A populist uprising may shape 2012

Mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in print publications, web stories, and broadcast transcripts spiked from 91 times a week in early September to nearly 500 in late October, according to the website Politico — an increase of nearly 450%

From CBS News, by Andy Kroll

(N.B.: We were also helped in Ohio by the Grandmother ad..)

(TomDispatch) “No headlines announced it. No TV pundits called it. But on the evening of November 8th, Occupy Wall Street, the populist uprising built on economic justice and corruption-free politics that’s spread like a lit match hitting a trail of gasoline, notched its first major political victory, and in the unlikeliest of places: Ohio.

You might have missed OWS’s win amid the recent wave of Occupy crackdowns. Police raided Occupy Denver, Occupy Salt Lake City, Occupy Oakland, Occupy Portland, and Occupy Seattle in a five-day span. Hundreds were arrested. And then, in the early morning hours on Tuesday, New York City police descended on Occupy Wall Street itself, fists flying and riot shields at the ready, with orders from Mayor Michael Bloomberg to evict the protesters. Later that day, a judge ruled that they couldn’t rebuild their young community, dealing a blow to the Occupy protest that inspired them all.”

(Columbus OH 20111108)

Instead of simply condemning the eviction, many pundits and columnists praised it or highlighted what they considered its bright side. The Washington Post‘s Ezra Klein wrote that Bloomberg had done Occupy Wall Street a favor. After all, he argued, something dangerous or deadly was bound to happen at OWS sooner or later, especially with winter soon to arrive. Zuccotti Park, Klein added, “was cleared… in a way that will temporarily reinvigorate the protesters and give Occupy Wall Street the best possible chance to become whatever it will become next.”

The New York TimesPaul Krugman wrote that OWS “should be grateful” for Bloomberg’s eviction decree: “By acting so badly, Bloomberg has made it easy to see who won’t be truthful and can’t handle open discourse.  He’s also saved OWS from what was probably its greatest problem, the prospect that it would just fade away as time went on and the days grew colder.”

Read between the lines and what Klein, Krugman, and others are really saying is: you had your occupation; now, get real. Start organizing, meaningfully connect your many Occupy protests, build a real movement. As these columnists see it, that movement — whether you call it OccupyUSA, We Are the 99%, or the New Progressive Movement — should now turn its attention to policy changes like a millionaire’s tax, a financial transaction fee, or a constitutional amendment to nullify the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that loosed a torrent of cash into American elections. It should think about supporting political candidates. It should start making a nuts-and-bolts difference in American politics.

But such assessments miss an important truth: Occupy Wall Street has already won its first victory its own way — in Ohio, when voters repealed Republican governor John Kasich’s law to slash bargaining rights for 350,000 public workers and gut what remained of organized labor’s political power.

Commandeering the Conversation

Don’t believe me? Then think back to this spring and summer, when Occupy Wall Street was just a glimmer in the imagination of a few activists, artists, and students. In Washington, the conversation, such as it was, concerned debt, deficit, and austerity. The discussion wasn’t about whether to slash spending, only about how much and how soon. The Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent called it the “Beltway Deficit Feedback Loop” — and boy was he right.

A National Journal analysis in May found that the number of news articles in major newspapers mentioning “deficit” was climbing, while mentions of “unemployment” had plummeted. In the last week of July, the liberal blog ThinkProgress tallied 7,583 mentions of the word “debt” on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News alone. “Unemployment”? A measly 427.

This all-deficit, all-the-time debate shaped the final debt-ceiling deal, in which House Speaker John Boehner and his “cut-and-grow”-loving GOP allies got just about everything they wanted. So lopsided was the debate in Washington that President Obama himself hailed the deal’s bone-deep cuts to health research, public education, environmental protection, childcare, and infrastructure.

These cuts, the president explained, would bring the country to “the lowest level of annual domestic spending since Dwight Eisenhower was president.” After studying the deal, Ethan Pollock of the Economic Policy Institute told me, “There’s no way to square this plan with the president’s ‘Winning the Future’ agenda. That agenda ends.” Yet Obama said this as if it were a good thing.

Six weeks after Obama’s speech, protesters heard the call of Adbusters, the Canadian anti-capitalist magazine, and followed the lead of a small crew of activists, writers, and students to “occupy Wall Street.” A few hundred of them set up camp in Zuccotti Park, a small patch of concrete next door to Ground Zero. No one knew how long the occupation would last, or what its impact would be.

What a game-changing few months it’s been. Occupy Wall Street has inspired 750 events around the world, and hundreds of (semi-)permanent encampments around the United States. In so doing, the protests have wrestled the national discussion on the economy away from austerity and toward gaping income inequality (the 99% versus 1% theme), outsized executive compensation, and the plain buying and selling of American politicians by lobbyists and campaign donors.

