Thursday, October 27, 2011

Return To Hooverville

It was the laissez faire economic strategy of Herbert Hoover that led to the implosion of the United States economy after the crash of the Stock Market in 1929. It was his ambivalence toward government intervention and his unwillingness to use government to aid American citizens that caused the country to slide into depression. The most he could muster was begging and pleading with businesses to stop laying off workers, but at the time, it was everyone for themselves. When World War I veterans marched on Washington, D.C. in 1932 (the "Bonus Army") and demanded redemption of their service certificates, so they might use the money to survive, Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to clear them out of their encampment, one of the derisively-named "Hoovervilles." A cavalry charge and gassing later, fifty-five veterans were injured; one hundred thirty-five were arrested. One 12-week-old child died after the gas attack.

Flash forward to 2011, when an economic malaise brought about by a collapse of the housing market engineered by Wall Street, leads to demonstrations across the nation. Occupy Wall Street brings forth collections of the disenfranchised and desperate, making the displeasure heard through civil disobedience, in cities all throughout the nation. They want The Monied Powers and their retainers to see the damage they have done to the American Dream, and they want government to recognize that it has failed them, failing to protect them and their livelihoods and their finances from the rapacious greed of the money-changers on Wall Street. Then, last night, October 26th, the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, gives her tacit approval for the Chief of Police to move in and drive out the protesters, which he chooses to do by assembling overwhelming force and using tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. The attack leads to dozens of arrests, and the hospitalization of a two-tour Iraq veteran, who had managed to survive that war without a scratch before being assaulted with a teargas canister, leading to serious head trauma and a trip to the hospital in critical condition.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history...

Occupy Wall Street is not a "movement" in the classic sense of the 60's peace and civil rights movements. It is a re-creation of the Hoovervilles of The Great Depression, thrown right upon the doorsteps of the places that represent the failures that created the economic downturn: the financial industry and government. It is an attempt to make those areas aware of the damage they have caused and the lives they have ruined. These people are a living expression of the damage done to the American way-of-life by corporate greed and government malaise. They represent the detritus left behind in the wake of Wall Street’s incessant need for higher and greater profit. The are exemplars of citizens who, pursuant to the tenets of The American Dream, went about trying to build better lives in the way they were taught, only to find out that the rules of the game had been altered and they were never told.

These gatherings have been, almost exclusively, peaceful. Despite being ignored, lampooned, or skewered by “the media,” despite the ambivalence and/or overreaction of city government, despite tribulations aplenty, these people have stuck it out, in order to make society face facts: this isn’t going away. The bulk of American citizenry is either destitute, verging on destitution, hanging on by its fingernails, or watching their assets slowly, inexorably be drained away, even as forces in Washington, D.C. seek to dismantle the safety nets which might be their last hope until the crisis breaks. Occupy Wall Street is saying: this is what we have created… what are we going to do about it?

The message is not going over well in the halls of power, if what happened in Oakland is any indication. Even as the attack was taking place and peaceful protesters were being assaulted for exercising their Constitutionally-protected right to peaceably assemble, similar actions were taking place elsewhere in the country. This is not how the American system of government and justice is supposed to operate. Citizens are allowed to ask for redress of their grievances before the government that they imbue with its power. That have a right to have their grievances heard and to await a suitable reply. Oakland chose a coward’s answer, treating them less like citizens and more like terrorists, because that is de rigueur in these times; the mayor of Oakland chose to pat her police chief on the back for his effective and unnecessary brutality.

Where a government, any government, can find it expedient to attack unarmed, peaceful protesters in the name of public safety, there is something terribly wrong, both with the government itself, and the people who allowed such a government to come to power. It is a moment such as this that marks it as imperative for Occupy Wall Street to move beyond a mere demonstration of the damage done to America, into a movement toward rectifying the ills woven into the systems of democratic government and capitalistic economy in our nation. It is a galvanizing force, that can be used to light a fire under an electorate that has surrendered its birthright to middlemen, that has allowed party politics to replace practical governance. Our complacency created these problems -- our activism will solve them. Let those who were attacked in Oakland be the focal point and the rallying cry for the change that must come.

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