I’ll admit it, when I first heard about the “Occupy Wall Street” protests I was skeptical. In fact, I was downright contemptuous of the whole idea. A bunch of young people mounting a small, unfocused protest in New York’s financial district on a random Saturday in September seemed like a futile effort at the very best, and a waste of time at the worst. For a while, it looked like I was right. They seemed small, irrelevant, and unfocused. People tuned them out. I didn’t expect them to last very long.
I was wrong. That’s how these things get started: they begin small and dismissed, then slowly grow bigger and bigger until no one can ignore them. The protests in New York haven’t just held on and grown despite rain, media derision, and police nastiness, they’ve spread to other cities nationwide. Hartford, New Haven, and Northampton, Mass. are among the latest to join. The “messaging failure” I and other people were griping about has begun to fade as the strikingly simple, populist “We are the 99%” slogan gains traction. People are taking notice. There already are some comparisons to the Arab Spring popping up, premature though they may be (I’d actually say they’re more akin to protests in London last year). Love them or hate them, this movement shows no sign of going away yet.
I thought I’d go check out the “Occupy Hartford” movement, which has been busy having contentious meetings to work out logistics and politics among other things, to see what it was all about. The occupation in the capital city officially kicks off Friday evening with a march from Bushnell Park to the weedy triangle of land sandwiched between Farmington Avenue, Broad Street, and I-84 where they intend to set up camp. When I got there late Friday morning, a few organizers were already setting up on Farmington Avenue. They had a banner and handed out flyers, hoping to entice people to the march later. A news truck pulled up and handed out business cards, then sped off. Across the street, a rotating squad of cops kept restless watch over the whole thing.
At length a few of the protesters wandered over to where I was sitting to say hello. They struck me as earnest, well-informed, and fed up with the way things were going. Today, they told me, was a day for people to mobilize throughout the city and get people interested in the march. They were expecting a good crowd, but said numbers didn’t matter so much. Clearly they and the group were going to be in this for the long haul. Brien Ben-Micheil had come up from New Haven, and expressed frustration with the lack of organization there. Hartford was a lot more together, by comparison, and was a good place for the movement to spread. “This is the insurance capital of the world,” he said. “This is where it all happens.”
Still, the goals of the movement are still being worked out both here in Hartford and nationwide. People are gravitating to them less out of a desire for specific policies to be enacted, but rather out of a deep sense of frustration. Another protester, Cassie Donnelly, told me that while the movement had a lot of disparate voices and messages, the one thing everyone could agree on was the need for economic justice.
It’s tempting to make comparisons to the other major political protest movement of this decade, the now-fading Tea Party, though demographically and ideologically the two groups initially seem very different. Still, both groups tap into frustrations with the abysmal direction in which the country is headed, and both have attracted less naturally populist politicians and interest groups who want to either identify with or co-opt them (the GOP establishment in the Tea Party’s case, and labor unions and President Obama in the other). Populist movements of any ideology spring from the same source: frustration with a broken political establishment that pays no attention to what matters to people. In the end, after all of the pantomime and show over the debt ceiling and other nonsense, we still don’t have enough jobs, health care is increasingly inaccessible, and the middle class feels like they’re being left behind.
I had to leave before the march began. So, too, did the two organizers with whom I spoke, underscoring another feature of this movement: they care less about pulling off a single splashy event than simply enduring. In New York, they have endured despite initial indifference and difficult struggles with the police, but they have endured. Their stubbornness is a testament to a generation and a people who are routinely dismissed as too flighty and easily distracted to force real change.
And what about the Tea Party? I asked Cassie, who responded with striking sincerity, “They’re invited. We hope they come.” Maybe they should.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.