Occupy Wall Street

~by Aaron B.

Slowly but surely, the Occupy Wall Street protests are gaining the attention of the mainstream media. A New York Times story on global protest movements makes a passing mention of the protests (which are happening in its home city!), and MSNBC’s The Last Word ran a segment on an instance of police brutality against protestors.

What are we to make of the movement? On its website, OWS characterizes itself as a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions[…and t]he one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99% that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1%.” Clear enough. Through this website and their signs, the protestors set themselves up against the rich and those professions they identify with the top 1%—bankers, CEOs, and so on.

But because the movement is so decentralized and because they lack a positive project—part of the protestors’ declared purpose is to agree on a demand—it’s easy to think that this protest doesn’t mean anything. It’s fairly small, numbering a few thousands participants at its peak (though it will get a big boost in October as NYC transit workers join in), and it’s not going to dislodge any leaders or have any kind of immediate impact on policy. This sort of goal requires much more organization, planning, and support. Is Occupy Wall Street little more than an impotent expression of rage?

Perhaps, but I think this view misses a key point. As I said, protestors have taken to the streets to “talk to each other…[and] zero in on what our demand will be, a demand that awakens the imagination.” These protests aren’t going to change policy, but they’re not trying to yet—they’re all about creating a collective consciousness, about drawing the line between rich, powerful Americans and the rest of us, “the 99%,” and about instilling a sense of identity and solidarity among this 99%.

This is a modest goal, but it’s important, and I think the “99%” formulation is a powerful one. It eschew religious, political, gender, and other divisions in favor of a roughly class-based division of society, which paints the 99% as unified, democratic, and just.  It might be the beginnings of a vehicle to express the frustration and demands of all Americans who struggle.  Building this image and identity is the necessary first step towards a successful, broad-based movement, and already it’s showing signs of progressing. Hopefully more unions will follow the transit workers in becoming involved. Mike Konczal has made a few suggestions about what the central demand of the 99% should be. The movement seems to be spreading to D.C., and maybe even other cities.

So I’m optimistic. This won’t be Madison, and it won’t be the United States’ Arab Spring, but it might be something big.  Check out the We Are The 99 Percent tumblr, and keep your eyes peeled.

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120 thoughts on “Occupy Wall Street

  1. I would grant the movement more prominence in my thinking about current events if I had a good idea of what the movement was about, that’s for sure. Howling at the moon isn’t really all that interesting, or productive.

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    • … who says it needs to be about something to be productive?
      Most prototypes aren’t about much of anything… merely proving that you can do something.

      If lolcats can be a productive source of decentralized commentary on our political situation (or on BP), why can’t this be… the start of something?

      Wouldn’t believe the hype about “no central authority,” though. Leaders always exist, even if they merely live in the background.

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      • If it’s not about something right now, it will be eventually.

        I find that things that aren’t about something eventually wind up being about something I don’t like at least half as often as something I do like.

        Makes it hard to sign up.

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        • Acacia Park downtown had an Occupy Wall Street thing going on last Saturday. There were tons of people with signs standing on the corner and there was a guy kittycorner with a megaphone yelling things. Stuff about “letting them know” and the like.

          It seemed less fun than the anti-war protests.

          I don’t know if that’s a sign that it’s a lot more serious or a sign that it’s not going to last anywhere near as long.

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  2. If it’s going to be analogous to the tea party, it needs some stuff it can ask politicians to lie about.

    If politicians don’t know what they need to lie about, the 99% will continue to feel like nobody is listening to them.

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      • The point, Greginak, is that they don’t have a coherent demand. With the Tea Party they at least could say in a general unified voice they were for reduced government size, spending and control. Now we may know that the Tea Party is 90% rebranded republicans with some very hopeful and starry eyed libertarians frosting the cake but their message was coherent.

        What does Occupy Wall Street want to do? Raise awareness? That’s groupspeak for “we don’t know exactly”.

