Answers to My Friend Phil’s Questions Regarding OWS and the 99% Movement

This post is the result of questions posted on my facebook page by a friend of mine, regarding Occupy Wall Street. It is quite lengthy, but they were significant questions. Phil’s message is in bold. My responses are in regular font.

hey man, nearly everyday I log in here I see some post from you regarding the protest that you are seemingly involved in…as I only watch from afar, I have several questions for you so that I can better understand what it is that you/your cohorts are trying to acheive…

Sorry for the delayed response. The questions are deep and important and I think everyone has an interest in this type of discussion. That all said, a lot of effort and time has to go into answering these. I was in jail for a couple days and had a funeral and other family things to attend to this weekend so I couldn’t address them right away. I will try to do my best to answer them now. Additionally, when reading the discussion, please keep in mind that I am not speaking for the movement. These are my thoughts and opinions.

Some people, who don’t know him, have asked me about Phil’s post regarding his intentions and such. Obviously, I cannot speak for Phil and hopefully he will respond if I misrepresent anything. So I want to provide some background information and thoughts on this discussion before I answer the questions. First of all, I consider Phil a friend of mine. We met in school while pursuing our graduate degrees at NYU. We haven’t seen each other in a year or so but we spent many nights after class, having drinks with our classmates, and discussing these type of issues of politics, economics, humanity, etc. Phil worked (maybe still does) on Wall Street (I believe trading???) and is extremely knowledgeable of markets, finance, economics, and so on. He knows what he is talking about from an academic and practical perspective. He is also a genuinely good-hearted dude who intellectually pursues ideas and ways to make the world a better place. He cares about the well-being of people. I understand that the tone of the questions may have appeared to some of my friends as confrontational, and I am not capable of affirming or denying Phil’s intentions, but I want to say that I think it is necessary to have these discussions among friends. My friends are welcome to challenge me and disagree with me. This does not change the friendships. Phil and I are friends from having these types of discussions and from respecting each other’s opinions. My point is, even if he intended to have a confrontational tone, this is not a bad thing as far as he and I are concerned. We are able to have this type of dialogue with this type of tone. It is how we know each other. I believe he respects my opinions, as I do his, and I think it is better for someone who disagrees or thinks they disagree to speak up and create dialogue than to judge from the sideline and say nothing. So, whatever your feelings on Occupy Wall Street, I ask that you do not judge me and do not judge Phil for our opinions, we are both good, caring people. Especially to those who do not know him. Our opinions and beliefs are informed and valid.

1) what is the ultimate goal of this movement?

There are several reasons why this question is difficult to answer. You have to understand the way the movement is developing. There are several levels to the movement and different dynamics at each level. So there is the actual occupations. Here I am referring specifically to the people living and working in the parks. These occupations have several functions. The most important are 1. They are protests. People being there is a statement. Something along the lines of “we are so fed up with the status quo, we are willing to be here, showing that dissatisfaction, all the time”. Exactly what aspects of the status quo that upset people vary, but there is a general discontent. This protest element also is to raise awareness of the general discontent, anger, etc. Whatever, the affect or implications, agreements and disagreements, this protest has let people know we are there. Even though it is heavily distorted in the media, this awareness is crucial to growing the movement. 2. The occupations in the parks serve as a place to work on the issues we are dealing with. People come to the park and nearby locations to get information, share information, work together, etc. We have general assemblies where people can get information, share information, network, etc. Basically, talking to other people and groups who do different types of work so you can contribute, coordinate, collaborate, etc. So this type of work is also happening online and in community spaces like churches and schools. Maybe the need to have these type of meetings outside will diminish overtime, but right now it is important to be outside, at least part of the time, to be easily accessible and because being outside and bearing the elements makes a statement. 3. The occupations in the parks also serve as little communities. They serve an immediate need, which is providing people with services. We provide food, healthcare, education, etc. All donated and free. * A side note here, for those opposed to government healthcare, this is a good way to explore alternatives to public and privately funded healthcare. This is healthcare provided by doctors, nurses, holistic healers, etc, to people who cannot afford it, for free (not saying this is the solution, just saying there are things going on worth exploring). So in these communities there is the politically element that I wrote about in point 2 and the community element. Beyond the discussions and ideas, these create practical issues and problem. Not only do we have to address these problems, we need methods to address them. A huge aspect of this movement is redefining and refining the process of community, social, political organization, etc. This does not mean, necessarily an overthrow of the current system. Some of us want that, some of us don’t. The results of that are uncertain and the process is still developing and probably will continue to develop.

So, once you understand the process of the movement, the “ultimate goal” question becomes increasingly vague and all I can really do is give you broad umbrella ideas. I’m not even sure if they qualify as “goals of the movement.” Let me throw out what I’m talking about and take it with a grain of salt. For goals, I would say most people want change in the current economic model, political representation, and the interaction between the two. Basically, most people think and feel, the current way these forces function do not work for the benefit of the people and planet and they want something better. I’m pretty sure even you agree with that (correct me if I’m wrong). I have friends and family on Wall Street that agree, 100 percent with the system being broken, horrible, corrupt, etc. Now, how we make those change is a subject of heated debate within the movement. I understand fully that this movement is painted as a left-wing, socialist. I’ll tell you right now, these people are there and they are welcome.  When you start along the lines of “everyone wants a hand out”. Well, that’s an unfair characterization. Some people who want the government to do everything are probably there too. But, being angry about student loans, predatory lending, healthcare, and most important, so much tax money going to bailout big banks, does not always mean these people want handouts (in some cases it does, in some it doesn’t). There is a lot of room for discussion and debate here. Besides the left-wing types, we have lawyers, business owners, cops, soldiers, teachers, etc left and right people, all with different ideas how to create the changes we want. In fact, we need the media to go away and we need more conservative voices to come help. The media pigeonholes us as a crazy left movement and then people who do not associate themselves with “the left” avoid the spaces where all voices are welcome. We cannot come up with solutions if we don’t have people coming and sharing different ideas.

So to sum up, I think the goals are along the lines of 1.) a cultural shift. We want people to interact differently than they do, participate in the political discourse beyond just voting and acting out on what they are against (I know that seems ironic because of the “anti-wall street” message but that message is an anti-status quo message, many people want Wall Street folks involved eventually to make this about the 100%). This side note is a lot to get into, sorry if it’s ambiguous, it’s not the point, and we can get into more if necessary. 2.) An economic shift. We want a more equitable society. Again, how we get there is undetermined and the movement is only determining that method by trying to create and expand space for the discussion. On this point, I know you might feel like the methods are shutting people out. I admit, especially with the media portrayal, people are closing off to it. However, if it keeps going like this, it will expand enough and people will get involved who may feel shut out now (like people who feel the movement does not represent them). Right now, we are spreading into communities and getting more people in the discussions. This takes a long time. There’s nothing we can do about that. 3. We want a change in political representation. I’ll say it again, HOW that is accomplished is undetermined. We just are trying to expand and get more and more people involved to have their voices heard and then they can figure out how they want to be represented. Maybe the current system would stay even if the movement grows, but, if it does, people will have more influence on their representatives because they will be speaking collectively. (This seems like a good idea to me. It’s basically just getting people out and talking again).

Everyone should realize this annoying and confusing fact. As a movement, we do not try to prevent autonomous actions. We stand against things like hate speech and violence, etc. We try to mitigate and deal with those types of issues but it is difficult for a movement like this. We have methods I can get into if people are curious. More importantly, the movement is largely based on nonviolence and love for others and respect for other opinions. We try to push a culture of these principles. But autononmous actions make it annoying and confusing from an outside perspective because they may appear to represent things that they don’t. For example, a list of “demands” appeared on th facebook page called “Occupy America”. I was reported in the news and looked pretty official. This was an autonomus action by a group of people in the movement, who do not represent the whole movement. But you wouldn’t know that from the outside. In consensus at Zuccotti Park, demands lists  get rejected because they don’t represent enough people. Also, when we reach consensus at a specific place (say Zucotti Park), the decision only represents the people in that place, not the whole movement. Tell me if this isn’t making sense. This can make it confusing, but we are willing to deal with it because we want to expand and grow and include other people, so we cannot make decisions that represent people that are not involved yet or in different locations. There is a lot of autonomous actions and statements across all the occupys that do not represent all the movement. Sometimes they represent a small minority. I understand, it is difficult to dig through the mess of information. That’s just how it is right now. People are working to make it better and more efficient as the movement spreads.

Finally, one purpose is to begin and maintain localized general assemblies. Obviously, these happen at Zucotti, but they are popping up all over the city and other places nation wide. This is a crucial culture shift, hopefully, not temporary. If we can keep people engaged in the decisions that impact their own lives, we can change anything we need to.

2) why are you specifically taking part in this “movement”?

(I think the quotation marks are a little unnecessary. It is a movement, even if you disagree with it.)

I am specifically a part of this movement because I believe in change through social movement. I am not satisfied with the current economic, political, and social models. These ideas of everyone having a valid voice and self-determination is something I have always believed in. I don’t get into much of the debates of one “side” versus the other. I believe most differences can be reconciled if we get passed the mainstream discourse. Our debates are largely framed by nonsense. For example, we may argue over healthcare, but we both want the same type of results. We all want people to be healthy and cared for and get the services they need. We may even go further and fight over how much the government should or shouldn’t be involved. And then further how much taxes we should or shouldn’t pay to accomplish such a goal. At the root of such a debate, we would all prefer to have everyone have their needs met and not have a huge government and high taxes. So the conversation is really about how to accomplish a better society. Instead of putting two ideas opposed to each other, or putting up one idea and voting for or against it, I think we need to figure out a better way to combine ideas. I mean what if we had a system of coordinated volunteers to provide healthcare to those that couldn’t afford it. We could coordinate these efforts through local governments instead of federal and we could do it through with a substantially lower cost? Maybe this is stupid, but I throw it out and you (and hundreds of others) say “that won’t work because…” we address the “because” and so on and so forth. If experts and people were having that discussion publically, I doubt we would end up with the current system.

The movement attempts to create space for people to construct solutions form differing points of views. Again, a slow process. But there is a place for everyone’s opinions in this type of discussion. My personal role, why I am involved, is to help facilitate these discussions. I have my beliefs about what I want. But I’m not so closed off to other ideas that I am not willing to listen to others.

I want something different and better. I define “better” as more equitable for people and also something that respects ecological limitations of the planet. How we accomplish that, I believe should be a combination of many ideas. I don’t believe in cookie-cutter panaceas. I think most solutions will be highly localized. I am also involved in the protests because I believe any dissent must battle the overwhelming corporate PR and advertising industry. So I add my voice to the movement to help make it louder. I also feel very welcome and accepted by the people there. I think that most people there are open and interested in hearing a variety of opinions. I think that is the right way to be. And for those that are closed off and ignorant (left, right, or whatever), there are enough reasonable voices like mine, to try to show there are different sides to all stories. I like participating in it, I believe in it.

Finally, I think everyone should voice their opinions in public discourse. These occupied spaces are a good community platform for participation. I feel obligated to participate as a US citizen, same way I do to vote. I have always used resources available to use my voice and to listen to other voices.

3) how do you think shutting Wall Street actually accomplishes anything other than angering folks who work on Wall Street – not the supposed “1%” – who may have sympathized with your cause?

The shutting down Wall Street thing is part of the protest element I spoke of earlier. Generally, we do not “shut down wall street.” On November 17th, we had a morning action with this aim. I think a show of power like that for us is probably necessary. My personal belief is that we should minimize our confrontational tactics against “the 1%” and try to focus more on engaging the 99%. But I understand the need to make a powerful statement every so often. Unfortunately, we need to show people we have some strength behind us. There are many people who support stuff like this but won’t participate until they know it is significant. These actions help us grow.

As far as your point about angering folks, I feel bad about it. That morning, I saw some people going to work on Wall St who still support us. Obviously, a lot of people were annoyed with us blocking their commute and don’t sympathize. I did feel bad. Most people who work there are regular working people and good people and part of our definition of the 99 percent. I don’t disagree with you. Maybe there is a better way. Maybe we will find it. I am not saying I think we should not do that type of protest. It may be necessary. I don’t know for sure. We, as a movement, have definitely made mistakes, and will make more. Hopefully, we learn from them. I think the shutting down Wall Street stuff is largely symbolic. And even though it was portrayed the way it was in the news, the message does get out to the masses. We can show people the true side of the movement as it grows.

Ironically, even many officers I spoke with in jail said the support the movement and hope we achieve some real changes.

4) why do you protest downtown when the majority of banks are headquartered in midtown?

The short answer here, I think , is that it is symbolic. I wasn’t part of the original planning. I came like a week in. But originally, the idea was to actually be on Wall Street. It’s symbolic. “Wall Street” is a metaphor for the governing economic institutions. So, actually being on Wall Street doesn’t work so well legally or logistically. Zucotti Park, one block away from Wall Street, is a privately owned public space which made it a space we could occupy legally, 24 hours a day. Everyone down there is aware of that most of the action takes place in midtown. But protests are largely based on symbolism and imagery.

5) besides what seemingly is just living in private/public spaces, is there an actual political arm of your movement using the system to cause change?

