They succeeded in occupying our consciousness

Despite itself, the movement's message gained traction with Americans

December 13, 2011|Dan Rodricks

Well, it wasn't exactly something out of "Les Miserables," was it? When police in riot gear finally moved on Occupy Baltimore early Tuesday, there were no barricades, no gunfire and not even an arrest. No one singing, "One day more." The men and women of Occupy Bmore folded tents and left the area peacefully, and the city was spared a riot.

Ever since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake issued her cryptic "time of our choosing" warning that the occupation of McKeldin Square would one day end, we've been waiting for the other shoe to drop and wondering if it would be a boot. But, no boot. Not even a steel-toed shoe. The police action was more like a slipper. The only complaint we've heard so far is that the police should have picked a more civil hour for the operation.

"SRB is the only major metropolitan mayor who handled her Occupy protestors with honesty," Terry Mahoney, a retired Marine and a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, posted on Facebook this morning, referring to the mayor by her initials. Mr. Mahoney is an account executive for a telecommunications company and resides in Carroll County.

"The mayor," he added, "expressed empathy with their cause, always maintained that what they were doing was against the law, and reserved the right to act. No false concerns for public safety to build up a public case for kicking out the dirty hippies. Just a professional attitude. Really proud of SRB and the Baltimore PD."

So, smartly handled by City Hall, it ended with a fizzle — and no pepper spray.

Those who hated the whole concept of Occupy Wall Street and its branch operations are certainly gleeful today. They despised what Occupy represented from the start and ridiculed the Occupiers at every turn. Depending on your outlook, it has either been hilarious or depressing to hear so many Americans complaining about Americans gathering in protest, particularly in protest of economic conditions that have left so many people in this country unemployed, underemployed and in poverty.

The Occupy movement deserved some criticism — its leaders' unwillingness to claim leader status and their unwillingness to articulate some sort of agenda, a list of demands, something clear and reflecting unity. We're an impatient country and an impatient press, and by not ratifying some sort of mission statement at the outset, the Occupy movement turned a lot of people off.

But not so much that we didn't support them, at least from a distance. Occupy Wall Street and its branch operation in Baltimore represented a great growl that has been brewing in this country for 30 years. The long, hard creep toward breathtaking wage and wealth disparity — and a slide back to poverty levels not seen since the War on Poverty commenced in the 1960s — has brought us to what President Barack Obama recently declared a "make-or-break moment for the middle class."

Mr. Obama's speech in Osawatomie, Kan., last week was perhaps his most important yet. He ignored Republican complaints of "class warfare" to address the most profound problem we face in the wake of the Great Recession — many Americans' lack of belief that they can get a fair shake in the U.S. economy and build the lives their parents and grandparents had.

"Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people," Mr. Obama said. "Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier than ever before. But everybody else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't — and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up."

He added: "We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn't afford them, or even sometimes understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets — and huge bonuses — made with other people's money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this but looked the other way or didn't have the authority to look at all.

"It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility all across the system."

This could have been Mr. Obama's Occupy Osawatomie speech. He might not have made it without the Occupiers. And the 99 percenters' complaint might not have gained as much traction as polls suggest it has now, going into the 2012 election year.

So I don't buy the dismissive ridicule that Occupy was a big waste of time, making no lasting imprint on the political system. There are plenty of us who have been growling about the inequities in the economic system, and about what appears to be retreat to the practices that created the 2007-2008 meltdown. We might not have camped in Zuccotti Park or pitched a tent in McKeldin Square, but we at least gave a wink and a nod and a thumbs-up to Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Baltimore. Next question: Now what?

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

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