11/15/11

In Burnside Park with the Occupiers

I went to Burnside Park last week where the Occupy Providence protestors are presently encamped. Like most people, I find the Occupy movement rather unfocused in its demands and unsure of where it will go in attempting to translate those demands into real results. However, the movement’s major concerns are something that we should all be listening to, because they go to the heart of where our country is at the moment and, with an election coming up this time next year, where this country might be heading – or not.

I went into the park in the early afternoon on a late fall day that was bright and warm at least while the sun was still up, and I spoke at some length with several of the protestors. The park has a gypsy camp look and feel to it amongst the tents, with people of all ages present. At the information booth at the back of the park by the statue of Civil War General (and later RI Governor) Burnside, I asked two older folks what was going on and why people were there. They told me that there are a lot of individual reasons, and even pet issues, behind people’s commitment to the Occupy protests, but that, essentially, this was a way to have a voice, something we’ve heard from their fellow protestors across the country. And that voice was in protest to what they saw as happening to them and to America. Unlike the more focused Tea Party supporters, the driving issues for the Occupiers are not deficits and government spending or an abhorrence of taxes, but rather a hodgepodge of concerns that range from the cost of foreign wars and bailouts to Wall Street, to foreclosures and student loan indebtedness.

I also spoke to a young Johnson & Wales student who figured out who I was from the Taco name badge I was wearing. My family and Taco has a long history of involvement with Johnson & Wales, so she knew I was an individual of some means and even, perhaps, one of the one-percenters. But she understood that our support for her school derives from the profits we make on the products we manufacture. After all, making things like heating and cooling equipment for homes and buildings is a far cry from making financial trades and manipulating capital. That overwhelming focus in our economy is one of the major problems we face today.

This young woman felt that the Occupy Providence movement afforded her an important opportunity to exercise her First Amendment rights, to have an impact on the national conversation and the path ahead our country chooses. She compared the movement we’re seeing but having a hard time defining – to infancy. A baby begins its life’s journey to independence by crawling and then rising to walk; they toddle and fall down, but always get up and try again as their legs grow stronger. In her view, the inevitable mistakes made will be a crucial part of the movement’s learning process, and she felt energized and inspired by the diversity and dedication that she observed in her fellow “occupiers.”

One of the emerging national issues she should personally be concerned about is the ever rising costs of college and the fact that students are graduating today with degrees that may not lead to career jobs but burden them with enormous debt just as they are starting out. All told, college education loan debt now tops $1 trillion, if you can believe that, with the average student owing more than $27,000. It’s being called the next subprime loan crisis.

You might think it odd that someone in my position agrees with a number of concerns that the Occupiers are focused on, but that is indeed the case. After all, how can one disagree in principal with good jobs for folks, healthcare for all Americans, retirement security, and a desire to see government be on the people’s side, as opposed to being a tool of corporate interests and big money. Big corporations shouldn’t be allowed to escape paying taxes. My company certainly doesn’t, nor do I wish that we could.

Despite lacking a focused program for change, the Occupy movement is already having an effect. One thing I heard at Burnside Park was the movement’s taking credit for influencing Bank of America’s recent decision to rollback its $5 a month debit card use fee. In Providence the Occupiers marched on Bank of America across Kennedy Plaza and urged people to move their money to another, smaller bank with community ties. And you can be sure that the movement, which through social media can assemble at will wherever and whenever it wants, will be present in noticeable numbers outside the two political parties’ convention halls next summer. It’s a good thing that people are out there protesting – that’s democracy.

So don’t make the mistake of dismissing the Occupiers just because they include some scruffy types and even a few anarchists here and there. The vast majority of those turning out are the exact opposite. Like the Tea Party in this respect, they too want a return to an America that’s fairer, more equal, and where justice more often prevails. Whether they can do anything meaningful to really make this happen remains to be seen.