This website is no longer actively maintained
Some material and features may be unavailable
Betsy ReedBack to OpinionBetsy Reed

Occupy Wall Street: Why so many demands for demands?

Everybody has a piece of advice for the protesters at Occupy Wall Street. They should put their clothes on. They should stop raising their fists. They should fact-check their handwritten signs. They should appoint leaders who can give pithy quotes to reporters. They should get with an electoral program. Nicholas Kristof even offered to help them out with a neat list of demands, in case those holding signs saying “We Are the 99%” just needed to have the unfairness of the carried interest rule explained to them.

Indeed, their failure to present demands is the most frequently heard criticism of the OWS protesters, not just in the mainstream press but from veteran leftists as well. What do these wan, angry young people want, anyway?

Demonstrators gather in front of a police barricade to call for the occupation of Wall Street, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2011, in New York City. Photo: AP/Frank Franklin II

If you spend an hour or two down at Liberty Plaza, as I did with my 8-year-old daughter this past weekend, it’s clear enough. She got the point, at least: especially from the signs that read, “You should teach your kids to share,” and, “Give my mom her money back!! A single working mom…not fair!”

It’s not that the demands being suggested by OWS’s volunteer policy advisors in the blogosphere are not worthy ideas. At a time when we desperately need to rein in financial speculation and change the incentives on Wall Street, a financial transactions tax is a terrific policy proposal. Dean Baker has been talking about it for years. The thing is, we on the left don’t have a scarcity of policy ideas. We are positively bursting with them. Create a housing trust fund! A national infrastructure bank! And, yes, sure, eliminate the carried interest loophole so fat cats don’t get a bigger tax break than working people. (Some even have more radical ideas, which are quite sensible too.) But at best, we get a polite hearing for these ideas, which then fade away or are hopelessly watered down. We simply lack the power to put them into practice.

And in the recent past, even the most smoothly organized, expertly messaged mass demonstrations have not made a whit of difference in this regard. Consider the last big march on Wall Street this past May 12. The coalition behind it was admirably diverse, including unions like the teachers and SEIU’s 1199, as well as local community organizations such as Citizen Action NY, Coalition for the Homeless and Community Voices Heard. The “May 12 Coalition,” which turned out thousands of protesters on the appointed day, presented the Bloomberg administration with a proposal that exhibited great thoughtfulness in its rigor and detail, asking banks like JPMorgan, Bank of America, and Morgan Stanley to take a 20 percent cut in their contracts to handle functions like child support disbursements or income tax remittances for the city. This would have saved $120 million, part of $1.5 billion that could have been extracted from the banking sector to prevent the city from having to slash education and social services, according to the coalition.

The May 12 marchers were many things the OWS protesters are not. They were orderly; they truly represented ordinary New Yorkers. They were concrete: they had a plan. But needless to say, the Bloomberg administration did not immediately recognize their plan’s superior logic and fairness and adopt it as a new template. In fact, it received no attention in the wake of the march. It was such a nonstarter that the city didn’t even bother to respond to it. And the media snoozed.

Or consider another very well thought-out mass action in the age of Obama: the “One Nation Working Together for Jobs, Justice and Education” mobilization, which brought throngs of protesters to Washington, D.C., on October 2, 2010. Garnering a turnout organizers estimated at 175,000, the march won endorsements from 400 groups, including all the major national unions, the NAACP, environmental organizations, gay groups and progressive religious forces. Organizers were explicit that their goal was to fire up the liberal base and showcase the diversity of the progressive movement. They also came brandishing a plethora of proposals. Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, told The Washington Post, “The truth is there is a lot of focus on the march itself, but a march without a plan of action … is simply a one-day event. What this is about is using this march as a launching pad for policy change.” Shortly thereafter, of course, would come the devastating midterm elections, and President Obama’s cave on the Bush tax cut extension. In terms of media impact, One Nation was almost entirely eclipsed by both Glenn Beck’s rage fest a month prior and Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s jokey “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” later the same month.

Of course, we need policy ideas. And the progressive groups that have staged previous rallies — like the ones that are sponsoring the “American Dream Movement” spearheaded by Van Jones, convening in Washington, D.C., at this moment — are the crucial building blocks of the coalitions necessary to make long-term campaigns around real policy proposals work.

