The Occupy Wall Street movement is now one month old. The protests have spilled over from their initial Wall Street site to Washington, DC, Miami, and, according to the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) website, around 1500 cities around the globe. They've even come here to Greensboro, North Carolina, a day before President Obama is scheduled to visit North Carolina, marching outside a Bank of America building against economic inequality and financial fraud. Some of the signs, screened through the headlines, are poignant, thoughtful, and also humorous. And the outrage of those who are angry about our economic situation is an energy that needs to be harnessed.
If you aren't angry at our nation's banks, all you have to do is read Ron Susskind's latest book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President (Harper, 2011), which details the ways that Larry Summers and Tim Geitner essentially defied President Obama and did bank bailouts their way. As I read it, I wanted to shake the smug white men for their clear disrespect of our nation's elected president, but in truth, I also wanted to shake the president for not calling these men on their nonsense. Here's the bottom line, if it needs to be regurgitated. Banks got bailed out, we got ripped off. Banks were given money to lend and they chose not to lend it. Banks created risky financial instruments -derivatives - and when they couldn't perform, they whined and leaned on an excuse that they were "too big to fail". Now they are even bigger, and our government is all the more invested in their nonsense. And the billions that went to bailing banks out may have created jobs.
No wonder they are mad, these Occupy Wall Street folks. Heck, I'm mad with them and for them. But mad as I am, as I look at their movement, I see a sense of déjà vu. Young folks, mostly white folks, taking it to the street. Protesting, acting out their frustration. And to what end? OWS does not look like American, but there are reasons for that. There are plenty of unemployed young African Americans and Latinos, but our law enforcement experiences are different from those of whites. While a protest arrest may be seen as a youthful indiscretion for a young white man, it is an employment-ender for a young black man. As the New York police are arresting right and left, I can imagine a brother or a sister deciding that they might just stay home and support OWS in spirit.
Still, I could see getting out of the office and into the street, but to what end? What in the world do these folks want? They are protesting because of their pain, but they have to turn pain and protest into power. In other words, where is the list of demands, the set of policy changes the OWS folk want? Their momentum is exciting, and the wide swath of their movement is amazing. The attempt to have a flat hierarchy is refreshing in an era where everyone is out to get their 15 minutes of fame. At the same time, those of us who are seasoned activists wonder, to what end? What do you want, y'all? Please make it plan.
Protesting income inequality won't make the playing field level. Protesting greed won't yield many ends, when the incentives for greed are hard-wired into our system. What are bankers to do? Voluntarily give up multi-million dollar bonuses in the face of unaspected anger. Even as our friends at OWS protest, Bank of America has imposed a fee on those who use debit cards. Banking on the fact that folks have so many relationships hard-wired into their banking lives, including things like online payments, the BoA folks are betting that folks won't mind paying $60 more a year to maintain their relationships. This is pure abuse of monopoly power, but it is the same abuse that our government has experienced at the hands of the banks.
I am encouraging those on OWS to do two things. First, they must diversify. They must reach out to black, brown, and marginalized communities so that this protest is not a narrow white occasion. And, in reaching out to these folks, they must clearly understand the greater risks involved when people of color take it to the streets. They need to be prepared to protect those who are racially targeted by those who sometimes masquerade as law enforcement officers.
More importantly, the OWS team needs to offer up some clear demands. Not only are we mad at Wall Street and exploitative bankers, but also we want legislation that manages them. The terms might include issues of compensation, of tax consequences of rapid short term trading, of pension abuse, of massive layoffs. They need to spell it out so that the outrage that has spilled into the streets now spills back upon our legislators.
We should occupy Wall Street, but to what end. Other than agitation, what does OWS want?
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.