The “99 percent”

A tense standoff last night between Occupy D.C. protesters and police over an unauthorized wooden structure that protesters provocatively erected and police predictably took down, arresting 31 in the process, may escalate into a wider confrontation. Police may now decide that the two Occupy D.C. camps must be cleared. Or the camps may be allowed to continue, so long as the occupants resume their previous non-aggressive style. Whatever official decision is made, as the temperature dips further this winter, I predict that the ranks of Occupy D.C. are likely to thin.

Police in Denver, Los Angeles, New York, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Portland, amongst other cities, have already evicted protesters from parks and arrested those who resisted leaving. The clearing of the University of California at Davis campus was particularly controversial due to police pepper spraying kneeling protesters, actions that were captured on video. Mayors have justified clearing the parks as necessary for public health, and overnight camping is prohibited in many parks.

Yet the factors that motivated the Occupy movement have hardly dissipated. They are still very much in play. These include anger at expanding income disparities, where the wealthy “1 percent” gets richer and richer and the rest of society—the “99 percent”—receives diminishing or no benefit. Protesters are also disgusted at crony capitalism and how individuals and institutions in the financial and mortgage sectors were not punished for their role in the 2008 financial collapse and mortgage crisis but were instead bailed out. There is also deep frustration over ongoing unemployment and the lack of prospects, and worry about debt and the inability, for example, to repay student loans.

While the Occupy movement may have a winter go-slow, there is no question in my mind that the movement will be back in the spring, especially because of the pivotal presidential election in 2012.

The Occupy movement has profoundly changed political discourse in the United States. All discussion now on how to revive the economy to foster job creation while simultaneously cutting spending and raising revenues to cut the federal debt is phrased in terms of the impacts on high-earners, the middle class, the working poor, and the unemployed. Where to make necessary spending cuts and how and for whom to increase taxes are the core issues of the 2012 presidential campaign. That is the accomplishment of the Occupy movement.

As I walked through the two camps of Occupy D.C. last week, chatting to people here and there, the significant political impact of the Occupy movement was not all I pondered. I marveled, honoured, and celebrated freedom of speech and the right to protest.

The two Occupy D.C. camps are in the heart of Washington, D.C. The one camp, Occupy McPherson, is literally two blocks northeast of the White House; this is where yesterday’s clash with the police occurred. The other camp is at Freedom Plaza. This site is flanked by Pennsylvania Avenue as the road heads from the White House and the Treasury Department to Capitol Hill, passing the Willard Hotel, one of D.C.’s swankiest, and the National Theatre, both now gaily festooned in Christmas finery.

Yes, Washington is the “protest capital” of the United States, so local authorities are used to this type of activity and are conditioned to tolerate it. Yes, prior to yesterday’s skirmish, police had issued warnings to D.C. Occupiers about, for example, urinating in public and the like; possible pretexts to clearing the camps? Nevertheless, the camps are an extraordinary sight, and their persistence in their prominent locations highlights the core values of a tolerant society.

During my most recent stroll through Occupy D.C. camps, I wondered how other societies marked by huge disparities in income between rich and poor would handle such ongoing protests. I tried to imagine “Occupy Beijing”, with protesters camping in Beihai Park, the dusty public park nearest to the lush, well-manicured Zhongnanhai, Chinese leaders’ official compound in the heart of Beijng. The Chinese leadership’s initial tolerance of weeks-long protests on Tiananmen Square in 1989 ended in a massive blood bath. Today on Tiananmen Square, any attempt at protest, whether it is shouting obscenities or unfurling a critical banner, is squashed immediately by the vigilant, always present security officials. Instant arrest is guaranteed.

I thought about other protest movements that have emerged from the “99 percent” in 2011: The groundswell of public discontent in Arab countries that has felled dictators; and the protests in India supporting activist Anna Hazare’s campaign for tougher laws against chronic graft.

As I meandered amidst the tents of Occupy D.C., I wondered about South Africa, my home country with its alarming income inequality. Wealth there is concentrated in a small elite, government and corporate corruption is now widespread, unemployment is shockingly high, and many young people feel they have no prospects or productive means to improve their lives. Despondency increased with recent passage of a democracy-narrowing Protection of State Information Bill (Secrecy Bill) whereby classified information that is in the public interest cannot now be disclosed. Exposing government corruption or malfeasance is now seen as threatening national security.

How tolerant would South African authorities be of an “Occupy Pretoria” or an “Occupy Cape Town” that tapped into public disgust at government corruption? Imagine a tent city of frustrated, unemployed youth and other representatives of the “99 percent” in the terraced gardens under the Union Buildings in Pretoria, or in the Gardens adjoining Parliament in Cape Town. Would the South African government allow such months-long encampments? I reckon neither an “Occupy Pretoria” nor an “Occupy Cape Town” would be tolerated as long as Occupy D.C. has been allowed to endure.

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