What Occupy Wall Street allows people to do is break away from the assumptions of the status quo. Imagine it as a vacation for the mind, an opportunity to gain a fresh perspective on what is possible, like a global think tank. Only when new ideas are generated, debated, and tested in small batches can they be introduced and implemented in general society.
Occupy Wall Street has risen up organically because many people feel that the current political process used to actualize new ideas is broken and does not allow for meaningful change. That being said, some of the ideas coming from Occupy Wall Street may be realized using existing power structures.
Critics of Occupy Wall Street often speak of its lack of clear leadership and specific “demands,” but they are missing the point, treating it as if it was a traditional protest or organization rallying around a single cause. What they are not yet understanding is that the giant human hashtag currently called “Occupy Wall Street” has been and will continue to be a way for all people to participate in a massive conversation, both in person and online, about what they value as human beings.
There is nothing more important at this time than for people to clarify their values -- getting their priorities straight, so to speak -- so that they can then begin to take concerted, unified action to realize and demonstrate these values in society. What are these values? Although it is impossible for a conversation to have “demands,” I believe these are some of the most pressing goals for Occupy Wall Street to focus on:
Get Money Out of Politics
In order to ensure that politicians represent their constituents and not their fiscal sponsors the US will have to get money out of politics. The Get Money Out movement is proposing a Constitutional amendment to do this. Lawrence Lessig’s new book tackles these issues as well.
Use Better Voting Methods
Reform the Financial Industry
The US needs to reinstate the wall between commercial and investment banking that was provided by the Glass-Steagall Act, a law put in place in 1933 that prohibited the same company from engaging in both commercial and investment banking. This provision of the law was repealed in 1999, a decision which many economists and politicians such as Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan say was misguided and encouraged massive speculation, leading directly to major banking mergers and the current “Too Big to Fail” financial behemoths.
In addition, the US must not allow banks to grow so large that a single company poses a systemic risk to the entire US and global economy. The US should break up the biggest banks however it can in order to help ensure that there won’t be more bailouts and worse financial crises in the future. Matt Taibbi’s book Griftopia is the best (and most enjoyable) I have read on the subject.
Audit the Fed
Another component of the US’s broken financial system is the fact that the Federal Reserve secretly lends untold amounts of money to financial institutions with no oversight whatsoever. It is time to Audit the Fed, just as Reps. Alan Grayson and Ron Paul proposed unsuccessfully in 2010. People need to know how much money their government is lending and to whom if they wish to be engaged and informed citizens and voters.
Investigate and Prosecute People Who Order Torture
Few people deny that the Bush Administration ordered torture; in fact, former Vice President Dick Cheney has gone on TV and bragged about it. Torture or conspiracy to torture is a felony according to US law, and the US is additionally bound by the UN Convention Against Torture to “investigate and prosecute any acts of torture committed by Americans.” But no charges have ever been filed against senior members of the Bush Administration for these illegal acts. US Attorney General Eric Holder must uphold the law and investigate the Bush Administration for these crimes. I highly recommend Glenn Greenwald’s book With Liberty and Justice for Some if you would like to read more on these issues.
Investigate and Prosecute Companies Who Commit Foreclosure Fraud
There have been reports that many of the 50 state attorneys general have been negotiating with major banks and offering them retroactive immunity over allegations of massive foreclosure fraud in exchange for a relatively small monetary settlement. A few attorneys general, such as Massachusetts’s Martha Coakley, New York’s Eric Shneiderman and Delaware’s Beau Biden, have launched their own investigations and have stated that they do not support a unified federal and state settlement with the banks. Americans should support Biden, Coakley, Shneiderman and other attorneys general who continue to look deeply into numerous reports of illegal and fraudulent foreclosures around the nation and refuse to offer retroactive immunity to the banks.
Decriminalize Possession of Marijuana and Other Currently-Illegal Substances
Nothing does more to ensure what legal scholar Glenn Greenwald calls the US’s “two-tiered system of justice” than the ongoing ‘War on Drugs.’ It is time to legalize (or decriminalize) possession of marijuana and eventually decriminalize possession of other currently-illegal substances. Portugal decriminalized possession of all drugs in 2001 and has had significant success since then. In 2010 US law enforcement officials made over 1.6 million drug-related arrests; since 2000 the US has made more than 7.9 million arrests for marijuana violations alone. The US currently spends about $15 billion per year on the ‘War on Drugs.’ All the money and energy that goes into arresting people who wish to use drugs could be put to better use; namely, helping people who wish to stop using drugs.