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        • well reduce government except for the parts we like.

          i agree that the OWS complaints are vague and their org structure seems like a real life version of Monty Python and the Holy Grail sketch. however their anarchic structure seems like it would be at least a bit attractive to many libertarians, but i’m not seeing that.

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        • Initially the Tea Party had no such clarity either, North. They gathered on tax day 2009 (or Tax Freedom Day, or both, I can’t remember), and to my memory did not have any set of unified demands. Did they not want to pay their taxes? Did they oppose the bailouts? Was it the size of government? None of these things are exclusive of each other, but it was unclear then as well.

          I actually think what Jaybird said above is very insightful. The difference between these two movements at similar points in hteir trajectoris is the OWS actually is making quite a nuisance of itself to people who are very used to being allowed to conduct their business without reference to what others think of them. Politicians are used to people gathering to express their displeasure, and moreover, the Tea Party really didn’t make much of a nuisance.

          And as Jaybird points out, as soon as the Tea Party did distill its aims, it was clear to established interests how they could be not only neutralized but co-opted. To my mind, it would be a strategic error for OWS to follow the same course – especially since their current position – literal physical position – gives them more leverage as an actual physical force than the Tea Party ever had. It seems to me their best bet for retaining relevance is to remain a somewhat enigmatic presence in places where they’re not wanted. If they say they want a financial transaction tax, then people can just say, well, no. Bad idea. And anyway, that’s done in Washington not New York. And then they can be ignored as being advocates of a particular DOA idea. To the extent they want to remain a fleck of concern among any powerful people anywhere, they’re better off just demanding “Reform!”, or “Do what you know is right!”, or “Respond to us!”, and making powerful people think for themselves how they might do that if ever the movement gains a momentum that suggests it could become a force of a size those people would rather not see it become.

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    • You know, one of the comments I saw from a participant in New York was, in essence, that they didn’t want to demand anything because if you demand something of an authority you legitimize it. Maybe they’re aware, at least some of them, that asking politicians for something is asking them to lie about it.

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  3. Whatever their ultimate goal, their general sentiment would be best served by swelling in numbers and provoking as much police “brutality,” as possible.

    They would do well to organize events in the morning and evening, and lunch, when most people move to and from their office in those jobs (trading/banking/investing).

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    • Thx for the link to the Jonah Goldberg piece. Exc.

      Their claims of representing the 99 percent are so preposterous, it’s sad and funny at the same time. Their various lists of demands sound like they were written in a tree house by politically precocious pre-teens.

      If every Republican candidate is responsible for the rare dumb or “extreme” statement of a tea partier, I look forward to the Democrats having similar problems with the Marxists belches and burps that will emanate with increasing frequency from the pseudo-revolutionary maw.

      Delicious.

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            • Really? I thought the link in question was pretty typical for JG, a perfectly legitimate coherent point of view. If I’d criticize him for anything he tends to be a little too duplicative of conventional wisdom and too horse-racey. But that’s hard to square from his critics on the left, for whom everything he writes is uniquely the stupidest thing ever written.

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              • Goldberg’s critics don’t actually engage his arguments: the common tactic is to link to him without comment except calling it worthless without saying why. [The lemmings nod in agreement.] I’ve noticed this one for years.

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                • It shouldn’t bug me, but nonetheless it does. It tends to happen to JG, McArdle, David Brooks, and William Kristol, mostly because they are nonconfrontational by nature. It’s like they’ve got “Kick me” perma-taped on their back, but I suspect that’s in the best interest of their long-term mental health nonetheless.

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                  • McArdle and Kristol can simply stop being consistently and completely wrong about things time after time.

                    McArdle and Kristol aren’t jokes among the liberal blogsophere because of their policy positions, they’re jokes because they’ve been proven to be bad at their chosen fields of expertise over and over again.

                    I do have to laugh thought at the idea of somebody who wrote a book called Liberal Fascism being known as non-confrontational.

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          • Because Goldberg rarely writes anything worth reading? I mean, I read the Corner daily. Because you have to keep up with the other side. On the Corner, there are two distinct types of writer. One kind are those who well I may disagree with completely, at least have some sort of prescription, policy, or position they’re pushing. I may even find some positions idiotic, but at least they have some ideas that are written well.

