How to unoccupy Wall Street

The Thinker by Rodin

There is no sign that protesters occupying Wall Street and other cities are going away. Police are just one of many groups baffled by these groups: seemingly disparate communities of people intent to live 24/7 outside in urban environments, making homes in cheap plastic tents, sleeping in sleeping bags on cold concrete surfaces, and using local McDonalds for bodily necessities. For the most part they are a peaceful lot, although a small subset of the protestors occupying Oakland caused some minor vandalism at the Port of Oakland. Mostly the protestors seem to be communal and ad hoc. It is the ad hoc nature of these protests that is perhaps the most disturbing aspect to those who oppose them. “What do they want?” is the common complaint, but answers from the representatives of the 99% are elusive. They oppose the power of corporations and big banks, and the increasing wealth of the superrich, but there are no list of demands, no spokesmen, and no figurehead. Instead the protestors and the protests seem to be wholly organic.

It’s unclear what caused the movement to come together now, when conditions have been bad for years. Moreover, it is nebulous as best how it will end. Police are trying the usual tactics of coercion and intimidation. Marches tend to be sporadic and ad hoc, which often violates some local ordinance where protests have to be planned. This gives police the justification to lobby tear gas, use pepper spray and try other group dispersal tactics. Protestors generally handle these indignities well. Neither Jesus nor Martin Luther King would find much in their behavior worthy of chastisement.

I suspect at this point even the police are wising up. These Occupy movements are fed by general discontent, and they fade away only when the source of the discontent fades. A robust economic recovery that lifts all boats does not appear to be on the horizon. If anything, Congress seems intent to do everything possible not to solve our underlying economic problems, and Republicans see growing income inequality as good. A cold winter may shrink the number of occupiers temporarily, but is unlikely to stop protests altogether. Even if it does, they are easy enough to restart with crowd-sourcing technologies on Twitter and Facebook.

Authorities can try using increasingly heavier hands. After all, it worked before. During the early days of the Great Depression, about 46,000 former World War I soldiers unable to find work and their families occupied Washington D.C. They wanted Congress to give them immediately cash payments for their service certificates. The Bonus Army got the attention of Congress and the White House, but not in a good way. General Douglas McArthur used two regiments of cavalry to clear Washington of protestors. Yet, protestors were eventually successful. In 1936, the Bonus Army got their bonuses. Members of the Bonus Army also received preferential hiring for positions in the Civilian Conservation Corps. The ruckus helped sweep Franklin D. Roosevelt into the White House in 1932.

While the number of actual protestors at Occupy events is relatively small, at least at the moment a plurality of Americans are sympathetic to their cause. With approval of Congress at nine percent, Americans overall feel disconnected from their government. The Occupy movement is a direct result of this disconnection and frustration.

The problems that Occupy movements are trying to address are institutional and devilishly hard to solve, which suggests these movements are not going to go away anytime soon. Congress is largely refusing to consider their requests. This makes perfect sense because our political system has been engineered by time and money to enfranchise those with money and those that are highly partisan. The result is a Congress elected from congressional districts drawn so politically extreme that moderates and ordinary people in the middle are institutionally disenfranchised. Moreover, the disenfranchisement will be permanent unless things change in a fundamental way.

Those looking for hope will not find much. We recently finished the 2010 census and partisan state legislatures are doing again what they have always done: drawing Congressional districts that are highly partisan. There are a few brave exceptions. California and Arizona are now required by law to draw nonpartisan districts. It seems to be working in California, but the jury is still out in Arizona. In any event, two states out of fifty changing course is hardly a trend, and typically congressional districts are redrawn only as a result of the census held every ten years.

Something resembling real change is simply not possible for another year, which is when the next congressional elections are scheduled. Even then the odds of any real change are rather small. The decentralized nature of Occupy events is a direct response to this actual disempowerment.

A prequel to the Occupy movements could be seen with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. In the ruling, the Supreme Court broadened the ability of corporations and entities with money to influence government. Virtually everyone except major corporations and those in power panned the ruling. We reacted viscerally to the notion that a corporation is the same thing as a person. Before we had tolerated it, but with the ruling broadening it, slowly a critical mass formed. This event plus the way we addressed the Great Recession to favor Wall Street formed the catalyst for a new and broadly popular movement.

It will take a new people-oriented Congress in 2013 to really address these inequities. Whether we get this kind of Congress is problematic but it is possible that despite our highly partisan districts the 99% will speak with a strong enough voice where a new dynamic can emerge.

At a minimum, a few constitutional amendments would be in order for this new Congress, with dubious prospects that they would be approved by three fourths of the states. In the first, the constitution must be amended to specify that only people and not other entities can contribute to campaigns for political office and that Congress can restrict the amount of these contributions by law. In the second, states would be required to create congressional districts that are contiguous and nonpartisan, to be overseen or perhaps even created by federal judges in these states.

A constitutional amendment cannot address income inequality, but a Congress that actually represents the people rather than the wealthy and the political extremes could choose to pass laws that help address these issues. It’s my belief that these steps, and only these steps, will truly end these Occupy protests.