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Jane Ahlin, Published November 26 2011

Ahlin: Started slow, but ‘Occupy’ is serious social movement

The pepper spray incident at University of California, Davis, fundamentally changed something about the way the Occupy Wall Street movement is perceived across the country. Almost overnight, the movement took on the face of young, nonviolent protesters and gained credibility.

Count me in the group of folks who haven’t been sure what to make of the OWS movement. On one hand, it was nice to see a counterweight to the “mad-as-hell-no-taxes-but-don’t-touch-my-Medicare-or-Social-Security” crowd of tea-partying oldsters. On the other was a sense of tiredness that what this nation needs is to reestablish some solid political middle ground rather than be pulled off course by yet another extreme group.

So what is OWS? Perhaps a primer is in order. Writing for the Oct. 17 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Michael Muskal outlined the movement, which began in Lower Manhattan on Sept. 17, with “hundreds of people protest(ing) Wall Street greed.” After marching “up Broadway … about 150 people stayed overnight in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space near Wall Street.”

More and more people joined them, and they stayed and stayed. To say this odd movement caught on quickly is an understatement. In the next month across the nation, protests too numerous to name sprang up, while abroad “more than 1,000 protests” occurred with “hundreds of thousands of people” participating.

Although OWS has no official leadership, protests center on clear themes, specifically, “an end to Wall Street and corporate greed,” which is identified as the societal ill that can be “blamed for the most recent recession and for the slow recovery with its high unemployment, particularly among the young seeking their first real jobs.” Another “common demand” is “forgiveness of debt,” such as “student loans or personal, as a result of having to borrow to make ends meet during the downturn.”

The complaint that we’ve all heard from OWS is that the 1 percent of Americans “have prospered while the remaining 99 percent have suffered.” Indeed, Muskal includes statistics “based on data from the Federal Reserve Board”: specifically, “the wealthiest 1 percent of families own roughly 34.3 percent of the nation’s net worth, the top 10 percent own more than 71 percent, and the bottom 40 percent of the population own far less than 1 percent.”

Add the remaining 50 percent of population to that 40 percent who have almost no financial resources, and a whopping 90 percent of Americans account for little more than a quarter of the nation’s financial worth.

That inequality, which has greatly increased in recent years, drives OWS. Young people have begun to see the skewed distribution of wealth in America as a threat to their own ability to succeed. They see their own parents or the parents of friends lose jobs, struggle with debt or even lose their homes to foreclosure. Brought up to think economic equality in our country mirrored that of the Scandinavian nations (except also believing that America had greater opportunity for upward mobility), young people are stunned to find out, as economist Richard Freeman said on the “PBS Newshour” a few months back, that America’s level of wealth inequality in reality is close to China’s.

Perhaps what the pepper spray incident at UC Davis did was to underscore the sincere and genuine part of OWS. Until the policeman was videoed nonchalantly spraying straight into the faces of students seated in front of him (who were obstructing the sidewalk but not threatening him in any way), most of the reporting of OWS centered on the safety hazards of various encampments. Right-wing commentators were having some success painting the movement as one of whiny, spoiled kids prone to laziness and crime.

However, as the video went viral, the emphasis shifted. First, it was the chilling sight of the pepper spraying, then the students in unison chanting, “Shame on you,” and finally, the scene of the university president, walking through an enormous crowd of students who were absolutely silent: All in all, it was our next generation participating in the nonviolent civil disobedience of a serious social movement, a movement that’s unlikely to go away any time soon.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.