            On the other hand, there are people like K-Lo and Goldberg who seem only interested in attacking liberals or pushing conservative platitudes. They stopped being interesting years ago.

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  4. The 99% formulation may indeed be powerful and evocative, but it’s elusive. I imagine that many of the 1 percenters believe themselves to be part of the 99, and that many of the 99 seek and take the same types of unearned rents they accuse the 1 percenters of taking.

    We all (or most, or a much larger than 1% of us) hoard or save to stave off future insecurity. We all (or most, or a much larger than 1% of us) take what we can get from who will give it to us, and we all (or most, or a much larger than 1% of us) clamor for more, because greed is unique to the 99 percenters as much as it is to the 1 percenters, even though the 1 percenters may be better at it, or better placed to be better at it.

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      • I didn’t say you were greedy. I don’t even know you. However, if you’re human, I assume you are greedy. So, in that sense, I guess I did say you were greedy, because you are human.

        I, for one, am greedy, and in ways that are made clearer to me the longer I live. Maybe I ought to be restrained put down to size.

        I don’t believe I said I that the 99 percenters, were “just like” what you called the “death by spreadsheet” folks. In fact, I said that some people are better at being greedy, or better placed to be better at being greedy. But I do believe that deep down, we are all (or most of us, but I haven’t met him or her or them yet) more like these folks than we’d like to believe.

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    • the 99% vs 1% gives a strong contrast, especially since most of the 99% stories are, as Ezra Klein and others have noted, part of a class of people who did what they were suppose to, but still got shafted by the current arrangement.

      Greed is only a problem when it overwhelms those in a position to give.

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      • I’m a little leery of giving too much credit to “they did what they were supposed to do”.

        I bet a bunch of those people who did what they’re supposed to do have different ideas of “what they’re supposed to do” from mine.

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        • Maybe but studying hard, getting good grades, getting accepted into a good (and pricey school) and then getting a degree use to be pretty much the gold standard of ‘doing what you’re suppose to do’.

          The explosion of college debt brought on by cost rising much faster than inflation combined with a lost decade of wage stagnation topped off by a period lasting years of high structural unemployment has ended that. The kids coming up will be much more careful about how they spend their time after high school but for the people who did everything right at least by how it had been defined for nearly 70 years, (if not longer, when has study hard, good to college and get good grades NOT been the right way to do things) it truly sucks to be stuck with $40,000+ in debt and no job and no way to clear the debt (because you cant clear college debt in bankruptcy).

          It is truly a life changing mistake, run the numbers in a spread sheet, compare what it means to start increasing your wealth 22 starting from 0 versus starting 28 $40,000 in the hole. Everything else being equal, by the time you hit middle age, the difference in wealth between the 2 is enormous.

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          • I think student debt amnesty and/or amending the bankruptcy code to make student debt dischargeable would be a great thing. We could do it for far less than the $800 Bn stimulus package or the current “jobs” bill and it would have much greater pro-growth impact.

            AFAIK, President Obama hasn’t proposed this (though he could). Unfortunately, if he did it now, everybody would just ignore it like they ignore everything else the President says.

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  5. To be frank, a leaderless, demandless protest movement strikes me as ripe for the most unscrupulous leaders and the most vicious demands to come in and take it over.

    That said, there’s nothing wrong with “occupying” Wall Street. It’s a public street, they’ve a right. And my guess is probably that’s as far as they get.

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  6. What I’ve seen (admittedly not much) they appear to be a coterie of thirty year old wankers who are looking for any excuse to get out of their parent’s basement for a couple of days.

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  7. Okay, so you have the Tea Party launching large protests in DC mostly but elsewhere and you have Occupy Wall Street launching large protests in NYC mostly but elsewhere. In both cases, you have a problem of vagueness and protesters who are less articulate than we’d like, but the overall gist of it seems to be that people feel that powerful elites have co-opted the American democracy and that the average person no longer has any say in Washington, so they’re mad and demanding that they have more of a say in the democratic process.

