Op-Ed: Occupy Wall Street Protesters' Goals

The Occupy Wall Street protests reached the one-month mark, and spread to cities around the world. Demonstrators march against greedy bankers, politicians, government cuts and the growing gap between rich and poor, among other issues. They have raised nearly $300,000, but many wonder: To what end?

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And now, the Opinion Page. Over the past few weeks, Occupy Wall Street protests spread to many American cities, and this past weekend, to many more overseas. From Taiwan to Minneapolis, thousands of people demand change. The demonstrations have raised a lot of debate about what change means. We're going to read some excerpts from a variety of op-eds. We also want to hear from you on a question raised by Huffington Post columnist Demetria Irwin. I'm not quite clear what defines success for these protesters, she wrote.

So what do you think defines success? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. And we have this email from John in Tacoma, Washington. I'm a participant and organizer with the Occupy Wall Street movement in Tacoma, Washington, Occupy Tacoma. Success for our movement, simply put, will be the restoration of middle-class prosperity.

This movement will continue to plan, organize and grow, and we'll use existing and new forms of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience to pressure politicians and corporations directly to achieve our specific tactical goals. We will no longer accept being ignored. Those last few words were in capital letters. And this is - we mentioned some articles we're going to be reading. This is from - by Amy Davidson from this week's issue of The New Yorker Magazine.

What is striking about this weekend is how well-tuned the echoes were and the way the voices were joined. It wasn't just a lot of people yelling about banks, with the Italians getting more out of control than most - though they did, burning cars in Rome. People in London, Hong Kong, Madrid, Tokyo, South Korea, Stockholm and Sydney were carrying similar signs and claiming membership in the 99 percent. One shouldn't dismiss that term as naive or meaningless without looking at what's happened.

Another pair of complaints about the movement is that it is only about catchy rhetoric, and that it's inarticulate about what it wants. Yet somehow, as the marches spread, the ideas are getting more coherent, not less so. There is a global conversation going on now. It would be foolish not to listen. For an anti-corporate movement, Occupy Wall Street has a good sense of franchising. More importantly, it has something to say about enfranchisement.

And this from The Daily Beast by John Avlon: There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be angry at the high-finance bailout culture that helped cause the enduring economic crisis. But the be-in lack of focus has not helped their cause. And the 9/11 truther sign I saw that first night across the street from ground zero did not do much to endear their efforts to me. John Avlon, I should note, lives near the protests in southern Manhattan. These protesters have the trappings of anarchists with Apple computers. They are earnest and know how to play for the cameras.

They have internalized slogans that capture emotions, but are too often unrelated to solutions, and that is a lost opportunity. For example, one frequent battle cry is to replace capitalism with democracy, which sounds great, but makes not a lot of sense. Avlon concludes occupying Wall Street will likely continue, at least until the weather gets cold. Among its other contributions, it might cause us to have a civic conversation about whether there's a right to sleep indefinitely in a public park.

Peaceful civil disobedience is a time-honored tradition that civil societies accommodate. But as they dance along the line between protest and provocation, these people might ask themselves a truly deep question, whether they'll end up alienating more people than they attract. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jeremy. Jeremy's on the line with us from Powell in Michigan.

JEREMY: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: What would define success?

JEREMY: You know, I mean, I'm just guessing, because I'm not entirely sure that the movement itself is defined clearly what success would mean. But I'm thinking that it will be leveling the playing fields between the, you know, the ultra-rich and the rest of the population, as far as the advantages of people...

CONAN: Well, that's a...

JEREMY: ...to take advantage of.

CONAN: That's a goal. How would you do that?

JEREMY: I guess you would - you'd have to look at the current, you know, the current regulations and the current things that are in place and see how those things are happening, you know, and change gloves. But, you know, the movement itself is a bit sporadic and volatile. So I don't know how, you know, you go about doing that in a coherent way.

CONAN: All right, Jeremy. Thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

JEREMY: Thanks.

CONAN: Here's an email from Bob. Success for the occupy movement will only be realized by a narrower, focused platform. I view success for this movement if the following were to occur: agreement on a set number, perhaps 25 action planks, such as limiting corporate access to Congress, details later and more; posting these actions planks on an Occupy website for the American public to review and comment; limit or eliminate extreme left and right positions from the platform to gain a greater consensus; solicit membership online registration for a powerful Occupy voting block in future elections; present Occupy platforms to candidates at all levels - local, state, national - and endorse those who most strongly agree to support it and then, if elected, take action on the platform.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Dan, Dan with us from Georgetown in Massachusetts.

DAN: Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Good. Thank you.

DAN: Yeah. My real concern is, you know, for the last decade, there seems to be a major lack of responsibility for large, world-changing events that seems to have originated in this country. Now, I am talking about 9/11 in 2001, but I'm also talking about 9/11 in 2008. There was actually a run in the United States Treasury. Obviously, it had to be from Wall Street firms because it was so much of run that it almost completely collapsed our economy, and this is - Geithner had said this, Kanjorski - Rep. Kanjorski from Michigan had said this.

