Saturday, October 8, 2011

The People Want to be Heard...Again.

"I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this any more." Network 1976

Everywhere I go these days I hear the same thing.  “What’s going on in Greece?”  It’s generally followed by a comment along the lines of, “It seems like the place is falling apart.”

It’s reached the point where I want to say, “Really, I haven’t noticed?”  
Louisa Gouliamaki/Agence France-Presse

But of course I have, and things are going to get a lot worse for a long time.  It makes me very sad.

The Greek people have lost confidence in their leadership but not in themselves.  They are willing to suffer to get their country out of the mess that it’s in, but only if they see a viable restructuring plan that is both equitable and realistically achievable.  Most see their leadership as either clueless to what must be done, or unwilling to implement promised measures that might threaten their own political bases. 

One friend described the relationship between Greece’s politicians and its EU/IMF lenders as “making kamaki.”  Kamaki is the Greek name for the trident used to spear an octopus, but in popular usage it’s slang for the Greek man’s perceived skills at seduction.  When one hears, “Our leaders are making kamaki with them,” it’s a crude way of saying that Greece is getting what it wants by telling the EU and IMF what they want to hear.  

What’s most surprising is that each seems to be expecting flowers in the morning from the other. 
Solon (638-558 BC)

Some plan.  More like a prayer.  Perhaps the historians among Greece’s leaders believe that debt forgiveness is in the cards.  After all, Greece is the cradle of democracy and its generally credited father of democracy, Solon, did just that over 2500 years ago in the 6th Century BC.  Solon imposed debt forgiveness, but that was to end civil war and proved to be only a short-term solution.

Whatever.  The bottom line is that Greece’s leadership will offer the Greek people an honest, workable plan and commit to implementing it fairly or it will not.  Either way the Greek people will survive despite their leaders, for by nature and history, perseverance in the face of adversity is the Greek way.  God bless them.  

But, frankly, the news that has captured my imagination is Occupy Wall Street. 

I don’t know a lot about the goals of the demonstrators, other than to bring about a more equitable distribution of wealth—an admirable, difficult to achieve concept.  Much like trying to bring about an end to a war in Southeast Asia.  Yes, today’s demonstrations remind me so very much of my own experiences forty years ago as a young Wall Street lawyer in that same venue.

I’m not going to attempt to draw parallels between the two movements, except to say Nixon was elected President in 1968 promising to end the Vietnam War, but it did not end until 1975, past his tenure.  I moved to New York City in the fall of 1969 and vividly remember the Spring of 1970, standing in front of Trinity Church, at the top of Wall Street, watching peace demonstrators march down Broadway.  I saw counter-demonstrators in hard hats with American flags mounted on rebar staffs swinging their flags at the demonstrators, while others tossed empty soda bottles down from construction sites into the crowds.

The term “hardhat” came out of those Wall Street demonstrations, as did new NYPD procedures on how to handle crowds.  I grew up among Western Pennsylvania The Deer Hunter neighborhoods, so I understand from where the sincere patriot devotion sprang, but what I witnessed over those few days was just plain wrong.

I remember receiving a call a night or so later from a woman begging me to come to New York University and serve as a lawyer-buffer between the police and demonstrators who’d taken over the Student Center.  There was genuine fear in her voice.  It was May 4, 1970 and Kent State had happened that afternoon.  I went.  Police were not to be seen.  Students talked quietly among themselves.  Polarization had reached a new level that neither side wanted to test.

Student John Filo's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of Mary Ann Vecchio
kneeling over the body of Jeffrey Miller after he was slain by
the Ohio National Guard
They were horrific times.

Peace Demonstrators v. Hardhats emerged as America’s perennial roadshow playing out across the country amid impenitent pride on all sides for what they were doing to safeguard our values.

But those years are long past, and there’s a new game in town. 

This one doesn’t seem very well organized.  Rag-tag some might say.  But that’s what makes it so enchanting.  And let’s not forget that it has something extraordinary going for it that none from my years ever saw: a message bringing hardhats and social idealists together in a very slow burn. 

Mark my words.  This is a force to recon with, for its participants will not go quietly into the night, nor have they come for a tea party.  They have come in search of a plan to be championed by someone they believe in.

Any takers out there?  Kamakis need not apply.