    Tell you what: tonight, I’ll flip a coin and decide which of these movements I consider to be “impotent, sputtering, inarticulate rage” and which one I consider to be “the most authentic expression of the will of the people in our time”.

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  8. I can’t really say much about the protesters since until they decide what they want I can’t say whether I’m for it or against it (I’m not saying they have to come up with something right now, just that I can’t say much until they do).

    But if Mike Konczal is anything to go by, the signs are not good. Of his 3 points 1 and 3 would be disastrous and 2 has a distinctly witch-hunt quality about it, though a study trying to figure out the exact mechanisms of what happened would be a good idea.

    I don’t like the “99%” formulation because I don’t see what happened as some evil plot cooked up by greedy bankers, but rather a case of mass delusion in which just about everyone participated (consumers, financial institutions and government). If I were to suggest a demand which might do some good, and is simple enough for a crowd to call out, I’d go with getting rid of debt securitisation. It would make mortgages a bit more expensive, but it would make your financial system a lot more robust.

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      • 2 reasons:

        1) Financial transaction are volatile, not in the statistical sense of having high variance (though they can be that too), but in the chemical sense that they evaporate readily when heated. If I were a conspiracy-minded person I would suggest that the recent calls for a financial transactions tax in the US and England was a plot orchestrated by financiers from Hong Kong, because that’s where most of the global finance industry will move to in response to even slight transactions taxes.

        2) For financial markets to work well they need two things: liquidity (i.e. a lot of money in them) and arbitrage (i.e. a bunch of people ready to pounce on a slight mispricing in the market). A transactions tax would cripple arbitrage, significantly reducing the efficiency of financial markets.

        Whatever the solution to warding off another financial crisis is, I’m pretty sure the answer doesn’t lie in sabotaging the functioning of financial markets.

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    • A witch hunt quality? I suppose it depends on how the investigations are conducted but I’d like to see Attorney General follow up on the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s report (pdf). At the very least, it would be great if FCIC members followed the model of 9/11 Commission members in engaging the public even though their official commission work has concluded.

      And I don’t think mass delusion captures the misdeeds of people with more money and information taking advantage of people with far less money and information. 1% versus 99% is a strikingly accurate reflection of the growing economic divide in America over the past three decades.

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      • “Just because they’re all out to get you doesn’t mean you’re not paranoid.”

        It’s not as if all the 1 percenters got into a room and decided how to screw the other 99% over (they probably did it over the internet, using as pseudonyms the names of classical French playwrights).

        For what it’s worth, I, for one, have no problem in principle, requiring the top 1 percent to pay more than whatever it is they pay in taxes. I wouldn’t even mind the $250,000/year plussers paying more, or even the $100,000 per years, at least not in principle (one would have to examine the practical effects of any such taxing policy that might be imposed).

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    • This is what I’m talking about. James K clearly is thinking about it, and he’s not sure what to make of it. That’s a better strategic position to have wrt him than him having three demands to which he can then apply his acid intellect and dismantle, allowing him to move on with his parochial concerns….

      KEEP IT VAGUE! AND STAY ON THE STREET!

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      • “KEEP IT VAGUE! AND STAY ON THE STREET!”

        Actually, I wonder if the protesters’ case (such as it is) is hurt by their inability to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate developments in finance. If they could point to something that was clearly wrong, people might sympathize more. On the other hand, once it’s gotten rid of, then what?

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        • I’m just saying that there’s no rush – they should be focusing on gaining attention and participants now, while considering all possible foci upon which to center their demands when/if the time comes. If it gets specific, then that just becomes a boring policy debate, and no one goes into the street for those (these days). Right now, their advantages are energy, mystery, public attention, and location location location. They don’t yet have size and scale. They should press those until they think they’ve gained all of those commodities that they can. Then they should focus them on a set of demands that they’ve spent long months crafting. To narrow the focus now would short circuit all of that and blunt their momentum.

