little did I know, the next economic bubble was already forming in the mortgage business.

My personal experience in banking encompasses the worst aspects of corporate hubris: flagrant violations of financial regulations and labor laws and a repressive and relentless push toward further profits above anything else.

By the time I had personally processed over 3.5 billion dollars worth of mortgage-backed securities, I realized that this activity would probably have a major impact on the economy and politics of the U.S. and the rest of the world. I had to get out of there. I reported what was going on to Eliot Spitzer's office—which basically blew me off—and quit.

(There's more to this story. I went on to work for other banks in the interim. I dealt with other big financial institutions that had a complete disregard for regulations, and I had to tell both Katrina victims and disabled Iraq veterans that they were being foreclosed on. I'll leave it there for now.)

When I saw people protesting large banks in Zuccotti Park in those first weeks in September for violations of financial regulations, subverting the law and the political process, and causing economic turmoil with rampant, greedy speculation, this was not an abstraction for me. I had a clear picture of what this looked like from the inside.

My experience has led me to this opinion, and one that is shared by the OWS movement: The owners of the largest corporations (and more specifically, their biggest shareholders) consider themselves above the law. Human rights and democracy stand in the way of their enormous profits. They have tilted the political system to give themselves more control over the U.S. in the form of financial industry deregulation, tax loopholes that can be exploited by wealthy individuals and corporations, and laws that affect how money can be used in elections.

In response to this reality, the sentiments expressed by the OWS have crystallized into a few claims, all of which I identify with:

  • Taking private money out of the political process
  • An end to corporate personhood and its right to political "speech" in the form of financial contributions
  • Breaking up the "too big to fail" banks
  • Increasing oversight and regulation on all banks (including the Federal Reserve), particularly the speculative part of their business
  • Closing tax loopholes for wealthy individuals and businesses
  •  Prosecuting the most egregious offenders of the recent economic turmoil

These are the most generally expressed sentiments I have seen after closely following this movement from September to the present. There are plenty of others, though, as well. But I believe a majority of OWS supporters want to see reform, not a complete reshaping of our system.

Many that support the OWS movement, myself included, also want to support a new, robust jobs program, on the scale of the New Deal. Many also see OWS as a means to open up a dialog about systemic problems that have been going on much longer than 2008, such as pervasive poverty and inequality as a result of racism and misogyny, and the exploitative nature of the American empire on the rest of the world's politics and economies. I believe this is also a crucially important development.

Also, many have started a dialog on the role of capitalism in American society in general. On one side, we have staunch anti-capitalists, who would like all businesses in the U.S. to be worker owned. On the other side, we have hardline libertarians who want to see all services privatized. For my part, I think most fall in between these two extreme camps. This is quite a range of sentiments expressed within the OWS. For this reason, I tend to take offense when media organizations attempt to characterize OWS as having a particular stance toward capitalism in general.

Remember: This is a young movement. It is also informed by many protest movements that came before it.

 

Why are so many protestors students? Do they have valid concerns?

Young people are often the catalysts for movements like this for a few reasons. They tend to be the most idealistic slice of the population. They are still forming their worldviews, their plans for life, and surveying how they are going to respond to the world around them. Students also tend to have more flexible schedules and more energy than other segments of the population.

They also have many valid concerns. First and foremost, they are inheriting the current political, economic, and cultural situation. They have a right to respond. This is the world they are joining and will be participating in for the rest of their lives, for better or for worse. Also, as students, by their very nature, they are (or should be) taught to question their reality. I think it is natural for students to respond to serious problems they see in the world around them.

More specifically, many students (myself included) have been saddled with an enormous amount of debt. This phenomenon has everything to do with the control that powerful economic interests have over our political, economic, and cultural systems. A majority of students in the U.S. are compelled to take on this debt due to cultural expectations. Costs have increased so much that only a wealthy minority are able to fully self finance their educations. This is a major frustration to many students, like myself, who see other countries subsidizing education, while the U.S. spends huge amounts of money on wars and tax breaks to wealthy individuals and corporations.

To be fair, the news media focuses on student protestors because they are easy to marginalize. They do not have as much perceived clout. Nearly every other segment of the population has involvement in OWS. For my part, I have seen many middle-aged workers, families, and older folks at these rallies—and not just a handful; they’re at least half of the participants. Yes, some of the most dramatic clashes have occurred between young people and police, but this isn't the whole story by any stretch of the imagination.

