Almost as soon as Occupy Wall Street began making headlines and sprouting up in more than 250 cities nationwide, conservatives began smearing it. Take Sen. Pat Toomey: “[It’s] just a left-wing group that wants to have something to protest,” he said last week. “It seems like a misguided anger and I don’t think they have a clear idea of what they’re for.”
Glenn Beck says the organizers “will come for you and drag you into the streets and kill you ... they’re Marxist radicals ... these guys are worse than [Maximilien] Robespierre from the French Revolution ... they’ll kill everybody.”
We could go on, but the point is this: Republicans and their media allies hate the Occupy movement. They hate it so much.
Which is odd because the Occupy/99 Percent gatherings are fairly similar to the Tea Party movement. Like the Tea Party, Occupy is a populist movement. Both began amongst a small, usually-not-political group of regular folks. Like the Tea Party, Occupy wants the U.S. to create more jobs. Like the Tea Party, politicians have referred to the gatherings as ‘un-American.’ And, like the Tea Party, the movement’s been peaceful.
But there are also key differences between the groups, and that scares the right.
Occupy Protesters Don’t have a Single Message But Their Messages are Real
Tea Partiers’ main issue was taxes. Too much of them. In fact, “T.E.A.” stands for Taxed Enough Already. But has President Obama really taxed the Tea Partiers into the poor house? Probably not. Obama has been cutting taxes since he came into office. Especially for the waning middle class.
The Occupy Movement is the flip side of that coin. Unlike the mysterious straw taxman the Tea Party fears, the Occupy protesters are united against something real. And unlike the Tea Party, what they’re fighting is happening now: CEO pay went up 11 percent in 2010; the recession continues, as do the wars; about 400,000 people file new unemployment claims each week; and student debt continues to mount for future graduates who are not likely to see prospects of a job upon leaving the quad. “There’s no one single coherent message because there’s no one single problem,” says Lauren, a protester camping out at City Hall. “But something is clearly wrong.”
“Part of what fueled the rise of the Tea Party was the idea that middle class and working-class people were undeserving and unworthy of getting bank loans and were in over their heads,” says Corey Robin, Brooklyn College political science professor and author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. “That was Rick Santelli’s [of CNBC] opening cry that really launched the Tea Party. He called them ‘losers’ for getting bad mortgages and bad loans … That’s a pretty bald-faced thing, which I think a certain part of the country and, I think, the right, thinks.”
It took a while for the 99 Percent and unemployed to realize they weren’t alone, and weren’t losers. “[Unemployment] is happening to millions of people,” says Joe Piette, an organizer with the socialist Workers World Party in Philadelphia. “So it’s not a personal failing that they can’t find a job. I think it’s just taken a while to realize ‘There are a lot of people out there like me.’”
The Occupiers Have a Traditional View on Banks
Historically, banks and Americans have not gotten along. But that changed in the ’80s. “One of the keystones of the mobilization of the right has been about making Wall Street the sphere of the Everyman and almost a populist institution,” says Robin, who notes banks have traditionally been the object of loathing and suspicion in American society. Tea Partiers were probably successful in cementing this idea in Americans’ minds. And the group’s legacy will probably be electing people to office who are bought and sold by many big banks.
The Occupy movement goes against all that. It seeks independence from the banks that influence government and the bankers who got off from the recession scott-free. “A few years ago, when you had the crash, a lot of [bankers] were really nervous about what was coming down the road,” Robin says. “And they probably breathed a sigh of relief when they realized very little was going to happen to them. Now you’re seeing this sort of ‘The chicken is coming home to roost,’ and, rhetorically, that makes them nervous.”
Occupy Protesters are Reclaiming Right-Wing Reactionary Tactics
The Tea Party movement has been called the culmination of the modern right. It is the ultimate reactionary group action and probably more successful than any other grassroots GOP movement in history. The right has always been about reacting to progressive societal action, and stomping it out, beginning roughly in the 1880s when workers began trying to democratize the workplace. The results can be seen in today’s lackluster labor movement and civil- and women’s-rights standstills. But if there’s nothing left to fight, the right ceases to be what it’s been for so long. Which is where Occupy comes in.
The Occupy movement was a reaction to the “financial fraudsters on Wall Street”—as put by the idea’s founder, Kalle Lasn of AdBusters Magazine—and the fact that no one responsible for the now 3-year-old Great Recession has been brought to justice.
The Occupy Movement Hasn’t Been Taken Over by Big Money. Yet.
The Tea Party died as soon as its so-called activists—people like Gov. Tom Corbett and Toomey—began running for office funded with Koch Brothers money. Those right-wing politicians had a built-in voting bloc in the Tea Party and even decided to call themselves “Tea Party Republicans” while running, with “Tea Party” in this case standing for a wink and a nod toward Crazyville, where psychotics eat free.
“Even if we had divergences of different causes here,” says Ed Jude, a school administrator who showed up at Occupy Philly’s first day, “I want to show that the gravy train to the corporations and big businesses has got to stop.”
As the Occupy movement has proceeded, the liberal and conservative causes have overlapped on several fronts, including their shared abilities to take over the Internet with their messages, “occupy” the headlines and infuriate the other side. They both think they’re essentially the civil rights movements of the 21st century, too.
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