          I’m speaking as a strategic advisor here. I’m not much of a partisan to this cause. Though I am certainly sympathetic.

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      • Mind you, if they stay vague for too long, I’ll simply start mocking them for that. Perhaps by suggesting some new slogans:

        “What do we want? We don’t know! When do we want it? Now!”

        Bit of course, it’s too soon for that. Mind you, one wonders how they plan to build a coalition, washout having anything to build a coalition around.

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  9. I probably just missed it, but I don’t remember the nascent Tea Party movement being criticized on the same grounds as OWS, at least not so consistently as OWS. After all, “I want my country back” is no more a coherent platform than “occupy Wall Street.” And in fact, the words “occupy Wall Street” do articulate a kind of goal.

    I commented on another blog that protest has a deeper meaning than immediate, narrowly-articulated goals; namely, that the power structure is being shown that protest is possible. The Occupiers are not just having a protest party in Manhattan, they’ve identified a power center and are resisting what they perceive to be its excesses. That’s a good start.

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        • I’d rather have Carnegie than the stupid shits we do have for rich fools in this country. Carnegie was at least smart (that’s his golf course in Oakmont — and a wicked tricksy one it is).

          Carnegie wouldn’t do what the rich fools are doing this time round. He wouldn’t go all fraidy cat because he got too much money…

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    • protest has a deeper meaning than immediate, narrowly-articulated goals

      Reminds me of something I once read by (I think) an elderly trade unionist reflecting on the fact that every strike he had joined was a failure. It was along the lines of.

      What matters is not the hope that one day, somehow, things will be better but the conviction that when we together for any reason things are better

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    • Improved version, feel free to delete the other one.

      protest has a deeper meaning than immediate, narrowly-articulated goals

      Reminds me of something I once read by (I think) an elderly trade unionist reflecting on the fact that every strike he had joined was a failure. It was along the lines of.

      What matters is not the hope that one day, somehow, things will be better but the conviction that when we stand together for any reason things are better

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    • That’s actually an important point. The nascent Tea Party got quite a bit of traction as an apolitical (or maybe apartisan if that’s a word) movement against the corruption of the political class.

      OWP will probably be associated with the far left from the get-go because there’s nothing in particular that they can protest against. Ie, they can complain against generalized “greed” but when it comes to actual policies or acts, they’re pretty much incoherent.

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  10. This seems like a lot of self-indulgent ignorance by libs. I wonder if anybody has bothered to point out that short of a North Korean election, 99% of any group of people never agree on anything. This should give pause for people who would tend to support this sort of thing but I’m not holding my breath.

    If I were a political consultant or what have you, I’d organize conservative campaign themes around the idea that we don’t have to accept the consequences of libs’ ignorance.

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    • I agree the 99% formulation is meaningless. There will always be a top 1%. On the other hand, it does challenge those in the 99% for who the movement doesn’t speak to say how they are being misrepresented.

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        • Bingo. And that they may have to do something to get us to leave, and that they need to think as hard as we do about what that might be.

          Economic malcontent and social unrest are blunt, often irrational forces. People can try to craft policy aims to try to direct manifestations of them to good ends, but that changes nothing about the basic fact of their existence and power. (Their power is, of course still trifling in this instance compared to really any significant manifestations of these forces in history, and will probably remain so. But that is nevertheless what this is, I believe. There’s no inherent reason relating to their nature that they need to have coherent goals, demands or be interested in rational debate. To the extent the are, the more credit to them, the more civilized they are. But also perhaps the more they defuse their own power. )

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          • Unfortunately, I fear the demonstrators may take the 99% business more seriously than they should.

            “Bingo. And that they may have to do something to get us to leave, and that they need to think as hard as we do about what that might be.”

            I’m curious about this one, though, because I don’t see it. I don’t see anything about these demonstrations that disrupts any part of Wall Street. If anything, it might have the opposite effect. If I worked on Wall Street, it would motivate me to get to work to avoid being one of the demonstrators.

