“Occupy Wall Street:” Black Voices for Economic Justice Must Be Heard
Struggling to come up for air from a brutal schedule, for several weeks I had been planning to write an article about the necessity of those affected by the Great Recession to take to the streets to express their outrage. Before I could put pen to paper it happened. A disparate band of mostly young protesters from around the country, disgusted with the rapacious behavior of 21st century “Robber Barons,” marched on Wall Street and set up a camp called “Occupy Wall Street.” As an organizer one never knows what event, what incident or action will be the spark that galvanizes a movement for change. In the face of a Great Recession, precipitated by the greed-driven and reckless behavior of the bandits on Wall Street, there has been growing discontent among the American people, but with rare exception (mass actions by labor and allies in Wisconsin and Ohio) there has been a noticeable absence of mass action, particularly on the left. Indeed, over the past couple of years, it has been the Tea Party Patriots who have captured media attention and dominated the national discourse with their caravans and protest demonstrations calling for deep spending cuts, deficit and debt reduction, lower taxes and limited government. Purportedly born out of outrage over the bail-out of Wall Street, curiously the Tea Party has leveled its fire at “big government” as opposed to the bandits on Wall Street who committed the crime.
On the left, President Obama has been the primary target of outrage for his failure to articulate and fight for more progressive policies, including bailing out the victims of the sub-prime mortgage scam and more aggressively reining in, even investigating and prosecuting those who caused the crisis. In a recent series of articles on strategy for the progressive movement in 2012 and beyond, I suggested that rather than focus exclusively on Obama, progressives need to act boldly to galvanize a movement around the vision, values and principles of a socially responsible economy where the needs, interests and aspirations of the people take precedent over profit and property as dictated by corporations and financial institutions – Wall Street. In a political environment where a timid President is hampered by the noise and obstructionist tactics of the reactionaries, we who believe in a different definition of “freedom and democracy” than the conservatives must take to the streets and mobilize to march on ballot boxes to articulate and advance our vision and agenda. We must work to “unite the many to defeat the few!”
What has now become the Occupy Wall Street movement that is spreading across the nation like wildfire is potentially a game changer, a turning point, a social movement with the potential to impact the political discourse by refocusing on the urgent need to preserve and expand the budding culture of rights fought for by generations of progressives. It is Wall Street that embodies the evils of “unbridled Capitalism” with its insatiable appetite for profits at any costs and any means, including scamming millions of Americans through the subprime mortgage fiasco and slicing/dicing/packaging paper to make obscene fortunes from exotic schemes outside the view of the American public; it is Wall Street that pays its executives exorbitant salaries, in many instances hundreds of times more than the average worker and provides multi-million dollar severance packages when vaulted corporations fail; it is Wall Street which expends millions of dollars on lobbyists to purchase policies in Washington favorable to its interests and vigorously and viciously fights against “regulations,” no matter how mild (like the Dodd-Frank bill) to rein in the practices/behavior harmful to people and the nation. It has been government policies favorable to Wall Street coupled with the incremental shredding of the social safety net and relentless assault on labor/unions that have led to the greatest level of inequality or gap between rich and poor since the Great Depression. According to a recent New York Times Editorial, the top 1% now accounts for nearly 24% of the nation’s income, “the highest since 1928.” And still Wall Street craves more. It was this craving, the inexhaustible quest for more and more profit by corporations and financial institutions grown “too big to fail” with the tacit if not explicit approval of the government, that led to an economic collapse, the Great Recession which brought the U.S. and the world to the brink of catastrophe.
Occupy Wall Street has exploded onto the scene in this moment of grave crisis in the economic and political life of the nation, providing a much needed outlet and target for the pervasive rage rampant among millions ravished by joblessness, mortgage foreclosures and financial institutions shamelessly eager to rape them with fees calculated to evade the constraints imposed by the newly created Consumer Protection Agency. But, thus far Occupy Wall Street is a self-proclaimed “leaderless,” politically non-aligned movement with a multiplicity of messages, grievances and righteous slogans but no coherent set of goals/demands. And, there are scant numbers of Blacks and other people of color in the ranks of the protesters. The movement is overwhelmingly White.
There are some who argue that crafting a specific set of goals or demands on corporations or the government would sap the movement of its creativity, vitality and energy by creating divisions among the protesters – who may have differing views on specific goals or policy recommendations. It may be that the myriad issues encapsulated in “Occupy Wall Street” will be sufficient to produce an unspecified positive outcome. The mass protests in Arab Spring, which apparently inspired the “leaderless” revolt against Wall Street, had a broad objective -- ridding their nations of tyrants/despots and working to create more democratic societies. The prolonged hunger strike by Gandhi protégé Anna Hazare in India that provoked mass movement in the streets was directed at corruption in the government. It resulted in the passage of an anti-corruption bill by the Indian Parliament. The March on Washington produced the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Selma to Montgomery March led to the adoption of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Hoovervilles and protests in the streets by armies of the unemployed helped to create the political space for Franklin D. Roosevelt to launch ambitious public works programs that put millions of people to work as part of the New Deal.
I’m not certain that anger and outrage without a message and agenda will ultimately transform Wall Street or break the gridlock in Washington that is tantamount to fiddling while countless millions suffer. Perhaps labor or other organized progressive forces, including the Progressive Caucus in the Congress, will leverage the mass movement in the streets to outline a short term agenda for jobs and justice that will put millions of people back to work, provide massive relief for the victims of mortgage foreclosures and beat back the attempt of reactionaries to stifle the regulation of Wall Street.
