On KQED Radio 88.5’s Forum today, host Michael Krasny talked to San Francisco Chronicle reporter Joe Garofoli, Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders, and Rolling Stone contributing editor Tim Dickinson about the Occupy Wall Street movement.
The segment drew many comments from listeners…
An edited transcript follows the audio.
Michael Krasny, KQED
Labor has moved into the fray, and President Obama has said he understands the frustrations or hears them. Could this be actually be a movement in conjunction with or like the tea party?
Tim Dickinson, Rolling Stone
I think so. The general strike is going to be an interesting and instructive moment — whether this movement that has so far been about expressing anger and trying to change the conversation succeeds in taking that next step in transforming into a series of events.
We’ve seen protesters in Iowa going down to Obama campaign headquarters as a protest. Obama is not going to be out in front of these protesters, but is he going to lose contact with them? Is this going to be the activist left organizing on its own apart from the presidential campaign and perhaps in contest with the presidential campaign? Are we going to see a repeat of 1968 when we get to this year’s convention in Charlotte, which is a giant banking town?
There are a lot of storylines that are moving here and I don’t’ think for a second this is going to go away because of the weather. This is going to be ongoing. Something is alive here, the question is to whether and how it grows, and whether it could be seen as something that’s broader based or whether it stars to self =marginalize more as an identifiably lefty Michael Moore movement.
Debra Saunders, how are you reading things?
Debra Saunders, Chronicle
I think things are only going to deteriorate. I know there are a lot of people who have made the Tea Party comparison. But the Tea Party didn’t just camp out and take over public property and they didn’t trespass. I think a lot of people are looking at the Occupy movement as people who are trying to flaunt the laws and get away with things nobody else can.
No liberal politician is safe, because Jean Quan is about as far left as you can get. But she felt pressure to do something because it was unhealthy, unsanitary, they have their own vigilante crew of security who had apparently beaten up a homeless man who had attacked somebody. And it’s scary what’s going on at these places.
At any time, something really ugly can go on. We saw reports of rape in New York. I think a lot of Americans are looking at this and thinking these are a bunch of spoiled kids who don’t even have an agenda, don’t have a real political demands, and are trying to get away with something that other people couldn’t get away with.
Many of them, however, are kids deeply in debt, who graduated college, who can’t find a job, who have been disenfranchised, who have been idealistic and have had that idealism thwarted. You must concede that there are a lot of them with a sense of establishing their First Amendment rights in protesting…
Well I have a lot of sympathy when I see some of these kids who have these signs that say $60,000 in debt and I can’t get a job, $90,00 in student loans. I feel deeply for these people. I can only say that doesn’t give them permission to camp out in front of city hall and it doesn’t give them license to throw things at police officers. If you want to be listened to, try to play by the rules a little more. Have your demonstrations during the day and go home at night.
I’m curious as to which movement you’ve been watching. Their president and congress are certainly able to see what the agenda is here.
You see Obama moving into the space the Occupy movement has started to create when he came out last week with a series of executive measures to help reduce student debt and help stop foreclosures and help get a floor under the housing market. We even saw an indictment of a former Goldman Sachs partner. So I think Washington is perking up and listening to the demands. There’s no ten-point list of what every one in the movement agrees to, but I don’t think we’ve seen that anywhere that people have taken to the streets, like in Tahrir Square. By your logic, the Egyptians would have been right in cracking down in Tahrir sq. over sanitation issues.
So I think we’re missing the point that this is about people taking a fundamental liberty, the right to self expression and the right to voice their anger at their government. Sometimes zoning laws and the rest of it are secondary.
But it’s true there are real health and safety issues and sometimes you have rotten apples so to speak who are really wanting to attack the police and be anarchic…
Joe Garofoli, Chronicle
They’re a separate entity from a lot of the people who are out there. In any protest movement in the Bay area,there’s always a contingent of self-styled anarchists who will at the end of a peaceful march, for whatever cause, will take off and play cat and mouse with the cops. It’s the same crew at every type of protest. They don’t’ care what the cause is; they just want to antagonize the police.
This happened Saturday night in Oakland. It was largely peaceful all day, then the self-styled anarchists took off and started marching toward police HQ. I was talking to one of the actual protesters, who stood — four or five of them — in between the anarchists and the police, who said mellow out, don’t do this, this is not what we’re about. There are competing agendas here, and one of them is just to antagonize the cops.
I think Joe puts it quite well. We’ve seen this with the Oscar grant protests, where there are people who have very valid concerns about what happened with Oscar Grant and tried to protest in a peaceful manner. And also let’s add that there are a lot of homeless people that have moved into these encampments, because of free food and because it’s a better place to be homeless.
So you’ve got the peaceful political arm, you’ve got the angry, sometimes violent anarchist arm, and then you’ve got a lot of homeless people who are piggybacking on other people’s issues. I think that’s a fair thing to say.
