Occupy for Reform

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Occupy Seattle logoNo wonder the Occupy Wall Street protest movement, including Occupy Seattle, has captured the support of the American people. 

Just watch this segment from last night’s 60 Minutes on CBS regarding members of Congress using insider information to make millions. Or this segment from November 6 where felon Jack Abramoff tells all about buying our elected officials in Washington, D.C. 

I watched both of these 60 Minutes’ reports last night; my blood was boiling!

Occupy Wall Street has tapped into a deep, strong and explosive undercurrent of thought running through America.  It’s a core belief that something is seriously wrong with our country economically, politically and ethically.  60 Minutes has confirmed the worst with their two reports. 

The question now is whether Occupy Wall Street can transform itself into a force that leads to fundamental reforms.

At 2 o’clock this afternoon, the City Council will consider and likely pass a resolution related to the economic and political crisis facing America, a crisis brought into sharp focus by the Occupy protests across the country. 

What are the central facts of this crisis?

Wealth is dangerously concentrated among a very few and the disparities are growing; the top 1% account for a quarter of the nation’s income and hold 40% of the country’s wealth

The middle class is being squeezed like it was before the Great Depression some 80 years ago.  Paying for health insurance, college tuition, and the mortgage is nearly impossible for many families.  Many friends are living paycheck-to-paycheck, a stressful, exhausting way to raise a family. The geography and concentration of poverty is changing too, as a recent report from The Brookings Institution shows.

If that economic reality isn’t enough for you, add the political bickering, gridlock and ethical lapses we witness in the other Washington.  It’s maddening. 

As Lord Acton’s dictum states, “Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  We see that played out in our national politics where those with money buy influence in the Congress and those in power do everything they can to keep it.  The influence peddling is accomplished through campaign contributions, luxury all-expense-paid trips, insider deals, and huge third-party slush funds that can be tapped at a moments notice to pay for ad campaigns or direct mail attacks.  Congress twists and turns, winks and nods, to avoid the normal rules you and I must follow.  It’s a form of bribery washed, sanitized and packaged just enough to be technically legal.

Closer to home, we witness initiative campaigns supposedly about highway tolls and privatizing state liquor sales spending multiple millions of dollars in special interest money to influence voters.  Regardless of what you thought about the merits of these initiatives, isn’t it troubling when a private developer can spend exorbitant sums of money to protect his private shopping mall while destroying the state’s ability to pay for vital transportation projects?  Or when a corporation spends millions to privatize liquor sales when they will be the primary beneficiary and reap multiple millions in profit? 

We reap what we sow when we allow the initiative process to be bought and sold through paid signature gathers.  We’ve essentially privatized and priced our democracy.  Over time, a numbing disconnect occurs and people withdraw from civic engagement, a dangerous and democracy-killing reality like the frog swimming in the pot that’s coming to a slow boil. 

This is the economic, political and ethical landscape that sparked the Occupy Wall Street protests. 

I’ll admit I’m not naturally inclined to join street protests.  Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was a radio journalist in Seattle reporting on the Civil Rights and anti-war protests, some of which turned viciously violent.  I’ve never carried a protest sign or shouted slogans in the street.  (However, Joleen, my wife of 34 years, has!)  My goodness, I went the opposite direction and became a Seattle police officer during the reform era following decades of widespread corruption in city government. 

Sure, there are elements that have attached themselves to the Occupy protests, like the anarchists and some others, that threaten the legitimacy of the movement.  But, by and large, Occupy seems to have attracted a broad mix of supporters, young and old, and generated a sympathetic response.  They have tapped into the widespread discontent that’s been percolating for a long time.  There are probably a lot of people like me who won’t easily take to the streets but are with them in spirit. 

Andrew Sullivan, writing in the October 31, 2011 edition of Newsweek magazine, summed it up well when he defined the Occupy protesters:

"Huge majorities agree that corporate special interests have too much clout in Washington, that inequality has gotten out of control, that taxes can and should be raised on the successful, that the gamblers of Wall Street deserve some direct comeuppance for the wreckage they have bestowed on the rest of us . . . They are asking for a return to an older America that the Greatest Generation would have instantly recognized and approved of—fiscally sound, socially balanced, politically stable.”

So, this afternoon my colleagues and I will discuss and vote on a resolution introduced by Councilmember Nick Licata that expresses support for the peaceful and lawful exercise of the First Amendment by the Occupy protest and lists specific actions the City will take to address the growing inequality of our economic and political systems.

These actions include an examination of City government banking and investment practices, a review of home foreclosures occurring in Seattle, and a review of the type and extent of special tax exemptions or waivers the City has granted and whether they are creating the economic and social benefits desired.  We will also take a close look at education and career preparation programs.  We will link up with tax reform advocates and consider policy recommendations for the state legislature to consider.

The resolution makes it clear that we do not support behavior that infringes on the “lawful rights of others,” obstructs or interferes with our police officers doing their jobs, or causes personal injury or property destruction.  Thankfully, we have not seen the kind of violence a few other cities have experienced with Occupy protests, although several of our police officers have been pushed, hit, spit upon, and otherwise assaulted and interfered with.  Under the circumstances, our police officers have done a very good job.  They have shown patience and restraint. 

Hopefully, the Occupy protests will transform into a political movement that creates lasting change—as economist Jeffrey Sachs writes, a new “progressive era” for the benefit of all Americans.