The unemployed/jobless, the legions whose homes are underwater or have been foreclosed because of the sub-prime mortgage scam and students whose career paths are in jeopardy because of mounting debt from college loans or escalating tuition costs, the affected and disaffected of all races and ethnicities should be flocking to the Occupy Wall Street sites in droves. But, there is also a special need for Black people to seize upon the momentum created by Occupy Wall Street to identify with and mobilize our forces to add fuel to the fire. The Great Recession precipitated by the unconscionable behavior of Wall Street did not just ruin the lives of White people; it was an equal opportunity destroyer that disproportionately wreaked havoc on Black people and Black communities. Already plagued by a wealth gap that has persisted for generations, the sub-prime mortgage scam that targeted Black consumers wiped out billions of dollars in wealth, liquidating decades of gains by the Black middle class. George Fraser, President/CEO of FraserNet, estimates that it may take a century to recoup the wealth lost by Black America as a consequence of a scam that preyed on victims yearning to realize the “American dream.”
As Vernon Jordon, former President of the National Urban League once put it, “when White America gets a cold, Black America gets pneumonia.” Nothing is more illustrative of this dictum than the Great Recession. Most political economists concede that the employment rate in Black America is at least twice the official rate of 9.1% and perhaps triple when one takes into account the unemployed who have simply given up the search for work. By some estimates 40-50% of Black youth/young people between the ages of 16-30 are jobless! Moreover, the dramatic rise in poverty attributed to the Great Recession has disproportionately impacted Black people. White America is experiencing a Great Recession – Black America is in the throes of a debilitating social and economic Depression borne of decades of benign and blatant neglect, exacerbated by racist and criminal behavior of the barracudas on Wall Street.
Black Voices for Economic Justice have every reason and right to be heard. The fact that White protesters initiated and have led Occupy Wall Street should not be a deterrent to Black engagement. We should view the current conflagration as an opening to raise our specific issues and demands, as we add our voices to the growing amorphous movement to confront and change America’s capitalist political economy as symbolized by Wall Street. As a people whose leaders and organizations have often been the conscience of the nation and the vanguard of major social movements, Africans in America should seize every opportunity to expose the hypocrisy and contradictions of an unjust system as we struggle to create a just and humane society. The challenge is to find our own voice to express issues of particular interest to Black people within the context of the broader struggle for reform and transformation.
By organizing Black Voices for Peace and Justice, our late beloved Brother Damu Smith developed a principled and creative avenue to meet this challenge. Damu recognized that issues of concern to Black people may be ignored or avoided as “divisive” even among White liberals and progressives. He also recognized that Blacks might not be equitably included in the planning and leadership of protests and demonstrations initiated by Whites. As opposition to the War in Iraq grew, Damu organized Black Voices for Peace and Justice to ensure that the push to end the war would relate to the urgent need for resources to address the ongoing crises in Black America. Rather than dismiss the anti-war movement as a “white” initiative, Damu created a vehicle for Black people to add their voices to a just struggle while simultaneously insisting that Black issues be addressed. In one memorable instance Black Voices for Peace organized a parallel march through Black neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. that called attention to Black issues. After completing the route through the Black neighborhoods, the March merged with a massive anti-war demonstration across from the White House where Damu was one of the speakers.
We should adopt a similar approach as it relates to Occupy Wall Street. First, as an expression of solidarity and acknowledgment of the harm inflicted on Black people by Wall Street, we should encourage Black people to attend “Occupy” protests in New York and cities across the country. A number of Black leaders, activists and organizers have already made a conscious commitment to visit Occupy sites to express support for rallies and demonstrations. Equally important, however, in New York and around the country, Black leaders, activists and organizers should mobilize broad based coalitions of Black people to conduct parallel marches and/or have organized Black contingents within Occupy protests. This is important because Blacks must utilize the media glare of the moment to shine a light on specific issues and concerns of importance to Black people.
Since Bank foreclosures have disproportionately devastated Black families and communities as a result of the sub-prime mortgage scam and the onslaught of the Great Recession, Black Voices for Economic Justice should demand a Moratorium on Home Foreclosures and a massive federal and bank industry sponsored program to “Bail Out Homeowners.” We should demand that the Attorney General investigate and prosecute the criminals whose reckless behavior created the crises – Jail the Criminals on Wall Street. We should demand that the banks most responsible for perpetrating the sub-prime mortgage scam on Black people create Investment Funds to provide grants and low interest loans for business/economic development in Black neighborhoods – Rebuild Black Neighborhoods. We should demand a “Bailout for Students” burdened by loans to pay for the escalating cost of a college education. Black voices should be heard loud and clear demanding a Massive Jobs program to immediately put at least 2 million people to work hired directly by the federal government to perform public sector jobs (something similar to Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky’s Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act) – with an emphasis on targeting neighborhoods/communities with the highest levels of joblessness. And, Black voices should also be sounding the clarion call for a Millionaire’s Tax to finance the jobs bill and compel Wall Street to shoulder major responsibility for helping Americans to heal from wounds inflicted by the injurious behavior of the “Robber Barons.”
This is not a time for people of African descent to sit on the sidelines. Black folks who have lost their homes to foreclosure or are underwater because of the sub-prime mortgage scam, Black students who are drowning in debt from student loans and the Black joblessness should mount parallel but supportive “Occupy” marches and rallies all across the nation. Africans in America should heed the admonition of the Gary Black Political Agenda; our voices must be heard “because it is our people who are most deeply hurt and ravaged by the present systems of society.” Black Voices for Economic Justice should gear up to Occupy Wall Street and march on ballot boxes with a vengeance in 2012 to vigorously advance an agenda for reform and fundamental change!
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.