Occupy Wall Street is a protest of last resort

Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is one of the most widespread protest movements in recent memory. What began as a few dozen people leaning cardboard signs against makeshift tents in Zuccotti Park has exploded into a worldwide phenomenon. Tens of thousands of protestors in cities all over the world are occupying various financial districts and public parks, and curious journalists follow.

Yet these journalists seem to be confused, what exactly are these protests all about?

The signs at any given protest feature a mélange of political and social messages, but there are three consistently cited observations about the OWS protestors; (1) they lack cohesive policy demands,  (2) they reject a traditional organizational hierarchy, and (3) they refuse to engage with our already-existing representative democracy.

In the mainstream media, these observations have largely been framed as criticisms, often coupled with pejorative characterizations of the protestors themselves.

However, criticizing the movement based on the aforementioned observations is misguided, and neglects the fundamental reasons behind OWS.

There are very serious systemic problems with America’s political machine. House Republicans held our economy hostage during the debt-ceiling negotiations, ultimately resulting in the downgrading of U.S. debt. The Supreme Court believes corporations and unions are people. The President’s naivety has alienated him from Democrats and Republicans alike. The Congressional approval rating is at an all-time low of 9%. In short, Washington is broken.

American citizens are sick of it, and so they have taken to the streets. Criticizing OWS for lacking cohesive policy or refusing to engage with politicians misses the point. OWS is not about ramming policy, which would ultimately be dismantled by Congress anyway, through a broken political system. Expecting prudence and pragmatism from our elected representatives, now more than ever, seems unrealistic. OWS is a response to this political disarray. The protestors in OWS are profoundly dissatisfied with the status quo, and they feel like representative democracy has let them down.

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Rather than sink into a catatonic malaise and drowning themselves in cynicism, the protestors are actively voicing their frustrations. They may not share a unified picture of a political utopia, but they all agree that the current state of affairs is unacceptable.

John Mouracade, Chair of the UAA Philosophy Department, visited New York and observed the protests.

“When Congress can’t figure out what they’re doing, should we really be surprised that OWS hasn’t quite established a cohesive policy?” Mouracade said.

Our country’s political woes are directly linked to our dilapidated and dysfunctional economy. Growth is negligible, unemployment is rampant, and things don’t seem to be improving. Criticizing the OWS protestors for being unemployed completely misses the point. Of course a substantial number of them are unemployed. Unemployment is close to 10 percent for people under 25 with a college degree. When one in ten recent college graduates can’t find work, and Washington is rendered useless by petulant politicking and feckless gesturing, protesting seems like a reasonable response.

Despite the lack of actual policy proposals, OWS has actually been relatively consistent in promoting one message: our Nation’s policies ought to represent the views of average Americans just as much as corporations and the richest Americans.

The effective tax rate for General Electric in 2010 was 7 percent. Hedge fund managers report most of their earnings as long-term capital gains, and are taxed at around 17 percent. Meanwhile, recent college graduates are burdened with insurmountable debt incurred from the ballooning cost of education, and they face few, if any, job prospects. Clearly, our economic policies aren’t adequately representing the 99 percent of us who aren’t rich enough to pay for college out-of-pocket or report our earnings as capital gains. If our elected representatives, beholden to special interests and bombarded with lobbyists, won’t listen, then where can we turn?

Wall Street is symbolic of where powerful economic interests overlap. It was on Wall Street that investment banks completely forwent risk management and gambled with other people’s money. It was on Wall Street that those banks, despite their irresponsibility, were bailed out by the government. Wall Street represents the one percent of America that has most of the wealth, and most of the political bargaining power. I am the 99 percent, and I say occupy away.