Just what is it that the "Occupy Wall Street" crowd wants? What are their goals? There are plenty of serious and thoughtful people who are trying to figure out just what the "Occupy Wall Streeters" are really attempting to achieve. Even for those who are actually thinking about it and not just reacting emotionally to the appearance and inconvenience of the increasing mass of demonstrators around the country, coming up with a clear answer is a little like a sighted person trying to figure out exactly what a braille sign says: we know it's important, and that it's probably a warning of some sort, but we can't quite understand it, no matter how hard and long we stand and stare at it.
It's all too easy for doctrinaire righties, on the one hand, to dismiss the nascent demonstrations by "Occupy Wall Street" as the babbling of a few unwashed rabble rousing, community-organizing hippies, just as some loud lefties conveniently labeled crowds whipped up into "Tea Parties" as beer fests of the racist, misogynistic Joe Six pack variety. How much easier it is to demonize and trivialize those with whom one disagrees by hanging a convenient, if colorful moniker on them as an isolated group of folks disaffected from main street society. We all have more important work to do than pay attention to these losers and freaks, right?
Those who are prone to some quiet reflection, however, might consider that history in our own lifetimes offers at least several similar examples of movements where the real message was that our policy-makers had for too long gone too far in ignoring the sentiment of large groups of Americans, and ultimately a majority of them.
These Americans weren't a few disaffected people protesting over trivialities, but representatives of popular sentiment shared by increasing numbers who felt ignored and left behind. Among those cases in point were, of course, the American labor , civil rights , and the anti-Viet Nam war movements. To cite similar examples from other countries, such as the Solidarity Movement in Poland, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet Union and, most recently, the "Arab Spring" uprisings, would not be missing the point.
Say unflatteringly what you will about the questionable relevance, value and priorities of today's labor unions, much of it true, the labor movement during its infancy changed, for the far better, the workplace for millions of Americans who had been toiling in sub-human conditions, without any regard for their physical, let alone economic, well being.
Years later, avowedly non-violent civil rights leaders were initially dismissed as "communists" and themselves set upon violently, in some cases by those very individuals charged with upholding the law. The ultimate civil rights legislation promulgated during the Johnson Administration swept away years of institutionalized racism and a denial of basic human rights, and began a long, if as yet incomplete rebalancing of the political power equation in this country.
Similarly, it wasn't that long ago that folks like Jane Fonda were ostracized and labeled as "Communists" for protesting against a then increasingly unpopular war in Viet Nam, which, as we ultimately learned, involved clandestine military activity in other southeast Asian countries as well. I'm certainly no Communist, but the North Vietnamese "Communists" won the war, and we haven't heard much about any dire consequences since. To this day, however, Fonda has not yet outlived her reputation as "Hanoi Jane," even though popular sentiment against the war and years of protests ultimately caused the voice of the people to be heard, bringing down at least one sitting American president, and perhaps, to some extent, two.
Most recently, the popular uprisings in the Middle East known as the "Arab Spring" are enfranchising huge masses of the population in myriad countries, toppling long-time political regimes as illegitimate leaders, now literally running for their lives, if not merely for their own personal freedom, some of them unsuccessfully. Say what you will about the more recent advent and impact of social media, each of these "tipping points," to use Malcolm Gladwell's term, represents "Power to the people," to use John Lennon's.
Political scientists are prone to call groundswells such as these "pendulum swings," noting, as if they were actually physicists, that a pendulum always returns to the middle at some point when things get a little too far out of whack in either direction of the arc.
They're right, of course, and one can make an argument that while not identical to forces of nature, the swings of popular opinion within collectives of human beings bear a striking, perhaps literally so, resemblance to the physical properties of pendulums as they repeatedly seek the middle.
So, too, as in physics, large groups of people, whether organized by the intent of calculated leadership or through sheer physical adhesion brought about by the rolling stone of growing popular sentiment gathering moss, begin to reflect a property known in physics as "critical mass," where their impact takes on significance and meaning that cannot be attributed to any one individual, but rather to properties and effect that evolve primarily due to reaching that level of power through the steady accumulation of mass.
While the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street "movements" have each started as seemingly smallish groups of demonstrators with a beef, even as they might disagree about the precise problem, they have both struck a nerve which is now vibrating across the country. Few might have predicted this when each began to peck out of their shells, motivated by one or another particular provocation that tipped the scale for each individual who began to identify with one or the other cause, ultimately coalescing into popular and far more organized movements. Will their cries for a "fair share" rebalance the scale, as did the cries of "solidarity forever" by the American factory workers that they be provided with a safe work environment, allowing them to go home at the end of their very long work days with all of their fingers, arms and, quite literally, their lives?
Will they turn out to be as impactful as a long-subjugated and abused racial minority of African-Americans, denied for generations the fundamental human rights of their white neighbors? Will the out-of-balance influence and dominance of our country by a greed-fueled Wall Street and privileged corporate crowd finally be pulled up short as antithetical to the ideals of our "democratic" society, so carefully and thoughtfully crafted as a government termed by its founders as "of the people, by the people, for the people," not "of the corporations, by the lobbyists, for Wall Street?" It's too soon to tell, of course, but if history within our lifetimes and the laws of physics, organizational or otherwise, are any indicators, I wouldn't bet against them.
While there are no doubt serious divisions of opinion regarding fundamental issues in this country, the one common thread of agreement that now appears to be weaving its way into whole cloth is from the unraveling spool of increasing numbers of people who, with ever-louder volume, are demanding that leadership in Washington remembers that it is ultimately the people who vote, and on whose behalf and as whose representatives they were elected to office. The will of the people, as was the case during the civil rights movement, the wars in south east Asia, and most recently in the "Arab spring" uprisings, is not forever denied, whether it be voiced through the ballot box, by a coalescing of collectively motivated human will, or by sheer force.
If history teaches us anything, it's that Americans love their country, and will take to the streets, literally and figuratively, until they get it back. It may not be quick enough for some, it may not be easy, and it may even get uglier than most responsible and freedom-loving Americans would want it to become, regardless of which "side" they seem to be on at this very moment. But I wouldn't bet against them. The collective American will, and elections, have a funny way of bringing that old pendulum back to center, and I wouldn't want to be in its way when it gets there.
Pendulums, critical mass, and majorities ultimately win. History is ignored generally at the peril of those who ignore it, and particularly by elected officials who find themselves suddenly, if not all that shockingly, voted out of office. The pendulum has been swinging for a long time right about now, and as it corrects and redirects itself towards the center, it's petty damn pissed. It's hard not to see, even if you can't read braille.