Occupy movement still growing in Socorro

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The populist movement that began last September with the occupation of New York’s Zuccotti Park, to protest corporate influence in politics and income inequality, hasn’t garnered many national headlines lately. That may have lead many to believe the “99 percent” have lost their momentum, if not their way. However, if Sunday’s gathering at the M Mountain Coffeehouse is any indication, the Occupy movement is alive and well and gaining traction in Socorro.

About a dozen people from different walks of life — students, educators, businessmen and working people — met to listen to a program called “Occupy Wall Street and the Economic Crisis,” with Richard Wolff, economist and author of “Capitalism Hits the Fan,” and Alternative Radio host David Barsamian. For about an hour they listened intently to a replay of the November 2011 interview about the effect of the Occupy movement on political discourse in America, projected through the speakers of someone’s desktop computer; the only other sounds in the room were the occasional hiss of the espresso machine and a clatter of dishes from the kitchen.

Wolff began the interview by touching on the debt crisis in Europe in the simplest of terms: governments borrowing money to bail out their countries’ financial institutions, then imposing austerity measures — cutting back social programs and public employment — in order to free up money to pay the interest on their debt.

“That austerity, chiefly burdensome cutbacks in public services just when people need them most, simply shifts the costs of economic crisis and of financial bailouts onto the mass of their people,” Wolff said.

In response to the resulting public anger and civil unrest, “politicians and their corporate backers have adopted the strategy of blaming their economic difficulties and austerity programs on ‘foreigners’…”

It would be hard to miss the obvious parallels in the United States, of auto company and bank bailouts and anti-immigrant sentiment.

Barsamian brought the discussion closer to home by pointing out that in the U.S., as in Europe, people are saying, “Hey, we didn’t cause this crisis. Why do we have to pay for it?”

In Wolff’s view, at least, the economic crisis here and abroad is evidence that capitalism is a flawed system. And the fact that according to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, one-third of the population — 100 million Americans — live in or near poverty, without sufficient access to basic needs, such as food, shelter and health care, while an increasingly wealthy few live in obscene luxury is a compelling argument that capitalism isn’t fulfilling its promise of a raised standard of living for all.

The Occupy movement, Wolff said, “is forcing everybody to see what they would rather not see, to confront what they don’t really want to believe but know in their heart of hearts is true — that the 1 percent have way too much and the rest of us are required to live on way too little.”

The interview touched on a lot of the issues raised by various members of the Occupy movement in the initial months: supporting social safety-net programs, such as Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security by raising taxes on the wealthy, the idea that the public sector should be able to assert some control over the profits of private corporations that benefit from publicly funded research, and whether real change can come about in elections influenced by corporate sponsorship.

“I think Occupy Wall Street is finding its way and doing an enormous service to the U.S. by finally reopening on old and very important national conversation,” Wolff said. “A capitalist system that puts everything in the hands of 1 percent, at the expense of 99 percent, is a system that at the very least needs criticism, debate and a response to the fundamental question: Can we do better as a nation than capitalism?”

Getting Organized

Occupy Socorro, like any other Occupy group, has no leaders, but Gwen Roath, one of the organizers of Sunday’s meeting, was willing to start the discussion that followed the program.

“I think it helped put into perspective feelings I had about things that are wrong,” Roath said.

Dave Wheelock, Director of Rugby and Club Sport Coordinator for New Mexico Tech and sometime columnist known to his readers as the “Pencil Warrior,” said over time he has come to the conclusion that the American people are largely misinformed, if not disinformed.

“It’s incumbent on us, for those who have begun to smell the rot, to educate our fellow citizens and lead them to critical thinking,” Wheelock said. “We need to get organized on a local level, educate each other and move forward in producing a more just, more equal society.”

For Nicola Roath, who organized an Occupy Socorro rally on the plaza in November and set up the OccupySocorro Facebook page, there were a few ideas expressed in the interview that seemed to resonate in particular.

“The 99 percent are the poor people who are struggling. They shouldn’t be responsible for helping the wealthy,” she said. “The problem with mobilizing the poor is they’re so depressed, they have so many challenges … everybody is just so busy trying to survive, it’s a Catch-22.”

Roath said she was willing to do whatever she could, though, and from the expressions of the people gathered, it seemed there were others who felt the same way. And among those present, there appeared to be a conviction that whatever the challenges, the Occupy movement is gaining, not losing momentum.

There may be fewer demonstrations, but people are educating themselves, going to workshops and attending meetings, Cottonwood Valley Charter School Principal Karen Williams said. And Wheelock said he suspects there are more marchers and demonstrations happening than are being reported by major media outlets.