I fully realize that students are already entering the workforce and feel the need to conform in many ways in order to feel like they are securing their future. Also, conformity begets more conformity. I don't think they realize how much power they have to change the narrative so they don’t question how the ways they exhibit themselves showcase what is going on in their heads. They can change both and have a right and an opportunity to do so.

 

Have you visited the Occupy DC encampments? If so, can you describe the atmosphere there, both physical and emotional?

I’ve gone down to both the DC and Baltimore Occupy sites. I wanted to see for myself what the situation was like and compare it to news reports.

In both cases, the atmosphere was festive. People were upbeat, inclined to chat, and generally in good spirits about the direction of the movement. Physically, the spaces were generally well organized, as much as a loosely governed tent city could be. In both Baltimore and DC, there were medical personnel on site and food and water available. I did not utilize any sanitary services, although I did not see any evidence of the stories that I've heard on the news of people going to the bathroom outside. Again, it was a generally clean and organized situation. It reminded me of festivals I've been to in the past.

I found that there was some degree of responsible authority continually present, and that people generally managed themselves well in dealing with the police, media, tourists, and the homeless population.

In sum, things were calm and friendly. In my visits, I met Iraq War veterans, retired nurses, small business owners, a Holocaust survivor, a documentarian, curious teens, out of work musicians, baby-boomer tourists, and one or two begrudgers.

I did notice the massive police presence in DC (in Baltimore not so much). They were standing off to the side, but it did worry me that so much money was being spent monitoring what was a fairly benign situation. I personally didn't feel threatened in the least. To be fair, I'm a white guy, albeit kind of a short, bookish type, but I have privilege when it comes to situations like this. I was there during the day and I witnessed many age groups, genders, and ethnicities, all seemingly getting along and discussing a wide range of issues.

 

What do you think will come of the protests? What can protestors do to keep the movement active?

For all the talk of the OWS movement coming up with a "message," I find that line of questioning more enlightening as a way to discern the intentions of big media organizations, rather than the protesters themselves. In my opinion, the most important thing protestors can do is stay visible. In many movements, it wasn't as much an articulated set of demands as it was consistent pressure informed by general sentiments that affected change.

Look at 1848, for example. We call today's movements in the Middle East the Arab Spring. This label stems from the European "Spring of Nations" protest movements for more democratic rights. It started in Italy in January 1848, moved to France by February, in March it was in the German states, and by the late spring it was all over the Habsburg Empire in central Europe. Authorities crushed these movements; however, the upswell of democratic consciousness had a permanent effect. If you study the histories of the creation of Italy and Germany in the 1860s and 1870s, they look back to 1848 as a crucial turning point.

Many historians also compare 1848 to 1968. Again, protest was occurring worldwide. Some of it was centered on the war in Vietnam, but just as many (if not more) people were interested in civil rights, women's rights, student rights, and worker's rights. Again, these protests were seen as a "failure." People didn't change the world in the ways they had hoped; however, lasting change was made. In the U.S., civil rights legislation was passed. Overt racism and segregation ended. Women gained more recognition and autonomy over their bodies. The LGBT community gained more protections against discrimination. This wasn't just in the U.S.; in China, the Cultural Revolution led to some economic reproachment that began to happen in the 1980s.

Ironically, many repressive tactics have a way of fueling movements like this. Every time police officers attack non-violent protestors, they give the movement more strength and visibility.

If the OWS can keep up the energy, visibility, and pressure, lasting change could be made. In the U.S., this could take the form of a change in the role money plays in our politics, a reform of our financial system, changes in tax legislation, a break up of the "too big to fail" banks, or a new, robust New Deal. I can tell you that, no matter what, there will be some that consider the OWS movement a "failure" when this is all over. But again, failure is relative. In history, no group achieves everything they want—I think it is important to be realistic about short-term and long-term goals. In the short term, there are people suffering who need help now. Debt relief, both on an individual and state level would help. Jobs programs would also help. In the long term, changes in the way private money influences our political system are, in my opinion, extremely important. Wealth inequality resulting from tax structures that benefit the rich also need long term attention.

Even at two months old, OWS has helped elevate these issues. Imagine what the next year will bring.