Tuesday, November 8, 2011

‘Occupy Wall Street’

Commentary
By: Denis Murphy
Philippine Daily Inquirer

 My sister and I went to Wall Street toward the end of September on an overcast day that threatened rain. I wanted to show her the building where I worked for a summer after my freshman year of high school. When we arrived at the head of that narrow street, where the sun seldom shines because it is very narrow and bordered by skyscrapers, we noticed that the police had prepared for a protest march.  They had divided the street into squares with portable metal fences resembling the cattle pens seen in the old Westerns, the wooden corrals where cowboys left their steers after the long drives across the plains.

Steam poured from a consolidated Edison street pipe and drifted in front of the New York Stock Exchange, lending it a sinister appearance. A white police van stood at the intersection of Nassau and Wall Streets to carry off any protesters that might be arrested. There were about 200 gloomy, bored policemen standing around. A big man in a plaid shirt and jeans preached about the need of showing kindness to one another. No one listened to him, except my sister and me. Afterwards he came over and shook hands and wished us a good day.

Then, all at once, the rain and the protesters arrived. Between 200 and 300 people marched along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. Almost as many policemen and policewomen walked with them. They went a few blocks toward the East River and then came back along the sidewalk where we stood. They had drums and shouted slogans, but it was hard to make much noise in such a cavernous and disinterested place. The marchers were mostly young, white males and they looked somewhat scruffy, I thought. They looked, to be honest, like the unemployed young men you might see playing basketball in the parks on weekday afternoons, while most of the city was at work. This was our first glimpse of the Occupy Wall Street group. It was one of their first marches.

The slogans they had on their banners and those they shouted were simplistic: “Close all the Banks,” “The Banks are Paid to Steal Your Money,” “Join us,” “Occupy Wall Street for a Day, for a Week,” “Wake Up.”  The police led them back toward Broadway and Trinity Church and then they were gone. Wall Street went about its business as usual.

 The next day the New York Times reported that the Dow Jones and Standard and Poor indices showed gains.

 A month later the “Occupy Wall Street” group had mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon. On Oct. 15 I went with my wife Alicia to the park where the protesters stay which is adjacent to Ground Zero. The new memorial building towers over the park which is about the size of a football field. It was packed with 2,000 to 3,000 men and women, young and old, rich and poor, Afro-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians and others and college and non-college educated people. Another Occupy Wall Street group was protesting in Times Square. The policemen were no longer bored. There were similar protests in 70 American cities, Asia, Europe and Australia.

We met a Hispanic woman who described herself as an “ordinary worker,” who told us she came to the park every day to watch over her 17-year-old daughter who spent day and night at the park when she wasn’t in school. The message of the Occupy Wall Street people was abstract, she said, about banks and mortgages, but it was repeated in anger and that helped her to understand she was being cheated. “We are being treated unfairly. The poor get poorer, the rich get richer. We need to come together to have a voice in how decisions are made.” A recent poll shows 67 percent of Americans agree with her.

The Occupy Wall Street people are able to focus people’s attention on issues that transcend race, class and education. In this case it is the wrongdoing of the finance industry which affects nearly America’s poor or middle class. Secondly, there is a great deal of basic political and economic education in the meetings and actions of the movement. People meet people of other backgrounds; they talk and come to appreciate one another’s problems. They hear different solutions and are free to agree or disagree.

The mood in the park on Oct. 15 was upbeat. People debated, sang and danced. Some walked around holding signs. The group seemed open to many solutions, including credit unions, that old staple of Church social action in the Philippines. We heard people debate the pros and cons of climate change, the relationship between unions and capitalism, and the usefulness of Che Guevarra for the Occupy Wall Street group.

Young Afro-Americans were often the voice of moderation in these discussions. One of them, for example, told the Guevarra admirer, “We will deal with our problems with the people we have here and now and with the institutions we have. We don’t need Che.” We didn’t hear anyone talk about changing the system, but of making it work for the good of all.

We found the building where I had worked years ago. There is still no marker recalling my summer there. I operated a ditto machine which was the size and shape of the bulky body scan machines used in our hospitals. Now the same work is done by personal copiers the size of a shoe.

Whether Occupy Wall Street is needed or not in the Philippines remains to be seen. We surely need its ability to bring the very poor workers and better-off middle class people together. We can also use its great emphasis on education.

Denis Murphy works with the Urban Poor Associates. His email address is upa@pldtdsl.net.

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