Lingering moral lessons of the Occupy movement

While the Occupy movement’s legacy continues to be written, its mission of fairness and economic equality has clearly put the “1%” on notice.

By JARED M. FELDSCHREIBER
February 1, 2016 20:36
Wall street

Wall street. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

 
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“It’s coming from the silence on the dock of the bay;
from the brave, the bold, the battered
heart of Chevrolet.
Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” – Leonard Cohen


The Occupy movement began in the autumn of 2011 as anti-capitalist demonstrators descended upon Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan, New York City to protest income inequality and corporate greed. The movement featured protesters – young and old – venting their great disgust for the pervasive rapacious culture in America. Its themes became a rallying cry for the disenfranchised “99 percent.”

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While the movement has largely petered out, due to a lack of a coherent message by its organizers, as well massive arrests outside corporate offices and banks and subsequent lawsuits, the tenets of the movement continue to resonate with conscientious citizens, and have been in the backdrop of the contentious 2016 US elections.

The Occupy movement’s renewed sense of purpose is due largely to the ascension of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, the renegade democrat-socialist from Vermont.

As a student activist in the 1960s, Sanders identified with the Socialist Workers Party. When he first ran for statewide office in Vermont during the 1970s, he described himself as a socialist, a term however that he has denied recently, as the race for the Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton has intensified.

“The next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal,” Sanders said in a speech at Georgetown University last November. “We need to develop a political movement which once again is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation. In my view, the billionaire class must be told loudly and clearly that they cannot have it all, that our government belongs to all of us, not just a handful of billionaires,” Sanders added.

The need for income equality and economic fairness remain touchstones of the Occupy movement.



Clinton has also tapped herself into the progressive wing of the political spectrum, especially when unveiling her $350 billion college tuition plan last August. The plan helps millions pay for college and reduces the interest rates attached to student loans.

“No family and no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public college or university. And everyone who has student debt should be able to finance it at lower rates,” Clinton told students at Exeter High School in New Hampshire. The goals of Clinton’s plan are to allow students to attend a four-year course of study at a public college without taking out loans for tuition, or attend a community college tuition-free. It also seeks to encourage states to spend more on higher education, while imploring institutions to cut costs.

Jewish organizers and intellectuals believe, however, that politicians offering progressive programs and lofty rhetoric is not enough.

“[Only] an active and knowledgeable populace can... achieve a more just society,” Ilan Sherman, a community leader and activist of Occupy Boulder (Colorado) told me.

“Money has replaced the human voice as the currency of democracy. This is not only due to the efforts of the elite wealthy class to consolidate and perpetuate their own power systems, but also to the ignorance and apathy of the masses to confront [their] efforts,” Sherman added.

In addition to his opposition to corporate malfeasance, Sherman organized and largely facilitated Occupy Boulder Flood Relief in 2013, in which he personally dealt with assisting many displaced individuals after massive flooding ravaged parts of Colorado. Sherman was born in Ma’alot but raised in Squirrel Hill, a residential neighborhood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Investigative journalist and author Gary Weiss, who wrote Wall Street Versus America, a blistering cautionary book about the sins of corporate malfeasance and even mob links within the business elite, has spent a large chunk of his journalistic career exposing the vagaries and excesses of corporate America.

“Organized crime became involved in securities firms through a combination of elements. For the most part they came in from ‘the bottom up,’ from crooked brokers who were in debt to mobsters in New York’s outer boroughs, especially Staten Island and Brooklyn,” Weiss reminded me. “Today I think that you probably see less of that, because the FBI’s crackdown was effective... but you’ll always see organized crime where there are money and young people with gambling and drug habits.”

Weiss, a frequent contributor to Israeli media, has worked with reporter Richard Behar on their nonprofit investigative journalism venture, The Mideast Reporter. The organization seeks to improve the standards of journalism on issues largely pertinent to coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Its primary mission is to expose the lies hurled at Israel by much of the media.

The dangers of avarice within the business world has long been a common motif in American cinema, most memorably depicted in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. In that seminal 1987 film, the corporate raider Gordon Gekko, as played by Michael Douglas, takes in the young and impatient stockbroker Bud Fox, depicted by a wide-eyed Charlie Sheen. Gekko was largely based on Michael Milken, a man notorious for his role in the development of the market for high-yield bonds, or junk bonds. Milken ultimately was indicted for racketeering and securities fraud in 1989 on an insider trading investigation. Milken’s 10-year jail sentence was reduced to two years after cooperating with testimony against former colleagues.

In one pivotal scene, Gekko explained that “the richest 1% owns half our country’s wealth,” a prescient notion that the Occupy movement underscored during their protests. “One third of that comes from hard work, two thirds comes from inheritance, interest on interest accumulating to widows and idiot sons and what I do, stock and real estate speculation. You got 90% of the American public out there with little or no net worth,” added Gekko.

“That sentiment is still pretty true today,” underscored Weiss. How did they do it? “Well, they’d like you to think that it was their superior mentality, that they are entitled human beings. But usually it’s because, as Gekko pointed out, they were beneficiaries of ‘lucky sperm’; they inherited their fortunes. Behind every great fortune is a dad’s great fortune, more often than not. As for corporate greed, I tend to think that people are actually quite tolerant of it.”

While the Occupy movement’s legacy continues to be written, its mission of fairness and economic equality has clearly put the “1%” on notice, and it may serve as a leading factor in voters’ minds as they determine the next president.

The Iowa Caucuses will be the first contest for the candidates on February 1.

“We cannot sit around and wait for a better world to happen, nor can we march through cities waving banners expecting that alone will create a new and better world. We must be the creative thinkers of our generation and design the solutions to the problems our world faces,” added Sherman.

The status quo of the current economic system is not sustainable, he said, and morality within business should not be incongruous with one another.

The author is a reporter dealing with topics as diverse as security- diplomacy matters to film criticism and sports. He’s based in Washington.

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