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Looking back at Occupy Wall Street

Published September 18. 2012 4:00AM

So what was that all about?

Yesterday marked the one year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests. To note the occasion protesters converged near the New York Stock Exchange and tried to block access to the exchange. There were more than 100 arrests.

The Occupy protestors defined their grievances but not so the redress they sought. Occupy grew from a frustration over the growing chasm between the very rich and everyone else. Occupy demonstrators took to calling themselves part of the 99 percent, as opposed to the wealthiest 1 percent, who, according to an analysis of Federal Reserve data by the Economic Policy Institute, control about 36 percent of the total wealth of the country. The same research concluded 10 percent of Americans control 75 percent of the wealth, leaving only 25 percent held by the other 90 percent.

Adding to the frustration of the protestors was the growing ability of the super rich to influence the political process, with the Citizens United Supreme Court decision striking down as a violation of free speech legislative attempts to curb the timing and amount of money that can be spent on political campaigns.

Contributing to the angst was the perception that those most responsible for the economic collapse, and the resulting loss of wealth and savings for so many Americans, seemed to escape unscathed. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of the recession, college graduates struggled to find jobs in their fields and found it impossible to pay their massive student loans. Some found voice at the Occupy demonstrations.

The protests and the coverage they received did raise the level of political discussion about the concentration of wealth and the diminishment of the middle class that in prior generations served as the primary economic engine that made the United States exceptional. But Occupy never truly became a movement because it failed to form a leadership structure, did not define policy goals or develop strategies to achieve them, and never tried to politically organize.

There appeared to be a shared sense that trying to manage Occupy as a movement would be a form of "selling out" that would require some ideas to be rejected by the group. Occupy refused to be co-opted. But this void invited anarchy, the Occupy camps inhabiting public places for months with no defined expectation of what the occupiers sought to end their siege. In time, many came to resent the protestors more than the objects of their protests. In the darkest moments rape and other ugliness came to the Occupy camps.

And, in time, Occupy Wall Street fizzled out.

On the positive side, OWS was largely nonviolent, and most of its participants sincere in their concern that something was very wrong when the nation was not building its middle class but an ever more powerful privileged class.

But it takes the hard work of politics, organizing and compromising to bring about changes in tax policy, to make higher education more affordable, to broaden the fruits of economic growth and to redress other grievances raised by the occupiers.

As we noted in the early days of the Occupy protests, it is not to enough to rail against growing economic inequities, a shrinking middle class and rising poverty. Also needed are solutions and alternatives.

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