The Meaning of Occupy Wall Street

By Matt Schiavenza.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has its base in Zuccotti Park, a small square dwarfed by the surrounding buildings of Lower Manhattan's financial district. I visited on Saturday evening, eager to see for myself what the New York Times has described as a "diffuse and leaderless convocation of activists against greed, corporate influence, gross social inequality and other nasty byproducts of wayward capitalism not easily extinguishable by street theater."

Almost immediately, I could tell Occupy Wall Street isn't a rigidly organized political movement. Amid signs criticizing the Fed, Wall Street, the banks and capitalism in general, I spotted a smattering of other activists agitating for feminism, veganism and for the emancipation of Palestine. At first, the scene at Zuccotti indeed resembled a caricature of leftist activism, complete with long-haired, hirsute revelers dancing hypnotically to the sounds of a bongo drum.

Yet a closer look revealed that this was no ordinary protest crowd. Walking along the perimeter of the park, I spoke to Sean, a clean-cut man in his late thirties sitting quietly to one side.

"I'm a blue collar guy, an electrician," he told me, "This is the first protest movement that I've ever been involved with." He adjusted his sign, which in neat letters explained his situation. He was out of work and had two children.

"Things just aren't working," he said. "The system is broken."

He wasn't the only one who thought so. Around the corner, a small group of recent University of Connecticut graduates had written their student loan debt amount on cardboard placards. Other signs cited the declining middle class. Still others mourned the American dream as an aspiration they felt only pertained to certain parts of the population.

It would be easy to deride the protestors for their political unsophistication. Few of the people I spoke to could articulate what they hoped to have happen, or what exactly they were protesting against.

But the fact that Occupy Wall Street lacks a coherent set of policy goals misses the point. Theirs is not a movement seeking to enact specific pieces of legislation like the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act, or to implement changes in the tax code -- though I did see signs urging both of these things. In fact, Occupy Wall Street isn't even really about Wall Street itself.

What Occupy Wall Street signifies is this: for a significant chunk of the American population, life is not getting better and hasn't been for a long time. Over the past thirty years the American middle-class has been told that the wealth generated in the country would improve their lives, but this has not happened. Instead, the conspicuously rich have accrued the lion's share of the wealth, benefiting from friendly politicians who view them, fatuously, as the creators of the country's prosperity.

In recent days Occupy Wall Street has spread from Zuccotti Park to many other cities across the United States, and even to a few places abroad. Yet it seems appropriate that the movement began in the shadows of Ground Zero, where a decade ago a terrorist attack on American soil diverted the country's attention away from long-term problems plaguing the domestic economy. Occupy Wall Street may well represent the moment when these problems finally become impossible to ignore.