There is no political arm per se. I mean, democrats try to co-opt it, but the movement, as a whole won’t tolerate it. Again, there are autonomous actions where people are trying different political organizing and voting campaigns, etc. But the political organization of the movement is really about creating space for everyone to have a say and constructing solutions based on all opinions. I’m not sure what this will turn into as far as how the movement interacts with representatives. There are many possibilities but hopefully it doesn’t turn into another political party or worse, a wing of the democratic party. That would suck. Maybe people will continue to meet and share info on different bills so everyone can have more info on a bill when they tell their rep how to vote. Or maybe people will come together and work on their own legislation. This stuff is uncertain. And long term affects are far off. As of now, people protest or support different political actions based on their own ideas. If there is a march for something, you don’t support, you don’t go on it, or you organize something else. That’s pretty much how it is right now.

6) do you feel that some of the ideals you/your movement espouse are in opposition to traditional American values, and if so why wouldn’t you or other memebers of the movement emigrate to other states who shared the same values as your movement rather than force the movements upon the population?

Ok. This is pretty much the love it or leave it question. I think to frame it like this, is a bit offensive. I think the principles of the nation allow for a wide range of ideas and beliefs. The founding documents set up freedoms, like speech and press, and create a system of checks and balances, with people power of voting thrown into the mix so everyone has a say. While some things are difficult to change, it is literally set up to allow change. To suggest that because someone disagrees with what you think are American values, they should leave the county, is unfair. American values are many things and there can be many interpretations of them but they are based on freedom. In a country based on freedom you should not take the love or leave it stance. People need to be allowed to voice their opinions and work toward the changes they desire. Other people have the right to voice different opinions and stand against change. The country was founded on dissent, the Declaration of Independence explicitly states that it is the right of the people to alter or abolish the government if it no longer represents them. Not that everyone in this movement are advocating abolishing the government, but the founding documents, structure and organization of the government and political system, and the history and progression of the country are all set up to allow people to work toward changes.

I am going to make a quick stab at what I think you mean by “opposition to American values.” If I’m off the mark, correct me. I think you might be talking about capitalism vs socialism or the idea of keeping what you work for. The capitalism vs socialism debate is an oversimplification. We have a mixed economy. Our debate on capitalism is more a debate on regulation and deregulation and a debate on degree of taxes and what to do with taxes. So that type of debate is going on within the movement. People have all kinds of ideas. There are many people who are involved in the movement who consider themselves pro-capitalism, pro-business, etc. There are people who want more socialist type of organization. So the movement is not against American values. It promotes American values as far as free speech and voices etc. As far as the economic side of things—capitalism vs socialism or the idea of keeping what you work for, etc. I would say that the movement doesn’t have a stance on that. The movement is about people coming together and finding solutions. People in the movement have a full spectrum of ideas and beliefs on that stuff. I think most people are not opposed to someone who works hard being able to get ahead and have more than others. I am speculating based on my experience but I think most people are concerned with the degree of inequality and what the work is people are doing to accomplish that inequality. I haven’t heard anyone say a small business person who works her ass off and makes a good living should be taxed on principle. It’s more the extreme profits from unethical activity people oppose. Not to say there are not people there who want everything communally divided. I’m sure there are, but they are one opinion in a group of many opinions.

I don’t think the movement is forced on the population. If you take the total of what I said about the movement and about the nation, I think there is no forcing of anything on the people. I realize that some people near Zucotti feel inconvenienced by the presence there (many also love us there) but that isn’t the same as forcing some ideology on people.

7) do you or the majority of the folks along with you have jobs, if so, how do they make the time along with work to protest during the day and if not how are you/them being supported (and making efforts to find employment)?

The movement is made up of a wide variety of people and it is much more than Zucotti Park and the other parks. I was working at a restaurant full time and applying to jobs abroad. I left my job to support this movement fulltime and am figuring out ways to support myself as I go. This is a personal decision, based on many factors. It is not the norm. I have worked my whole life, since I was young. I worked in construction jobs in family members’ businesses before I was old enough to get working papers. Started working in a restaurant when I was 15 and became a manger after a couple years. I was a correctional officer for a year. I worked in a hospital and in a school with children and adolescents with development disabilities for several years. I paid my way through undergrad working more than fulltime. I chose to not work through my grad program because I wanted more time to dedicate to my studies so I have significant amounts of loans from that experience.

My father was a veteran from the Vietnam War. He struggled his whole life with the affects of that war (and our family did as a result), he attempted suicide several times, and died of a drug overdose several years ago. I tried to join the marines when I finished high school but was met with the strongest possible resistance one could imagine, from my mother, who lived with the effects the war had on my father, I could not join. While you asked specifically about jobs, I am bring up military service because I think many people who are tossing around the job questions are doing so with implication of laziness, entitlement, and anti-americanism with those questions. (I do not think this was your intention, Phil, but it is relevant to questions other people raise).

