By most estimates, the Occupy movement's May Day protests were a resounding success, with demonstrations held in more than 100 cities and a march in Manhattan that drew some 30,000 people—more than any Occupy event last fall. But if the movement is going to sustain the kind of momentum that captured the nation's attention six months ago, it must begin to evolve in a different direction. Occupy's much-hyped Phase 2, the "American Spring," suggests an end game that's virtually impossible in today's America: the toppling of a corrupt political system under the sheer weight of its own repression. Unlike in Egypt or Tunisia, the only real revolutions in our comparatively affluent nation have ultimately been won or lost at the ballot box.
For months I've devoted myself to reporting on Occupy Wall Street, but I haven't shared many of my own views of the movement until now. I see myself foremost as a reporter, not a pundit, and I also thought that other observers were too quick to judge. I have the utmost respect for original OWS organizers such as Marissa Holmes, Sandy Nurse, Amin Husain, Nicole Carty, and Jason Ahmadi, to name just a few, who took the art of calling bullshit on the political system way further than the chattering classes thought it could go. Instead of handing over the movement to the Professional Left, they effectively gave the reins to anyone who felt disenfranchised. Their famously nonhierarchical General Assembly and working groups might have been unwieldy, but they're also what lent OWS its legitimacy as a true movement of and for the 99 percent.
In the early days of the General Assembly, Occupy Wall Street seemed poised to grow in any number of directions. There were people who wanted to make concrete political demands or get involved in electoral politics, and people who didn't. Yet the meetings were long and tedious, and those who slogged through them all winter more often than not tended to be the same kind of people who'd first slept in the park, which is to say, radicals, often anarchists, who believed that engaging with the political system would only legitimize it. Still, many of them were happy to collaborate with more mainstream groups, such as labor unions, on protests against common enemies like Wall Street.
Occupy Wall Street may have been written off by many Americans, but it's hoping to get a huge stimulus today from the 99 Percent. Organizers are expecting tens of thousands of middle-class workers to take to the streets for May Day, the international worker holiday on which the Occupy movement has pinned its hopes for a resurgence. Occupy groups and their allies in the labor, immigrants' rights, and environmental movements are planning coordinated protests in more than 100 American cities. "May Day will be the big kickoff of Phase 2 of Occupy," says Marissa Holmes, an early OWS organizer. "I think we will see a lot of people in the streets taking more militant actions than they had in the past."
Update 3/30/12: Unions have called off plans to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge
On the first of May, the Occupy Wall Street movement hopes to leverage the labor holiday known as May Day and muster enough people power to blockade the Golden Gate Bridge—assuming, that is, that striking bridge workers take the lead. "We can't do an action for them; we have to do the action with them," says Lauren Smith, a spokeswoman for Occupy Oakland. An union organizer for the bridge workers had no comment on their plans, but alluded to something big: "Our actions are going to speak louder than words."
While the presumptive bridge protest is just one among dozens of demonstrations being planned for 40 cities on May 1, it illustrates how the movement is simultaneously getting bolder and more strategic in its bid to remain a relevant part of the national conversation. Occupy organizers promise that Tuesday will be bigger than anything we saw from the movement last fall. "May Day will be the big kickoff of Phase 2 of Occupy," says Marissa Holmes, an early OWS organizer. "I think we will see a lot of people in the streets taking more militant actions than they had in the past." But bringing out the numbers—and rebooting a movement that has largely faded from the headlines—will require a greater level of partnership with organized labor and kindred protest movements.
Outside the Wells Fargo shareholders meeting in San Francisco: Josh HarkinsonUpdated on Wednesday, April 25th at 11 am PST
"I would not want to work for Wells Fargo," one woman on lunch break in downtown San Francisco loudly told her friend.
No kidding. At around noon today, some 2,000 activists launched a blitzkrieg against the bank's annual shareholder meeting at the Merchants Exchange Building, where they blocked entrances, inflated a two-story cigar-smoking rat in the street, and deployed hundreds of shareholder activists to pack the joint.
Citing space constraints, the bank turned away many of the shareholders, a move protesters quickly decried as an illegal attempt to dodge tough questions. A press release from the activist group the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment claimed Wells Fargo packed the meeting with its own employees, and continued to let shareholders who were not part of the protest in through a side door.
