It’s been fascinating to watch the reaction from the media, corporate elite and politicians to the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon. Let’s be frank: they were all caught unprepared. Just as Wall Street felt it was back to hitting its stride, squeezing even more concessions from Republicans and Democrats alike, it was caught up short by the intensity and spread of the protest movement. A good number of politicians on both sides of the border have taken to championing the movement as a “firm expression of democracy in action.” But where were they in the last couple of years as the economy continued to leave more and more people behind?
I have been frustrated following the media reaction to all of these developments. The news side of things has hung in there with the story overall, but the pundits have evidenced a cynical outlook that seems to miss the point of the demonstrations entirely. “What are they trying to say?” some of them asked, as if somehow they can no longer comprehend the syntax of average people taking to the street saying “enough is enough.” Some, too smart by half, claim the protestors should be providing alternatives. Seriously? Isn’t that what good economists or writers are supposed to be doing? People like Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Krugman of the New York Times have been laying the groundwork for this kind of moment for years, but he has had startling little company.
At some point we have to acknowledge that what the demonstrators are undertaking is the spade work, the pivotal call to citizen concerns that so often trouble and confound the establishment elites. The protest is the message, plain and simple. If commentators can’t understand that then they’ve been out of the loop for longer than they care to admit. Where were they in the last few years when the financial sector fell under the weight of its own profligacy? Or when Wall Street picked itself up from the mat, thanks to taxpayer bailouts, and carried on as though everything was sound? Where was the critical analysis of all the delusion?
Then as the protests began drawing larger numbers and increased venues, the establishment took to criticizing what they regarded as the usual suspects – unions, disenchanted youth, vigilantes, ne’er-do-wells. Again they missed it. Of course the youth are disenchanted; their dreams are fading before their eyes. Naturally labour unions are involved; they are attempting to protect the few well-paying middle class jobs that are left.
I know some of the demonstrators from my community who traveled to Toronto to take part in the protests. Some worked in the .com sector, others were teachers or young professionals. Then there was those seniors who went down on the train and joined the others in a hearty attempt to win back the country they helped to build. All of these protestors did exactly what every other meaningful march for change in the democratic era did – took action when the rest of us didn’t, even though they didn’t have all the answers. What they did possess, though, were plenty of questions and more common sense than we have seen from the establishment in years. Where are the jobs? What about the environment? Who will stop the financial lunacy of the moneylenders? How can small businesses benefit? How will students afford university in the ensuing years? What’s so foolish about those questions? They are the ones most Canadians have been asking for years.
On both sides of the border citizens have been losing faith inch by inch, endured failed promise after failed promise, and job loss after job loss, until at last they have stepped out for their own future and that of their children. They aren’t blindly railing against Wall Street because it’s the easiest target, but because its failings have been so clearly demonstrated and condoned and have jeopardized their future.
The protestors have done what they were supposed to do – calling for change. How to bring that transformation about is actually the job of the legislators, the bureaucrats, the economists, the experts, and, yes, the media. Because these people took to the streets, the established order has been left flat-footed, surprised, and lacking imagination. No one knows where all this will lead or what’s at the other end of the bridge, but of this we can be certain: winds of change are sweeping through the main streets and institutions of our communities. The fact that a citizen movement can be so misunderstood, maligned and questioned by the very leaders and financial experts meant to look out for them is the very proof required for why these demonstrations are necessary. They have taken the action required. The waters are clearly troubled. Now it’s time to answer their questions in honesty and with refined economic sensibilities.