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Socialism and Democracy
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Occupy Against Inequality
Benjamin Shepard
Version of record first published: 26 Jun 2012
To cite this article: Benjamin Shepard (2012): Occupy Against Inequality, Socialism and
Democracy, 26:2, 26-29
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Occupy Against Inequality
Benjamin Shepard
Every year I teach classes on US social policy and community
health. We usually watch the lm Unnatural Causes, a documentary
about the ways inequalities in wealth are reected in our health. The
lm explores indicators of inequality including social determinants
of health among various populations, examples of excess death in
low-income communities, high pre-term births among African Ameri-
can mothers, and overall high rates of infant mortality across the board.
The US rate of 7 deaths per thousand infants ranks it 34
th
in the world,
below Cuba and Portugal.
1
The statistic is thought to be an indicator of
general health of a population. Income inequality is a means to think
about core barriers to community health. Throughout the class, we
talk about solutions for the problem, such as the Earned Income Tax
Credit and national healthcare. But what we all agree is really
needed are movements to break down these inequalities.
In 2011, a movement was born to do something about the problem.
On a week in September when new statistics came out pointing to an
18-year high in poverty levels, a group of idealistic youth descended
on Wall Street (Saturday, Sept. 17). Dismayed with Obamas one-
sided approach to serving the needs of bankers, and with the lack of
a national policy to address increasingly severe social and economic
inequalities, a new generation turned to the street to pursue their
own solutions, establishing a space where they would rally, cook,
create art, and participate in an open-ended experiment in democracy.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) was a call to action heard around the globe.
Its central target: inequalities of income and wealth.
Of course, OWS was not the rst movement to take on this issue.
The French Revolution of 1789 expressed a similar aspiration. So
have many subsequent movements, yet the problem has remained.
In recent years, there has been an exponential increase in income
inequality worldwide. Domestic inequality widened during the 1990s
1. Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick? (California Newsreel documen-
tary, 2008), www.unnaturalcauses.org.
Socialism and Democracy, Vol.26, No.2, July 2012, pp.2629
ISSN 0885-4300 print/ISSN 1745-2635 online
http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08854300.2012.686293 #2012 The Research Group on Socialism and Democracy
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economic expansion, as the US maintained its position as the leader in
inequality among advanced nations. The great bulk of the wealth
created in the 1990s went to the upper 5% of US families. The top 5%
got 43% of income whereas the bottom 20% got only 5%.
2
Movements I cared about, from the burgeoning global justice
movement to queer/AIDS activism, recognized that their challenges
were only magnied by the problem. What we are witnessing. . .are
several powerful social shifts which could easily and swiftly fall into
place, causing a full-scale sex panic to break out nationwide,
remarked author and activist Eric Rofes in a 1997 speech, noting that
the intense concentration of wealth was making US cities into
sites of contentious class-based battles over massive corporate land-
grabs. He added, This is the way terror and scapegoating operate
in a postmodern culture.
3
Economic and social inequality produces countless social pro-
blems, as well as systems of blame and retribution. After all, the US
prison population represents 3% of the US male workforce, most of
whom are high-school dropouts for whom the job market has col-
lapsed. Those without high-tech skills remain locked out of the new
economy. All the while, incarceration rates have doubled, and then
nearly doubled again, with disproportionate numbers of people of
color locked up and subject to capital punishment. Racially targeted
mass incarceration: Not in a democracy! declared a sign in the Febru-
ary 20, 2012 OWS march in New York against the prison/industrial
complex. The beauty of OWS is its ability to connect the dots
between systems of oppression, as well as between movements.
Global capitalism, activists would contend, was mauling the
public: the commons are being turned into private malls; genes
and seeds are being altered and patented; water is being dammed,
bought and sold as an increasingly scarce and valuable commodity;
politicians and whole governments are routinely bribed and bent to
capitals will; children are targeted and tracked at birth, fed advertise-
ments and slogans in place of needed nourishment. This was a central
idea of the 2002 anthology, From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest
and Community Building in the Era of Globalization, that I co-edited
with Ron Hayduk. Ten years later, the pattern was only increasing,
2. Richard B. Freeman, The new inequality: Creating solutions for poor America, Boston:
Beacon Press, 1999.
3. Eric Rofes, The emerging sex panic targeting gay men. Speech given at the National
Gay and Lesbian Task Forces Creating Change Conference in San Diego, November
16, 1997.
