Who Is Demonizing the Rich?

Obama and Occupy Wall Street

Last weekend, at the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall, two of King's children gave shout-outs to Occupy Wall Street, now spreading around the country and the world. His daughter Bernice spoke of it as "a freedom explosion" and his son Martin eloquently hailed "the young people of the Occupy movement all over this country and throughout the world [who] are seeking justice... for working class people barely making it, justice for middle class folk unable to pay their mortgages... justice for the young people who graduate from college and are unemployed and burdened by student loans they cannot repay, justice for everyone who is simply asking the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share."

When President Obama gave his speech on King, he referred to the Occupy movement only once and obliquely. "If [King] were alive today," he said, "I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there..." Amid the list of King's accomplishments, he conspicuously did not mention that his last act before being assassinated was to organize the Poor People's Campaign, including "Resurrection City," a shantytown of "plywood, teepee-looking A-frames, houses," all built on that same Mall to reveal the look, and so the existence, of the poor to the eyes of the rich -- and to the nation.

Daniel Levine, a 20-year-old college student manning the Occupy Wall Street information table at Zuccotti Park, responded to President Obama's "demonizing" remark this way: "He's trying to make excuses for the rich people who donate to his campaign. The rich demonized themselves the second they decided they were going to make fraudulent derivative swaps, the minute they decided to evict people from homes they didn't even own." It was a sentiment that might be widely seconded throughout the Occupy movement (from which, in word or image, the president remains missing in action).

Give Obama credit, though. He practices what he preaches. While he did once refer to the denizens of Wall Street as "fat cats," the Washington Postrecently reported that his 2012 election campaign has done anything but demonize them. In fact, so far early in this election season, according to new fundraising data, the campaign has "managed to raise far more money... from the financial and banking sector than Mitt Romney or any other Republican presidential candidate." (Not that Romney has been suffering when it comes to Wall Street, where he's raising money hand over fist from all the firms you love to hate.)

Meanwhile, in New York City, Mayor Bloomberg is making no less subtle distinctions than the president. Having tried and failed to demonize and evict the occupiers of Zuccotti Park on the grounds of uncleanliness, he is now coming out in favor of the rights of human beings -- but not of tents. At a recent news conference, he announced that "the Constitution doesn't protect tents, it protects speech and assembly." Except for medical tents, few Zuccotti Park occupiers have them, but in his urge to oust the protesters the mayor is obviously confusing the tent cities of the homeless with the encampment in his jurisdiction. As Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, makes clear in a new piece, "Throw Them Out With the Trash, Why Homelessness Is Becoming an Occupy Wall Street Issue," for the 1%, the fate of the homeless and of the demonstrators in lower Manhattan is merging.

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