The Legacy of Occupy Wall Street

We were playing a game and Matt had a decision to make. The card he played, as part of its cost, required him to give a resource cube to another player. He had to figure out who would benefit the least from his gift. “Don’t give it to James,” someone said, pointing to the position of the green marker in the lead on the score track. “He’s the one percent!”

Yesterday marked one year since the movement known as “Occupy Wall Street” first set up camp in Zuccotti Park. The movement has grown and shifted since then, and many have questioned whether or not it accomplished anything. After all, America is still very much a Corporatocracy, our Presidential candidates are both Wall Street-friendly millionaires, none of the major players involved in the global financial crisis have become imperiled at all, and there are still people asking, “What do they want?” or saying, “Get a job!” because they still can’t comprehend the idea of protesting on someone else’s behalf.

Nevertheless, OWS has accomplished something, and it’s not small. It’s a seed that is steadily growing and will eventually have to bear fruit: It’s finally okay to talk about class in this country.

For a long time everything in this country had to be viewed through a lens of racism. There’s no denying that race is still a huge issue, but this means that for decades we’ve been fighting the wrong fight, dressing the wrong wound. By insisting the conversation be on race, it was easy to avoid: “My friends are black!” “My wife is black!” “I’m black!” “I’ve hired black people!” “I have a black Secretary of State!” and so forth. Racism was nice because you could stick a black person on your brochure or in your sitcom or in your cocktail party and become immediately invulnerable to any charges.

On the other hand, class was verboten to discuss. Any attempt to do so was immediately shut down as “class warfare”. For some reason that phrase was always spit out as though the very notion was ridiculous and unthinkable, so any further discussion was unnecessary. Worse than unnecessary: vile and contemptible. Bringing up issues of class were like putting a knife between your teeth and hurling big round explosives labeled “BOMB” into a crowd. You weren’t making any kind of valid point, just trying to make people angry and confused for no reason.

Not only did closing off discussions of class help protect those who were very invested in our stratified society, it helped stratify it even more. A website called “Look what this black person is wearing” would be rightly chastised as racist, but “People of Wal-Mart” thrives and gets traction, allowing folks who have little to share a big laugh at the expense of those who have less and are therefore beneath them. The same people who are horrified at usage of the word “gay” in a pejorative manner would happily refer to others as “white trash” or “trailer trash” or the “reclaimed” term “redneck” in such a manner. A television show would be sure to have a minority cast member in it, but had no problem assuming that everyone in the world (except for maybe druggies and losers) was middle-class. Ignoring and dismissing the issue helped cement it as normal and expected.

Even if Occupy Wall Street hasn’t done anything else, it has changed the stage. Class politics are now front and center, and parties and politicians can’t avoid them by waving the issues away as “class warfare”. Being allowed to state this as an issue means being allowed to examine its role in our society. Now that we can see and talk about the problem in polite society, we can look into ways to address it.

Oh, there’s resistance. The entire nomination of Mitt Romney was a howitzer fired directly at Occupy Wall Street. He was going to be the rich and successful white man who would rescue “Capitalism” from the barbarians at the gate. That’s not going so well for him. Questions of wealth and privilege no longer just get pooh-poohed and eyerolled at. There are still folks who mutter about “the politics of envy”, and everyone has a high school friend or relative on Facebook who gets upset when they see a poor person with something they feel poor people shouldn’t have because it makes being poor less miserable, but they can no longer just assume that everyone in the room with them agrees, because if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in the room with them.

Yesterday Mother Jones released hidden video of Mitt Romney at a high-cost fundraising event, dismissing the almost half of Americans who don’t pay income tax. You know that scene in the movie where the villain is just cackling over how inferior and stupid all the mere mortals are and he doesn’t realize he’s on a live mic and is being broadcast to Times Square? That’s what the video is kind of like. Romney’s feeling venom not only from the usual outraged liberals but also from conservatives who are realizing that this guy has no ideas, offers nothing, represents nothing except big, stupid, pointless wealth. (They also, unlike Romney, know that the 47% in Obama’s base and the 47% who don’t pay income tax are not the same 47% and the latter group includes a lot of Romney supporters.)

It’s certainly strange to see people getting up in arms about Romney’s obvious disdain towards anyone not in the same socioeconomic class as him; this kind of thing has been not even subtext but outright text for the entire GOP for the past year, and that’s solely due to the work of Occupy Wall Street. Thanks to them, America is no longer as accommodating to thoughtful men in newspapers who are too serious to give credence to such “class warfare”. As the economic crisis drags on and spreads around, the lie that those who have been hit by it are somehow freeloaders who deserve their fate is not finding as much fertile ground to thrive in, and that’s due to the work of Occupy Wall Street. And as Mitt Romney is finding out, showing up and saying, “Here I am, crazy wealthy! Let’s all give me attention, applause, and votes!” isn’t good enough anymore, and may even be detrimental to one’s interests. Again, this is thanks to Occupy Wall Street.

Unless you, like James, are part of the 1% (who also don’t pay much in the way of income tax), you are benefiting from the work of Occupy Wall Street. Like it or not, these “dumb hippies” are the ones — the only ones — who put in the work to make this happen. We can now talk about class like grown-ups, and actually maybe figure out how to restore the American dream to America and take it back from those who stole it and told us we didn’t need to worry about where it went. What has Occupy Wall Street done? Possibly helped save America, is all.

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