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A Tale of Disconnected Discontents
Posted Tue, 11/01/2011 - 21:46 by toni.gilpin
Last Friday, at an Occupy Evanston protest, I met a man who is fed up with our political system, furious at big business, and frightened about what the future holds for his teen-age son.
But he wasn’t taking part in the protest -- in fact, he wanted nothing to do with the demonstrators. And herein lies the conundrum facing the Occupy movement.
We got word that House Majority Leader Eric Cantor would be at Northwestern last Friday, to deliver one of the speeches he’s been giving lately (or choosing not to give) on income inequality (I think he’s for it). Members of the nascent Occupy Evanston and Occupy Northwestern organizations called for a protest to Cantor’s appearance, and I headed over with Democratic Party of Evanston Board members Samantha Reed and Heike Eghardt. It was a lovely day to visit the NU campus – perfect weather for an exercise in democracy.
Toni Gilpin (signless) flanked by DPOE member Nancy Bruski (l) and DPOE Board member Heike Eghardt (r). Board member Samantha Reed snapped the photo.
It’s not always easy, though, to be heard these days – assemblies are often contained or confined to spaces where no one will hear voices raised in protest, and this was no exception. We weren’t allowed to linger near the east side of the Allen Center, where Rep. Cantor was to speak; those who came to represent the 99% were obliged to gather at the back of the building, far from where the Congressman would enter the building. He wouldn’t even see the protest from his car – he was obviously coming in from a different direction. If the crowd had numbered in the thousands, perhaps the chants would have carried into the auditorium, but given our turnout that was unlikely. There were perhaps 100 people there. The megaphone on hand wasn’t working very well. Even if you were part of the demonstration it was easy to miss what was being said.
But the points made, if you were able to hear them, about the disparities in our country between those that have lots (the 1%) and those that have less or none at all (the 99%) were important and true. As a recent report from the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office made clear, in the past 30 years income for those at in the top 1% grew by a chart-busting 275% (and if you want to see the charts, click here). For everybody else, the increase in income during the same period was far more modest: the middle class (3/5 of the population) saw their incomes increase by less than 40%, while the poorest fifth in our society saw an increase of just 18%. That income inequality in America has been widening dramatically is no longer subject to debate: as the CBT report notes, “between 2005 and 2007, the after-tax income received by the 20 percent of the population with the highest income exceeded the after-tax income of the remaining 80 percent.”
As our economy spirals downward, more and more people live with fear: of losing their home, their health insurance, their chance at a college education. That so many are feeling this way explains the resonance of Occupy Wall Street and its spinoffs, like Occupy Chicago and Occupy Evanston. But a small group at the top are doing just fine, and want things to keep on pretty much as they are. For those in desperate economic straits, Eric Cantor offers this lifeline: try harder. “How quickly you move up -- or sometimes down -- should be completely up to you,” he told the NU audience.
When our contingent of Evanston Democrats arrived at Friday’s rally, I assessed the crowd. Some were young NU students (undergrads and grad students), a few of those involved in Northwestern’s Living Wage Campaign. Others were older veterans of other movements, their student days clearly behind them. Some were committed Democrats while others clearly had no Party affiliation.
I looked around some more: just behind me there was a chain link fence enclosing a construction site, and on a raised platform a group of 6 or 7 construction workers were taking in the protest. “What do you think?” I asked them, just as one of the speakers cried out “The American middle class is being destroyed!”
“Well, they’re not middle class, I can tell you that much,” one of them responded. I asked him what he meant.
“If they can afford to go to school here, they’re not middle class. These kids here, they’re rich.” I noted that Samantha Reed, who graduated from NU last year, came from a single-parent household and grew up poor. She’d worked her way through school and relied on lots of financial aid. One of the workers allowed as how someone in their union had a son in school at NU. So we agreed that maybe not everybody who goes to Northwestern is rich but that it takes a lot of money to get through college these days.
I talked for some time with one of the workers, a pipefitter. He’s had a job providing him union wages and benefits for over 30 years, but the work is tough and it’s taken a toll on him. He knows he’s lucky to have the job, though, and he worries about what the future holds for his three kids, especially his teenage son. “Used to be you could get out of high school, get a good job, buy a house, all that.” No more. He works a lot around Hammond, Indiana. He’s seen the companies there ship production, and jobs, overseas. It makes him angry.
But he doesn’t see much hope on the horizon. He liked George Ryan, believed he was a man of integrity, “but you saw what happened there.” He thought Rod Blagojevich had some decent policy proposals, but his faith there was misplaced too. He no longer has use for politicians of any stripe and believes both political parties have failed him. “They all talk about jobs, they’re for having jobs, but they don’t have any real plans for getting the jobs back.” What about his union? “All they do is tell us to vote for Democrats. They don’t have any other ideas.” Working men and women, in his view, have been abandoned by all those in positions of power.
I asked him who he thought might do better than the people now in office. “If we could dig up George Washington, those folks, get some of their DNA and bring them back, that’s what we need,” he said. “George Washington was rich – he had something to lose when he went up against the British. He risked his life, money, everything. We don’t have people like that around today.” I said, but aren’t the demonstrators kind of like that, speaking up, exercising their First Amendment rights? He snorted. “They’re not risking anything,” he said. “They’re here, going to school, or whatever, and being at this” – he waved toward the protest – “in the middle of the day.” And then he and fellow construction workers went back to their jobs. The demonstration continued for a little while longer. Eric Cantor came and went without encountering any of that.
So that’s the dilemma in a nutshell, isn’t it? The Occupy movement is correctly highlighting our nation’s gross disparity in wealth and the grave consequences for the poor and middle class. And surely those at the Occupy protests hope they are speaking to (and for) workers like the ones I chatted with last Friday. But while the construction worker voiced the same discontents and felt the same anger and despair expressed by the Occupiers, and while he was situated just a short distance away from the protest, reading the signs and hearing the chants, he wasn’t standing on common ground. Of course, that’s not too surprising – working people have been feeling powerless for so long now; it will take more than a few months of protest to break through that, and the Occupy movement has done more in a short time to draw attention to income inequality and its effects than anything or anyone else has managed of late. But more needs to be done to bridge this divide – I’m not sure just what yet – but would welcome some thoughts.
One thing I do know, though – it’s always a good idea to talk to workers, if there are some around, if you’re hoping to speak for them. And having something to hand out – flyers, for instance -- which provide facts and well-reasoned arguments help to engage passers-by and onlookers in conversation. If we’re going to win this war of ideas and break through to those most affected by our economic crisis, we need to be willing, always, to talk with those who don’t agree with us – or those who agree with us but don’t realize we’re fighting on the same side.
Perhaps some pictures of George Washington on the signs might help a little too.