Democracy & Protests, Movements & Tipping Points

This is something that concerns me because it cuts to the heart of democracy.

I’m beginning to wonder whether the right to assemble is effectively dead in the US. No one who is a wage slave (which is the overwhelming majority of the population) can afford to have an arrest record, even a misdemeanor, in this age of short job tenures and rising use of background checks.

Now at least in New York (and I hope readers in other cities will chime in) the right to assemble seems to be pretty much a dead letter. I was in Sydney during the global protests against the Iraq War, and I was told that the New York demonstrations (which were already hindered by typically lousy winter weather) were pretty much blocked by the police. Protestors were tying to gather at the UN, and the cops put up a cordon at Second Avenue. The result was the turnout was far lower than the number who tried to show their opposition and were stopped.

The latest New York City protest is OccupyWallStreet. Even though its turnout last week fell well short of hopes (the estimates from the group were that 2000 participated; the New York Times suggests numbers more like “hundreds” but the photos from the 17th make figures larger figures seem plausible), making it a nuisance level demonstration rather than a major statement, the powers that be seem to be trying a bit too hard to prevent it from getting traction.

The organizers were using Twitter to promote participation and visibility. And so Twitter intervened. From AmpedStatus:

On at least two occasions, Saturday September 17th and again on Thursday night, Twitter blocked #OccupyWallStreet from being featured as a top trending topic on their homepage. On both occasions, #OccupyWallStreet tweets were coming in more frequently than other top trending topics that they were featuring on their homepage.

This is blatant political censorship on the part of a company that has recently received a $400 million investment from JP Morgan Chase.

The simplest and most basic element of democracy is protest, i.e., the right to assemble and the right to free speech. It’s the lifeblood of a free society. And, because of this, it has always been the main target of those in power.

This is such a dangerous thing because it seems many Americans don’t understand the value of protest, don’t even understand what democracy is. Conservatives, in particular, see democracy as mobocracy and so protests are nothing but mindless mobs (although, they make exceptions for their own protests such as the Tea Party). If we don’t protect democracy, democracy can’t protect us.

I was discussing the issue of unions with some conservatives.

Unions are one of the most basic expressions of the right to assemble. The unemployed and the working class and the 99% in general don’t have the money or political clout to compete as individuals with the wealthy elite as individuals. Plus, the wealthy elite have lobbyists, think tanks, front groups, astroturf, etc. Most of the big money donations are probably done without transparency. Even SuperPACs which are supposed to be transparent have a loophole that allows anonymous donations. Karl Rove’s well-funded SuperPAC is mostly funded by 3 anonymous sources. Even unions can’t compete with that. Plus, there is the problem of average union members trying to compete their unions under grassroots control. Millionaires and Billionaires don’t need to worry about grassroots. They can buy the appearance of ‘grassroots’ if they so desire.

The lower class are at a severe disadvantage. If you have little money, your only power is grassroots solidarity and your only voice is protest. This is where strikes come in, the practice that has created more rights and protections for workers than any other practice in US history. But various things disempowered unions earlier last century.

Using anti-communist rhetoric, the rich and powerful turned average Americans against unions and against the working class in general. No one wanted to be working class any more. Politicians and pundits began preaching about protecting the middle class. But who were they supposed to be protecting them from? The rich who were outsourcing their jobs and stagnating their wages? Of course not. The middle class apparently was being protected from the dangerous working class. This is ironic considering most of these so-called “middle class” people were in reality working class. With all of this, the neocons and social conservatives were able to transform the war on poverty into a war against the poor.

A good example of how unions lost power is in Anderson, Indiana. The strikes in Anderson were very tense and the population was divided. Eventually, GM took their business out of town and the union got blamed. That is the power of big business. They can move their factories all around the world. They can even move their factories to countries that have no worker protection at all. Workers don’t have that kind of freedom. Even to this day, former GM workers are being punished by big business. One factory that located in the area refused to hire former GM workers. Another factory nearby refused to hire any workers from Anderson.

As the middle class shrinks and good jobs become scarce, workers have even less power. People have to pay the bills and feed their families. Without jobs, workers join the unemployed and eventually join the homeless. Strike-breaking and union-busting has become very successful. It’s risky for workers to put their necks out when they are at such a disadvantage. The average worker has no easy way to organize and be heard. The mainstream media is owned by the same corporate conglomerates that own the factories. Workers these days can’t win no matter what they try.

Nonetheless, people can only be pushed so far. Even the anti-union and anti-poor rhetoric starts to be dissatisfying to many Americans when they experience an economy ruled by big business. As the middle class shrinks, more Americans find themselves in the same lot with the working class and the poor. It’s hard to scapegoat a group of people when you have become a part of that scapegoated group.

This is where the 99ers came in. They spoke the inconvenient truth that even the Tea Party didn’t want to face. Then there were also the protesters, mostly left-wingers, who earlier protested Wall Street. Both of these groups were largely ignored or only given brief mention. But now the 99% movement has created a movement that seems to be taken hold with their Occupy Wall Street protest. It also seems the 99ers and the unions are beginning to join the 99% movement which is forming it into genuine grassroots populism. These aren’t just liberal college students with too much time on their hands. These protests are filled with the working poor and the unemployed, and it’s also filled with the former middle class who have lost jobs and houses. Basically, the 99% is all of these people, i.e., all the people besides the 1% of wealthy elite who control this country and dominate the economy.

After so many decades, average Americans seem to be waking from their slumber. I suppose this is how the Populist Era began. Most of those in the Populist movement were ordinary Americans. Before the economic problems following the Civil War, average Americans believed in the American Dream and the ideal of the free market. But the rhetoric of politicians stopped being convincing. Rhetoric can’t feed your family or pay your bills. No one saw the Populist movement coming, not even those involved. One particpant observed that it was like a wildfire that lit the whole country all at once. We seem to be on the verge of such a change right now. The polling and demographics have been pointing toward change for a long time, but maybe the tipping point is finally getting near.

We’ll see…

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