Commentary: Wall Street occupiers aren't from outer space

Special to McClatchy NewspapersOctober 14, 2011 

After three weeks of occupation protests spreading from Wall Street to Seattle and now to Washington, I felt I had to visit — if only for old time’s sake — to see if it was a revival of the protests I saw during the Vietnam War and the Nixon’s administration.

The first thing that struck me when I sauntered onto Freedom Plaza a few blocks from the White House was that our hair has turned grey.

But much of the energy, spontaneity, determination, selflessness and idealism was still alive and well. Also, the naiveté.

“Watch out,” said my daughter, who is applying to business schools, “or they will take away your white sugar again.”

I had told her that my California commune in the 1960s had a meeting at which I was demonized for the white sugar I used in black tea. Sorry but organically correct molasses just killed the taste of the tea.

On Freedom Plaza I quickly found one of the organizers of the movement — Rev. Bruce Wright of Refuge Ministries in St. Petersburg, Fla. He told me he was one of a committee of 35 who started the Occupation Movement after Arab Spring protests toppled leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya; and sparked uprisings in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

The first occupations were to be in Tampa and six other cities, but Wall Street was the first to actually take place — starting Sept. 17.

Wright, who wears a white clerical collar and black garments, belongs to an independent Catholic group not recognized by the main Catholic Church. He exudes serenity while dozens of squatters mingle with musicians and visitors in the hot sun on the plaza. He’s been holding housing takeovers and occupations for years as part of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign but they got no traction or attention until the Arab Spring made mass protests legitimate once more.

“It’s in hundreds of cities and will be in dozens of countries by October 15,” he said.

Some critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement say there are no clear goals other than venting anger by economically marginalized groups and unemployed people — basically these are losers who want to grab a piece of what the hard-working rich folks have earned.

But Wright spells out an agenda that may lean left but is not in outer space:

— The top one percent economically need to pay their share of taxes.

— Low cost housing and health care must be provided for the poor.

— End the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

— Reverse privatization of government services.

— Some banks should be nationalized.

— Corporations that ship jobs overseas get no federal benefits.

— CEOs of corporations need to go back to the 1970s pay levels equal to 20 times the average worker, instead of today’s level of 400 times the average worker.

— End corporation rights to give billions to political campaigns.

This last item is extremely interesting.

When I covered British elections I was stunned to learn that each candidate for Parliament had a limit equal to about $40,000 to spend on brochures and public meetings. Compare this to U.S. Congressional elections that require each candidate to spend months holding fundraisers to get the millions of dollars needed to pay for TV ads. The influence of large donors on political decisions cannot be denied.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1976 and again in 2010 that the Constitution gives corporations the same rights as a person to free speech which means that corporations have the right to donate infinite amounts of money to political campaigns so long as it’s not directly to candidates.

The Occupy movement wants to end what it calls “corporate personhood” and end such funds by amending the Constitution.

Wright said the Democrats — although trying to capitalize on the movement for its call to tax the wealthy — are rejected by the Occupy Movement. President Obama could have ended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy back in December when he had a majority in Congress — but he didn’t, said Wright. So they are trying not to get sucked into “politics as usual” and stay independent.

I left Wright preparing for the evening’s General Assembly where all can attend and give their views on issues such as planning occupations at the White House and Federal Reserve, how they will feed everyone, logistics for the tents and getting information to the media.

The mainstream media has long ridiculed fringe movements — whether it was the old Counter Culture in the 60s or the Tea Party of today. But such movements sometimes bore fruit that quietly entered the mainstream.

When I saw these graying old timers camped on Freedom Plaza as if for their last hurrah, I recalled that although the Hippies largely drifted away from the communes, got jobs and raised their kids, the commune movement had a permanent impact on American and world society, for example: Yoga, organic food, meditation, natural fabric, respect and love for nature, green energy, veggie burgers and breast feeding.

Perhaps the new Occupy Wall Street movement will fade away too, under the cold rain falling this coming week in Washington and New York. But its impact, especially as major unions such as the AFL-CIO and thousands of young unemployed people have joined in, may bring about major, permanent changes.

It’s hard to say how far this movement will go.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

McClatchy Washington Bureau is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service