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Signs of Change? How Americans Turned Disaster and Outrage Into Upheaval

Who could ignore the signs of change last year as the Tea Party’s no-nothing rejectionism gave way to a global outcry against economic unfairness and corporate exploitation?

 For most Vermonters the big stories of the last year were the state's response to Hurricane Irene, which produced the state’s worst natural disaster since 1927, the struggle over closure of Vermont Yankee, and passage of the first-in-the-nation universal health care system. After almost a decade the state had a Democratic governor who pledged to usher in single-payer health insurance and usher out Yankee. Around the country people were rallying to the economic critique of Vermont's popular US Senator, Bernie Sanders.

Yet in Burlington, where Sanders made his political breakthrough three decades ago, financial trouble at Burlington Telecom, a city-owned enterprise, and a deal with military contractor Lockheed Martin forged by Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss sparked local outrage. By spring there were clear signs of political upheaval ahead.

 The larger story of the last year, in the Green Mountains and far beyond, was the sea change in public discourse – from anti-government rage to a radical focus (also angry at times) on economic inequality and concentration of wealth. Conservatives called the new movement class warfare, but it actually reflected an overdue wake up from a long period of mass amnesia.

The pace of change quickened – revolt across much of the Middle East, Greece and other European countries on the verge of economic default, and a titanic struggle for the soul of the US in the presidential race. Many progressives and Democrats were experiencing Obama Fatigue, while among the Republican candidates Mitt Romney had the organization and the money. But Romney was also a member of the 1%, a “vulture capitalist” who seemed to lack core principles.

By early October, from Vermont to San Francisco, thousands were protesting the growing wealth disparity between the rich and almost everyone else. In Burlington, Montpelier and other communities in the state, people began gathering to express themselves and organize. Using social networks and a collective (aka leaderless) approach the Occupy movement spread rapidly to hundreds of US cities, gaining momentum as unions and politicians offered support.

According to a Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans felt that the economic system was personally unfair to them. More to the point, the top 1 percent had greater net worth than the “bottom” 90 percent. And, in an unusual generational twist, more people under 30 viewed the general concept of socialism in a positive light than capitalism.

The movement’s objective was nevertheless ambitious – to occupy parks, schools, corporate offices, streets, anywhere and everywhere – until something real is done about what the movement defined as economic tyranny. And tyranny is an uncomfortably apt description of the current “world order,” if you can call it orderly except in the capacity to concentrate wealth and power at the top.

On the other hand, some participants sounded shocked at the heavy-handed response in many places, as if they had discovered something new about the relationship between the state and those who dissent. What about Cointelpro, the Palmer Raids and countless other counter-intelligence ops over the years? Others suggested that the new efforts to create self-governing communities represented a breakthrough of paradigm-altering significance. Was this arrogance or just idealism and ambitious goals?

Many in the movement see it as a counterculture, a transformational social experiment. In order to succeed, they argue, it needs to remain separate and uncompromised by the dominant culture. One problem identified last fall was that to fully participate in its non-hierarchical, consensus-based process people had to make it a central part of their lives. This posed a problem for those with limited free time.