Occupy Wall Street Rolls Across The U.S.

Almost a thousand people marched through the San Francisco financial district on Wednesday, in solidarity with 2,000 or more in Manhattan. New York police have arrested at least 700 since the movement began on September 17, with many of those arrests occurring over the weekend, an action that is being challenged in court.

Media reports mention, usually in passing, other protests around the country, but I don’t think they give the movement justice.

There are at least 154 groups1 organizing protests in a decentralized manner. Some of these marches have come and gone. Some are in the works and may never pan out.

View Occupy Together: A National Movement in a full screen map

The San Francisco Chronicle:

Occupy Wall Street began as a protest against what demonstrators describe as economic inequality and corporate greed. [...]

“The time will come when the 99 percent of the population realizes that they can actually do something about the 1 percent that controls it all.”

And NPR:

[S]everal key Democrats have endorsed the group, including former Sen. Russ Feingold and Rep. John Larson, who called it a sign of a coming “American autumn” — a reference to the Arab Spring protests that have reshaped parts of the Middle East.

And like their Arab counterparts, the key members of Occupy Wall Street seem to be young people frustrated by a lack of opportunity, and angered by the disparity between a suffering middle class and the wealthiest citizens — as personified, here in America, by Wall Street bankers.

A Touch of History

This is not the first time that bankers have been pitted against the rest of the population. I went searching for William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold speech earlier tonight. (I wish I had a better grasp of U.S. history.) It was 1896 at the Democratic National Convention. There had been a depression in 1893 “marked by the collapse of railroad overbuilding and shaky railroad financing which set off a series of bank failures.” (That’s a familiar refrain, isn’t it?) Bryan got the nomination at age 36, at that time the youngest candidate to be nominated for the presidency.

Here are relevant excerpts from Bryan’s speech:

The man who is employed for wages is as much a business man as his employer; the attorney in a country town is as much a business man as the corporation counsel in a great metropolis; the merchant at the crossroads store is as much a business man as the merchant of New York; the farmer who goes forth in the morning and toils all day, who begins in spring and toils all summer, and who by the application of brain and muscle to the natural resources of the country creates wealth, is as much a business man as the man who goes upon the Board of Trade and bets upon the price of grain; the miners who go down a thousand feet into the earth, or climb two thousand feet upon the cliffs, and bring forth from their hiding places the precious metals to be poured into the channels of trade are as much businessmen as the few financial magnates who, in a back room, corner the money of the world.

[...]

Mr. Carlisle said in 1878 that this was a struggle between “the idle holders of idle capital” and “the struggling masses, who produce the wealth and pay the taxes of the country”; and, my friends, the question we are to decide is: Upon which side will the Democratic party fight; upon the side of “the idle holders of idle capital” or upon the side of “the struggling masses?” That is the question which the party must answer first, and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter.

[...]

There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that, if you will only legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea, however, has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous, their prosperity will find its way up through every class which rests upon them.

Sounds awfully contemporary, doesn’t it?

And The Now

The bubble that was the Gilded Age — the major economic expansion of the late 19th century that was fueled by the railroad and telegraph — ended with a depression. It was followed by the Progressive era in politics, social and political reform that included the income tax, muckrakers like Upton Sinclair, women’s suffrage (19th Amendment) and direct election of U.S. Senators as well as that destained-to-fail experiment, Prohibition.

The bubble that was the dot-com era and then the housing mess — a major economic expansion the late 20th century that was fueled by computer and internet technology — ended with a drawn out recession that was bookended by the collapse of the housing bubble in the early 21st century. Perhaps it was the bank bailout that prevented the collapse from triggering a depression.

And what has the political response been? Austerity, which The Economist has dubbed part of an economic black hole. From this week’s cover:

Until politicians actually do something about the world economy … be afraid.

The editors look at Europe but also cast their eyes west:

America is currently on course for the most stringent fiscal tightening of any big economy in 2012, as temporary tax cuts and unemployment insurance expire at the end of this year. That could change if Congress came to its senses, passed Barack Obama’s jobs plan and agreed on a medium-term deficit-reduction deal by November. If Democrats and Republicans fail to hash out a compromise on the deficit, draconian spending cuts will follow in 2013. For all the tirades against the Europeans, America’s economy risks being pushed into recession by its own fiscal policy—and by the fact that both parties are more interested in positioning themselves for the 2012 elections than in reaching the compromises needed to steer away from that hazardous course.

Now, as in Bryan’s age, Republicans are focused on a “tight” monetary policy.

It is in this environment that frustrated citizens are beginning to take to the streets. Will this show of discontent be more successful than the hundreds of thousands Americans and millions of foreign supporters who protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq? And, what changes, exactly, do we need to make? (This is not a dig at the protesters; it is a cry for leadership.)

1 : I created the BatchGeo map on October 4 using data from occupytogether.org.