Benjamin Shepard 27
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with more and more of the commons cordoned off, and meeting
places replaced with fences and entrance fees, as public spaces
were steadily privatized. The human cost of globalization is often
social displacement. With OWS, a new movement would challenge
such displacement by connecting the dots between banking practices
and their social consequences, while disrupting auctions of foreclosed
homes.
Most importantly, OWS stayed downtown and local. It set its eyes
on Wall Street and the system it supported, focusing on it for months
on end. On Friday Sept. 16, activists held a general assembly and Criti-
cal Mass bike ride in support of the movement. The 17
th
began with
rallies, street actions, and general assemblies. No one knew what to
make of the action at rst. Youth had organized it, although looking
around the space that afternoon I saw many of the usual suspects,
police, a few supporters of Lyndon LaRouche, etc. With backpacks in
hand, activists wandered through Zuccotti Park, later dubbed
Liberty Plaza. They held a general assembly and spent the night.
Many talked all night. Yet the actions continued Sunday and so did
the general assemblies. For many, this was a continuation of actions
taking place fromEgypt to Wisconsin and Albany, where waves of pro-
tests challenged the politics of austerity. Already on May 12, 2011, acti-
vists from around the country had converged on Wall St. to protest
budget austerity; the comparison with Cairos Tahrir Square was
widely made.
In the months following Sept. 17, I would ride my bike to Liberty
Plaza almost every day. One of my favorite activities was to peruse
the painted cardboard signs on display. Sign after sign highlighted
record-level inequalities in wealth. The wealthiest 400 Americans
own more than the poorest 60%. Who do politicians really care
about? On the north side of the park, many posted messages explain-
ing why they were there. GET MAD read a message painted on the
back of a pizza box. Citizens United Against Greedy Bankers read
another. Many addressed the inuence of money on politics. Who
Funds Our Senators? Wall Street. Corporations are People Too: RIP
McCain Feingold. Others raged at the system itself: Occupy Wall
Street: Time to Change the System. Kill the Corporate Worm.
The Rich Get Richer, The Poor Get Poorer, Flawed System. Wall
Street Doesnt Pay. Some recalled the generation of 1968: Revolution
is Poetry, Poetry is Revolution! Imagination!!! Others called for a
Velvet Revolution-type moment in which we tear down the wall:
Rip Down Wall Street and Make a Just Street. The central theme
was that democracy is bought, sold and controlled by Wall Street.
28 Socialism and Democracy
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The driving force behind OWS was and is its focus on how inequal-
ities affect peoples lives. Research from the Fiscal Policy Institute
4
shows that the richest 1% of earners receives 35% of all income col-
lected in New York State. In New York City, 44% of all income is col-
lected by the top 1%. The nancial services industry is once again
making record prots and real estate interests have spent millions on
PR and lobby campaigns to weaken rent control, undermine teachers
contract rights, and cut social services. Today, one in ve New Yorkers
lives in poverty. And poverty has risen to 15.1% nationally. The
poverty threshold for a family of three is $15,205. Conversely, the
wealth of the top 1% is greater than that of the bottom 90% combined.
With poverty numbers on the rise, the movements declaration, We
are the 99%, seemed to resonate. Banks got bailed out, we got sold
out! All day, all week: Occupy Wall Street!!!! everyone chanted as
the early morning rallies made their way through New Yorks nancial
district. And more and more newspapers started writing about the
growing inequality.
Activists would stay downtown for two months, until their evic-
tion on the night of November 14/15. During that time, those in
support of the 99% held rallies for healthcare and against police brutal-
ity, built solidarity with labor, immigrants, and AIDS activists, and
shifted a national conversation. And policies began to change. When
activists called Governor Cuomo Governor 1%, he pushed to
expand a form of the millionaires tax. Even eviction could not slow
the nascent movement. Post-eviction actions would target Goldman
Sachs, the foreclosure crisis, and the need for public space where
people can meet in the streets. And the dirty secret of income inequality
in the US was exposed for all to see, and even possibly do something
about.
4. Fiscal Policy Institute, Grow Together or Pull Further Apart: Income Concentration
Trends in New York, December 13, 2010. http://www.scalpolicy.org/FPI_
GrowTogetherOrPullFurtherApart_20101213.pdf.
Benjamin Shepard 29
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