Activists, social scientists, media mavens and politicians are all struggling to get their arms around the Occupy Wall Street movement. Even as they seek to define it, they wonder about its portent and what it could possibly mean after a monthlong surge that continues to spread and multiply.
One commentator has called the movement “American Autumn,” comparing it to the Arab Spring. The seasonal titles come easy to mind as some of us recall the late Gil Scott-Heron’s paean, “Winter in America.”
“And now democracy is ragtime on the corner,” Scott-Heron sang, “hoping for some rain.”
A call for democracy appears to be at the core of the protesters’ chants and marches-a diverse army of them stormed from Zuccotti Park to Foley Square recently, screaming, “This is what democracy looks like” and “We are the 99 percent,” separating themselves from the 1 percent who own and control more than a quarter of the nation’s wealth.
“How do you end the deficit? End the war and tax the rich,” was another mantra the marchers cried in unison. No, contrary to the charges flung by Herman Cain, the Republican presidential contender, they were not “jealous” anticapitalists, nor were they a counterpart to the Tea Party insurgents and their antigovernment stance.
What the majority of this assembly of the discontented expressed was outrage against the bandits of Wall Street. “You bailed out Wall Street and we got sold out,” a hoisted placard declared.
“It’s astonishing that this festival of democracy has sprouted on this turf, where the masters of the universe play the tune that both political parties and the media dance to,” a reporter for the movement’s paper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal, wrote in the first edition, noting its emergence in the shadows of the Financial District.
According to unofficial reports, more than 5,000 people gathered at Foley Square, a crowd considerably bolstered by the presence of a gamut of unions and students. “We are CUNY,” a band of young people chanted from John Jay College. They joined a contingent of workers from the UAW and the national nurses union.
“Just think what’s going to happen when we are really organized,” said one protester, referring to the leaderless mass of people that is deliberately without an agenda.
But there is an agenda and there are demands, even if they are not being strongly articulated by any one spokesperson. The slogans, posters, fliers and placards indicate some of their issues and demands. End the war and tax the rich are simple commands that, taken together, would go a long way to curb the growing recession, halt the mounting home foreclosures and put millions of Americans back to work.
No one can predict exactly where all this energy will lead, with thousands of cities across the country and around the world catching this fever of disenchantment. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said he will not move to oust the protesters from the park-a park that does not fall under his jurisdiction anyway. His fervent hope is that the change in the weather will empty the streets and send the demonstrators to warmer climes to express their disgust.
But as Scott-Heron sang, it’s already “Winter in America”:
“The Constitution, a noble piece of paper with free society/struggled but it died in vain/and now democracy is ragtime on the corner/Hoping for some rain/Looks like it’s hoping/Hoping for some rain. And I see the robins perched in barren treetops/Watching last-ditch racists marching across the floor/But just like the peace sign that vanished in our dreams/Never had a chance to grow/Never had a chance to grow.
“It’s winter in America/And ain’t nobody fighting/Cause nobody knows what to save/Save your souls/From winter in America.”