CONAN: And Geithner, of course - Tim Geithner, the Secretary of the Treasury.

DAN: (Unintelligible)

CONAN: Go ahead. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to interrupt.

DAN: ...lack of responsibility.

CONAN: So what defines success then?

DAN: People being prosecuted for illegal activity that's obviously happened. The people know it, this happened, and there's no justice being served in our country.

CONAN: So if those prosecutions would be for the - what you would describe as machinations on Wall Street that led to the collapse.

DAN: Not just on Wall Street. There are several things going on here, and 9/11 seemed to really originate of it. There's a lot of facts that just has not been aired out in the public. If you do research, there's plenty of facts, scientific facts, you know, facts and things - facts were ignored.

CONAN: I'm sorry. Are you - is this the Truther agenda, that the buildings were brought down by - not by the airplanes?

DAN: Well, it's physically impossible. (unintelligible).

CONAN: I'm afraid, Dan, you're...

DAN: ...there's a lot - Newton's laws...

CONAN: Dan, I'm going to hang up because you are incorrect. That is scientifically exactly what happened, and I have to apologize, but that's just incorrect. The buildings were brought down by the airplanes and the fires that resulted thereafter. This has been proved beyond any doubt, so I apologize for that.

Let's see if we can go next to - this former President Clinton, who appeared on "The Letterman Show," and he said: I think, on balance, this can be a positive thing, but they're going to have to kind of transfer their energies at some point to making some specific suggestions, or bringing in people who know more to try to put the country back to work, because I don't think many Americans resent the success of people who make a lot of money fairly earned. I think what bothers people is that the country has gotten so much more unequal over the last 30 years. Again, that was President Clinton on "The Letterman Show."

Let's see if we can go next to - this is Peter. Peter is on the line with us from Atlanta.

PETER: Yes, sir. How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead.

PETER: Yeah. I was thinking back to 1992, when - I guess it was 1992 when Bill Clinton enacted the NAFTA bill.

CONAN: North American Free Trade Agreement, yes.

PETER: Yes, sir, and I think this what we're seeing now is the aftermath of NAFTA.

CONAN: Aftermath of NAFTA. So success for you would be to repeal NAFTA?

PETER: That's correct. Well, you know, it's criminal, you know, for the lobbyists and the big corporations that have made deals with the congressmen to enact the bill in this first place because of, you know, it took a whole, big sheet of the infrastructure of this country, you know, right out.

CONAN: Just last week, Congress passed a free trade agreement with South Korea, Colombia and Panama. Would you repeal those as well?

PETER: Well, you know, that's something you have to look at. You have to do one thing at a time, but I was trying to give some directions to the protesters up in D.C.

CONAN: OK.

PETER: And that would bring, you know, I guess, it would take the same amount of time that it took to bring us to this point.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much. Appreciate the call, Peter.

PETER: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Peter with us from Atlanta. He said protesters in D.C. There has been relatively few protests in Washington, D.C. The focus, of course, New York City, but it's spread all across the country in the past weekend, across the world.

A couple or more comments. This excerpt from a Politico's Roundup. David Bossie who's president of Citizens United: The Occupy Wall Street movement is just a bunch of trust-fund babies, college students skipping class, and ex-hippies who are taking their cues from the like of George Soros, Michael Moore and other billionaires and millionaires who want to kill capitalism. To call Occupy Wall Street a left-wing Tea Party is an oxymoron. The Tea Party is a grassroots movement that was founded in local communities around America to protest the destructive policies of the Obama administration. The Occupy Wall Street movement was conceived at the Obama campaign headquarters to gin up the youth vote and liberals and has now been joined by radical left-wing Astro Turf groups like moveon.org and Big Labor.

This is from that same roundup on Politico. Thomas Mann from the Bookings Institution: Mostly rabble-rousers with too much time on their hands might actually apply better to the Tea Party. Still, much too early to say whether Occupy Wall Street will develop into a serious social movement, but on its face, it is no less legitimate than the Tea Party as an expression of discontent with the current state of affairs. Its diagnosis of the problem and prescription for solving it offers a stark alternative to that of the Tea Party that's much needed and good for the body politic.

We're talking about the Occupy Wall Street movement on the Opinion Page. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Brian(ph), Brian with us from Buffalo.

BRYAN: Yes. How are you doing? I'll be very brief. I think the main agenda what would be successful - and I mentioned this to the screener - is campaign finance reform, but he said there's a lot of people who've said that, so I think I'll return to Glass-Steagall and repeal of the Financial Modernization Act with the Gramm - I can't remember the name of the bill - but the one that was allowed insurance companies and banks and whatnot to merge and be one big entity. And I think, if we get rid of that, those are two very big successes.

