The fate of our economy and our collective futures are so dire, unions have joined with the Occupy Wall Street activists.
Early last Friday morning, as the Occupy Wall Street protesters were just uncurling from their sleeping bags, I went downtown for a walk through their Manhattan campsite at Zuccotti Park, now also known as Liberty Plaza. There I met up with AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. (I’m president of an AFL-CIO-affiliated union.)
There were just a few of us in our group. Every once in a while someone would ask who Trumka was and he would stop and chat. At the end of our visit, he sat with a group at the west end of the park, across from Ground Zero, and quietly offered encouragement, discussing strategy, goals and, on a practical level, the essentials needed to keep the protest going.
As many have noted, this so-called ragtag army of students and activists has ably taken democracy at its rawest and organized it well: the whiteboards filled with information, the computers mobilizing social media, the makeshift library of plastic bins filled with books and magazines, the committees that handle everything from “direct action” and training to hygiene and childcare. As for their general assemblies, at which speeches and group decisions are made, many have made fun of the call-and-response “people’s mike” that sometimes makes them sound a bit like the chanting members of a cult.
But ask yourself if it’s no more peculiar than many of the words and deeds of those who currently constitute the United States Congress. Consider the difference between an earnest and sincere gathering of committed men and women who for the most part only want to see our country pulled back from the abyss, and a Capitol Hill where legislators view the needs of a despairing nation as little more than moves in a punch drunk game of fantasy league football.
Are there miscreants among the crowd, hangers-on and even provocateurs? Sure. Speaking as an experienced veteran of demonstrations and picket lines, that’s been true since humankind first gathered to express dissent. Lowlifes always try to latch on. Just the other day right-wing darling James O’Keefe, the puny scourge of ACORN and public radio, showed up in a business suit, tie and glasses, apparently hoping to provoke a protester into mistaking him for someone important and pummeling him with an empty pizza box. Most hands extend in solidarity, but there are always some who will close theirs to make a fist or an obscene gesture.
At the end of our visit, as Trumka was leaving, a group of men from the United Steelworkers arrived from Jersey to take a look for themselves and offer support for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Some wore hardhats and I remembered how, on May 8, 1970, after Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the killing of four students by the National Guard at Kent State University, members of the building and trade unions, not very far from where we stood, beat up protesters much like the ones now camped out at Zuccotti Park.
More than four decades later, all that has changed. The fate of our economy and our collective futures are so dire, unions have joined with the Occupy Wall Street activists. They have energized organized labor and the entire progressive movement, because these groups know that only with the strength of a unified voice putting truth to power can the plutocracy of government, industry and financial institutions be forced to budge even an inch from the avarice that values profit above people and domination over freedom.
I remembered, too, something I wrote a year and a half ago, recalling how much of the momentum of those 1970 antiwar protests and a national student strike vanished with the pleasures of summertime and dwindled — for a while at least — into something an editor friend dubbed “the Frisbee revolution.”
I wrote, “Despite all the anger and worry today — an economy in shambles, the loss of jobs and security, wars continuing in Afghanistan and Iraq, a dysfunctional government hobbled by the stranglehold of campaign cash and political hackery — there’s a similar lack of interest afflicting many of those who rallied to the cause of Barack Obama in 2008, knocking on doors, contributing money — voting.”
Occupy Wall Street — prove me wrong. Please.
Michael Winship, a native of Canandaigua, N.Y., is senior writing fellow at Demos, president of the Writers Guild of America, East, and senior writer of the new series “Moyers & Company,” premiering on public television in January 2012.