“I Want My Job Back:” Scenes from a Season of Protest
The other day in my Manhattan neighborhood, a woman passed me in the street. She was obviously headed for a demonstration somewhere in the big city, with a sign tucked sideways under her arm. I could just make out the large black letters on a white background that said: “I Want My Job Back.” And they claim the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators have no demands!
Here are a few observations from recent trips to Zuccotti Park and various marches I’ve been on, including last Saturday when the Occupy movement went global with, the Washington Post reports, rallies in “more than 900” cities in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the United States. Having been at many demonstrations in my life, here’s the strangest and perhaps the most striking thing I’ve noticed: I have yet to see a single counterdemonstration, or even a single counterdemonstrator. Not one. Nor a single sign expressing disapproval, outrage, or upset with the Occupy Wall Street movement. This, believe me, is not normal for protests. Talk about expressing the will of the 99%!
And the earliest public opinion polls reflect this. According to an Ipsos poll, a startling 82% of Americans have heard of the movement, striking percentages are following it with some attention, and -- according to TIME magazine -- 54% of Americans have a favorable view of it, only 23% an unfavorable one. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising in a country in which 86% of those polled believe “Wall Street and its lobbyists have too much influence in Washington,” or in which median household income fell by 6.7% after the Great Recession of 2008 was officially declared over (9.8% since it began).
I was at the edge of Zuccotti Park the other day when members of SEIU 32BJ, the building workers union, arrived, a sea of yellow T-shirts and signs. With a new contract on the horizon, they had been demonstrating on their own in the Wall Street area and decided “spontaneously” -- so several told me -- to march to the park. (As one SEIU organizer put it, “Our members really get it, the connection between this and us.”) The energy was sky-high, the excitement palpable, the chanting and cheering loud as they looked down on what could only be described visually as a hippie encampment.
Had this been the 1960s, conflict would undoubtedly have followed. I found myself with a burly white guy wearing a red Communications Workers of America T-shirt on one side of me and a young black woman with a yellow SEIU T-shirt on the other. He promptly commented with indignation and accuracy: “You know, we were saying the 1% and the 99% for like five years and nobody paid attention because we’re unions, we’re the wallpaper!” I braced myself for the coming diatribe against the Zuccotti Park protesters for appropriating the slogan and grabbing the glory. Instead, he continued with unmistakable enthusiasm, “You know, it’s great that these kids have taken it and put it on the map!” At which point the young woman next to me chimed in with equal enthusiasm, “It’s not just the unions any more! It’s bigger than that!”
It is bigger and could be bigger yet, 900 cities or not. It could explode in all sorts of unknown directions in all sorts of unexpected places. This weekend, at another spot, I listened to a group of young people from local colleges, for instance, talking soberly about the possibility of taking over campus buildings, only to be drowned out by arriving marchers powered by drums chanting, “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!” In that same crowd, amid varied signs (“Arab Spring, European Summer, American Fall, Chinese Winter,” “Mink Coats Don’t Trickle Down”) was one that said, “My dad works for Wall Street and I’m taking a stand” -- and she was.
Whatever other worlds are possible, few have pointed longer or more vigorously to the remarkable possibilities that lurk in our present world, in our moment, in ourselves than Rebecca Solnit, who long ago saw the hope that lay “in the dark” and whose moment this has to be. And nowhere will you find a better or more moving summary of our “season” of global protest than in her latest post, “Letter to a Dead Man About the Occupation of Hope.”
Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt