The Emergence of a Movement, the City's Botched Reaction, and What It Means to Be Part of the 99 Percent
It's not hyperbolic to say that we've never seen anything quite like this before.
That's probably because America has never been in this kind of shape before. The Great Recession has illuminated the growing chasm between the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and the 99 percent who make up the rest of us. But political leaders have been unwilling to discipline the banks that tanked our nation into the Great Recession, and Democrats in particular treat the yawning economic inequality like an issue too toxic to talk about. Thanks to the Occupy Wall Street protest, which inspired similar protests in cities around the country, including Seattle, this overdue conversation is dominating newspapers, radio programs, and television networks.
The first Occupy Seattle protesters at Westlake Park were passionate revolutionaries, but in the week and a half that followed they were joined by a cross-section of mainstream Seattle—parents with kids, elderly couples, blue-collar union workers, Microsofties from the suburbs, and, of course, the homeless.
The city's reaction to their presence has been confusing at best. Mayor Mike McGinn and Seattle police have been playing the role of abusive husband to the Occupy protests. During the daytime, they are considerate and thoughtful—at one point when protesters were blocking Fourth Avenue and Pike Street to traffic, police negotiated with leaders to open the road back up, avoiding any WTO-style pepper-spray baths—but at night they become cruel. After a rally and march on Saturday, October 8, Seattle police occupied the dry space under the awnings, turning their bikes into barricades and refusing to let protesters protect themselves from the cold rain. Thus far, McGinn will be best remembered as the Seattle mayor who outlawed umbrellas: For reasons that are hard to fathom, umbrellas on the ground were deemed "structures," which he banned in Westlake Park, but if you were "standing and holding" an umbrella, a policeman explained, you were fine. You were also allowed to lie on the pavement under a tarp.
McGinn has blown what could have been an opportunity to be as forward-thinking as the mayor of Portland. Hell, if he had gotten behind the Occupy movement as quickly as some members of his staff are rumored to have suggested, he could right now be gracing magazine covers as the Mayor of Occupied America. Instead he's come across as a quavering, equivocating doofus who doesn't recognize the future when it's literally parked in the center of his own city. His first misstep was on Wednesday, October 5, when Seattle police and the parks department began taking down protesters' tents and arresting occupiers who sought to protect their encampment. Twenty-five were arrested for obstructing a police officer, with 16 released and nine sent to King County Jail.
But owing in part to the publicity these arrests generated, the nightly assemblies continue.
The next day, the state's largest labor unions called on hundreds of thousands of workers to support the Occupy movement, and Saturday, October 8, brought thousands of people pouring through Westlake Park. Among them was City Attorney Pete Holmes, who expressed support for the protesters by saying, "I hate sanitized terms like 'economic injustice,' but it's so obvious to everyone that the system is broken." And he confirmed that peaceful protesters who are arrested will not face charges unless they choose to take "the more difficult path" through the legal system to make a statement (i.e., fight back or struggle with cops when they get arrested).
But the unfocused march later that day—from Westlake to the Bank of America Plaza—was far too polite, with protesters chanting, "Whose streets? Our streets!" as they stopped for traffic lights and remained on the sidewalk. Then at the Bank of America Plaza, they proceeded to chant vigorously toward an empty lot for the better part of an hour. Thankfully, the march back to Westlake was a forceful, proud parade of hundreds of humans down the middle of Fourth Avenue. They seized the intersection at Fourth and Pike, smiling and laughing and dancing around on stilts.
Occupy Seattle is genuinely inclusive and moving, but it needs leadership. The passion and energy of the early days were spectacular, but the organization—which requires lengthy "general assemblies" to make decisions by consensus, and sometimes issues conflicting "official" announcements—is now having some real growing pains as the movement struggles to keep its headless, everyone-is-a-leader communal spirit. They don't need a Gandhi, just an organized, smart, ambitious team of people.
David Freiboth, executive secretary of the King County Labor Council, says that unions intend to "organize [the Occupy protests] a little bit more," but he wants to make clear that he respects how far the movement has already come: "I think these people are doing a pretty damn good job," he says. Service Employees International Union 775 president David Rolf adds, "We can lend our support, but this is not ours. We didn't invent it. We can just admire it and put people and resources into motion." While Rolf's wariness of stepping on toes is admirable—unions are the 800-pound gorillas of the protest movement—some of that institutional strength and decision-making power is just what the Occupy movement needs.
Make no mistake: What these protesters started, what the brave occupiers who are camped out at Westlake right now are keeping alive for us, is absolutely real. It is going somewhere. It's not going away. But it is time for the organizers in Westlake to meet with the professionals and let the Occupy movement grow into what it must become: Something that will change everything.
