Every year I teach classes on US social policy and community health. We usually watch the film Unnatural Causes, a documentary about the ways inequalities in wealth are reflected in our health. The film explores indicators of inequality including social determinants of health among various populations, examples of excess death in low-income communities, high pre-term births among African American mothers, and overall high rates of infant mortality across the board. The US rate of 7 deaths per thousand infants ranks it 34th in the world, below Cuba and Portugal.1 The statistic is thought to be an indicator of general health of a population. Income inequality is a means to think about core barriers to community health. Throughout the class, we talk about solutions for the problem, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and national healthcare. But what we all agree is really needed are movements to break down these inequalities.
In 2011, a movement was born to do something about the problem. On a week in September when new statistics came out pointing to an 18-year high in poverty levels, a group of idealistic youth descended on Wall Street (Saturday, Sept. 17). Dismayed with Obama’s one-sided approach to serving the needs of bankers, and with the lack of a national policy to address increasingly severe social and economic inequalities, a new generation turned to the street to pursue their own solutions, establishing a space where they would rally, cook, create art, and participate in an open-ended experiment in democracy. Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was a call to action heard around the globe. Its central target: inequalities of income and wealth.
Of course, Occupy Wall Street was not the first movement to take on this issue. The French Revolution of 1789 expressed a similar aspiration. So have many subsequent movements, yet the problem has remained. In recent years, there has been an exponential increase in income inequality worldwide. Domestic inequality widened during the 1990s economic expansion, as the US maintained its position as the leader in inequality among advanced nations. The great bulk of the wealth created in the 1990s went to the upper 5% of US families. The top 5% got 43% of income whereas the bottom 20% got only 5%.2
Movements I cared about, from the burgeoning global justice movement to queer/AIDS activism, recognized that their challenges were only magnified by the problem. “What we are witnessing … are several powerful social shifts which could easily and swiftly fall into place, causing a full-scale sex panic to break out nationwide,” remarked author and activist Eric Rofes in a 1997 speech, noting that the “intense concentration of wealth” was making US cities into “sites of contentious class-based battles over massive corporate land-grabs.” He added, “This is the way terror and scapegoating operate in a postmodern culture.”3
Economic and social inequality produces countless social problems, as well as systems of blame and retribution. After all, the US prison population represents 3% of the US male workforce, most of whom are high-school dropouts for whom the job market has collapsed. Those without high-tech skills remain locked out of the new economy. All the while, incarceration rates have doubled, and then nearly doubled again, with disproportionate numbers of people of color locked up and subject to capital punishment. “Racially targeted mass incarceration: Not in a democracy!” declared a sign in the February 20, 2012 OWS march in New York against the prison/industrial complex. The beauty of OWS is its ability to connect the dots between systems of oppression, as well as between movements.
Global capitalism, activists would contend, was mauling the public: the “commons” are being turned into private malls; genes and seeds are being altered and patented; water is being dammed, bought and sold as an increasingly scarce and valuable commodity; politicians and whole governments are routinely bribed and bent to capital’s will; children are targeted and tracked at birth, fed advertisements and slogans in place of needed nourishment. This was a central idea of the 2002 anthology, From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, that I co-edited with Ron Hayduk. Ten years later, the pattern was only increasing, with more and more of the commons cordoned off, and meeting places replaced with fences and entrance fees, as public spaces were steadily privatized. The human cost of globalization is often social displacement. With OWS, a new movement would challenge such displacement by connecting the dots between banking practices and their social consequences, while disrupting auctions of foreclosed homes.
Most importantly, OWS stayed downtown and local. It set its eyes on Wall Street and the system it supported, focusing on it for months on end. On Friday Sept. 16, activists held a general assembly and Critical Mass bike ride in support of the movement. The 17th began with rallies, street actions, and general assemblies. No one knew what to make of the action at first. Youth had organized it, although looking around the space that afternoon I saw many of the usual suspects, police, a few supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, etc. With backpacks in hand, activists wandered through Zuccotti Park, later dubbed Liberty Plaza. They held a general assembly and spent the night. Many talked all night. Yet the actions continued Sunday and so did the general assemblies. For many, this was a continuation of actions taking place from Egypt to Wisconsin and Albany, where waves of protests challenged the politics of austerity. Already on May 12, 2011, activists from around the country had converged on Wall St. to protest budget austerity; the comparison with Cairo’s Tahrir Square was widely made.
In the months following Sept. 17, I would ride my bike to Liberty Plaza almost every day. One of my favorite activities was to peruse the painted cardboard signs on display. Sign after sign highlighted record-level inequalities in wealth. “The wealthiest 400 Americans own more than the poorest 60%. Who do politicians really care about?” On the north side of the park, many posted messages explaining why they were there. “GET MAD” read a message painted on the back of a pizza box. “Citizens United Against Greedy Bankers” read another. Many addressed the influence of money on politics. “Who Funds Our Senators? Wall Street.” “Corporations are People Too: RIP McCain Feingold.” Others raged at the system itself: “Occupy Wall Street: Time to Change the System.” “Kill the Corporate Worm.” “The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Poorer, Flawed System.” “Wall Street Doesn’t Pay.” Some recalled the generation of 1968: “Revolution is Poetry, Poetry is Revolution! Imagination!!!” Others called for a Velvet Revolution-type moment in which we tear down the wall: “Rip Down Wall Street and Make a Just Street.” The central theme was that democracy is bought, sold and controlled by Wall Street.
The driving force behind OWS was and is its focus on how inequalities affect people’s lives. Research from the Fiscal Policy Institute4 shows that the richest 1% of earners receives 35% of all income collected in New York State. In New York City, 44% of all income is collected by the top 1%. The financial services industry is once again making record profits and real estate interests have spent millions on PR and lobby campaigns to weaken rent control, undermine teachers’ contract rights, and cut social services. Today, one in five New Yorkers lives in poverty. And poverty has risen to 15.1% nationally. The poverty threshold for a family of three is $15,205. Conversely, the wealth of the top 1% is greater than that of the bottom 90% combined. With poverty numbers on the rise, the movement’s declaration, “We are the 99%,” seemed to resonate. “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!” “All day, all week: Occupy Wall Street!!!!” everyone chanted as the early morning rallies made their way through New York’s financial district. And more and more newspapers started writing about the growing inequality.
Activists would stay downtown for two months, until their eviction on the night of November 14/15. During that time, those in support of the 99% held rallies for healthcare and against police brutality, built solidarity with labor, immigrants, and AIDS activists, and shifted a national conversation. And policies began to change. When activists called Governor Cuomo “Governor 1%,” he pushed to expand a form of the millionaire’s tax. Even eviction could not slow the nascent movement. Post-eviction actions would target Goldman Sachs, the foreclosure crisis, and the need for public space where people can meet in the streets. And the dirty secret of income inequality in the US was exposed for all to see, and even possibly do something about.
1. “Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick?” (California Newsreel documentary, 2008), www.unnaturalcauses.org.
2. Richard B. Freeman, The new inequality: Creating solutions for poor America, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.
3. Eric Rofes, “The emerging sex panic targeting gay men.” Speech given at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force’s Creating Change Conference in San Diego, November 16, 1997.
4. Fiscal Policy Institute, “Grow Together or Pull Further Apart: Income Concentration Trends in New York,” December 13, 2010.