A Wells Fargo spokesman did not immediately return my call.
In the building lobby, I ran into Wells Fargo shareholder Andrew Constans, who was wearing a suit and tie and holding a paper copy of his single share of stock. The 19-year-old University of Minnesota student flew halfway across the country to tell Wells Fargo that it should pay more taxes. (Between 2008 and 2010, Wells Fargo paid none, but got $681 million in tax credits.) "I pay taxes, so why can't they?" Constans asked. "I'm not a multinational corporation; I don't have 60 tax shelters."
The Wells Fargo protest is part of an effort on the part of 99% Power, a coalition of dozens of labor and community groups that plans to target some 40 corporate shareholder meetings over the next six weeks. "It's a broader group than normally does shareholders meetings," says Stephen Lerner, an executive board member with the Service Employees International Union. "It's a campaign that's saying, let's gather all the folks who are impacted negatively by these giant corporations and lets figure out ways to illustrate that and challenge them directly at the meetings."
That strategy was on full display today in downtown San Francisco, where demonstrators hit Wells Fargo from every possible angle. A speaker with the immigrants rights group Causa Justa pointed out that Wells Fargo is a shareholder in Corrections Corporation of America, a private prison firm that profits from detaining illegal immigrants. Bob Donjacour, a freelance computer programmer and member of Occupy San Francisco, held a sign that said, "Stop Funding Dirty Power," highlighting the bank's investments in oil and gas. Other protesters criticized Wells Fargo's involvement in the American Legislative Exchange Council, the excessive salary of CEO John Stumpf ($19 million in 2010), and, of course, its foreclosure practices.
On the corner of Pine and Sansome Streets, I ran into artist Cheryl Meeker, a member of an Occupy-related protest group known as Don't Just Click There. "It's about doing things in real life, like, physically," she explained. She was blocking the intersection with a long cloth banner with flames on it as others held up signs reading, "Hells Fargo."
"Do you think we can get through?" asked two guys in nice suits.
Meeker declined, but did give each of them a dollar bill. It sported an image of humans pulling a stagecoach with the caption: "Debt slavery."
According to press reports, 24 people were arrested at the protests, including several who disrupted the shareholder meeting from within. Meanwhile, Wells Fargo announced record profits and awarded CEO John Stumpf a $19.8 million pay package.
The United States has become so economically polarized that your parentage is now a better predictor of your income than it is of your height and weight. So writes the Hillman Prize-winning journalist Timothy Noah in his cogent new take on how America's rich have left everyone else behind. Out this week, The Great Divergence: America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do About It springs from Noah's 2010 Slate series,which contributed to the "1 percent" meme that galvanized Occupy Wall Street. It's a dense but informative read, harnessing a wealth of economic data to show how everything from globalization to union-busting to dual-income power couples helped the 1 percent capture the vast majority of income gains over the past 30 years. Noah's suggestions for reversing the trend are pretty much required reading for the rest of us. I caught up with the author to get his personal take and predictions for what might be in store for us.
Mother Jones: What inspired you to expand your series into a book?
Timothy Noah: In times of economic hardship, people kind of wake up to these long-term trends. The series got a tremendously favorable reception, which was gratifying, because when I told people I was working on it, I tended to get this slightly condescending response; "Oh, good for you!"
TN: For a long time there were lots of contradictory theories about what was causing it. There was a certain amount of inequality denialism. Also, it was gradual, and journalism is not very good at covering things that are happening slowly. It really wasn't until [economists] Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez came up with their findings in the early aughts that people really grasped the full extent of income inequality.
MJ: What is the most shocking stat you uncovered?
TN: From 1980 to 2005, 80 percent of the total increase in America's income went to the top 1 percent. That doesn't factor in taxes and benefits, but when you calculate it that way it's still 36 percent, which is also amazing.
MJ: You also mention that a person's parentage is now a better predictor of income than it is of height and weight.
TN: I call it "income heritability," the degree to which you inherit your parents' relative position on the income spectrum. And that is just stunning to me, because obviously we inherit our height and weight in a literal sense. We inherit our parents' relative income only in a figurative sense, but the correlation is about as strong. That's not what America is supposed to be about; America is supposed to be about opportunity and mobility.