Occupy Wall Street: Standing in the shadows of the Arab Spring

The protests taking place in New York known as Occupy Wall Street are beginning to receive national and establishment news media attention. New York’s Mayor Bloomberg has noted the relationship between these protests and those that have recently taken place, and continue to take place, in the Middle East. Bloomberg points out the demographics of the protesters are similar and the demands of the protestors are very much like them. They are young and educated and they desire a place, both economically and politically, in their nations. They want justice, they want freedom and they want jobs.

The past year’s phenomenon known as the Arab Spring began in a small town about 125 miles southwest of Tunis in the nation of Tunisia. In the city of Sidi Bouzid, a young fruit and vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, had his produce confiscated by authorities from the street kiosk from where he earned his living. In protest against the injustice of the Tunisian authorities, Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire. In solidarity with Mr. Bouazizi, protests by young people demanding justice, liberty and jobs spread through the nation and concentrated in Tunis.

Eventually the demonstrations led to the fall of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president. He was forced to flee Tunisia, taking refuge in Saudi Arabia. The protesters claimed victory and the Arab Spring began.

Demonstrations, especially by educated, unemployed and under employed young people, spread to Yemen and then to Egypt. Egypt, like Tunisia, saw its “strong-man” leader fall in the face of the protests. In early February vice-president, Omar Suleiman, announce that President Hosni Mubarak was standing down and handing power to the Egyptian military. In Libya, the popular uprising led to civil war with Western powers supporting the revolutionaries.

In other Arab countries, the demands for freedom and justice have met with a strong pushback. The dictatorial powers of Yemen, Bahrain, and most brutally in Syria, continue to maintain their hold on power.

The political and economic power establishments of the West, and especially in the United States, celebrated the move toward democracy in these Arab nations. On the other hand, the West is trying to make sense of what these changes mean. For decades there has been a symbiotic relationship between the Arab dictators and Western centers of power. The Arab Spring changes things. The fragile equilibrium that insured Western access to oil and a relatively secure Israel is now in question.

In the meantime, the West, in Europe and in the U.S., are facing similar economic disparities that brought about the protests of young Arab men and women in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and throughout much of the Middle East. Economic austerity measures have brought about mass protests in England. Protests in Greece and Spain are expressions of the growing frustrations of young people in particular who no longer believe there is the possibility of a hopeful future.

And now the protests have found a home in the United States. Young people, particularly well-educated, under-employed and drowning in mostly student debt, are making their voices heard.

The Occupy Wall Street protests are growing in New York and spreading to cities around the nation. This past weekend in New York, where hundreds of protesters were arrested, the cry heard in the shadow of Wall Street’s banks and financial institutions wa “We are the 99%.” The 99% refers to the majority of Americans who now find that they are falling behind in the hope to achieve the American Dream, even as the top 1% of America’s wealthiest grows even richer.

The protests this autumn, like those of last spring in the Middle East, stand in opposition to the structures of power that have produced the economic malaise in which we find ourselves. The current economic circumstance in which America finds herself has caused an attitude of hopelessness to take a hold of these young people. There is a sense among them that the present configurations of political and economic power are so intertwined that they really cannot see a way out of the problems that they have created.

The young people protesting at Wall Street see that, in the midst of our current economic crisis, those with power and money renegotiate debt among themselves. The bailouts for the institutions that were too big to fail are examples of such renegotiations. Debt between the rich and the poor, though, are usually non-negotiable. The promises of pensions, social security and healthcare necessities are on the chopping block.

Student loans designed as an investment for a meaningful future cannot be repaid without employment. Massive student loan defaults are on the horizon and there is little interest in renegotiating the terms of these loans. Similarly, there is little interest in renegotiating the terms of “under water” mortgages that were the result of the bailed-out banks’ misconduct. Rather than renegotiating the terms of the loans or the value of the homes in question, the government and the financial power structure demand painful austerity measures for those on the losing end of the economic decline. If you are one of the "haves," a deal can always be worked out. If you are a "have-nots," you will be forced to pay or default and thus loose all meaningful standing within the social structure.

The Occupy Wall Street protest movement is criticized for not listing specific demands or legislative solutions and so they are dismissed as not really being serious about their cause. The problem with this criticism is the protesters realize a specific demand or a particular legislative remedy will not solve the problem.

The way out of the mess we are in requires thinking outside the box. At present, the predicament is the result of the closed, symbiotic relationship between the political class and the wealthy individuals and corporate structure that supports them. Any specific demand or particular legislative remedy will be co-opted by the powerful and made impotent.

What the movement demands more than anything else is for its voice to be heard. Like their predecessors on the streets of Tunis and Egypt’s Tahrir Square, Occupy Wall Street demands democratic relevance. They want a place at the table of political and economic decision-making. They not only demand their voice be heard; but that their ideas, their world view, and their hopes and frustrations be accepted as legitimate. They want respect and the acknowledgment of their intrinsic value as a part of society for they are 99% of the population.

America’s Autumn is just beginning. Only time will tell whether it will have a positive affect on the course of America’s history and the unfolding of a more equitable society. For now, though, it is becoming a significant cause in the current scheme of things.

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