But sometimes, you also need a spark. “Occupy Wall Street,” as an idea and an action, is a stroke of brilliance. It’s not poll-tested or focus-grouped, but it expresses perfectly the outrage that is the appropriate response to the maddening political situation we find ourselves in today. It succeeds as symbolic politics: taking back the square is just what we need to do. And it’s wonderful that unions and community groups that have been working in the trenches will be linking arms with the denizens of OWS this Wednesday.

Maybe this will go nowhere too. The odds are against it, after all. But what do we have to lose? We have to try something new.

This article first appeared at the website of The Nation.


  • Klz

    lets face it grass roots organizations are quickly dismissed by politicians any more.  We need shear numbers and perhaps some peaceful anger displays if anyone is going to start listening again.  After all, today’s peaceful warriors are tomorrows revolution if all else fails.

  • Muriel Wentzien

    I was sitting across from my sister-in-law as she scoffed at the demonstration in my home town of Portland, Oregon. People who are comfortable in every way always seem to scoff. Why is that? Is it a feeling of helplessness that causes us to sneer at people willing to stand up for themselves? I am not sure.

  • John Ross

    Since the abject failure of socialist economics the Left is hard put to offer a solution for the ingrained faults of capitalism — except for one deeply American ideal — ECONOMIC DEMOCRACY which simply means distributing the wealth more fairly and decently - no million dollar salaries and bonuses, no export of American jobs to China, Mexico and wherever the lowest wages can be paid.
    Then encourage poor nations to promote family planning education to reduce their populations so they won’t be stealing across the borders of more industrialized nations to take the jobs of legal citizens for lower wages. Then safely recycle 100% of all garbage, sludge, junk, smoke and fumes which will put all the unemployed back to work until they can get better educated for something better. If decent corporations and decent politicians work together all that and more can be accomplished, and it must be done if we intend to save our civilzation from social chaos.

  • Starfire345

    The problem is corporations own everything – especially the newspapers, television, radio, and many magazines.  So naturally they are censoring what is printed, or discussed.  What we really need is another “long, hot summer”  with some broken windows, looting, and really scary activists.  Then all of a sudden, someone will realize corporations are the problem and maybe – do something.  I’ll throw the first brick.

  • Briandcaswell

    businesses  should  create  a  new  global  goods  and  service  industry  to  the  corporations  that  left  the  american  worker  high  and  dry.                   ther  is  more to what  meets  the  eye!   

  • Soulesrn

    Corporate America has bought our politicians. To end this we need public financing of elections, term limits, along with strick controls on lobbying activities. The cards are stacked against the middle class. Greed is destroying everything America stands for. Change will only come when the people get control of the halls of Congress.

  • 2 BlueWaterDiamond

    A united, undeterred middle class, refusing to surrender American sovereignty and democratic rights under the U.S. Constitution is the most formidable roadblock in the path toward global governance. The SPP (Security and Prosperity Partnership already signed and agreed to, requires it.)

    The strength contained within undivided patriotic Americans defending democracy and their wise insistence on retaining U.S. sovereignty is being intentionally undermined by reducing their economic strength. Money is power. The middle class has been thrust into “debt bondage” by the FEDERAL RESERVE, which is the only source of power, authorized to create inflation (defined as: introducing abundant cash and credit into circulation), serving to inflate the real estate bubble. The deflation that has followed (reducing the amount of available cash & credit) is serving to continue the decrease in real estate values due to the FED bank’s policy of refusal to issue loans for mortgages and small businesses even though they are sitting on trillions of taxpayer supplied cash.

    THE FEDERAL RESERVE controls over 70% of daily banking deposits throughout the nation. Its member banks follow bank policy that is created within the bank, with no transparency and no accountablility. The FED’s member banks, are responsible in large part for creating the bad debt, due to reduced regulation in overseeing home loan appraisals and borrower qualifications. As the head of the N.Y. FEDERAL RESERVE BANK, Timothy Geithner controlled the system due during the entire process, due to the way the FED is organized (whoever controls the N.Y.FED controls the system).

