Occupy Wall Street: Where does it go from here?

Oct 17, 2011

I drove into downtown Traverse City on Saturday afternoon, and to my surprise, found an Occupy Wall Street demonstration occupying both sides of Front Street, the town’s main drag.

Well, it was actually called an “Occupy Traverse City,” demonstration. The protestors, who numbered perhaps fifty or sixty, seemed more cheerful than angry. The weather was brisk but pleasant; it was a nice day to be outside.

Their mood was perhaps helped by the fact that the demonstration took place in front of a Horizon book store, and the protestors could, and did, pop in for coffee or chai latte.

This had the political effect of making me nostalgic for Borders’. The protestors were all white and almost all well-scrubbed. Their ages and signs varied widely. One said “throw all the incumbents out,” which you could easily have imagined at a Tea Party rally.

One or two signs specifically attacked the Republicans in Congress, but most seemed non-partisan, but anti-corporation.

The most common signs said “we are the ninety-nine percent,“ an allusion to the fact that most income growth in this nation has gone to those with incomes in the upper one percent. There were lots of anti-big business signs, and the most sardonic said “I refuse to believe corporations are people until Texas executes one.”

What was interesting was that the atmosphere was more that of a happening than of an angry demonstration. Their goal seemed simply to get passing cars to honk and wave, and when they did, they cheered. Former Governor Bill Milliken passed by and waved, and they cheered him too. If there was any opposition, I didn’t see it.

I was meeting Dean Robb, the legendary civil rights lawyer, for dinner. He had been signing copies of his autobiography at Horizon and was startled and pleased to discover the demonstration.

“I feel like I should have joined it,” he said.

But what wasn’t clear, from the few protestors I talked to there, or from press coverage of Occupy Wall Street demonstrations elsewhere, is what exactly they seek to accomplish.

The demonstrators don’t like the fact that Wall Street got bailed out and so many Americans still don’t have jobs.

There is also anger that Michigan businesses are getting huge tax cuts and thousands of children are losing welfare benefits, apparently forever. But it isn’t clear what exactly they want to do about it. They aren’t making precise demands. So far, there is no Candidate X promising, say, to bring more corporate malefactors to justice. Nor is there a Candidate Y saying that the richest one percent need to pay more taxes and the poorer fifty percent less, so we have more equality.

That may yet happen. Protest movements sometimes take time to gel, and longer still to build up enough momentum to succeed. We saw that with civil rights, and the Vietnam War. Results took years.

But those movements knew precisely what they wanted. Those in the Occupy Wall Street movement may yet develop a specific agenda. Charismatic political candidates may emerge to support it.

That could dramatically change American politics. But that hasn’t happened yet, and unless it does, the “Occupy” movement may have little political impact, at least in the foreseeable future.