Local Spin: The American Autumn
Occupy is poised to affect true change.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
The Occupy movement has captured the imagination of a nation and perhaps the global community. Inspired in part by the “Arab Spring” uprisings, discontent with the status quo appears to be a discontent without borders. Yet, the manifestations of these movements have and will take on very different dynamics based upon the cultures, politics and economics of the nations where people’s movements have taken root.
As Occupy completes its second full month of actions and has spread to thousands of cities, commentators have applauded and condemned the self-proclaimed 99-percent-versus-1-percent movement. Critics point to the lack of specific demands, leadership and clarity of purpose. Supporters take pride in this broad-based, evolving community that honors consensus-building among any who identify as one of the 99 percent.
I must confess my original skepticism as to whether this movement would sustain its level of activism over the past two months. Perhaps I show my age as someone who learned the art and science of organizing while working with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union. The farmworkers’ movement for social and economic justice learned from the nonviolent tactics of Gandhi and King, who employed discipline and sacrifice to advance demands on established governments and economies to achieve victories leading to institutional reforms.
Amidst the apparent lack of leadership and direction of the Occupy movement, however, there has emerged a strong framing of the problems suffered by many Americans as a result of the unchecked polarization of wealth: The top 1 percent receive 40 percent of the income generated in this country each year. The bottom 12 percent pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes than do the top 1 percent. And this growing disparity between the haves and have-nots has galvanized hundreds of thousands of Americans to join the occupation.
AN ORGANIZED AND SUSTAINED MOVEMENT WILL HAVE TO DEMAND REFORM.
For immigrant and low-income workers, this movement may be looked at with hope, but perhaps with little confidence that their back-breaking work will be compensated at a higher rate any time soon. It is these workers who are often paid under the table in cash and below minimum wage as part of the “underground economy.” This same workforce is often on the front lines of service to the homes and businesses of the 1 percent. The low-income and immigrant worker might query whether the movement will recognize and promote the right to organize, the right to safe conditions and the ability to retire before dying at a job site.
In our state, the collapse of a deregulated financial industry caused the recession that pushed millions of workers out of jobs, forced hundreds of thousands of families into home foreclosure, and vastly increased by millions those without health insurance. Yet many still fail to see the direct correlation between the Wall Street collapse and the consequent drop of over 30 percent of California’s state revenues. That led to record deficits and unprecedented cuts to education, social services, healthcare, mental healthcare, public safety, transportation, highway maintenance, and the list goes on.
Whether the Occupy movement can sustain a strong presence on Wall Street or in government centers around the country during the cold winter is perhaps secondary to the question of whether the growing inequity in this nation can be transformed to a more equitable and moral framework that prioritizes public good above excesses of accumulating wealth.
Ultimately, for change to take place, an organized and sustained movement will have to demand reform that can be measured for the results to be real.
As an elected member of government, perhaps I remain too idealistic about the potential for reform through advocacy, legislation and citizen diplomacy. I fear that ignoring the established political process as a key target for reform will cede even more power to those who already enjoy an advantage in the political arena.
Would reform based on negotiated compromise be better than no reform at all? How can the movement leverage negotiation? That is the dilemma faced by those of us who see engagement in the political process as a necessary path to reform.
May the movement continue to promote principled, respectful and nonviolent discourse while pushing all of us to be more responsive, caring and inclusive in our day-to-day building of community.
Assemblyman Bill Monning (D-Carmel) represents the 27th Assembly District in the California Legislature. He serves as the chair of the Assembly Committee on Health and is a member of the Assembly Budget, Judiciary, Natural Resources and Arts & Tourism Committees.