A case in point may be a demonstration last weekend in Madison, Wis., where an estimated 60,000 protestors filled the streets on the one-year anniversary of the day that the state’s public employees were stripped of their collective bargaining rights. The event wasn’t widely reported on, outside of Wisconsin.

At OccupyWallSt.org, plans are being announced right now for a global protest on May 1, International Worker’s Day. They’re calling for a general strike: No work, no school, no housework, no shopping, no banking, nothing.

“There are a lot of things planned,” Gwen Roath said. “But for the media, it’s not new. It’s not sexy.”

Another reason the Occupy movement isn’t in the headlines is because of the way it’s organized, or rather, not organized, Roath said. “They’ve worked hard to keep it anarchistic, to keep the movement from getting specific leaders,” she said. “That’s good and bad. If there are no leaders, the opposition can’t take out the leaders to disrupt the movement … It makes the movement more organic, but not as sure of where it’s going because of that.”

One of the criticisms of the Occupy movement expressed in the media has been that its members lack a unified, cohesive message. Williams, though, disagrees.

“I think the message is very coherent!” she said, holding out both hands, palms up. “Ninety-nine percent. One percent. The questions are, what do we do about it?”

“It’s simple,” Nicola Roath responded. “Tax the rich.”

Locally, members are thinking in terms of monthly meetings and more presentations, such as the one held Sunday. They’re hoping to grow Occupy Socorro, and to be able to join forces with Occupy movements in larger communities.

The American Dream

Rep. Don Tripp (R-Socorro), who said he isn’t in the 1 percent himself but that he might be in the top 2 percent, came to listen to the recorded interview, but wasn’t able to stay and take part in the discussion that followed.

Tripp has served the district for 14 years, running unopposed in the last three election cycles. He was the lone Republican in the state House of Representatives who joined Democrats and Independents on Jan. 17 in voting for a bill calling for an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. The 2010 ruling by the Court essentially held that the First Amendment prevents the government from restricting the amount of money corporations can spend in political elections.

In an interview Monday, Tripp said he thought Wolff presented a “distorted view of capitalism.”

“I have read some of Professor Wolff in the past. He rails pretty hard against capitalism. One reason he gives is the bailouts, but if you look at it, bailouts are not capitalism but socialism. They shouldn’t have been done,” he said. “I don’t agree with the bailouts — that doesn’t mean I’m against capitalism.”

By the same token, Tripp said he feels the nation of Greece should be allowed to go bankrupt.

“Otherwise the people of Greece will be paying the bill for generations to come,” he said.

Tripp said he has no problem with the message of taxing the higher income earners.

“I have more of a problem with how the money is spent,” he said.

Tripp also said he feels the Occupy movement itself is neither misguided nor ineffectual.

“I think they’re frustrated, as many of us are,” he said. “And they already have been effective. They have changed some of the rhetoric and the way we look at things, and that’s important.”

But as to whether the movement could lead to a populist revolt, Tripp was doubtful.

“I think we’re a society where these things come out in the public discourse and get mitigated long before these things happen,” he said, then adding, “I think as the economy increases, we’ll hear less from the Occupiers.”

On the question of whether the private sector should be able to profit, unhindered, from the fruits of publicly funded research, Tripp’s response was equally pragmatic. He said you can’t expect publicly funded research institutions, such as New Mexico Tech, to also be manufacturers.

“There are a lot of programs that try to spin off businesses from the institutions. To grow something, you need to put it in private hands, to gain capital,” Tripp said. “You need to spin it out into the private sector to manufacture it.”

Tripp said what concerns him more is that the educated workforce in New Mexico is between the ages of 55 and 64, and as those people retire, there aren’t enough young people coming into the workforce who can replace them. He said part of the problem is that there are too many universities in New Mexico, and too much educational infrastructure; funding ends up being spread too thin, and a four-year degree can take six years to earn because the classes students need aren’t available when they need them.

“We need to move toward universities offering fewer degrees, and offering enough classes that people can graduate in four years,” Tripp said.

But Tripp also sees another problem, one that’s more troubling to someone who describes himself as a product of the American Dream.

“I was able to build a business and do pretty decent,” he said. “We do have opportunity — opportunity to progress, opportunity to do things. I think that’s important.”

Tripp is concerned that Americans have lost the dream and the drive to better themselves through education and make something of those opportunities, and he’s not sure what the solution is.

“We have become a society that doesn’t value education,” Tripp said. “We’re trying to give away a product to a population that doesn’t seem to want it.”

For the Occupy movement, the question may be whether the American Dream can even be sustained in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor is ever increasing.

 


-- Email the author at sbarteau@dchieftain.com.