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The 99% Versus Wall Street: Stephen Lerner on How We Can Mobilize To Be the Greedy 1%'s Worst Nightmare

Savvy organizer and big thinker Stephen Lerner talks to AlterNet about how to take power back from Wall Street.

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Where we had campaigns that have captured people's imagination about the demands and needs of those workers, we become enmeshed with what people are feeling more broadly about the loss of wealth and power.

Everybody knows they're getting zapped by banks, and what's so good about Occupy is that it's put that front and center. The fact that they were in Wall Street, I think everybody forgets. It was not Occupy a park somewhere, it was the fact that it was in the middle of the financial district. And I think on an intuitive level, people all over the political spectrum understand that those guys are at the center of how the economy is organized in a way that doesn't work for most people.

SJ: It's interesting because, again, a lot of people who consider themselves middle-class probably don't think about standing in solidarity with janitors. But the 99 percent statement includes the janitors, includes teachers, includes kids graduating from college $60,000 in debt, includes literally everyone but the people at the very top. Do you think we're seeing a new kind of class consciousness in this country?

SL: That is the brilliance of it, I think it captures so vividly how the country is divided.

If it had been rolled out as a result of polling or focus groups, I don't think it would've caught on the same way as “We Are the 99 Percent” linked in people's minds with people bravely and heroically doing something about “We Are the 99 Percent."

I would say that is a really important point -- that folks got arrested, were filmed, got pepper-sprayed, the attacks on people in New York City -- all of that brought it to life in the same way that the Civil Rights movement, the sit-ins at the lunch counters did. It wasn't that people hadn't been saying for years, Jim Crow and segregation were wrong, it was the image of people being attacked for saying it..

I think there's been something brewing under the surface for a while. More and more people are disaffected, folks don't know quite where to put their anger and their energy. Some people go to the right, some people embrace scapegoating, but what's so beautiful about this is it's not just “We are the 99 percent, it's “We are the 99 percent and there's something called Wall Street that's a key part of the 1 percent.”

I still think that most people are not opposed to folks having money, I think we're opposed to people having lots of money that they get unfairly. I think that's a critical piece.

I don't think people are mad at somebody who invented a product or founded a company. It's that people see that Wall Street is not productive. Their wealth and their riches, they do not come through any normal means -- they come through cheating and gambling and ripping us off, which I think troubles us in a different kind of way.

SJ: Last weekend at the Netroots New York conference you were talking about the multiple prongs of strategy that could help bring the crisis, as you said, back to the ultra-rich, who created it. You talked about foreclosures, student debt, shareholder activism. Can you talk a little more about those individual things and then how you see them fitting together?

SL: Occupy Foreclosure and Occupy Our Homes are a piece that I think is organically linked to the movement -- it goes to the heart of a lot of what I think Occupy is about. Wall Street and big banks caused the crisis and that's why people are getting thrown out of their homes. It's a combination of physically defending people who are losing their homes but in defending those people, they're challenging the power of Wall Street in a very real way. It's a wonderful nexus of occupiers, people in poor communities, and established community groups. It's tied to ongoing work.