Sept 15, 2008
John McCain declares: "The fundamentals of our economy are strong." The same day, Lehman Brothers files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy—the largest bankruptcy in US history.
Oct 3, 2008
President George Bush signs a $700 billion taxpayer-funded bailout designed to purchase failing assets from troubled banks. The FBI investigates 26 lending companies for fraud, including Lehman Brothers, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac.
Annual bonuses paid out to Wall Street bankers grow 17 percent to $20.3 billion, according to the New York State Comptroller. Meanwhile, national unemployment levels hit 10.1 percent.
US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission reports that "this crisis was avoidable."
Mother Jones reports that the top 1 percent of US earners make an average of $1.1 million annually, while the average income of the bottom 90 percent is $31,244.
Anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters calls for a September 17 occupation of Wall Street, "the financial Gomorrah of America."
Over 1,000 people begin occupying Wall Street, proclaiming "We Are the 99 Percent."
New York City police pepper-spray and arrest approximately 80 peaceful protesters. Occupy Chicago begins.
Occupy Seattle begins in front of the Jackson Federal Building on Second Avenue.
Occupy Seattle moves to Westlake Park, where 80 people set up camp. New York police arrest 700. Occupations begin in Washington, DC, and Los Angeles.
Occupy protests spread to Boston, Memphis, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Honolulu, and Portland, Maine.
Seattle mayor Mike McGinn orders police to arrest anyone in a tent. Twenty-five people are arrested. McGinn offers overnight camping at City Hall, but protesters refuse to leave Westlake Park.
Approximately 4,000 protesters march in Portland, Oregon. In Seattle, the King County Labor Council, the Washington State Labor Council, and Service Employees International Union 775 ask their members to support Occupy Seattle.
Over 1,000 protesters rally and march in Seattle. Two are arrested. Mayor Mike McGinn declares that using umbrellas as shelter is illegal but allows protesters to use sleeping bags again.
Seattle police threaten to arrest protesters who stay in Westlake Park. Protesters consider moving as The Stranger goes to press. Occupy Wall Street protests reach 140 cities across America.
Divergent Trends The top 1 percent of Americans have seen their annual income climb, while the bottom 50 percent are making less and less.
Take a look at this line graph. It shows the trajectories of income in this country over the last three decades. In 1980, the top 1 percent of Americans made about 9 percent of the nation's income. By 2008, they were reporting 20 percent of the national income. In other words, their share had more than doubled.
And where's that money coming from? The bottom 50 percent!
The poorest half of the country saw its share of annual income drop sharply in that period, from about 18 percent to 13 percent.
This chasm of wealth widens thanks to unchecked corporate profits and tax cuts for the rich. Meanwhile, lower- and middle-class workers toil in the companies, the factories, the stores, and the call centers that cultivate astronomical profits for the 1 percent. It's become so odiously unfair that even a number of people who sit comfortably within that 1 percent are disgusted.
"I earn in the range of 1,000 times as much as you do," local venture capitalist Nick Hanauer said by phone to a Stranger reporter, "but I don't have 1,000 times the effect on the economy. If lower taxes on millionaires created jobs, we wouldn't have a recession, we wouldn't have the unemployment that we do. It's an insanely stupid lie."
Nowhere is the gulf of taxation inequity wider in the United States than in Washington State, where we don't have a state income tax. We rely largely on sales taxes, which hit poor people the most because they spend more of their income on basic goods and services, rather than squirreling their money away in hedge funds. While the wealthiest people in our state (those who make a half million dollars a year) end up paying only 2.3 percent of their yearly income in taxes, according to the Institute on Tax and Economic Policy, the poorest people (those who make less than $20,000 a year) pay a staggering 17.3 percent of their yearly income in taxes. Proportionately, the poor are paying more than seven times as much of their income in taxes. No other state in the country is that bad, according to a report from the Sightline Institute.
"I think that we have a super-regressive tax system and I think it places a crushing burden on the middle class and the poor, and it lets the wealthy off scot-free," says Hanauer, a leading contributor to the unsuccessful initiative last year that would have implemented a state income tax on the people who make up the wealthiest 1 percent.
How long could Americans tolerate this growing wealth gap and criminally backward tax burden?
Until last month. After decades of unscrupulous corporate greed and giveaways, people stormed Wall Street. The camel's back broke. America broke. Americans were broke.
"We have clotted up so much of the nation's wealth in the hands of so few, you can't get the cycle going again because nobody can afford to buy anything," Hanauer laments. "I am hopeful that people are finally waking up to that reality and are joining together to try to change it."
In Seattle and elsewhere, progressive groups are beginning to catch up with the Occupy Wall Street protests, even as they carefully avoid the appearance of trying to co-opt it.