CONAN: Campaign finance reform would be difficult to - it was the Supreme Court. You're talking about the Citizens United thing.

BRYAN: Well, move to amend. I think move to amend the Constitution in some way - and I'm not a legal expert - but in some way, to limit the influence of big money on our political process.

CONAN: All right. Brian, thanks very much. Of course, constitutional amendment is a rather difficult to get enacted. This is from Mike in Grangeville, Idaho. One of the things Occupy Wall Street wants without knowing it is the elimination of Citizens United. I believe they may go so far as to call for a constitutional amendment to eliminate corporate influence in policies. Well, there you go again. Again, those are extremely difficult time - difficult things to do.

Let's go next to - this is Bill, and Bill is on the line with us from Boise.

BILL: Yes. Well, I think one thing that should come out of this is that the whole idea of socialism should enter into the public discourse now. I think that there's a - it's time for socialism to be seriously considered.

CONAN: Socialism, this is what they should advocate - advocate, excuse me?

BILL: Absolutely. At least it should be discussed seriously. Certain specific idea like bankruptcy reform and taking a profit out of health care and so forth should be part of it, but socialism in general, I think. You know, these downgrades that we see, of sovereign debt around, our own downgrade in this country I think is actually a downgrade of capitalism itself.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call, Bill.

BILL: Bye.

CONAN: A couple or more editorials. This is from Matthew Vadum - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - who writes for The Washington Times. It's an insult to the intelligence of the American people. The leaders of Occupy Wall Street piously claim their movement is in the best traditions of nonviolent protest. These class warriors are lying. The whole idea of these mass protesters is to provoke the police and cause mass arrests, which the organizers can then use for propaganda purposes.

This exercise in Marxist mobocracy began on September 17th, in Lower Manhattan as the U.S. Day of Rage. This is a more honest moniker because it makes clear that the demonstrators are the polar opposite of the Tea Party movement, which seeks to protect America's economic freedoms from the statist onslaught of the Obama administration. The leftist mob wants a radical transformation of American society in which government is expanded exponentially.

In reaction to comments like that one, Paul Krugman in The New York Times wrote a piece called "The Panic of the Plutocrats." What's going on here? The answer, surely, is that Wall Street's masters of the universe realize deep down how morally indefensible their position is. They're not John Galt. They're not even Steve Jobs. They're people who got rich peddling complex financial schemes, that far from delivering clear benefits to the American people, helped push us into a crisis whose aftereffects continue to blight the lives of tens of millions of their fellow citizens. Yet they paid no price.

Their institutions were bailed out by taxpayers with few strings attached. They continue to benefit from explicit and implicit federal guarantees. Basically, they're still in a game of heads they win; tails, taxpayers lose. And they benefit from tax loopholes that in many cases have put people with multimillion-dollar incomes paying lower tax rates than middle-class families. This special treatment can't bear close scrutiny, and therefore, as they see it, there must be no close scrutiny.

Now, let's see if we can go next to - this Robert, Robert with us from Raleigh in North Carolina.

ROBERT: Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Robert. Go ahead, please.

ROBERT: I think the first thing you can come out of this in terms of success is really to raise awareness. I think that, you know, obviously, these people have a sense of frustration, and my hope is that, you know, having seen their agenda, which seems a little bit scattershot and all over the map, my hope is that, you know, in raising the awareness, that somewhere along the lines they come up with a sort of a more lucid argument that concerns inherent flaws in the system at this point.

CONAN: And with that lucid argument, they should do what with it?

ROBERT: Participate in the democratic process, you know. Oddly enough, if you've got a bunch of willing leaders, I mean, a bunch of willing power, someone is always going to step up to exploit them, you know?

CONAN: So the...

ROBERT: And if what they're voicing is just a sense of frustration at this point, that's a start.

CONAN: The Tea Party has run candidates against Republicans they though insufficiently conservative. Should the Occupy movement run candidates in Democratic primaries against Democrats they consider insufficiently liberal?

ROBERT: Well, you know, I just - I really don't see any change from outside the system without something clear in terms of an agenda, and I don't see any change at all, you know, and it's going to require participation in the system. I'm thinking that - I'm hoping - that the people who are there for 15 or 20 days and foresee it as a mob, I'm hoping they spend the other 355 days, you know, doing something, contributing, you know, being activists in other realms.

CONAN: Roberts, thanks...

ROBERT: I'm sorry.

CONAN: ...thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it. And thanks to everybody who called, emailed and twitted. And, of course, we do not have time to get everyone of you on the air, and we're sorry for that. We posted a complete list of the opinion pieces we've read from today. You can find that at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, the politics of immigration as candidates pick up their attacks before tomorrow night's GOP debate. Plus, "Catch-22," now 50 years old. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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