In the last few months, the Occupy Movement has had a dramatic impact on politics in America. At a time when even Democratic politicians and progressive newspapers have shied away from raising critical issues of inequality in income, wealth, and power, the Occupy Wall Street has moved them to the forefront of our public debates.
Last week I joined a group from Occupy Philadelphia in a meeting at Senator Casey office in Washington. The Senator’s staff talked about the importance of the movement to their efforts on behalf of working people. Monday evening in Mt. Airy, Congresswoman Allyson Schwartz also praised the movement and pointed out that it has given new national prominence to the needs of cities.
Now, after the city and its newspapers have been so supportive of Occupy Philadelphia, it is sad to see both Mayor Nutter and the Daily News turn against it. The arguments they have given for doing so are specious.
Yes, Occupy Philadelphia has been a burden.
It has cost $500,000 in police services to this point. But government has long subsidized free speech with police protection for rallies and marches. And this is a small charge for a movement that has done so much to focus on the needs of people in this city. Government has also supported free speech by offering newspapers and magazines below-cost mailing privileges. And, just as the Daily News was preparing an editorial criticizing Occupy Philadelphia, Mayor Nutter announced that “city and state economic development funds” would be used to help the Inquirer and Daily News move into its new building on Market Street.
Occupy Philadelphia brings with it the ills of the city. There are problems of public safety and cleanliness at Dilworth Plaza. But the problems are exaggerated by the Mayor and the media. And many of those problems have been with us for a long time, not only in Dilworth plaza but in too many neighborhoods in our city, where men and women suffer from dangerous and unkempt streets.
The problems in Dilworth Plaza have spurred a renewal project, which will also create much needed construction jobs. I have encouraged Occupy Philadelphia to work with the city to find an alternative location when that project is ready to begin. That is especially important because the dispute with the city about the Dilworth Plaza site is a distraction from the true work of the movement, which is leading a process of collective education and consciousness-raising about the growing inequality in income, wealth and power in America.
Understanding that this is the purpose of the Occupy Movement is the answer to the most common critique of it, that it lacks a program or demands. That criticism entirely misunderstands the political situation of America today and misses the point of the movement.
There is no shortage of good ideas for creating equity in our tax system, reducing unemployment, or providing working people with better education, retirement security or health care. But two barriers make it almost impossible to move legislation embodying those ideas through Congress.
The first barrier is that, for thirty years, our politics has been dominated by a right wing agenda that has one answer to all our ills: reduce taxes, especially for large corporations and the very rich.
The second is the enormous sums of money the corporate elite devote to electing right wing Republicans and bending moderate Democrats to their will.
The result has been governments that are starved of funding; growing inequality created in no small part by public policy; and political officials, even from Democratic districts, that are reluctant to challenge the corporate dominance of our political lives.
Before we can start talking about demands and public policy, we need to awaken people to the problems we face. And we also need, in the world of Lawrence Goodwyn, the great historian of populism, to “see ourselves acting politically together.”
Many of us have long known about the conflict between the corporate rich and everyone else. But now an idea held by individuals and small disconnected groups has become the common property of a growing movement. Before, we didn’t know how many of us there were, so we didn’t speak up loudly enough. Now, we can feel the strength of a growing movement, and our voices are louder and stronger. Because we know we’re not alone, we’re ready to stand together until we change this country.
That’s why it is so critical for us all to support Occupy Philadelphia, whether in Dilworth Plaza or some other location.
Marc Stier is a writer and political activist from West Mt. Airy.