Those who say they don’t know what the Occupy Wall Street protestors want fail to understand the nature of this quintessential 21st century movement. It is true that they have no manifesto or declaration. They have not released a singular list of demands, although they have a process in place to do so. But when you listen to the participants tell their stories, when you read their signs and hear their songs, their shared desires for our nation clearly emerge.
Their most fervent demand, not surprisingly, is for honest work that pays a decent, living wage, not only for themselves, but for their 14 million fellow unemployed Americans. But taken together, there is much more.
They seek accountability, including fair rules, oversight, and prosecution of the corporations and individuals who wrecked our economy—often through fraud—then continued to pay themselves astronomical bonuses, even as they received an expensive rescue from American taxpayers. They demand a fairer tax structure in which the richest companies, millionaires, and billionaires contribute their fair share to the nation that is giving them so much, and for those resources to contribute to the common good.
They want a political system in which every American’s voice and vote are equal, and in which large sums of money are not allowed to corrupt the democratic process. They reject the Supreme Court-made fiction that a corporation’s money is the same as a citizen’s voice under our First Amendment, and want to explore amending the constitution to restore it’s real meaning in this regard.
They want to make college affordable to everyone with the ability and desire to attend, without the crushing burden of student loan debt that cripples graduates’ progress and deters many gifted students from attending at all.
They want recognition that it was lending industry misconduct, lack of rules or enforcement, and unprecedented unemployment rates that caused the mortgage meltdown. And they see the basic truth that halting foreclosures, restoring devastated neighborhoods, and reducing mortgage interest rates and principal to fair, realistic levels is in everyone’s interest—including lenders.
They want a rapid end to the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with care and employment for the troops coming home. And they seek to put the goal of deficit reduction in the proper context. Like most Americans, they not only see job creation as more urgent to our national health and prosperity, but they also see putting Americans back to work, combined with fair tax reform and a military wind-down, as the quickest and most effective path to growing our economy and closing our deficit.
Clearly not every Occupy Wall Street protester is walking around with this fully-formed list of demands in her or his head. But this is not that kind of movement. Just as the demonstrators famously rely on each other’s voices for amplification, their best ideas and demands are crowd sourced, a rough-and-tumble vetting process that befits a 21st century democracy.
Nor is it surprising that different participants in the movement will differ in their precise policy prescriptions. Members of the 1960s civil rights movement—including Martin Luther King, Jr. and now congressman John Lewis—disagreed bitterly about what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 should include. And Dr. King’s subsequent call for an end to the war in Vietnam was not initially shared by all members of that movement. There is an important, vibrant difference, it must be remembered, between a movement and a political action committee.
Occupy Wall Street’s organizers are now engaged in a deliberative, participatory process designed to identify more specific common demands. This is an important step for a movement that is growing in maturity as quickly as it is growing in size and diversity. But as that process moves forward, one need only visit Zuccotti Park and the many other sites of this movement to understand what this movement wants.