  1. Jeff, What I find remarkable as we move our book tour down the West Coast is that there are 'rag-tag' demonstrators in small towns as well as big. The posters give the impression that, as you say, the objectives are muddy, but the intent is clear. We need change. I too find it heartening. Stan

  2. I love the idea of the demonstrations, but the one manifesto that someone among them has made available to the media is so Utopian that it might have been designed by enemies as a point of attack. A twenty-dollar minimum wage for all, whether you actually work or not is a disastrous concept that will effectively make $20 per hour the new zero. More to the point, it would cost SOMEONE SIX BILLION DOLLARS AN HOUR, 48 billion a day. And since we have a 22% unemployment rate, one-fifth of that would be taxpayer money. Almost nine billion a day. Want to see class warfare? Burden American workers with nine billion a day for nonworkers. The referendum was unclear about whether children should be included, but that would more than triple the cost to taxplayers.
    This measure would also increase unemployment, because if you're going to make $20 per hour --$800 per week, or about $42,000 per year -- for not working, and that's also what you'd be paid for working then why would you work?

    Also, since the manifesto calls for all debt to be forgiven across the boards, and that includes debt owned to corporations, where are the corporations supposed to get the money to pay the $20 per hour to workers?

    I sympathize with the movement and the frustration that drives it, but it BADLY need more clear-sighted leadership. The protesters against the Vietnam knew what they wanted, and it was clearly focused on a single objective. The OCCUPY movement seems to me a lot of unfocused passion going off like skyrockets in all directions, and as we all know, the aftermath of fireworks is nothing except the smell of powder.

  3. You're missing the self-interest part, Tim. At twenty buck an hour we won't have to sell as many books on Kindle.

    The beauty of a Utopian movement is that it gives one a place to start a far distance from the devil, that well known purveyor of remains far more toxic than smells.

    As for silly economic and other slogans put out on placards, I must say that I remember a lot of different approaches being put forth on how to end the Vietnam War. Indeed, police are still hunting some who brought their ideas to fruition.

    But your observations made me think--as they always do--and in this case I was reminded of that night after the Kent State Massacre when I stood among NYU students occupying their Student Center and listened to them debate how they would respond to a police surge to remove them. What struck me was the civility of it all. No matter how preposterous or downright crazy the proposal, its advocate was given every courtesy. No catcalls or interruptions of the sort you would have expected from a collection of college age kids.

    Then came the most remarkable part to me. The debate on the proffered idea was not only again civil, but led to everyone coming around to agreeing on the obvious choice: When men with guns say leave, you leave.

    These were people who knew how to deal with their disenchanted brethren. Allow them to express their anger and ideas as a vehicle for all moving forward together toward more realistic and achievable goals.

    I would not judge Occupy Wall Street by its placards, but by the critical mass it has achieved in less than four weeks. As I said, this is not a movement that will go away anytime soon. Too many with things to say are looking for a place to be heard. As the famous line goes, "Build it and they will come."

    As for where all this will end up, who knows? But it's already made it to the West Coast with sufficient force to catch the attention of a couple of itinerant South Africans.

  4. I am unsurprised by this, and I hate to sound cynical, but it is surprising it took so long in coming. When there is a waiting list for 9000 dollar purses at Nordstrom, and ordinary people losing their homes for health reasons, someone is going to get angry. More tax cuts for the rich who are not hiring, and more bank charges for using the very services they are selling us-all this is confounding. Where is the compassion? This is "Wall Street" all over again, but with a total lack of humanity. I believe in capitalism, but they left out greed when they philosophized. To paraphrase, the times they are a scary....

  5. Lil, I'm not sure where it's headed, but headed it is. The anger is not confined to the U.S., I've heard it from Greeks and tourists to Greece. They all believe their governments are out of touch, indebted to monied interests, and basically devoid of meaningful leadership. It's a dangerous vacuum, especially in trying economic times. Perhaps Dylan will do a remake of the classic?

  6. Occupy Wall Street groupings are all over the U.S.

    Friends in Philly went to one this week where 2,000 people were in and out, very spirited and upbeat.

    A friend in Houston told of 1,000 people out one day this week.

    It's a new movement, and developing its views. It's not one group, it's lots of people with different perspectives. However, these protests are popping up all over this country and beginning to link to protests around the world.

