Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street Is Not a Spectator Sport: 5 Ways the 99 Percent Can Contribute to the Movement Right Now

How can the rest of the 99 percent demonstrate our outrage? Here are five things we can do, without parking a tent in the street.

Let’s take a look at where we are right now. There is battle royale underway between inhabitants of two entirely different universes over what’s wrong with our nation and what should be fixed.  

On the one hand, the entire political establishment, blessed by Wall Street, wants the conversation to be all about debt and “entitlements." We are told 24/7 that we’re living over our heads, that our social safety net is too expensive, and that we need to cut, cut, cut trillions of dollars from public budgets so we don’t become the next Greece.

In that framework the only question is how much to cut and how much we should sacrifice. The so-called liberal position is that the rich should pay a bit more while the rest of us suffer cuts in education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. (Please note that taxes on Wall Street are not on the table.) The “grand bargain” is all about how much we will have to pay for the economic collapse caused by Wall Street. It's also a loser because the more we cut, the longer unemployment will last, and the more fiscal distress we’ll face as tax revenues stall.  

On the other side is the framework that Occupy Wall Street successfully put into play. It argues that Wall Street should pay for the mess it created. It suggests that the issue is employment for the many, not debt repayments for the few. It also gets us to face up to myriad of ways that income inequality is hollowing out our society, destroying the middle-class and increasing poverty. It points the finger at those who crashed our economy and it demands reparations. And it does all this without making any specific demands. It doesn’t have to. It just needs to be the living embodiment of the many versus the few.  

That’s the fight. So how can we enlist? Sure, some of us can go down to our local encampment and join the party. But if you’re old like me, or if you have a job and a family, you’re not likely to head out to your local town square and sleep on the concrete. So that raises the critical question:  How can the rest of the 99 percent demonstrate our outrage?

Here are five things we can do, without parking a tent somewhere: 

1. Get Your Non-Profits into Gear

If you work for a non-profit of any kind (like a labor union, an environmental group, a church organization, etc.) then insist that your organization devote at least 10 percent of its resources to protesting against Wall Street. There are probably 500,000 full-time staff working for unions, community organizations and environmental groups all across the country. Imagine if each week, each of those staffers put in two hours protesting at an Occupy Wall Street site. Combine that with a little organizing to bring out the rank-and-file, and we’re talking about a quantum leap in the size of the anti-Wall Street presence.  

Of course, you might get stiff opposition from progressive non-profit leaders. After all, their organizations are set up to press important issues that might not seem to have any direct connection to the Wall Street mess. But it shouldn’t take much to show that the Wall Street crash is a game-changer. It should be clear by now that we can’t make progress on our individual issues unless we join together to reclaim our country from the Wall Street elites.  

2. Organize Teach-ins about Wall Street’s Casino Economy

If you are affiliated with any academic institution or high school, this is the perfect time to organize teach-ins that target financial elites. We need large forums where information can be shared about our dismal distribution of income, how Wall Street took down the economy, how money is influencing politics, and how jobs can be created. And be sure to invite the community. Americans are just waking up to how much they’ve been ripped off. The educational task is just beginning and teach-ins can push it along in a hurry. 

3. Terminate Your Bank Accounts in Public

If you’re going to withdraw your accounts from the major banks, then do it with gusto. At the very least we should try to use our new social media to pick a common time and location to close out our accounts together. We could even have a card-burning event in plain view. (Unlike burning your draft card in the old days, it’s perfectly legal to burn your credit card…outdoors, that is.) 

4. Start a “99 Percent Club”

Americans lead the world in setting up new civic organizations. How about launching “99 Percent clubs” in your neighborhood and town? For starters, your club could brainstorm public actions to demonstrate anger at Wall Street. A silent vigil every Friday afternoon at one of the local banks would be a good start. (“Honk if you feel ripped off by Wall Street!")

Each group could develop imaginative actions that could grow in size, and that could gain the attention of the local media. Our social media could easily spread the best actions to other groups. And once you do get the ball rolling, build up your events by talking with your neighbors. I don’t think many doors will slam in your face. Instead, you’ll probably find a lot of angry people looking for ways to contribute.  

5. Convince Yourself That You Can Make a Difference

Perhaps the most important act of defiance starts in our heads. We need to believe that real change is possible and that each of us can contribute. We’ve got to get over the idea that someone else – a political knight in shining armor -- is going to do it for us. We have to face up to the fact that very few politicians have the guts to challenge Wall Street. So it’s on us. This doesn’t mean that each of us has to be a superhero and lock ourselves to the gates of Goldman Sachs or JPMorgan Chase. But each of us needs to do something concrete. At the very least we need to show up from time to time at our local Occupy Wall Street site.  

Why would that matter? Because the currency of a populist movement is feet on the street. We need to publicly display our support in any way we can. As long as there is something called free will, each of us has the opportunity to go somewhere and publicly show that we are part of the irate 99 percent. We need to publicly display our anger at rule by a faction of the 1 percent.  

Add to this list: Those of us trying to build up a new populist movement don’t have the answers. Our most useful role is to provide information, make the frameworks clear and push the discussion. The really good ideas seem like they magically appear. In fact, they are produced by the clash and exchange of ideas involving tens of thousands of people. We all need to dream them up, share them and bat them around until something clicks.   

All we know for sure is that something is clicking right now. We have America’s attention….for now. And if we want this moment to last and develop, then each of us needs to add to this list. What can we do to show our support for the 99 percent? What can we do to protest against rule by financial elites? How do we build up this fledgling movement?  

It’s your turn. Let ‘er rip!

Les Leopold is the executive director of the Labor Institute and Public Health Institute in New York, and author of The Looting of America: How Wall Street's Game of Fantasy Finance Destroyed Our Jobs, Pensions, and Prosperity—and What We Can Do About It (Chelsea Green, 2009).