Lately we've all been hearing a lot about Occupy Wall Street (or Occupy Oakland, DC, San Francisco, and many places in between). Many are calling it the Tea Party of the Left, with its focus on unemployment, corporate greed and crony capitalism. I just call it opportunity.
I recently spoke to my father about Occupy Wall Street. He's not particularly political, and is a retired teacher and farmer living in a conservative part of rural Michigan. The fact that the protests are inspiring someone like him speaks volumes about their potential.
He, like many Occupy activists, is concerned about the direction the country is going, the out-of-control corporate greed destroying our system of government and the lack of honest and civil discourse from both political parties about solving real problems. Occupy Wall Street is becoming an outlet that my dad sees as expressing his disappointment and anger about the system, and as a way to create positive change. My dad is not alone. Occupy Wall Street is tapping into populist anger and giving hope to a generation of Americans that are being robbed of their opportunity to aspire to and achieve their dreams.
Call me a romantic, but I truly believe something wonderful is being created with the organic growth of the Occupy movement. In all the excitement (and relative ambiguity) surrounding the Occupy movement, there's a chance for all of us to make our voices heard. Real people with real problems are crying out in a way that's too obvious and too important for our representatives to ignore. This is no lame-duck movement that is paralyzed and on its way out, scared off by eviction, police brutality or cold temperatures (in fact, for a while the Occupy Wall Street camp in New York City was generating their own electricity for heat). It's a powerful form of protest, one in which bands of people from different walks of life unite under a common cause: to remind our government that democracy is about people, not corporations.
Friends of the Earth staff have participated in Occupy events in San Francisco, Oakland, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and Edinburgh, Scotland. We also contributed to a solar panel for the Occupy DC folks, and last week our board or directors unanimously passed a statement of support for the movement. The statement affirms that these are our people, our issues, our concerns, and this is our movement to join, listen to and contribute to where possible.
That's not to say we're trying to make it our own -- the movement began without our help, and we don't want to (nor could we) take over -- but we are lending a hand. We are also taking time to reflect on what Occupy is teaching us as an organization (a reminder that change will not come from Washington, but to Washington), and how it is challenging us (to not only resist the free-market, anti-government ideology of neoliberalism that has cost our country so much, but also to work for solutions). The Occupy movement has made us recommit ourselves to our work in the areas of corporate power, tax and budget policy, big banks, trade rules, financial markets and democratic governance.
One of our biggest campaigns at present, to get President Obama to reject the dirty tar sands oil pipeline called the Keystone XL, largely focuses on fighting for democratic governance. The Keystone XL story is a classic case of crony capitalism, where well-connected corporations capture the government for their own interests and at the public's expense. The Keystone XL is egregious from an environmental standpoint. It would run from Alberta, Canada, straight through America's breadbasket to refineries in Port Arthur and Channelview, Texas. One leak could be devastating, as the pipeline crosses many important resources, including the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of drinking water for two million Americans. Since it would also carry the world's dirtiest, most polluting form of oil (which emits up to three times more greenhouse gas emissions than traditional crude) it would also essentially be "game over" for the climate, according to NASA's top climate scientist James Hansen.
Fortunately, our Keystone XL campaign has also shown us that democracy and the right to protest our government can be a path toward accomplishing goals: Just last week, President Obama announced his administration's decision to delay the permit process for the Keystone XL project and seek a new environmental impact review. This could force the administration to realize what we already know: that the Keystone XL is not in our national interest.
On November 6, 12,000 protesters circled the White House to demand that President Obama reject the Keystone pipeline. And a few days before that, thousands of peaceful demonstrators participated in a general strike called for by the Occupy Oakland movement. Two mass protests -- one aimed at the White House and the other aimed at Wall Street -- both echoing the same themes of basic accountability, challenging corporate greed and ending the revolving door between industry and government. At the White House rally, many were calling on President Obama to live up to his 2008 campaign pledge, in which he promised not just hope and change, but also an end to the days of lobbyists setting the agenda.
I don't see a lot of hope and change emanating from the White House, but I do see it spreading across the Occupy movement -- and coming from the tens of thousands of activists fighting the Keystone XL pipeline. Hope for change, for unity within a community of fellow citizens, neighbors and people impacted by the out-of-balance economy, for solidarity, and for a new way of thinking.
Hope can be contagious, and where it spreads, it will often catalyze change.
It's time for all of us to catch the fever that Occupy Wall Street already has.