Here’s a new idea for “Occupy Wall Street,” as the demonstrations conclude their third week: the protesters and their allies should set up booths where people can get debt counseling, or help from a foreclosure lawyer (or any lawyer), or assistance in dealing with a health insurance company. It is increasingly clear that the wave of demonstrations across the country stem from a sense that the system isn’t working for the “99 percent” — and that some version of solidarity is vital.
There’s no reason for people to go it alone, without help, when they are trying work through the bureaucracy and paperwork of banks, health insurance companies, or even government benefits offices. And there’s a very good reason to offer such help within the context of broader demands, as Christopher Hayes once pointed out in an essay – published three years before the 2008 crash – that noted how many families were suffering under massive debt and foreclosure threats, and how liberals had failed to reach them.
Now there is another opportunity and a far greater need. Rather than just a mass airing of grievances, the “Occupy” demonstration sites could become an open-air help center – a place of practical protest. People who empathize with the crowds but can’t stay overnight, or think drum circles are silly, or just can’t stand big crowds of “liberals,” could use their skills and smarts to assist other people in dealing with their piles of debt or hidden bank fees or unfair insurance decisions. (Organizers and volunteers could also provide free primary health care, as an insurgent Democratic Senate candidate did before and during his primary campaign in Arkansas last year.) Even college kids could just offer time to print out a necessary document for someone – like everyone – who feels bewildered by one of the many corporate or public bureaucracies that sometimes seem designed to screw ordinary people.
As unions and other progressive groups join the march, it’s worth remembering why these ragged bands of amateurs have drawn so much attention: Frustration with a broken system is not the sole province of liberal activists or even just liberals, as the early Tea Party manifestations showed. And it’s not just “fatuous liberal journalists” (as one conservative writer put it) who are taking the crowds in the street seriously. But that would be much clearer if the demonstrations were resembled something more than a concert for change.
In an essay recently published on the Washington Post website, labor organizer and historian Richard Yeselson wrote that in order to become involved in political action, people must “think that the movement connects to their everyday lives, that if it succeeds, those lives will be changed in an obvious and better way.” His point deserves to be taken seriously, especially by labor leaders who must decide whether and how they can support the “Occupy” movement.
As unions and other progressive groups join the march, it’s worth remembering why a ragged band of amateurs in downtown Manhattan has drawn so much attention: Frustration with a broken system is not the sole province of liberal activists or even just liberals, as the early Tea Party manifestations showed. And it’s not just “fatuous liberal journalists” (as one conservative writer put it) who empathize with the crowds in the street. So I confirmed during an afternoon spent speaking with the people who own and work in the shops around my Brooklyn neighborhood – the laundromat, the deli, the icre cream shop, the hardware store — rather than in Zuccotti Park with the activists, as I had originally planned.
Sam and Alonso, working at the Late Night Stars deli down the block, were all for the protests. A young immigrant from Yemen, Sam said, “We’ve been waiting for them to say something all this time. Their conscience is awakening,” he added, noting that the events of the past year in the Mideast proved that anything can happen. Alonso, who moved from upstate New York in hope of opening a bagel store, agreed, adding that banks and big corporations do everyting “in tiny print.”
Our conversation was interrupted by a middle-aged Italian-American named Frank, who owns a nearby paint store. He scoffed at the demonstrators as “trust fund babies.” But soon an 85 year-old World War II veteran in a sweatsuit walked in. Asked what he thought of the protesters, he said wistfully, “They’re beautiful people, but there needs to be 50 million of them and they need to march on the White House.” Explaining that he doesn’t like the president (“not because he’s black”), he suggested talking with his friend Mike, who owned the ice cream store down the block.
In his early 60s, Mike had a theory about the demonstrators, suggesting that they had been inspired by the writings of radical Saul Alinsky and “self-proclaimed communists” like former White House adviser Van Jones.
But “of course they have merit,” he said of the demonstrations, when the discussion turned to national “You get frustrated blue in the face,” said Mike. “Regular working people around here are all for it until the [protesters]do cuckoo things like trying to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge,” where hundreds were arrested last week.
Although Mike didn’t like the stimulus or social welfare programs, he said it’s impossible for small business owners like him to deal with banks and insurance companies.
I floated my idea to turn the demonstration sites into places where people could work together to solve problems. He was more enthusiastic: “Everybody needs help gaming the system! Big corporations and big government do it all the time,” he exclaimed. “But they’d need a permit.”
They could probably get one – and they might attract people like the alienated citizens on my block if they did.