Five days into the Occupy Seattle protest, the Washington State Labor Council officially expressed solidarity on behalf of its 500 affiliated unions and 400,000 union members, followed by an enthusiastic pledge by the King County Labor Council to urge its 75,000 members to "join in the protests" and lend their support. Later that day, Service Employees International Union 775, representing 42,000 health-care workers, announced it was asking its members to join the protests. "I think it's the start of something big," says SEIU 775 president David Rolf.
Rolf was there on Saturday in Westlake Park, along with hundreds of members from various union locals, who in addition to showing their support also delivered food, socks, blankets, porta-potties, and other supplies. Local business and community leaders chipped in, including an anonymous donation of 700 sandwiches, a delivery of pizzas from Big Mario's owner Dave Meinert, and 20 dozen Top Pot doughnuts courtesy of some guy named Dan Savage.
One of the more innovative contributions came after police started enforcing a ban on tents in Westlake Park, when a Capitol Hill startup donated 24 of its $250 "JakPaks": a waterproof coat that subversively transforms into a sleeping bag and tent. Protest organizers were proudly wearing them the next day, proving that commerce and anti–Wall Street protests are not mutually exclusive.
Tamara Kelley, 23
Graduated from the University of Washington in 2010 with $30,000 in school debt and is "nowhere near paying it off," Kelley says. Works part time at a preschool. Saturday, October 8, was her first day at the Occupy protests.
"I'm fed up with these executive decisions that benefit a very rich few while the rest of us can't get a job. I'm afraid the middle class is going down for something that isn't our fault.
"I hope to make things better for the students who are younger than me, who are in school and in debt—they should be able to graduate and get a job and thrive. But in order to do that, we need to stop Wall Street from making selfish decisions."
Tom Behan, 66
Retired Vietnam veteran, served as a navy officer in charge of an underwater bomb squad from 1968 to 1970.
"I'm pissed as hell. The outrageousness of the economy and the feeling in the country right now is reminiscent of the Vietnam protests. Those started with the radicals, the hippies, and the intellectuals before spreading mainstream. I want a better future for my 10 grandkids. I'm here fighting for that future."
Robert Dimpsey, Tanya Dimpsey, Pearl Dimpsey (5), and Iris Dimpsey (8)
Robert is a programmer at Microsoft. Tanya is a stay-at-home mom. The family has been down at Westlake every day since Wednesday, October 5.
Tanya: "I'm heartened to see all the people with children and I wish more families would join us. Robert and I were both raised by working-class people—my mom was a single mom. This is a middle-class movement. This isn't the fringe. We're talking about regular people.
"Our system is unfair and when you have two young children running around, and you're trying to teach them about fairness, and you look around and see that the power structure in this country isn't designed to be fair—it's frustrating. And it hasn't always been like this."
Medina Pode, 55
Caregiver for five years, SEIU member.
"I cannot pay my bills. English is my second language, and I've been on and off employment since 2010. It's gotten really bad. Corporations lay off people but we cannot lay off our bills."
Okay, so what can you do? There's a national day of action planned for Saturday, October 15. Meet at noon at Westlake Park to be a part of it.
Plus: Right now in Congress, lawmakers are considering President Obama's "American Jobs Act," which the president wants to help pay for by laying a new tax on the 1 percent (aka people earning more than $1 million a year). This is exactly the kind of thing the Occupy protesters are calling for. So write or call Washington's two Democratic senators—Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell—and tell them to keep supporting this idea in the US Senate. Then write or call all of our state's Republican House members. Then, rally! On Thursday, October 13, at 10:30 a.m. at Seattle's Victor Steinbrueck Park—at the north end of Pike Place Market—there's a gathering to promote exactly this agenda, called the "Rally for Good Jobs Now." Be there.
Also, right now in Olympia, lawmakers are getting ready for a November 28 special session in which they'll be dealing with a revenue shortfall that's expected to hit $2 billion. This state has already slashed $10 billion from its budget since the start of the Great Recession—without raising taxes once or making any serious effort to close tax loopholes that cost Washington $6.5 billion annually (many of those loopholes benefit the likes of Wall Street banks, plastic surgeons, and owners of private jets). Get online, find your state legislators, and tell them that another all-cuts adjustment to the state budget is not an option. Then, rally! On Sunday, October 16, at 2:00 p.m. in Seattle's Westlake Park, there's a gathering to promote exactly this agenda, called the "Jobs Not Cuts" rally.
You can also join the protesters in Westlake Park (or wherever they may be after this issue goes to press) or donate provisions to help people get through these wet, cold nights. For more events and ways to get involved, check out The Stranger's news calendar (thestranger .com/news) and the Occupy Seattle calendar (www.occupyseattle.org).