Friday, November 25, 2011
Occupy movement down but not out
Having to make way for Santa seems an ignominious end for the Occupy movement, but that’s how things tend to go in countries that aren’t yet angry enough to get genuinely uncivil.
Still, the public reaction to the Occupy protests over the last eight weeks has been surprisingly sympathetic. I take that as a hopeful sign that this movement will have legs.
People tolerated the protest camps for much longer than they usually do when tents appear in public spaces. I think a lot of them quietly related to the issues the movement has raised.
It’s pretty impressive that in just two short months, a mixed bag of disaffected citizens around the world took a small protest in New York City’s financial district and turned it into a global movement.
Whether it can last long enough to affect change, I guess we’ll see. But the Occupy protests got a lot more positive attention than most “occupations” get - an indicator that people have a certain sympathy for the cause.
The movement started with a single email that Canada’s Adbusters Foundation sent to people in July.
The foundation is known for publishing an ad-free magazine and holding strong opinions on corporate influence over democracy. But its suggestion of a peaceful occupation of Wall Street clearly struck a chord that resonated well beyond the magazine’s usual sphere of influence.
"The idea of Occupy Wall Street is to revive people's democracy," said Adbusters editor Micah White in an interview with the Huffington Post last month. "We are sick of the corporate political parties deciding the agenda of America."
That would have bordered on cuckoo talk a decade ago, when we were all so certain that our governments were leading us toward the light.
But we’ve learned some hard lessons since then. From the 2001 Enron scandal on through an outrageous series of global financial disasters and government ineptitude that severely shook public confidence, it has been a tough and discouraging 10 years.
Maybe the average people of the world were just ready for somebody to issue a call to action. At any rate, one group of sympathizers after another picked up Adbusters’ call for occupation and spread the word. A global movement was born virtually overnight, with Occupy protests eventually organized in more than 80 countries.
None of it will change the world, at least not yet. But let’s not discount the miracle of such a thing happening at all. Just the fact that a group of protesters kept their camp alive in Centennial Square for more than two months and city hall was still being nice about it is an astounding turn of events on its own.
The Occupy movement’s catchy slogan - “We are the 99 per cent” - is a reference to the growing income disparity in western countries, with wealth concentrating in the hands of the richest one per cent of the population.
In the last three decades, the top one per cent of income earners in the U.S. saw their incomes rise almost 300 per cent. That’s at least seven times more than any other income group saw in the same period.
Here in Canada - where the gap between rich and poor has been growing for the last 15 years - the richest 20 per cent now have nine times the income of the poorest 20 per cent. That’s the biggest gap we’ve seen since the 1970s.
Income disparity isn’t exactly a hot topic around the office water cooler. But even people who don’t often think about such things are by now well aware that crazy problems are manifesting out here in the world.
They didn’t all storm the streets with the Occupy forces. But they did make space in their communities for the protests to happen. It’s a bigger win than it might appear, and signals a real shift in the public mood.
Widespread tolerance for something as non-Canadian as public protest - in the Christmas season! Right in the heart of the downtown! - says a lot about how much the issues raised by the Occupy movement must be resonating. Protesters, you are not alone.
But Santa’s coming and it’s cold outside. Store owners near the protest camps are losing patience. Municipalities and their police departments are closing in.
It looks like the end. I suspect it’s just the beginning.