What is Occupy Wall Street?

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Occupy Wall Street, Courtesy of CNN.com
From Tahrir Square in Cairo, Broadwater Farm in North London, Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv, and, more recently, Zuccotti Park in New York City, the past ten months have been filled with spurts of social activism, led by youths utilizing social media in order to disseminate their frustrations with the status quo and rally for change.   The mainstream media has leapt at the opportunity to cover these protests.  At times, such attention was warranted—the political landscape of the Middle East was undeniably altered by the collapse of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.  However, after six months of NATO intervention in Libya, blatant human rights offenses in Syria, and a peaceful, even uneventful compromise and winding down of the Israeli tent protests, said media has been forced to find a new topic of conversation.  That new topic? Occupy Wall Street.

As a native New Yorker, I cannot deny my initial attraction to the intrigue of this new movement.  Video of the now infamous pepper spray incident on September 24th and the October 1st mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge did pique my interest.  I’ve walked those same streets countless times, and the only other moments they have been filled with people in my memory were during Yankees World Series victory parades, the 2005 transit strike, the 2004 Republican National Convention protests, and, on a more somber note, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Twin Towers on September 11th, 2001.  From a purely aesthetic and sentimental perspective, Occupy Wall Street looks cool.

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Seems like God is of the 99%, Courtesy of HuffingtonPost.com
What is Occupy Wall Street?  The “de facto” website of the movement states that Occupy Wall Street is [“the 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.”](http://occupywallst.org/) Given the continued lack of centralization of the group, we have only this statement, splintered footage of improvised speeches and assembly meetings, and the countless photographs of the signs held by protesters with which to judge the movement.  At the heart of this movement, it seems, is a general dissatisfaction with the pervasive effect of money on hindering the American political process from acting in the best interests of this “99%.”  Of the many targets of the diverse hordes living in Zuccotti Park, nobody suffers worse treatment than members of the American financial services industry, notably bankers.  This is, of course, no surprise given that the movement calls itself “Occupy Wall Street.”

The roots of this animosity towards the financial services industry can be described both simply—“Bankers are greedy”—or in an apparently more complex syntax—“Bankers and financiers caused the financial crisis with high-risk, high-yield strategies, conned millions of Americans out of their savings, utilized government ties to secure tax-payer financed bailouts, and continue to make profit in spite of the Global Recession.”  This narrative has gained credence in communities nationwide, both liberal and conservative, driving a wedge between the hard-working, true American of Main Street and the stuffy, suit-wearing banker, looking to exploit the masses.  Even the Stanford Daily, once a respected college newspaper, has taken to running editorials criticizing “reckless institutions…[that] nearly caused a second Great Depression.”

The reality?  Yes, the richest Americans are a tiny minority in the United States, approximately composing that now infamous 1%. But do they deserve the negative press they’ve been received since Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were put into conservatorship?  No.  Emphatically not.  In fact, a brief dabble into the history preceding the financial crisis provides us with a stark description of what led to the 2008 Financial Crisis.  In some respects, the members of Occupy Wall Street are correct:  Greed was the underlying ideological stimulus for the 2008 Financial Crisis—it was the 99% average Americans overspending their credit card, going deep into debt for that new DVD player, Apple iPod, and shingled house with a tire swing in the backyard whose consistently irresponsible spending habits forced the American government, beginning with the Clinton Administration, to pressure mortgage underwriters, such as Fannie Mae, to expand mortgage loans among low and moderate income people. Lowering credit requirements in the housing market led to the subprime catastrophe and from there, sadly, the rest is history.  Now, realizing that the American government and financial services have learned the debilitating risks of lowering credit standards and deregulation in order to acquiesce to the whim of the sightless American consumer, the same people who overspent throughout the 1990s and early 2000s have turned to their only other respite—making noise and gathering attention by furthering a narrative “propagated by government officials” seeking to escape culpability by demonizing the most financially successful Americans.

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Nice hardware guys, Courtesy of NYTimes.com
So, Occupy Wall Street? A fun time in Lower Manhattan, but lets not make it out to be anything more. Successful protest movements have concrete goals and a strong ideological stimulus—just ask anybody who rushed Tahrir Square in February in the face of an oppressive regime or those who camped on Rothschild Street through the hot Israeli summer. Let’s see how Zuccotti Park looks this winter. My bet? When the New York temperature drops to the point that fair-trade coffee goes cold faster and thumbs must be gloved to tweet via smartphone, this “99%” will retreat home to their heated apartments, finding sanctuary from the evil jungle of American capitalism in the comfort of their living rooms, lulled to sleep by the drone of their debt-financed widescreen televisions.
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