    Tens of millions here are hurting, still high unemployment or underemployment, loss of houses, much pain. Youth have the highest unemployment.

    Many out on OWS are or were college students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and no job prospects. How much anger and frustration can this generate? A lot.

    And, to reiterate, the banks have money, so, too, the corporations and Wall Street. But they are not hiring. They are outsourcing, they are buying high-tech machinery to produce more with fewer employees, and they are pushing the productivity of existing employees. But they are not hiring the unemployed who are suffering, or putting involunary part-timers into full-time work.

    There is a growing and enormous chasm in incomes here, with the rich richer than ever, and won't pay their share of taxes. College

    Fifty million have no health care, etc.

    Unions are joining in, too, in some cities, because of the conditions of members and others, forced layoffs, cuts in health and pension benefits.

    It's long in coming, but as the economic crisis continues and deepens, there will be more of it. A good thing.


    This movement needs leadership and defined goals, true. But at least IT"S HAPPENING. It's better than inertia, paralysis and no reaction to the reality of what's happening.

    It's also inevitable.

    In Europe, there have been many protests all over, including obviously in Greece.

    I've seen awful stories about people in Greece sleeping in their cars, losing homes, a lot of suffering. And more to come.

    The OWS protests are galvanizing people all over who are angry and letdown, seeing the huge disparities in come, the lack of jobs, human suffering of many kinds.

    It's good. It's young. It's growing.

  7. Kathy, I think you've nailed it! The most important thing about OWS (is that really what they're calling it?) is that it's happening. Some see it as an alternative for the frustrated to the tea party--and are attacking it for that very reason (so much for competition in capitalism). I've no doubt those attacks will only enhance OWS status.

    But as Tim noted in his comment, a focus must come to the movement or it will disappear. Then again, something like this will undoubtedly attract leaders in search of a ready made following. Especially with elections a year away.

    The trick will not be a lack of leadership contenders, but finding the right one to give meaningful purpose and direction to the motivating anger.

    Funny, isn't that always the case?

  8. Well, it began. It happened.

    People are abbreviating it as OWS around New York City and across the country.

    It is inevitable that there will be protests. The conditions are spurring them forward. As people, working people, students, the elderly, poor people, and a lot of middle-class people whose lives have collapsed, are hurt by the economic crisis and see the "jobless recovery," where corporations have record profits, and where they, banks and Wall Streets got huge bailouts, anger will keep growing.

    Where OWS goes, it isn't known. There are OWS protests going on all over the country.

    The same day that our mayor in New York City, a billionaire, told protesters not to criticize Wall Street -- which got huge bailouts, 700 school aides were laid off, low-wage workers who will not find other jobs in this economy.

    More and more people are seeing these developments.

    This particular movement may develop, spread, morph into other movements, but it's in motion and taking action. That in and of itself is good.

    Many people are down and in despair about this economic mess. Collaborative action is healthier and better.

    We'll see what happens. My friends are all supportive and participating in several cities. They're excited about it.

    Even lots of us 1960s activists are getting involved with the youth, unions are in it, others. All good.

  9. It is good, primarily because it puts the people who run the country in an awkward spot -- how should they deal with this popular uprising?

    But I still maintain that some sort of focused goals have to emerge. There's nothing specific to react to in terms of policy as yet. General indignation isn't the most productive stance when calling for changes in policy. I'm hopeful something will arise that's a clear call for reform and than when it does, people will be in the streets all over the world.

  10. It's heartening to see some popular protest in the US, no matter how disparate and unfocused it may be. I'd sort of given up over here of expecting something radical from American youth. Hopefully this will lead to more expressions of dissatisfaction.

    Though it doesn't help when I see some crime writers I respect poking fun at the movement before it's even begin. I know I shouldn't expect all my writing peers to be agitprop lefties, but I think a bit of idealism, kicking against the pricks, would be welcomed by most of us who peer into the darker corners of society.

  11. As far as I can tell, folks, people who otherwise would not take notice are. And with all the questions being raised as to whether or not OWS will amount to anything more than what it is now, there is a sort of challenge hanging out there for those who care to see to it that something positive and long-lasting happens. So, bring on the questions, bring on the doubts, it will do nothing but help!

  12. Just came across and mentioned your name:

  13. Thank you, Liz, that's very, very nice of you!


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