Common Cause Against Wall Street

During the Vietnam War, “hard-hat” construction workers would sometimes spit on or beat up young anti-war protesters. But the U.S. political/economic situation is now so dire that the “hard-hats” are finding common cause with the scruffy Wall Street protesters, notes Michael Winship.

By Michael Winship

Early last Friday morning, as the Occupy Wall Street protesters were just uncurling from their sleeping bags, I went downtown for a walkthrough of their campsite at Zuccotti Park, now also known as Liberty Plaza.

I met up there with AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka and New York City Central Labor Council President Vincent Alvarez. (I’m president of an AFL-CIO affiliated union.)

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka visiting "Occupy Wall Street" protest (Photo by Pat Ivers)

There were just a few of us in our group, and as the sun burned through the dawn’s chill not much attention was paid as we took the tour. We kept our voices low and walked carefully, doing our best to keep from tripping over and waking those who were still asleep

One or two reporters hooked up with us, not including the kid you may have seen with the fake cardboard Fox News camera and microphone, who tossed out questions as he walked along behind us. That was the extent of the media coverage.

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. Unlike the Bible’s lilies of the field, those honorable gentlemen and women toil not but spin like hell.

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.

Oh, and I didn’t think the park “smelled like an open sewer,” as Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post reported this week (the city reports that not a single complaint has been made to its 311 helpline).

In fact, while I was there, the predominant aroma was that of hunger-inducing spices floating from the trucks of food vendors parked at the curbside. Neither was there any evidence of the blatant sex, drugs and public defecation the paper reported, but admittedly it was early and in any case I tend to usually miss out on that kind of thing.

In fact, there’s a lot of creativity and intelligence at work down there. Just read the movement’s snappily edited and written newspaper – The Occupied Wall Street Journal, of course – and take a look at some of their placards:

“If only the war on poverty was a real war. Then we would actually be putting money into it” (Cornel West was holding that one); “The police are one layoff away from joining us”; “You know things are messed up when librarians start marching.”

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 together 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 Rich 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.

As The New York Times legendary Homer Bigart reported back then, “Helmeted construction workers broke up a student anti-war demonstration in Wall Street yesterday, chasing youths through the canyons of the financial district in a wild noontime melee that left about 70 persons injured.”

Kids were savagely kicked and pounded with tools, crowbars and yes, hardhats. 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 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.

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5 comments on “Common Cause Against Wall Street

  1. Morgaine on said:

    Stop begging Wall Street to prove you wrong. A few corporations run the world and they are running for the profit of a handful of people at the expense of all the rest of us–who are TOTALLY EXPENDABLE, as far as they are concerned. That’s what this movement is about. Not just occupying Wall Street, but taking back democracy!

  2. Jym Allyn on said:

    The problem with our economy is the Golden Rule: Those that have the gold make the rules.
    That is why the SEC has been castrated by the banks and hedge-fund managers and our foreign policy has been written by Halliburton and the oil companies.

    Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), increasing the wealth of the upper 2% is NOT the way to have increased total wealth of a 21st Century society. War is no longer “good for business.” Monopolistic control of resources is not good for resource owners because 21st Century economic wealth comes from consumption rather than production or ownership (much like King Midas whose gold had no value if he couldn’t sell it).

    We need to be “conservative” and go back to a balanced economy where the upper 2% had much higher taxes to both pay for the governmental needs of all of society and to keep their greed from getting out of control.

  3. I get your references, and heartfelt concern. But I tend to agree that the criticism and demands for demands and pressures being leveled at the Occupy Wall Streeters, seems misplaced. This is a new thing, and older circumstances don’t seem to apply any more. Several generations of Americans will live far less financially secure lives than their parents, or even grandparents, in all likelihood. And this is a response to a depression in the midst of seeming plenty, a a time when the media is emphasizing wild sales of the latest Ipad or Google’s quarterly take. This is not Abbie Hoffman’s Wall Street challenge, though he would have relished it.

  4. Guy McCullough on said:

    It is useful to reflect back to the sixties but there are some important differences. Because of the draft the anti-war effort dominated the movement. It’s leaders in educating themselves traveled very far and very fast and outdistanced where they were at in relationship to the rest of the population. The urgency they felt caused them not to appreciate where other people were at and so their efforts to reach out to the larger population were often counter-productive. This allowed the powers-to-be to contain and isolate the leaders of this movement from the very people they hoped to engage. Thus, we have the contrast with construction workers attacking students and now unions joining the Occupation. Of course, the other big change is the present financial situation has pushed more people to be aware of their circumstances and come together to seek alternatives to a System that does not meet their basic needs. Having grown up during the Vietnam era, but not really developing an understanding of what my Government has been doing in my name until Regan’s Central American wars and finally rejoining the ranks of resistance during Bush’s wars of occupation; it has been frustating to not be able to engage more people in this process. Now I can see how important it is to respect where other people are at. People are finally coming together at their own pace and in a place where they are more than ready to create a real movement for change. Also one change to consider is why do we vote for people to represent us. If we can vote for “Dancing with the Stars” we can vote for issues that actually impact us.

  5. Son of roy rogers on said:

    Yes Michael, I remember that time well. I also remember those same construction workers staring into the eyes of myself and the other VietNam Veteran’s Against the War and deciding they might die if they tried the same shit with us they did with little Hippie girls. This time around is much better. The dedication to non violence is the way to go and the Republicans have gotten their way for so long ( even under Clinton and Obama) that they have exposed themselves to the working folks as the enemy they have always been. During George’s tenure they pulled out all the stops and have no more believable rhetoric to offer.