I was stumped. It was a simple question: What are they protesting? But the answer to the question posed by my conservative, borderline apolitical friend asked was anything but a simple one. He didn’t want a dissertation on sustainable environmental practices or the pros and cons of the progressive taxation system. He wanted a sound bite, a quaint, catchy phrase neatly summing up the meaning behind the Occupy movement spreading across the country.
Truthfully, Occupy isn’t a movement that lends itself easily to quickly digestible sound bites. Sure, “We are the 99 percent” has emerged as the movement’s unofficial slogan. But that doesn’t say anything about what the 99 percent wants or how it plans on achieving it.
The movement has managed to avoid labeling despite increasing media attention. Since the original protest on Sept. 17 in New York’s Zucotti Park, protestors have expressed vague goals but a clear battle plan: They are going to occupy the park in the heart of New York’s financial district until their demands are met.
But while the specific demands have been greatly debated, there are some common trends. The boiling anger resulting from record profits by the top 1 percent of Americans at the expense of the other 99 percent is tangible and at the heart of the protests. It’s hard to disagree with the protestors’ anger when the top 1 percent of Americans holds nearly 50 percent of the country’s wealth and the bottom 80 percent barely have more than 15 percent of it.
Other demands include concerns about environmental sustainability, America’s military involvement overseas and education reform. Specific demands vary widely, but reflect an undeniable liberal bias. Protestors decry the way the nation has been mismanaged by Republicans and Democrats alike into the hands of greedy corporate interests with total disregard for U.S. citizens.
If what Occupy Wall Street wants isn’t clear, what it will actually accomplish is even more uncertain. What is undeniable, however, is that this movement will play a key role in the upcoming elections. However, reducing the value of this growing movement to simply poll numbers and election strategies ignores the big picture. Occupy Wall Street is giving a clear voice to a left-leaning, generally — but not always — younger segment of the American public that felt alienated by the recent conservative push from the Tea Party. Most importantly, it is making it OK to believe in taxing the rich and helping the poor without having to hide in fear of being called un-American.
Even now members of the Democratic Party are trying to ride the wave of public outrage for political gain. Taking a page out of the Republicans playbook, Occupy protestors are trying to co-op the budding movement to fuel their reelection campaigns in the very way the Tea Party has. As the movement spreads to cities across the nation such as Boston, Chicago and San Diego, more Democrats will jump on the bandwagon with brand new stump speeches about how they believed in all the Occupy ideals from the start.
It isn’t clear this early on if the movement will be fully folded as another branch of the Democratic Party in the same way the Tea Party became a Republican support group. Perhaps Occupy will manage to avoid getting pinned down with specific ideas and instead inspire others to enact the changes it sees as necessary. Maybe it will even breathe new life into third parties such as the Peace and Freedom Party, which was founded during a similar wave of liberal dissatisfaction in 1967.
No matter what happens next November, one of the biggest goals of Occupy is already being accomplished: Every day, people are being educated about what is really going on in American politics. Protestors aren’t shoving a list of talking points down America’s throat and telling people exactly what to believe. Instead, the facts of American life are slowly becoming revealed.
A recent survey done by Duke University researchers found that most people thought the top 20 percent of earners in America held about 59 percent of the country’s wealth. In fact they own 84 percent of it. Occupy is forcing common citizens as well as the government to take notice of the deep inequalities people live in every day. And it’s not going anywhere until something changes.