They started as a decentralized movement, prodded into action by their party’s loss of power and political will to stand up for what they believe in, as their leaders were lending more assistance to big banks on Wall Street than the average Joe or Jane.
I’m speaking, of course, of the Tea Party’s birth in early 2009. But it’s also an apt description of the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon that has swept New York City over the past three weeks, as thousands have camped out and protested in the streets surrounding America’s financial powerhouses.
The movement to call attention to the unchecked power and greed of Wall Street banks and corporate America has now spread to roughly 70 cities across the country, with “Occupy Louisville” taking its turn on Oct. 4.
The spontaneous grassroots movement has lead to reactions as diverse as the protesters’ grievances. The national media has mocked them, Republicans have called them an un-American mob of criminals, and many liberals have seen them as an overdue inspiration.
But at this early stage, most in Louisville are probably scratching their heads, wondering what those 40 people on the corner of Fourth and Jefferson are up to, and what will come out of this ragtag, leaderless movement that sprung up overnight.
“I’m here in solidarity with the folks on Occupy Wall Street,” says Jaison Gardner, a 31-year-old community activist. “We’re all frustrated with the current state of affairs, in particular corporate greed. But also many other issues that trickle down from that.”
And there are many issues among the roughly 30-40 core people who have spent the good portion of the last week staking out a place on Jefferson Street, with many of those staying overnight on the Belvedere several blocks away.
“We’ve been very lucky that we’ve had a broad range of support, and especially from folks that aren’t traditionally involved in the process,” Gardner says. “We’ve been able to mobilize and connect with a group of folks who are just fed up.”
Their grievances include the unaccountability of Wall Street, income inequality, lack of assistance for the poor, the corrupting influence of corporate money in politics, the bank bailouts, and access to and price of health care.
But it mostly comes down to a feeling that the system is rigged to benefit the wealthiest 1 percent of America, while the rest are shut out, powerless and voiceless.
“The long-term tangible goal, regardless of how improbable that seems, is a restructuring of our financial system so there isn’t wealth amassed among such a small group of people (who) control what happens to us by the bad decisions they make,” says Mikal Forbush, the 38-year-old program coordinator at the Muhammad Ali Institute for Peace and Justice.
Saucy Johnstone, a recently unemployed writer, sees the youth who started the original protests on Wall Street as the inevitable outcome of the times they grew up in.
“We just wrote them off,” Johnstone says. “We forgot that there were children that lived in those houses that were being foreclosed. We forgot that there were children that didn’t see a doctor until they went to college, because their parents couldn’t afford health insurance. Those are the conditions that have made this possible.”
But it’s not just young people at Occupy Louisville — it’s a diverse mix of race, gender, class and age.
“As a Christian, we’re supposed to identify with those that are hurting and suffering,” says Steve Fetter, a 66-year-old member of Living Faith Christian Ministries. “And there’s a lot of hurting and suffering that is going on because of Wall Street’s greed.”
A few Tea Party members have joined the protest, like Buddy Smith of Jeffersonville. Though he calls himself a free market libertarian and Ron Paul supporter (advocating to end the Federal Reserve and switch to the gold standard), he agrees that corporate America cannot be left unchecked.
“I’ll be honest with you, I’m a little scared of the free-market capitalist system,” Smith says. “Cause I know how capitalists are. They’d just as soon have you working in shitty conditions while they make more and more money.”
However, those of the Tea Party persuasion in D.C. and conservative media have not been as kind.
“I see (Obama) as inflaming this Paris mob that I hope doesn’t result in a lawlessness where they say, ‘Well, gosh, those nice iPads through the window should be mine and why don’t I throw a brick through the window to get them,’” Sen. Rand Paul said about the Occupiers on Fox News Business last week.
That’s been the general consensus among Republican politicians and conservative talking heads, with Glenn Beck going a step further, saying they will “drag you into the streets and kill you.”
Which is odd rhetoric coming from the likes of Paul, who once spoke at a rally where a militia leader called for the violent overthrow of the U.S. government and the lynching of liberal journalists, and whose volunteer coordinator once infamously stomped on the head of a defenseless woman.
Also odd, considering the movement’s consensus on non-violence (when consensus among them has been hard to come by), as the only thing you’re in danger of on Jefferson Street is a workshop on white privilege and bike maintenance.
“You know what, we’ve heard those things before,” Gardner says. “They said those things about black folks in the civil rights movement.”
Minus some frustrations over permits, the Occupiers and the police have gotten along without any significant problems.
U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, who made an impromptu visit to Occupy Louisville on Monday, says conservatives are outraged because they fear what the protestors represent.
“Well I’m reminded of the Shakespeare quote, I think they doth protest too much,” Yarmuth says. “And I don’t know why they would get all upset about it if they weren’t afraid of it. Their characterization of them doesn’t fit at all.”