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The Daily Need

Occupy Wall Street: Unemployment is not going away, and neither are we

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators stand and cheer in front of the George Washington statue on Wall Street as they celebrate the protest's sixth month this past weekend in New York. Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The Occupy Wall Street protesters, in what has by now become a familiar routine, were routed from their makeshift home in Union Square early Wednesday morning. The protesters, about 300 of them, had set up a new encampment there after being swiftly evicted from their original home in Zuccotti Park on Saturday, during a day of action designed to mark the movement’s six-month anniversary.

The latest eviction raises the same questions that the movement’s many previous evictions raised: What next? Cold temperatures forced Occupy’s rank-and-file into hibernation over the winter, and many were hoping for a resurgence in the spring. Indeed, the protesters showed some signs of life over the weekend, in their clashes with police and in the 73 arrests that ensued, both of which are crucial to generating media attention.

At the outset of the Occupy movement, however, the physical encampments and their forcible removal were only the sparks — the kindling, the central animating force behind the original Occupy Wall Street protests, was widespread economic discontent. With large majorities of Americans frustrated at the stalled economy and resentful of the do-nothing political class, Occupy easily became an outlet for a much deeper, simmering anger over economic injustice in America.

That, of course, raises the question: Now that the economic picture is getting (slightly) brighter, will those signs of improvement make it difficult for Occupy Wall Street to regain its footing and resonate with working and middle class Americans in the same way it did last year?

“No, I don’t think so,” said Michael Premo, an Occupy participant. Premo was standing amid a small crowd of roughly 100 or so protesters, whom he had helped corral for a press conference in front of police headquarters in downtown Manhattan Tuesday calling for the resignation of New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, after allegations of violence against Occupy protesters. The Occupy movement, Premo said in an interview after the press conference, won’t be diminished by recent gains in the economy. In fact, the uneven distribution of those gains — the fact that certain classes of Americans have benefited little from the economy’s nascent resurgence — may only bolster Occupy’s case.

In the interview, Premo articulated what may well be the manifesto of Occupy 2.0:

We’re experiencing a level of structural unemployment that’s not going to go away. The economy, for many people — most of America — is not getting better. In my community, the economy has been going down for decades, and there are people that will continually be effected. There is no real middle class anymore. The base of the middle class has been eroded, it’s a sort of political ruse that’s used to galvanize voters. This problem is not going away. This problem did not start with the housing crisis, and any minor fluctuations in the economy will not affect the movement to continue to grow.

The success of Occupy’s second wave, then, rests at least in part on two premises: That the recent economic gains achieved under President Obama have been meager, and that a small few have benefited from those gains while the rest of America languishes. And there’s strong empirical evidence to support both claims.

For one, a wide range of prominent economists — including Jeffrey Sachs, who spoke to the protesters last year and christened their movement the start of a “new progressive era” in America — have suggested that the flaws in our economy exposed by the financial crisis are systematic, and won’t easily be erased by short-term government spending alone.

The second and perhaps even more powerful point is this: Even as the jobs market has shown flickers of life in recent months, the vast majority of the wealth gains produced by the economic recovery have gone to the richest Americans. For example, a stunning analysis by Emmanuel Saez, a French economist at UC Berkeley, has found that, in the first part of the recovery from 2009 to 2010, 93 percent of the total growth in incomes went to the top one percent of earners.

If any number should send shockwaves of anger and disenchantment rippling through the heartland of America, it should be that. It shows concretely that the problems with our economy are structural, that inequality is built into the system, and that even a Keynesian agenda like the Obama stimulus, designed to breathe life into the economy, has ultimately enriched a relative few, while neglecting the bulk of working and middle class Americans.

That message could potentially be a powerful one for Occupy 2.0. The obstacles, of course, are great: Challenging the recent economic recovery will require, in part, a more direct confrontation with President Obama and entrenched Democratic power-brokers, like labor unions, which have lent credibility and organizational support to Occupy in the past. Already, unions have begun to take a much more cautious approach to the movement, with labor leaders dismissing a “general strike” planned by Occupy organizers for May 1.

Nonetheless, the protesters are determined to stage a comeback — and they have a potentially powerful message at their disposal, if only they can broadcast it effectively. “We hope to clarify our position,” Premo said after the press conference on Tuesday. Asked what that position was, he said, “That we’re not going away.”

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