by Ian Harris
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]ctober 2011 will mark a time in our history when the people of the United States, facing great economic peril, rose up to demand economic justice. Since Sept, 17, 2011, thousands of Americans have nonviolently occupied Wall Street.
People who have been laid off and marginalized by economic hardship have been camping out in Zuccotti Park in New York City and waging nonviolent protests around this country. These protesters have been speaking out against unemployment and economic injustice.
The rich have recovered and prospered since the recession two years ago. Stocks have gained back their losses, and the wealthiest one percent in this country still have tax breaks generously granted them by the previous Bush administration. Corporate profits have reached their highest level since 1950.
Most recently, the federal government bailed out banking institutions while millions of Americans lost their homes through foreclosures. Citigroup, a bank that received bailout funds, had a record $3.8 billion in profits this quarter, up 74 percent from last year.
Meanwhile, the middle class has been ground down by the loss of public services and public-sector jobs as local municipalities have had to lay off police, teachers, and social workers. College graduates can’t get secure jobs that will help them pay off their debts and allow them to develop careers that would provide financial stability.
Speculation in the housing market has created a foreclosure crisis that has halted new construction and led to more lay offs. The poor continue to be ignored, as they were earlier in the previous century when Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, his groundbreaking study of the plight of the poor, in 1962. A record 46 million Americans now live in poverty. Many students are homeless and millions of people are hungry in the land of plenty.
Who is speaking for the poor these days? Nobody. Hence we are getting spontaneous demonstrations in cities around the United States protesting economic injustice. Because tax revenues have fallen off drastically and the Republicans won’t allow tax increases, the federal government is proposing cutbacks and lay offs that can only increase unemployment lines.
The private sector is reluctant to invest because of economic uncertainty around the globe. President Obama has proposed a jobs bill that would invest in Green energy and rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure. This laudable initiative will never get out of a Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
These protests began in the heart of the capitalist system, Wall Street, targeting a stock market that has benefited the one percent of Americans who have profited from the economic hardship felt by the majority of Americans. The protesters call themselves the 99 percent majority to highlight the extreme economic inequality that exists in the United States right now.
The share of income held by the top one percent is 23 percent, the highest since 1928 and more than double the 10 percent level of the late 1970s.
Those demonstrating on Wall Street and in other parts of the country have been criticized because they do not have specific demands. Their goal is to create an awareness of the problems faced by such an unequal economic system. Their job is not to draft legislation but rather build public support for programs and policies that would provide jobs and meaningful careers for the growing ranks of unemployed.
The world is upside down. The president has bailed out Wall Street but left millions of Americans underwater, unable to pay their mortgages. Greed is trashing the global economy and the natural world.
We are overfishing our oceans, polluting our water with deepwater drilling, poisoning our aquifers with fracking, and turning to the dirtiest forms of energy on the planet, like the Alberta tar sands. The atmosphere cannot absorb the amount of carbon we are putting into it, creating dangerous warming.
The new normal is serial economic and ecological disasters. This is why we should support these demonstrators. They are the canaries in the mine speaking out about crises that threaten all of us, our children, and grandchildren.
There are plenty of initiatives that can and should be put into place to address these crises. Instead of cutting Medicare and Social Security, we should be taxing the rich. We should stop waging three wars. We should cut defense spending and increase spending on education. The United States spends $120 million a day on nuclear weapons.
We can create jobs in both the private and public sectors by rebuilding our outdated physical infrastructure and our deteriorating cities. We should develop and invest in new technologies for a sustainable energy future.
The demonstrators who are occupying Wall Street and protesting on many main streets across the United States are crying out about this unjust economy. They are appealing to the majority of Americans who are seeing economic security being pulled away from them.
Hopefully, these demonstrations signal the beginning of a movement by the majority of people seeking economic justice in the United States. The people united will never be defeated.
Ian Harris is a Quaker and professor emeritus at the Department of Educational Policy and Community Studies, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. This essay was inspired by his visit to Wall Street on Oct. 8, 2011.