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Understanding the Occupy Wall Street movement: A primer

A man holds a young girl during an Occupy Miami rally that drew about 1,000 people Saturday. Credit: J. Pat Carter / Associated Press

Occupy Wall Street, the amorphous series of demonstrations that are reshaping the political debate in many major American cities and in countries around the globe, entered its second month on Monday. Here is a primer to understanding the movement that has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people worldwide.

Q: Where did this movement come from?

A: A month ago, on Sept. 17, hundreds of people protested against Wall Street greed in Lower Manhattan and marched up Broadway; about 150 people stayed overnight in Zuccotti Park, a privately owned public space near Wall Street.

Since then, while living in the park, the protesters have sponsored rallies and marches on most days — and the movement has thrived. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in protests across the United States, with the largest numbers in New York, Boston and Chicago.

Internationally, among the more than 1,000 protests reported abroad, hundreds of thousands of people have staged turbulent marches and demonstrations in Barcelona, Spain; London; and Rome.

Q: Who is running this movement and what do they want?

A: No one is officially in charge of the diffuse movement. In fact, it has different leaders and goals depending on where the occupiers have sprung up.

But there is a clear anti-capitalist theme and associated populist demands in the face of various governments’ inability to solve the world’s economic crisis. The most frequent demands are for an end to Wall Street and corporate greed. That’s blamed for the most recent recession and for the slow recovery with its high unemployment, particularly among the young seeking their first real jobs.

The other common demand seems to be a forgiveness of debt, whether student loans or personal, as a result of having to borrow to make ends meet during the downturn.

Among the most frequent slogans are attacks on the 1% at the top of the economic distribution pyramid who protesters claim have prospered while the remaining 99% have suffered.

Q: Are the movement’s claims true?

A: There is no secret in the United States that the rich are indeed very rich and becoming even more so at the expense of the rest of society. Statistics abound, including one recent study — posted at Fairfield University and based on data from the Federal Reserve Board — that found that the wealthiest 1% of families own roughly 34.3% of the nation’s net worth, the top 10% of families own more than 71%, and the bottom 40% of the population own far less than 1%.

Income, of course is different from wealth, but even here the numbers are skewed upward, as they have been since time immemorial. There are currently about 312 million people in the United States, meaning the top 1% amounts to about 3.1 million. According to the IRS, the number of individual returns with adjusted gross income of $1 million or more was about 323,000 in 2008, or an overall tenth of 1%.

By that reckoning, 90% of the rich could be protesting against the remainder, who are the super rich.

Q: What are the politics?

A: Politically, the economic numbers are almost beside the point because social movements are based more on anger than on antithetic.

But there is a general consensus, among the right and the left in the United States, that investor greed helped fuel the housing bubble that burst, threatening to bring down the financial sector then sending ripples through the global economy. Taxpayer dollars were spent to save banks, many of which recently reported profits in the billions of dollars — less than they had hoped for, but still staggering numbers to an individual’s mind.

In Europe, the issue is also clear: Something will have to be done to bail out the poorer nations, which have accumulated large debts and now will be forced to drastically cut back on entitlement programs such as healthcare and other social benefits. In both arenas the majority of angry people are being told to make due with less while the rich make some sacrifices that are generally more easily affordable.

Q: What does it mean to call the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators a social movement?

A: Social movements generally channel society’s politics of anger, but don’t necessarily take power themselves.

For example, it was a social movement run by students against the draft and the Vietnam War that contributed to Lyndon Johnson’s decision to forgo a bid for reelection in 1968. The Vietnam War itself didn’t end until there had been several more years of protest and a Republican president was in office.

The civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement and, on the other side of the spectrum, the tea party movement have all achieved some successes in getting established institutions such as political parties to carry out their platforms.

Q: Has anyone adopted the Occupy Wall Street movement?

A: In the United States, labor unions have joined the demonstrations in New York and elsewhere. But the big issue is, what will the Democratic Party do?

Many politicians, including President Obama, have been trying to harness the popular anger against Wall Street to push their own agendas. Over the weekend, Obama, speaking at the dedication of a monument for civil rights leader the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., noted that the proponent of civil disobedience “would want us to challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing those who work there.”

Other Democrats have taken that same tack with some senators pushing a plan for a 5.6% surtax on those earning more than $1 million a year.

Republicans were originally hostile to the demonstrations calling them a continuation of class warfare facilitated by Democrats seeking a campaign issue to galvanize their base. But GOP leaders have been dialing down the rhetoric while maintaining their basic position that new taxes on the rich were hurting job creation.

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