I’ve worked my whole life, will continue to work my whole life, I pay taxes, and I love my country. I am not working for pay now, but work full time, more than 12 hours everyday on this movement, because I believe it is necessary. When I am employed again, I will pay back the debt I accrued and make up for the lost time. I am not lazy, nor do I feel entitled. I believe everyone should be taken care of, but I am more than happy to be on the side of service more than a recipient of service.

The movement has every type of person you can imagine. The unemployed and homeless are there more often than most because their situation allows it. There are people who have money and living space but stay there because they are working on the movement. There are people who work and have full time jobs and come there as much as possible in their free time or work on the movement from home.

There are some efforts to help get people work. A lot of these efforts, as far as I know, are new and developing. This is becoming more possible as we spread into the communities and meet regularly with people living there. This is happening in various communities and spreading. I have been helping organize in West Harlem where I live. I think we need more people working on getting people jobs. We will see what happens as these efforts grow. One benefit has been the networking aspect of getting so many people together.

8) do you honestly believe the rhetoric that you/your movement represent 99% of American citizens?

I don’t think everything that every person in the movement says represents 99 percent of the population. The 99 percent is based on a statistic of wealth inequality. One percent of the people controlling 42 percent of the wealth in the contry. I think it is sort of an arbitrary number. I would prefer that the movement eventually transition to representing 100 percent (or maybe 99.9 or something, not sure).  I don’t think any capitalist rhetoric or socialist rhetoric or any other specific and defined model represents the whole population. Chants like “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out,” represent a genuine frustration of people.

Maybe you could be more specific about what rhetoric you are referring to, but if your specifically talking about the claim that “we are the 99 percent.” I don’t know, the number 99 doesn’t matter to me. I think the movement represents everyone in that all voices are given a space and welcome (or should be). I don’t want to try to define you and your beliefs but I there are business people and finance people and conservatives, etc who are part of the movement and do not agree with what you would think the movement is based on the media portrayal. So the reason I think the movement does represent the 99 or 100 percent (or will  as it grows) are the reasons I discussed earlier. There are all types of different voices and perspectives involved and the platforms, processes, and methodologies we are trying to promote allow everyone to have equal say, no matter where you stand on the spectrum. It’s a lot to take on and it is slow and sloppy but the tools are there and everyone is working on making them work and be better.

Someone coming down promoting the current Wall Street model, I’m sure will meet with a lot of resistance, but if they are willing to engage in dialogue, they will be heard by most people there. Most people I know on Wall Street and in businesses want change though. Many of these types of voices engage in the discussions. We need more of these voices.

There probably isn’t any statement anyone can make that would represent 99 percent of the population (aside from extremely vague statements). The reason I think this movement can represent the 99 percent is because of the model that allows and includes all voices. That is what represents the 99 percent, rather, the 100 percent.

Of course, we have to see how things progress.

naturally a long list of questions as I have pondered these and many others regarding this movement and don’t know anyone else involved with the protest…hope all is well

I think people who are not involved, don’t go there, or go down for a short amount of time and watch from a street corner cannot possible understand the complexity of the movement. It takes time to get in a talk to people and participate in a few things before you can understand what is going on. People who have to rely on corporate media, or really any media, are going to have a difficult time understanding it. Unfortunately, too many people spend minimal time in the park and feel they are capable of judging the entire movement and put out blogs, videos, and reports that are very misleading. This is not much different than what the press did to the tea party. They painted the whole movement like a bunch of crazy people and ignored their valid concerns. It’s very disappointing.

I hope all is well with you too. We should get together and talk more of this through. And you should go to some discussions and see how people are having these conversations.  Let me know if you’re interested.

1 thought on “Answers to My Friend Phil’s Questions Regarding OWS and the 99% Movement

  1. Colby, thank you for sharing this. I agree with you that these conversations are important to have — in fact, they may very well be the most significant aspect of this entire movement. I can’t recall another moment in our lifetimes when so many people — complete strangers, even — have had such open and in-depth, face-to-face, public discussions about politics, the economy, ethics, etc. We’ve become so used to cordoning ourselves off and only discussing these topics with likeminded friends or online, and it’s led not only to an immense amount of apathy but it has also polarized us. It’s good for people (and good for the functioning of our society) to match human faces and stories to dissenting point of views.

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