    Those bad debts were disbursed in the OTC dark markets where they were sold fraudulently to retirement fund managers and international governments, spreading the economic collapse around the world. Alan Greenspan made that possible when he convinced congress that Brooksley Born’s (former head of the CFTC …Commodities Futures Trading Commission) congressional testimony was an “anomaly”. Rendering his opinion that those markets did not need to be transparent or regulated, as Ms. Born strongly urged, Greenspan, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers and Arthur Levitt proceeded to do everything in their power to discredit Ms. Born even after congress was convinced to take the advice of the FED Chairman. Arthur Levitt has since expressed regret for the role he played in destroying Brooksley Born.

    In addition, Greenspan’s advice convincing President Clinton to repeal Glass-Steagall that had kept the U.S. economy safe for the 50 yrs., the gambling casino was open for business. It was an ingeniouas plan that served to eliminate the most reliable source of middle class wealth,…equity in real estate…primarily their residences.

    In his book WITH NO APOLOGIES, Senator Barry Goldwater wrote: “Does it not seem strange to you that these men just happen to be CFR (Council on Foreign Relations) and just happened to be on the Board of Governors of the FEDERAL RESERVE, that absolutely controls the money and interest rates of this great country? A privately owned organization …which has absolutely nothing to do with the United States of America!”

    A May, 1976 report of the House Banking and Currency Committee indicated: The Rothschild banks hold a 53% controlling stock share of the U.S. Federal Reserve through various subsidiaries and affiliates. Bringing to mind that old quote: “Allow me to issue and control the money of a nation and I care not who makes its laws.” what more needs to be said?

    The economic crises is perhaps the greatest opportunity, ever, in re-shaping the world order according to their designs, ideals and goals. Theorizing: …through destruction comes creation but to the elites who desire global governance, whose experience in forming the E.U. led to the determination that international governance tends to be effective, only when it is anti-democratic, destruction itself, is a form of creation.

    The FEDERAL RESERVE, under Alan Greenspan enabled the creation of massive consumer debt due to low interests rates, intentional deregulation, and intentionally allowing fraud in the derivative markets which fueled consumption. It created a dangerous gap between middle class income and debt, leading to consumer default.

    Repeating: …MONEY IS POWER, the  OWS (Occupy Wall St.) demonstrations revealing the middle class Americans, so patriotically following their only path toward affecting change, are not a mystery. Why main stream media continues to disparage the movement whenever they report on who constitutes the crowds and what they are attempting to accomplish is obvious. Similarly,  the disorganized Tea Party claiming, “We want our country back,” now unfortunately corporate corrupted, has derailed and confused  its original intent. The OWS movement is larger, will continue to grow, has spread worldwide …and it will provide that roadblock to World Governance that Globalists must overcome to succeed.

    When they find their voice, their numbers have the ability to defeat the power that seeks to rule the world, void of democracy, in a two class society, composed of the powerful and wealthy who own and rule, with a less-educated subservient class to serve them. It will take the strength and determination of David…but history demonstrates it can be done.

    THE FED MUST BE ENDED. The only state that has not suffered the effects of the economic collapse in North Dakota. Unemployment has remained consistently low (between 3 & 4%) due to having established a community bank dedicated to serving the needs of the residents of the state. Providing low interest loans for mortgages and small businesses, it is the exception that proves the rule…It can be done, because it has been done.

    NAFTA free trade agreements must be changed or ended to accomplish FAIR TRADE rather than FREE TRADE that feeds the U.S. trade deficit to epic proportion.

    The U.S. has operated successfully, several times throughout its history without a central bank. Due to their practice of fractional reserve lending, the FEDERAL RESERVE generates a 90% profit on every dollar it issues to the United States…and that’s before compounded daily interest charges.  That profit is distributed to FEDERAL RESERVE shareholders, NOT DEPOSITED in the U.S. Treasury… THE FED Chairman work for the bank, serving the duty of public relations that allow the bank to profit at the expense of American taxpayers who have been held hostage under the FEDERAL RESERVE ACT of 1913, in which the original bank shareholders granted themselves the power to regulate the U.S. economy through ongoing bouts of inflation and deflation, that generates profits for THE BANK. 

    Central banks have played a major role in the destruction of every world power in history.