The annual Take Back the American Dream conference is a great opportunity for activists and advocates from across the country to check in and talk about where we’re going. And this year, as the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street protests nears, we can see the impact that the “We Are the 99%” movement has had on our political conversation. So how did we get to this point, and how do we keep it going?
“The fact that people were willing to get out there and take risks inspired people,” said Nelini Stamp, who works with New York’s Working Families Party and was active from the beginning of the Occupy Wall Street movement. People were angry, they were outraged, Stamp said, and now they had a replicable tactic to express it–leading to Occupy protests in cities around the country. It opened a door to talk about injustice, inequality and a new vision for the economy that can’t be closed.
“For better or worse, we are all connected to Wall Street in a different way than we were 15 years ago,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear of National People’s Action, explaining the key issues that gave rise to the 99% movement. She pointed to how the financial sector has grown from 2% of our economy decades ago to 10% today, with an outsized influence over not only other industries but over our politics. That’s a conversation we’ve needed to have for a long time, and the Occupy protests energized millions to take part in it.
Sarita Gupta of Jobs with Justice was active in the 99% Spring this April. “Given the crisis our communities are facing, people are going to have to get mobilized to make a change in our country,” Gupta said, and the Occupy and 99% movements were a real opportunity to talk about these issues. Across the country, tens of thousands of activists were trained about the economy and nonviolent direct action through the 99% Spring.
Afterwards, she said, came a wave of protests aimed at shareholder meetings, where they could confront companies like Walmart, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Verizon–and the wealthy individuals who run them and make the decisions–directly.
Greg Penner, a Walmart, Goldman Sachs and Hyatt board member and major right wing donor, is a model of the kind of decision-maker you need to bring pressure to bear on, Gupta said, as is Clarence Otis, who sits on the boards of Verizon and the restaurant chain umbrella company Darden Group.
“We have to tell the story of how corporations are having an impact on our democracy,” Gupta said. “How do we rein in the power that is in the hands of corporations?”
The concentration of power means that there are a lot of pressure points, Gupta said, like, Walmart’s supply chain–and companies are so big, so overlapping that their decisions ripple around the economy.
So what’s next? Stamp noted that, even as the camps in the parks were shut down, the energy of Occupy moved in new directions, even as it has injected the issue of economic inequality into the national debate. She pointed to the success of Occupy Our Homes, including their big win in Minnesota last week. That was a great collaboration between neighborhood housing advocacy groups and the Occupy movement. She also said that the fall semester will see activity on campuses around student debt, another central issue to the Occupy protests. And she said the energy of Occupy has been a spark to new levels of activism around racial justice and prison privatization.
Devecka-Rinear said that the 99% movement would have a big impact on upcoming fights over the Bush tax cuts and the federal budget. “Who’s paying what, and where is that money going?” she asks, bringing up issues like corporate tax fairness and a financial speculation tax. She also said that the “Move Our Money” project is a way to make an impact on the financial sector, noting the more than $126 million that New Bottom Line reports has been moved out of big banks like Bank of America. Devecka-Rinear said there will be a lot of opportunities to connect people’s personal experiences to the power of the finance industry.
Ai-jen Poo, whom organizes domestic and home care workers, has been bringing people together across generations to fight for better policy. She sees us as on the cusp of a movement that could build a better, fairer country. She says that the campaign uniting seniors and their families with those who work as caretakers is a positive model. “It’s a vision that looks at the coming care crisis and the jobs crisis and says, ‘there’s a solution here.’”
“We can’t just talk about what’s wrong with our economy,” Gupta said. We have to be able to talk in a positive way about our values. The economy isn’t just something that happens–it’s something we can shape, and we need to be able to talk about what an economy based on justice, one that works for everyone, would look like.