End Overseas, Aggressive, Preemptive Wars and Attacks
According to unnamed US officials, al-Qaeda has just about been defeated; yet the ‘War on Terror’ continues and expands. The US is now bombing targets in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and Pakistan, as indicated by the recent ‘accidental’ killing of 26 Pakistani soldiers. Like the ‘War on Drugs,’ the ‘War on Terror’ makes the US and the rest of the world a more dangerous place, understandably increasing anti-American sentiment abroad and inspiring further violence. The US military should be turned into an exclusively defensive force used solely to protect the country from invasion. All of the US’s overseas wars should be ended, its overseas military bases and prisons should be closed, its secret, faceless overseas drone attacks should be stopped, and all of its soldiers should be brought back to the US as soon as possible. Only when the US stops behaving like the world is a battlefield where normal laws and morals do not apply -- and the President can order anyone assassinated without a trial at any time, even American citizens -- can it exert a positive influence on the rest of the world.
End the Death Penalty
The death penalty should be abolished everywhere, as soon as possible. This unnecessary and barbaric act is both immoral and economically unsustainable, costing states millions of dollars more than imprisoning the person for life would have. Worst of all, the death penalty turns state justice departments into the very thing they purport to protect their residents from -- murderers.
End the Extraordinary Crackdown on Whistleblowers
When Barack Obama was elected President, he vowed to “Protect Whistleblowers,” calling them “often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government” and going on to say that “such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled.” President Obama should fulfill his campaign promise and end his extraordinary attacks on whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning, who was held in military prison for 18 months and tortured before he even received his first court hearing.
In addition, the US government must stop threatening and attacking journalistic organizations such as Wikileaks, which has nearly been shut down due to an extralegal banking blockade encouraged by Sen. Joe Lieberman even though it has never been charged with a crime. WikiLeaks recently won a prestigious Australian journalism award and released a new collection of documents related to the surveillance industry.
Provide Health Care to All US Citizens
All US citizens must have access to affordable, comprehensive health care with an emphasis on disease prevention and nutritional guidance. The best way to accomplish this may be to create a single payer system, a ‘public option’ with subsidies for people who cannot afford it, or a personally-managed system subsidized by the government. Regardless, all health care-related bankruptcies must be ended; they accounted for 62% of total bankruptcies in 2007.
Ensure that Everyone Working in the US Earns a Living Wage
People who work full time must be able to earn enough to keep themselves and their families above the poverty line. One way to do this is to create a federal ‘living minimum wage’ that is tied to the poverty line and inflation. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. This means a person working 40 hours a week is earning $290 per week before taxes. That comes about to about $15,080 per year if the person takes no weeks off and pays no taxes. In 2010 the poverty line for a family of three was $18,310. This means that a single parent working full time with two children will not make enough to stay above the poverty line. If the US does not ensure that people who have full time jobs can stay out of poverty, how can it even begin to address those who cannot find jobs?
Raise Taxes on the Nation’s Wealthiest People
Warren Buffet has proposed raising taxes immediately “on taxable income in excess of $1 million, including, of course, dividends and capital gains.” Americans should support his proposal, and join him and a large majority of millionaires in requesting that taxes be raised on those who can afford to pay more and who have often benefited the most from other people’s hard work and generosity.
This list of goals only represents a portion of the ideas being generated by people in the Occupy Wall Street conversation. I feel unable to coherently write about the Occupy Student Debt and Occupy Our Homes initiatives, for example, but I hope readers will be able to learn more for themselves. Non-negotiable, private student loan debts for people who cannot find decently-paying jobs and rushed, often-fraudulent home foreclosures are two of the most immediate concerns facing Americans. Another related effort that is gaining traction is to encourage people to move their money out of major banks and into local credit unions.
Many of the issues highlighted in this article are interconnected, but just because reform is complex does not mean everyone should not be engaged directly in these conversations. The exact opposite is the case: Occupy Wall Street has created a giant human hashtag where all people -- including political representatives and financial executives -- are invited to discuss their shared goals and work in concert to make America a better, fairer, and more just nation.
It is imperative that Occupy Wall Street remains independent and non-partisan in order to exert the most influence possible on the traditional two party orthodoxy and continue to develop ideas outside of the existing power structures that it is trying to reimagine. Since, at its heart, Occupy Wall Street is a conversation about values that is leading to direct action -- a beta test for a better society -- people should not despair that it is a “leaderless movement.” For instance, who owns a hashtag on Twitter? Who owns a Wikipedia article? And yet both of these technologies offer unprecedented new ways for people to communicate, challenge one another’s ideas, and make decisions together. Occupy Wall Street is simply another step towards developing an offline version of these new technologies.