Occupy's Kind Second Act
Anger was the emotion that catalyzed Occupy Wall Street in the first place, that brought the crowds to Zuccotti Park, and made the movement a global phenomenon. Anger at banks, which had accepted billions of dollars in bailout money and yet continued many of their objectionable, pre-crisis business practices. Anger at collection agencies and mortgage lenders, who gave regular Americans none of the same mercy when it came to their personal debts and underwater mortgages. Anger at Washington for failing to rein in an out-of-control financial system with sufficient regulation.
And yet, on the one-year anniversary of Occupy's eviction from Zuccotti, it seems that a new, gentler tone is emerging. The movement's second act now seems designed not so much to stoke the fires of outrage as to calmly assert a new set of solutions, and put forth a model of the way it believes things should be.
That new tone is on display with the Rolling Jubilee debt-forgiveness program and the Occupy Sandy relief program, both of which are less like conventional protests than pragmatic humanitarian relief programs with minor ideological subtext. It also underlies The Trouble Is the Banks, n+1's compilation of letters from Occupy the Boardroom, an Occupy-led program to send snail-mail letters to Wall Street executives. n+1 sifted through those letters, picked 150 of the best ones, addressed to executives like JPMorgan Chase's Jamie Dimon and Goldman Sachs's Lloyd Blankfein, as well as lesser-known executives in charge of things like credit cards and consumer lending.
It's a fantastic book, and well worth reading, mostly because it shows the potential power of Occupy's new approach.
You'd expect most of the submitted letters to be vitriolic and bitter, even though the organizers of Occupy the Boardroom specifically instructed letter-writers to refrain from harassing or threatening their banker pen pals. But while many are sarcastic (there are many iterations of, "Thanks so much for ruining my life, Mr. Foreclosure Man!") the vast majority simply tell earnest stories of personal financial disaster, coupled with politely worded pleas for help and reform.
Take this letter, from Jamie Gannon in Plainview, NY:
I know you are not all money-grubbing heartless bastards who think the little people should “eat cake.” I’ve worked with you; I’ve observed you interacting with your employees and your peers. For the most part, you’re all decent people. Please wake up and realize that the average guy on the street is not a lazy, stupid fool who has squandered the same opportunities you’ve had and gotten himself stuck on the bottom rung of the social classes. Most Americans on “Main Street” do work hard ... really hard, to provide for their families, watch what they spend, and raise their kids with morals and values so they can be productive members of society. Are there going to be abuses of social programs? Always. Are social programs abused by the majority of the people receiving benefits, or people just trying to pay their mortgage? Absolutely not.
Or this one, addressed to Goldman's chief accounting officer, Sarah G. Smith:
Sarah, I will be writing you again and I want you to know that I will never send you mean, nasty messages just because you work for Goldman Sachs or because I know that your life circumstances look a helluva lot different than mine. I am just hopeful that you will read my letters and think about your own life and what you contribute to our country. I’d like you to think about how much you make, how much you donate and how much you pay in taxes.
Or this, addressed to Lloyd Blankfein:
I know you and Goldman have gotten a lot of heat lately and I assumed you were some privileged, out-of-touch, always-been-rich person who just didn’t get how tough it is to be a working-class stiff in a society that no longer manufactures anything. But Lloyd, you worked selling hot dogs and Cracker Jacks at Yankee Stadium! You went through the NYC public school system! Your parents were the same type of working stiffs who are losing their homes, jobs, and savings thanks to the policies of our bought-out government. If I read your background up until you get to go to Harvard instead of Brooklyn College, you sound like all my friends. I picked you as Goldman’s head to write to because of the revolving door between the federal government and your company. But now I really have to ask the same question that I’ve seen asked by others here. How do you sleep at night? When is enough enough? You’d already reached the pinnacle of success, so why does it seem that you and those others like you were so willing to push Wall Street to the extremes that culminated in the financial crises? I’m sure everyone you knew growing up understood what it was like to be concerned about getting a decent job, having a decent place to live, and supporting a family. So when you think about the people protesting the excesses and greed of the banks and financial institutions, maybe you want to remember where you came from.
There are many people better suited than I am to answer questions about mass movement tonality, and whether Occupy is well-served by steering its supporters to polite disagreement rather than righteous outrage. It may be that, by muting residual anger over the events of the financial crisis, the movement is making itself easier to ignore.
But I do know Wall Street, and I know that if its goal was to get bank executives' attention, Occupy the Boardroom was brilliantly executed.
After all, most upper-level bank executives have learned, by now, to tune out yelling and sign-waving protesters outside their windows. When I talked to bankers and traders during the first iteration of Occupy, even the most left-leaning among them had written the movement off as a leaderless group of splenetic anarchists.
But a polite, eloquent letter personally addressed to them and sent to their office? That's much harder to ignore. It's not impossible to imagine a copy of this book slipping past an administrative assistant onto a CEO's desk, being leafed through during a slow night at the office, and sparking a few minutes' worth of serious self-reflection.
Would that change Wall Street? No, not in the least. But combined with the charitable (and highly popular) aid work Occupy is doing through the Rolling Jubilee and Sandy-relief programs, it would mean that a once-nebulous movement is, a year after being written off by those in power, finally getting control of its message.