Don’t discount Occupy Wall Street protests

The Occupy Wall Street (O.W.S) protests have affected individuals in wildly different ways.  If we take the nation’s pulse and describe the prevailing mindsets in their simplest terms, it becomes apparent that right-leaning types tend to question the movement, while those to the left generally welcome its emergence. But that’s the problem with oversimplification and blindly aligning with any single ideology. Such lazy thinking stifles compromise, allows for little nuance, and rarely gets at the truth.
If the message of the O.W.S. activists sounds jumbled and lacking in focus, the impetus behind the action seems valid. Not many will argue that the quality of life in these United States has decreased sharply over the past few decades. Lower salaries, dwindling benefits and vanishing overtime have now become the sad norm for the vast majority of working Americans. Unemployment now flirts with or tops the dreaded 10% figure nationwide, and this excludes the underemployed and those defeated souls who have given up the work search entirely. A demoralizing number of home foreclosures have sent many good, honest people back to square one, and the average college loan weighs in as heavily as a home mortgage – without the benefit of said dwelling when the balance is finally paid off.
To many, the situation seems bizarrely incongruent with the America that they once knew, or at least thought that they knew. Could this really be happening here in the richest of all nations, where the streets were once said to be paved with gold? The disparity seems all the more curious when it’s learned that only a few hundred individuals hold nearly half of the nation’s accumulated wealth. It’s not too much of a stretch for some to imagine such fat-cats – “one-per centers” in protester-speak – peering down at the struggling masses from their lofty mansions and arrogantly declaring, “Let them eat cake.”
In a country that has long stood for fairness, it’s easy to see why people have grown suspicious. Republicans and Democrats alike took part in the great bank bailout, yet hordes of middle-class citizens – the hard-working, self-sacrificing “cogs” that drive our nation’s economy in the first place – were allowed to go belly-up when they couldn’t make their mortgage payments. Sound a bit lopsided? It certainly does to the protesters. In fact, this is one of their favorite battle cries.
Those who lived during the Vietnam era may feel a sense of déjà vu these days. Back then, scruffy hippies in tie-died shirts decried the ongoing war in Southeast Asia on a number of grounds. To say that their brazen movement was questioned by the establishment would be like saying that Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman – a member of the infamous “Chicago Seven” – was a rebel. In fact, many were labeled cowards, bums, or traitors for questioning America’s role in the war. Now, nearly four decades  later, we realize that our nation was indeed involved in a politically questionable and highly unwinnable effort, just as the protesters had asserted. What if, this time around, the protesters have it right again?
Recently I overheard a group of middle-aged men discussing the O.W.S. protests. One man denounced the activists as nothing more than “spoiled brats.” Another said that the protesters “should get off their lazy butts and find a job.” Then, a more reasonable man spoke up.  “Come on guys, let’s be honest about this,” he said to his friends. “This thing [the movement] goes well beyond some punk college kids looking for attention. Life in America has eroded for most people since we went looking for our first jobs – you guys know that! If it keeps going like this, I doubt that a middle-class will exist much longer.”
To a rag-tag, disenchanted group that sleep in tents and refer to themselves as the “99%,” more valid words have never been spoken.

— Jeff Bahr

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