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            • That’s true. And perhaps no one gives a shit at this point, and perhaps they never will. mY impression is that there is a level of disruption that they have achieved, but I haven’t been there to see for myself. I’m not making any predictions or saying how powerful this thing is at this point, or can become. I’m just offering advice and interpreting what I think it basically is.

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            • What do you mean by “more seriously than they should”? They clearly do take it seriously. For me, it’s just more evidence of their blunt irrationalism, which, as I’ve said, I believe is a strategic asset (and may indeed be a strategic choice, though I by no means assert that).

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                • I don’t think they think they represent 100% of the 99%. I think they just identify as part of the 99% and are taking the initiative to presume to speak for them (us), with the fact that they don’t actually represent all of us as something they’re just making us deal with. That said, I still think it’s meaningless for the reason I gave: whatever the distribution of wealth might be in our society, there would still be a 1% and 99%. It’s arbitrary.

                  But they definitely aren’t the next Tea Party. They don’t have comparable animations or grievances or goals (in substance or form) or modes of protest.

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            • … if you work on wall street, you should be part of the demonstrators, don’t you think? After all, wall street actively encourages their workers to slide neck high in debt, so they don’t ever dare to walk off the job.

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  11. Snore. The Obama team put up a website at Change.Org that asked people to vote on the things they wanted changed, and promised to change the Top 10. Top 3 were Healthcare, legalize marijuana, and repeal CPSIA. We got a half-baked healthcare … and then they changed the website. I expect much of the same: this will get co-opted by MoveOn.org / Koz / The Big D Machine / The Bipartisan Party, and then we will get a great big steaming pile of pork and Big Business handouts.

    Really, have any of you people ever read The Triumph of Conservatism?

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  12. A global movement to change our world for the better should be more positive and look forward to the future not look back and argue about all the squabbles wars divisions and chaos and politics of the past
    I am proposing three or four main aims.
    1 Peace.
    2 Freedom.
    3 Equity or justice whatever we all prefer to call it.
    4 Safety clean water and unpolluted environment.

    Can we all agree on that? If we can agree all our disparate groups will be united under those basic aims, we can’t fail if we are united, we will lose if we are divided.
    Before we move we need to educate ourselves on peaceful legal methods of crowd motivation and communication, the minute we move outside that police/ authority will have us by the balls
    How we achieve that can be discussed in groups, we will have plenty of time while demonstrating / occupying
    I have been watching wall street live stream carefully, when anger or
    division racism, political argument erupts it’s one step backwards mods jump on it before it gets out of hand, they are educating the demonstrators how to control their fears and panic, and demonstrating the qualities needed,
    If you want peace, be peace if you desire a peacefulworld make one
    if you want freedom, be responsible respect others freedom space and speach we all want freedom
    if you want equity you treat others as equal to you weall want equity
    Safety if you want to be safe as everyone does do not put others at risk
    look out for one another eg I notice where some police were violent they were acting as witnesses with cameras to help each other in court, be alert, the police guided them onto Brooklyn bridge they thought they were being helpful, but they kettled them and arrested them for obstructing the bridge. They learned to stay on the walkways after that, and those policing them were the ones obstructing the roadway. Your average policeman is part of the 99% don’t antagonise them, they are our police, one of the chants was Whose police? Our police. the ones to watch are the chiefs who get their orders from the 1% The police have to communicate, stay silent whle their radios are on to hear what they are up to and be a step ahead to warn each other, if you have radio hams who could tune in all the better be ahead of them. Learn breathing techniques to control panic or fear no one achieves anything in that state. Look at the tools the US demonstrators use to communicate and survive start cooperating and get a fund going you will need it if there is a long haul, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
    talk is fine but time is short lets see some action. US got the unions on their side but with you they abide by your standards.

    Right is Might

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    • I am confident that disparate groups can all agree on your four points, but only if they are kept in precisely the vague terms you give. Even neoconservatives believe in “peace.” They just have a different strategy for attaining it than I do.

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