Tim Dickinson, you point out you’ve got probably twice the number of people here that you have in the Tea Party.
It’s not quite clear what the movement looks like, but certainly the support for the Occupy movement nationally is much stronger than the Tea Party and it’s much more popular than anybody in Washington at this point.
Let’s look at the OPD. This is a dept that has been beset by layoffs; they’ve had their pensions cut. These are the 99%. And so I think you’re going to see a real change if and when the police take off the helmets, put down the tear gas canisters and start crossing the barricades. Right now we’ve got this antagonism between the police and the occupy movement… in Denver, in Oakland… and that’s creating this side story which is ancillary to the main point, which is to try to get people to focus on income inequality. Fighting with the cops make for great TV and it gets coverage, but the only way that this starts to change from ‘we’ve seen this before’ is the way that it changes everywhere – when the instruments of state and local power change their mindset and say ‘wait a minute these people have my interests at heart.’
Even if on that tear gas night in Oakland we had seen one cop turn around and say, hey let’s protect this woman who’s been hurt and gotten flash-banged, that could have changed the story dramatically. There’s potential for that to happen. I don’t see it about to happen right now because we’ve gotten caught up in this police brutality and rubber bullets and the rest of it. But I think that’s where this is going to change if it changes.
What about the notion we’re hearing from conservatives that Obama is faltering in the polls, his base isn’t as strong, so the Occupy movement might serve him in a political sense. And we’re hearing that maybe it’s being used by the administration in creating a greater sense of what they’re calling class warfare.
Let’s get real here. We know that about 88% of the country is employed. A lot of people don’t like their jobs and aren’t happy, but they’re not the 99 %. I don’t’ understand why President Obama would try to make people think that 99% of Americans fall into this category. Because if it’s true, then he’s really failed.
Are you saying these are all unemployed people who are out there?
No, but I read ‘What is the 99%?’ The 99% the unemployed, they have big college debt, they have a lot of credit card debt. But I think there are a lot of people who are not that unhappy with the world and are certainly not so unhappy that they would want to put a tent in front of city hall and throw things at cops.
But it strikes me that we haven’t seen a movement anything like this since-
The Tea party, except the Tea party-
But even before the Tea Party, the so-called movement against the war in Vietnam. A lot of it was personal because people were getting conscripted. And now a lot of people are out there who have a personal stake in this.
Exactly. This is something that touches every neighborhood, where you know somebody who is laid off, is under water in their mortgage, has a ton of student debt. These camp-out scenes are merely the first flashpoint of an expression of anger. They’re giving voice to the people who feel that the political system is unequal and broken, that the economic system is unequal and broken. And they’re angry. It’s not pretty, it’s very raw.
It’s already having an effect. Robert Reich said the other day the story that made the headline in the New York Times about the 1 % of the population going up in terms of income in the last 20 years ago wouldn’t’ have made it if the Occupation movement weren’t going on.
Think Progress did a study on that. In the last week of July, they studied the cable news networks, during the debt ceiling battle. They said the word debt was mentioned 7,000 times in one week, and the word unemployed was mentioned 75 times. In October, debt was mentioned only 398 times and Wall Street and jobs were mentioned a couple of thousand times. So it literally has changed the conversation…
As a reporter, you’ve been out there, your sense is these people are pretty committed?
They’re committed. If you go out three different times in the day, you’ll see 3 different types of crowds. At night you’ll see a more aggressive crowd. I was out there yesterday afternoon and there were a dozen kids out there, there were people doing meditation and yoga. Sometimes you’ll see labor tabling there. It actually is a very evolving scene.
You’ve been to many Tea Party demonstrations, please compare.
The Tea Party is definitely an older crowd. They are focused on why the system is bailing out the big banks, which is also a concern here. There’s a variety of messages at both places. You’ll see the entire spectrum at both types of rallies.
How much do you think there’s a possibility of those 2 groups coming together?
There was an interesting article by Tom Friedman in the Times this weekend, linking up the Arab spring to what’s going on in America and saying it’s less about politics and it’s more about justice. That there’s people who have worked hard and played by the rules on both the left and the right who have fallen behind. The people they identify as being responsible for that, the bankers, have not paid the proper price for that.
Don’t you think a lot of this is linked to disaffection w/ Obama, the feeling that he was going to represent change and didn’t bring it about?
I think that’s right. Obama was elected on the back of a movement of his own creation. Instead of giving that movement a chance to help him govern, he put it on the shelf for several years and he said to the bankers I’m the only thing standing between you and the pitchforks. And now the pitchforks have come out.
We’re very used to being a red state/blue state Tea party/Occupy country. But these divisions of left and right are not so clear here and not so simple. It’s going to take some creative organizing to bridge those gaps. But if that starts to happen, you’re going to start to see the political establishment forced to address the core issues: economic fairness and the inability for people to get ahead.
You see frustration with a political system that’s deadlocked and not capable of mounting an effective response either way to the problems that we find ourselves in.