A Defense Of Occupy Wall Street

I have been fascinated by Occupy Wall Street ever since Adbusters hatched the idea for it in 2011. Like the magazine, my mind has been occupied with thoughts of society’s ills — problems that in large part stem from the worldview encouraged by our economic system.

I half-heartedly entertained thoughts of going out to New York City myself that September.

But I didn’t. So I instead tracked the emerging movement’s progress as if it were my own child. And like any parent, I was willing to overlook some shortcomings.

I tried to avoid attaching too many expectations to the unfolding democratic society that was born in Zuccotti Park. But a lot of people did have expectations, both good and bad.

I have a lot of friends who think that Occupy Wall Street was a failure — that they didn’t have any demands and it accomplished nothing.

I disagree.

First of all, what difference would their demands have made? They had no power to demand anything from the current system. Instead, they used it as a chance to create community and talk about issues that were larger than any one political demand.

One message they were very successful with was making the extreme economic inequality in this country a subject for mainstream conversation. It wasn’t there prior to Occupy Wall Street. That was their work.

Sometimes, revolt is about introducing ideas. It’s about making people think about things they haven’t thought about before.

If you read about the fall of the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, for example, it was a ragtag group of artists and intellectuals who protested for years and were pretty much considered a joke. But very suddenly in those days near the end, something changed. Their rebellion was no longer a joke. The regime fell.

Where Occupy Wall Street will go remains to be seen. But to say that it is dead or accomplished nothing is a big misreading of the situation.

For example:

A group of professors, documentary filmmakers, corporate dropouts and others had spent months protesting Americans’ debt burden when a novel idea arose: What if they could just wave a magic wand and make some of it disappear?

The group, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement called Strike Debt, is trying to buy some of the debts that people have accrued — which lenders often sell for pennies on the dollar to third parties who either try to collect on it or bundle it up for resale. Strike Debt, however, is not looking to collect on them; instead it plans to give some debtors the surprise of a lifetime.

“Basically what we’re going to do is exactly the same as what a regular debt buyer would do, with one big difference,” said Thomas Gokey, an artist and teacher. “Rather than collect the debt, we’re just going to abolish it.”

Read more here.

A fundraiser was held last night for the Rolling Jubilee featuring some indie rockers and other supporters. Fortune reports:

No more drum circles for Occupy Wall Street — now they’re working with actual drummers. On Thursday the newly reinvented and refocused Occupy movement staged an indie rock star-studded benefit in New York City to launch its new debt-buying project, the Rolling Jubilee. By all accounts, the party was great. It’s still unclear, though, whether the actual plan to buy and wipe out loans will be as successful.

The idea behind the Rolling Jubilee is simple, and frankly elegant: buy distressed debt for less than the debt’s face value – think unpaid loans of people who are late on their medical bills – and then forgive it. As Occupy put it in a promotional video, now with some 80,000 YouTube views: “Instead of collecting on the debt we buy, we’re going to abolish it. Poof.” Still rankling from the government’s 2008 Wall Street rescue, organizers dubbed the effort the “people’s bailout.”

The group says it has already bought and eliminated $100,000 worth of medical debt. After Thursday night’s gala, which also was streamed live online as a telethon, OWS had raised close to $300,000 — which could hypothetically wipe out $6 million more.  “That’s a crazy bargain,” wrote one supporter in a blog post.

But will it work? The challenges are substantial. Slate’s Matt Yglesias raised the question about whether buying old and distressed debt, which might never be paid anyway, is actually better than just directly giving an indebted family money. JMP Securities analyst David Scharf says that even on very old accounts, people who can pay something generally will, but he also says only some 20% accounts will pay anything toward their charged off debt.

Read the rest here.

It’s not the only thing elements of the Occupy movement have been working on recently.

Katherine Goldstein at Slate asked if Occupy Sandy was outperforming the Red Cross during the response to the hurricane:

In Sunset Park, a predominantly Mexican and Chinese neighborhood in South Brooklyn, St. Jacobi’s Church was one of the go-to hubs for people who wanted to donate food, clothing, and warm blankets or volunteer help other New Yorkers who were still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.  On Saturday, Ethan Murphy, one of the people heading the kitchen operation, estimated they would prepare and send out 10,000 meals to people in need. Thousands and thousands of pounds of clothes were being sorted, labeled, and distributed, and valuable supplies like heaters and generators were being loaded up in cars to be taken out to the Rockaways, Staten Island and other places in need.  However, this well-oiled operation wasn’t organized by the Red Cross, New York Cares, or some other well-established volunteer group. This massive effort was the handiwork of none other than Occupy Wall Street—the effort is known as Occupy Sandy.

The scene at St. Jacobis on Saturday was friendly, orderly chaos.  Unlike other shelters that had stopped collecting donations or were looking for volunteers with special skills such as medical training, Occupy Sandy was ready to take anyone willing to help. A wide range of people pitched in, including a few small children making peanut butter sandwiches, but most volunteers were in their 20s and 30s. A large basement rec room had become a hive of vegetable chopping and clothes bagging. They held orientations throughout the day for new volunteers. One of the orientation leaders, Ian Horst, who has been involved with a local group called Occupy Sunset Park for the past year, says he was “totally blown away by the response” and the sheer numbers of people who showed up and wanted to help. He estimated that he’d given an orientation to 200 people in the previous hour.

By midday, a line stretched all the way down the block of people who’d already attended orientation and were waiting for rides to be dispatched to volunteer. Kiley Edgley and Eric Schneider had been waiting about 20 minutes and were toward the front of the line. Like several people I spoke to, the fact that this effort was being organized by the occupy movement wasn’t a motivating factor—they found out about the opportunity to volunteer online and just wanted to help.

So how did an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, best known as a leaderless movement that brought international attention to issues of economic injustice through the occupation of Zucotti Park in the financial district last year, become a leader in local hurricane relief efforts?  Ethan Murphy, who was helping organize the food at St. Jacobis and had been cooking for the occupy movement over the past year, explained there wasn’t any kind of official decision or declaration that occupiers would now try to help with the hurricane aftermath.  “This is what we do already, “ he explained: Build community, help neighbors, and create a world without the help of finance.  Horst said, “We know capitalism is broken, so we have already been focused on organizing to take care of our own [community] needs.” He sees Occupy Sandy as political ideas executed on a practical level.

As frustration grows around the city about the pace and effectiveness of the response from FEMA, and other government agencies and the Red Cross, I imagine both concerned New Yorkers and storm victims alike will remember who was out on the front lines.

Changing a way of life and righting all injustices does not happen overnight. It’s hard to say what efforts will work or fail. But as the above stories indicate, Occupy Wall Street supporters have chosen to take a humanitarian approach to making people think about daily issues that affect many Americans and others around the world.

I think they are on the right track.

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