This commentary appeared in The Wave, Oct. 14, 2011.
Norm's call to action is a good one: Occupy Everything! Let's be sure to include the occupation of NCTE, a professional organization that's lost its way. Their 1% leadership cadre would rather scramble for a seat at the corporate-political table than stand up for the needs of the 99% of their members and the needs of children.
The occupation of Wall Street movement, inspired in many ways by the democratic movements in the Middle East and which is spreading nationwide is much more of a state of mind than the symbolic nature of the physical act itself. I view it as an attempt to reoccupy both physical and metaphysical spaces we have been losing.
We've seen almost every aspect of our lives occupied by the policies of people who control this society ΓΆ€“ let's dub them for the sake of argument, the "1%". (We'll call the rest of us the "99%".) From the viewpoint of educators the privatizers - the corporate free enterprisers (Bill Gates/Eli Broad) led by hedge fund operators - have occupied our public schools with charters and consultants looking to make a buck off the backs of our children. The 1% have occupied our classrooms with untested "solutions" that end up being destructive - in fact former chancellor even dubbed his policies "creative destruction" - except they have not very creative. They have occupied every single urban household with children in public schools with their threats to destroy their neighborhood schools (see Beach Channel and Far Rockaway HS) if the children don't perform on standardized tests. The 1% has occupied the minds of 3rd graders driven to tears over the pressure. And they are expanding their occupation to the minds of 4 year olds. (Occupying the womb of pregnant women is coming - but we won't go there.) And teachers, principals - in fact everyone involved in education ΓΆ€“ have been occupied as thoroughly as the population was in the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers." Success is measured not in the way a child grows in so many ways but in a data point. Schools now have assistant principals - in charge of data. Data munching zombies stalk the halls of almost every public school in America. Of course, the 1% that can afford progressive private schools has made sure the occupation doesn't touch their own children or the schools they attend.
I've been over to a few Occupy Wall Street (OWS) events over the past few weeks. OWS, attracting massive media coverage, has gone from a small group of little noticed people to an international sensation in just a few short weeks. All it seemed to take was a few cops overreacting with images going viral on you tube. Now every newscast leads with news of what the occupiers are doing.
Initial press reports were skeptical and mocking. As the interest and attention grew -- Liberty/Zucotti Park has become a major tourist attraction in addition to attracting celebrities and politicians ΓΆ€“ the media has been going crazy over their inability to identify and target leaders by picking apart every negative thing they could find so as to brand OWS. (Ironically, just as I was finishing up this piece, NPR's Brian Lehrer had on one of the "leaders" a teacher and acquaintance of mine.)
As it became clear that the organizers were doing this intentionally to protect the movement, the respect by the media for a group that is media savvy has grown. The Oct. 10 business section of the NY Times had two relatively positive articles on OWS, including a great piece on the slick newspaper they produce. And the attacks by the Republicans and FOX News have only given OWS more cache with the beleaguered forces of the center-left.
Then came the attacks because there are no specific demands or no end game. I listened in to a reporter interviewing a guy named Brendan Burke who was so articulate. He stressed that there should be no end game -- demands decided on my a few people but that in the process of building a democratic movement, ideas and demands would emerge. This concept of participatory democracy in a nation where the democratic process has been hijacked by the 1% seems astounding to the press.
Brendan also stressed this is not a movement of the left or the right but a patriotic attempt to take back the country -- really more of a classic American revolution tea party movement than the right wing tea party movement itself which is backed by the 1%.
I have to laugh when the critics of OWS start talking about how the protesters have to get involved in the political process -- go to Albany and Washington. Excuse me for a few while I try to control my hysterical laughter. So they mean the most dysfunctional and corrupt state legislature in the nation? And Washington? You mean the Washington of our own Anthony Weiner, Gregory Meeks -- and have you been reading about our former rep Floyd Flake? Oh, and our new tea party 1 percenter Bob Turner? I can only imagine what's going on in the rest of the nation. Oh, I don't have to. Sure, I want to participate in a political process that gives me a choice between David Weprin and Bob Turner. Our president and his education secretary Arne Duncan have been among the chief occupiers of our schools with their Race To The Top.
I was down at OWS for 4 hours on Sunday afternoon with my video camera. The walls of the park were lined with people holding up every kind of sign you can imagine, sort of like the Union Square market where you can shop for the type of bread you are interested in. The public walking by, including tourists would stop to chat and I recorded some of these conversations. This continuing dialogue (aside from the constant pounding of every type of drum you can imagine) is one of he most fascinating aspects of OWS. It is a constant town hall meeting in small groups -- in addition to the much larger general assemblies in the park where people pass on the speeches in short chunks like the game of "telephone" and then vote by waggling their fingers. Really, if you haven't gone down to take a look it is a must see.
The fact that so many people involved in OWS have denounced the broken political system as unworthy of their participation has not stopped some politicians, particularly democrats, from dipping their toe in the water -- but not being able to control OWS, very gingerly. The assumption that OWS is automatically pro-Obama and can be used to counter the tea party is a big mistake. While Obama may have inspired many of these young activists in 2008, they are severely disappointed in his capitulation to the Republicans. The liberal/left have been viciously critical of Obama but if they stick to the process have nowhere to go.
I jumped into a mini-debate on this very issue and a young lady from Holland was arguing the case that OWS must move into the political process to be effective. "How can they compete with the Koch brothers in buying politicians," I asked? "You have the powers of numbers," she said. Not a bad answer. Well, the 99% will have to activate and inspire large numbers to impact on the normal political process. In the meantime, political action will have to take place in the streets.
The unions have also dipped their toe into the water in various degrees, with the UFT coming late to the party. The NY Times touched on the quandary facing top-down hierarchical unions touching base with a flat-based democratically based model so antithetical to the way a union like the UFT operates -- sort of like matter meeting anti-matter. I guess I don't have to tell regular readers of this column my view of the UFT and my new motto: Occupy The UFT.