Picking the right target for Occupy Philly

The Occupy Philly meeting last night was one of the best examples of direct democracy in action I’ve ever seen. We had some serious talk about where and when to being Occupy Philly. People listened to each other and changed their minds as the discussion proceeded. We made a decision. And we did it in less time than expected.

Decisions to come

There is a lot more to be decided and understood. We are just at the beginning of figuring out in detail what this movement is going to be and how it will impact the future of our country. But most of those decisions can come later. We all know what this movement is broadly about—the increasingly unequal distribution of power, wealth, and income in the United States. It’s a movement that aims to reverse the decline in American Democracy which we have all witnessed in the last 30 years.

We don’t know how the protests just now beginning will change our politics. But we don’t have to know that now. The most important thing is to build a movement with the broad goals I just outlined. Such a movement will find many ways to flow into and influenced our day to day political lives. It can’t help but stiffen the spine of the political leaders who claim to be on our side but run away at the first sign of conflict.

Should we have occupied Rittenhouse Square?

But before look ahead, I want to revisit one decision made last night, just because it will be a useful way of thinking about who stand in our way.

There was some substantial sentiment in the meeting to occupy not City Hall but Rittenhouse Square. The rationale was that the people who have gained power and wealth while the rest of us have lost it--the top 1%--live in and around Rittenhouse Square and thus ought to hear us and be inconvenienced by our actions.

I appreciate the sentiment—I’ve done some actions in the past that aimed to get in the face of—or show up at front door—of a member of the corporate elite. But I’m glad we voted down this option.

Logistical considerations

One reason is purely logistical. Rittenhouse Square is too big and too full of trees. It will be harder for TV cameras and photographers to see a large crowd assembled there. And it will be harder for the crowd to see it itself.

Strategic considerations—don’t alienate your friends

A second reason is that is strategic. It’s a bad move for a young people’s movement to piss off the older folks on their side. The Rittenhouse Square area is one of the strongest progressive Democratic voting area in the city. These are people to who will join our movement, provided we don’t give them a reason to be angry at us.

(I was in Washington, DC the summer of 1969 when the anti-war movement decided to “shut down the government” by blocking traffic at major intersections. It was a bad move. The government continued but middle class people including my teacher at the time—most of whom were fervently anti-war—were inconvenienced and spent more time complaining about the kids than supporting them.)

Who are the 1%?

But the deeper reason is that the premise of the proposal is mistaken. Yes, a lot of people with high incomes live around Rittenhouse Square. But household incomes in the area average far less than the lowest income in the top 1%, which was $1,137,684 in 2008. Most of the people who live in Rittenhouse Square and its environs are solidly upper middle class, but they are not incredibly wealth or powerful.

Moreover, the failure is not just in misunderstanding the number but in not grasping something important that has happened to our political community as inequality has grown: the lives of the corporate elite / super-rich in this country have become totally disconnected from the lives of even the upper middle class, let along the middle class and working people.

The fact is that the corporate elite are not hanging around in Rittenhouse Square. They wouldn’t be caught dead in this socially and racially integrated microcosm of the city even if it is a little higher on the income scale than other areas of Philadelphia. They live in (one or more) huge houses surrounded by private gardens that are in turn surrounded by high fences.

Their lives are totally different from our in almost every way.

They don’t send their kids to the same schools we send our kids to.

They don’t sit in the stands with us at Phillies games but take private elevators to their own boxes.

They don’t take public transportation or even suffer the indignity of driving on our increasingly pot-holed streets. They soft springs of their chauffeur driven limos insulate them from our mean streets.

They don’t get on airplanes with us but take private jets.

They don’t wait in doctor’s offices but are whisked into the offices of concierge doctors.

They don’t even have to go to the concerts we go to. They can pay the Rolling Stones a million dollars to play at a private party of their own.
And so on.

Understanding just how disconnected the lives of the corporate elite are from the lives of the rest of us is critically important to understanding some otherwise puzzling features of our political lives.

The corporate disconnect from America and the goals of right wing economic policy

When I tell people that the goal of right wing economic policy for the last 30 years has been to gut the public sector and take other steps to drive down wages of working people, they sometimes ask me, “But don’t the head of corporations understand that if there policies are carried out there will be no one to buy the products their companies make; no educated work force to produce those products; and that they themselves will live in an increasingly distressed political community.”

The question presupposes that the interests of the corporate elite are still in some ways connected with the interest of the rest of us. And that presupposition is wrong.

Corporations based in America—they are in no sense American corporations anymore—sell everywhere. A recession or depression in the US means little to them if people are buying in China. They don’t need a thriving American market to make money.

Corporations based in American can produce anywhere. Americans workers are far more productive than anywhere else in the world. But wages in other places are so low, workers so plentiful, and unions so absent that even though it often costs more in the short run to produce abroad, in the long run corporations still benefit as wages are driven down here.

And, as I just suggested, the corporate elite don’t actually live among us. As public services and our infrastructure collapse, the corporate elite go on their merry way, totally insulated from the devastation. And, indeed, they use that devastation as a way to motivate misguided working people to attack the public sector.

Keep an eye on the real enemy

So let’s keep our eye on enemy really here. It’s not the cardiac surgeon or lawyer or endodontist who lives in Rittenhouse Square even if her family income is $300,000 a year. It is the corporate elite—the heads of our major corporations and financial institutions—who have used their wealth and connections to do distort our political and economic lives for thirty years.

They have been standing in the way of true democracy while the common life they once shared with us. And now we need to figure out to put our minds and bodies on the line in order to dislodge them from their privileged place in the devastated country they have left us.

Alternative rally sites in minority communities?

How about Wharton at UPenn or Fox Business School at Temple?

1) Seems to me that getting minority representation in these protests will do a lot to maximize the electoral impact. Rallying in minority communities might help.

2) The Wall Street Class is largely a product of the kind of financial investment leveraging that is taught in business schools.

I wonder why everyone is

I wonder why everyone is doing a movement. It can't be because it looks cool. I mean people are quitting or losing their jobs to go and protest over there not being any jobs. I hope your group has a clear focus.

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