Like many, I recently watched with amazement as dictators were challenged and overthrown in the Middle East. As one who came of age during the reigns of Gaddafi and Mubarak, and remembers the Iranian hostage crisis of 1979, I never thought I would see the day when unarmed civilians would take on such brutal regimes. Their courage is inspiring (I strongly recommend the Frontline documentary “Syria Undercover”).
Here in America, I have often wondered when (if ever) people would get fed up with a status quo in which the rich get richer while the poor and the middle class stagnate, and social and environmental needs are ignored. I have heard stories about the 1960s when mass actions by concerned citizens produced the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, and opposition to the Vietnam War. I’m told there was a sense that something big was happening, and the feeling was almost palpable. I never thought I’d see a repeat; people have become jaded, and with 24-7 media the distractions are endless.
I was wrong. It is happening again in 2011 with the Occupy movements.
Despite all the shortcomings of this populist uprising, especially its lack of specific demands and leaders, the movement has become a force to be reckoned with and it’s not going away. I predict it will have a significant impact on American society over the next decade, starting with the 2012 election.
Saturday I watched the live telecast of the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland. While there were some crazy ideas and strange personalities, I was struck by how incredibly sane it seemed overall. The participants have created an extremely democratic and open society. People take turns discussing issues which are then brought to a vote. I know from my job how hard it is for as few as four people to agree on anything; it’s extremely impressive that the Occupy protestors in Oakland have created a forum where hundreds of disparate people, almost all strangers, map out a strategy and take action.
I also watched video of the police at UC-Davis pepper spraying a group of peaceful students, and it was a sight to behold—police brutality plain and simple (which supposedly got even worse off camera). What is most striking is that the crowd didn’t back down, but instead shamed the police into retreating. You can tell that the students recognize they have the moral upper hand, and that their cause is just. This dichotomy between people with truth on their side and police officers lashing out indiscriminately is more evidence that the balance of power in America needs to shift. There are now calls for the president of UC-Davis to resign (I recommend reading this letter and signing the petition).
Elites across America have been getting away with corruption and abuse for decades. We may have reached a tipping point where people are simply not going to take it anymore. When times are good and everyone benefits from a strong economy, it is easy to gloss over the inequalities; when times are bad, ugly truths can come to light. This is the time we are living in now.
And while I understand why the Occupiers resist aligning themselves with any political party, they will eventually have to enter the political realm in order to make any substantive changes. Doing so could force the Democratic Party to weed out its so-called “centrists,” who actually undermine core Democratic values. Whether through primary challenges or other means, anything that forces the party back to its populist roots would be a blessing. A significant number of Democrats are as beholden to financial interests as their GOP counterparts, and helped usher in the era of deregulation that is responsible for much of our current economic malaise.
Republicans don’t know what to do about the Occupy movements, which challenge just about everything they stand for. In the short term the party will likely continue to hold significant power—because of the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Electoral College, because of redistricting by GOP-controlled state legislatures, and because so many rightwing extremists allow religious zealotry to trump their economic self-interest. But the party’s long term prospects are worsening by the day, and the Occupy movements are sure to hasten their ultimate defeat.
The Occupiers have put us on the road to a paradigm shift in America, one that will ultimately produce changes as significant as those from the 1960s.
P.S. The powers-that-be are getting scared and trying to undermine the movement as this memo shows. Also, for great updates on the UC-Davis incident check out this piece by James Fallows at the Atlantic (and check out the video at the bottom).