What do the Occupy Wall Street protests really want?

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Answered by: Jason, An Expert in the Current Affairs Category
Occupy Wall Street:

What Do They Really Want?

For months, images and words from the Occupy Wall Street protests have been inescapable in the media, polarizing and dividing the American nation. From the first day of the protests, commentators on all sides were quick to describe them as freedom fighters, anarchists, heroes, communists, even terrorists. To President Obama, they are “frustrated.” Republican adviser Karl Rove claims the movement is for “left-wing nuttiness.” Liberal filmmaker Michael Moore sees them as “powerful.” According to Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, they're “dangerous.” Will Cain on CNN described them as a “Rorschach test” with no real meaning. According to New York mogul Donald Trump on FoxNews, “nobody really knows down there what they’re protesting.”



This leads immediately to what should be a simple question: what does Occupy Wall Street really want anyway? Do they know themselves? Or, as the conservative opinion holds, are they merely an unfocused mob taking out their anger on those better-off than themselves?

Answering the question is difficult because Occupy Wall Street, by design, has no hierarchy. There is no one person in charge, no single body setting policy, and no press relations agent to explain the movement in simple terms. On the semi-official webpage of the New York protests, it states that “#ows is fighting back against the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations.” (http://occupywallst.org/about/) Or, according to academic and self-proclaimed anarchist Dr. David Graeber, one of the main thinkers behind the movement, it is about “the beginnings of the defiant self-assertion of a new generation of Americans, a generation who are looking forward to finishing their education with no jobs, no future, but still saddled with enormous and unforgivable debt.” (http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/david-graeber-the-antileader-of-occupy-wall-street-10262011.html)



These are fine as statements of intent, but lack any clear description of how they wish to bring these changes about. However, when talking to people on the street, more clear ideas begin to emerge. When The Guardian's Naomi Wolf openly posed the question directly to protesters online, she described the response as “truly eye opening.” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2011/nov/25/shocking-truth-about-crackdown-occupy) According to her, the responses could be broken down into three major areas. The first was a desire to lessen the impact of money in politics, usually citing the recent Supreme Court Citizen's United ruling which lifted limits on “soft” money in campaign fund-raising. The second was a desire to reform the banks, putting more regulations in place to prevent fraud and market manipulation. The third wish she noted was to remove a loophole in US law that allows Congressmen to pass laws favorable to Delaware-based corporations, even if they hold stock in it themselves.

This goes along with observations made in the “Occupy Wall Street FAQ” by Nathan Schneider of The Nation. In it, he explains that the organizers “opted to make their demand the occupation itself—and the direct democracy taking place there—which in turn may or may not come up with some specific demand.” (http://www.thenation.com/article/163719/occupy-wall-street-faq)

That is to say, the first thing the protests intended to accomplish was to gather enough voices in one place to create a viable political movement. He further describes the process as democratic. The protests seek to find consensus within themselves on what should be done about these problems, through open discussion. This is, perhaps, the ultimate goal of the group at the moment: to get enough people together in one place to come up with a plan together, and have enough clout to be able to implement it. Wolf's online discoveries suggests the desired consensus is, indeed, beginning to come about.

That said, bringing about that consensus may prove more challenging than they realize, given how many different goals are being expressed by the protesters individually. One group created the 99 Percent Declaration, wishing for, among other things, “Jobs for All Americans,” “Ending the Perpetual War for Profit,” and “Ending the Fed.” (https://sites.google.com/site/the99percentdeclaration/)

Another proposed list of demands posted by a user in the occupywallst.org forums goes even further, including a demand for a $90/hr maximum wage, a legislated 6 hour workday, universal unionization of all workers, immediate debt forgiveness for all, and a ban on the private ownership of land. (http://occupywallst.org/forum/proposed-list-of-ows-demands/) It remains to be seen whether those holding more extreme views within the movement can ever be brought into consensus with the less radical protesters.

So, is there truth to the claim that the protesters don't know what they want? The answer is, of course, yes and no. Each individual protester may be there for a variety of reasons, ranging from wishing for a decreased military presence overseas to wanting more strong pro-union legislation to outright calling for revolution. It is a movement designed explicitly to attract as many different voices as possible, in hopes that, together, the protesters will be able to come up with explicit ideas on how to solve the problems they perceive. The desire they express is that, as the movement continues to grow, there will be growing consensus on the path they should collectively take.

However, only time will tell whether the group will be able to overcome the increasing police crackdowns and internal dissent to obtain that critical mass they need to be effective as reformers. If they fail to do so, the claims that they are unfocused and lacking in direction will ultimately prove to be true.

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