On Protesting

It’s been 6 years since the Occupy Wall Street protests began on September 17, 2011 in New York’s Zuccotti Park. We are the 99%, they chanted. Similar protests spread rapidly throughout the United States and in some European cities, as well.

And then they were gone. The police cleared the protesters from Zuccotti Park two months after it began and that was pretty much the end of Occupy Wall Street. Has it had any lasting impact?

While it wasn’t the first to highlight the growing income inequalities in this country, it was surely the first large-scale protest movement to do so. And while there was much discussion of the magnitude of the problem and the importance of rectifying it, there was little in the way of doing anything about it.

Some have attributed the success of Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaign to the receptive audience Occupy Wall Street created. Sanders argued forcefully to increase the minimum wage, reduce outrageous income inequalities, and end the enormous role of money in politics. However, all these issues had been discussed long before Occupy Wall Street and Sanders did not become the Democratic Party’s candidate for President

The same holds for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign when she declared, “the deck is still stacked in favor of those at the top.” And later when she compared the annual salaries of the C.E.O.’s to those of kindergarten teachers. While less forceful than Sanders, she nevertheless made it a feature of her campaign. But in the end, she lost the Presidential election

Six years since Occupy Wall Street some of the rhetoric continues, but the problems persist. In a word, nothing much has happened in the intervening years. If anything, income disparities have increased, money still plays a powerful role in politics, and even though some states and cities have introduced minimum wage requirements, real wages have declined as living costs have increased and far too many people struggle to get by.

The larger question becomes, as Nathan Heller puts it in the August 21st New Yorker, “Is There Any Point to Protesting?” He too cites the Occupy Wall Street protest and says, “No US policies have changed.”

He recalls the winter of 2003 “when the world assembled, arms linked, to protest the prospect of war in Iraq…Three weeks later the United States was at war.”

And he points to the Women’s March this past January. “Throughout the nation and in nearly seven hundred cities all across the world, millions of people assembled …. Then on the following Monday the new administration went about its work as planned.”

Protests continue to this day, even more frequently now as a result of our current President and his policies. We express ourselves, we are there, our views spread, sometimes widely. But in the end, they have little effect on policies. We are still an imperfect nation, a developing nation. And as Heller concludes, “The march goes on, and someday, not just in our dreams, we’ll make it home.”