Mentions of the phrase “income inequality” in print publications, web stories, and broadcast transcripts spiked from 91 times a week in early September to nearly 500 in late October, according to the website Politico — an increase of nearly 450%. In the second week of October, according to ThinkProgress, the words most uttered on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News were “jobs” (2,738), “Wall Street” (2,387), and “Occupy” (1,278). (References to “debt” tumbled to 398.)

And here’s another sign of the way Occupy Wall Street has forced what it considers the most pressing economic issues for the country into the spotlight: conservatives have lately gone on the defensive by attacking the very existence of income inequality, even if to little effect. As AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka put it, “Give credit to the Occupy Wall Street movement (and historic inequality) for redefining the political narrative.”

Wall Street in Ohio

The way Occupy Wall Street, with next to no direct access to the mainstream media, commandeered the national political narrative represents something of a stunning triumph. It also laid the groundwork for OWS’s first political win.

Just as OWS was grabbing that narrative, labor unions and Democrats headed into the final stretch of one of their biggest fights of 2011: an up-or-down referendum on the fate of Ohio governor John Kasich’s anti-union law, also known as SB 5. Passed by the Republican-controlled state legislature in March, it sought to curb the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers, snowplow drivers, and other public workers. It also gutted the political clout of unions by making it harder for them to collect dues and fund their political action committees. After failing to overturn similar laws in Wisconsin and Michigan, the SB 5 fight was labor’s last stand of 2011.

I spent a week in Ohio in early November interviewing dozens of people and reporting on the run-up to the SB 5 referendum. I visited heavily Democratic and Republican parts of the state, talking to liberals and conservatives, union leaders and activists.  What struck me was how dramatically the debate had shifted in Ohio thanks in large part to the energy generated by Occupy Wall Street.

It was as if a great tide had lifted the pro-repeal forces in a way you only fully grasped if you were there. Organizers and volunteers had a spring in their step that hadn’t been evident in Wisconsin this summer during the recall elections of nine state senators targeted for their actions during the fight over Governor Scott Walker’s own anti-union law. Nearly everywhere I went in Ohio, people could be counted on to mention two things: the 99% — that is, the gap between the rich and poor — and the importance of protecting the rights of the cops and firefighters targeted by Kasich’s law.

And not just voters or local activists either.  I heard it from union leaders as well. Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told me that her union had recruited volunteers from 15 different states for the final get-out-the-vote effort in Ohio. That, she assured me, wouldn’t have happened without the energy generated by OWS. And when Henry herself went door-to-door in Ohio to drum up support for repealing SB 5, she said that she could feel its influence in home after home. “Every conversation was in the context of the 99% and the 1%, this discussion sparked by Occupy Wall Street.”

This isn’t to take anything away from labor’s own accomplishments in Ohio. We Are Ohio, the labor-funded coalition that led the effort, collected nearly 1.3 million signatures this summer to put the repeal of SB 5 on the November ballot.  (They needed just 230,000.) The group outspent its opponents $30 million to $8 million, a nearly four-to-one margin. And in the final days before the November 8th victory, We Are Ohio volunteers knocked on a million doors and made nearly a million phone calls. In the end, a stunning 2.14 million Ohioans voted to repeal SB 5 and only 1.35 million to keep it, a 61% to 39% margin. There were repeal majorities in 82 of Ohio’s 88 counties, support that cut across age, class, race, and political ideologies.

Nonetheless, it’s undeniable that a mood change had hit Ohio — and in a major way. Pro-worker organizers and volunteers benefited from something their peers in Wisconsin lacked: the wind of public opinion at their backs. Polls conducted in the run-up to Ohio’s November 8th vote showed large majorities of Ohioans agreeing that income inequality was a problem. What’s more, 60% of respondents in a Washington Post-ABC poll said the federal government should act to close that gap. Behind those changing numbers was the influence of Occupy Wall Street and other Occupy protests.

So, as the debate rages over what will happen to Occupy Wall Street after its eviction from Zuccotti Park, and some “experts” sneer at OWS and tell it to get real, just direct their attention to Ohio. Kasich’s anti-union law might still be on the books if not for the force of OWS. And if the Occupy movement survives Mayor Bloomberg’s eviction order and the winter season, if it regroups and adapts to life beyond Zuccotti Park, you can bet it will notch more political victories in 2012.”

Bio: Andy Kroll is a staff reporter in the D.C. bureau of Mother Jones magazine and an associate editor at TomDispatch. This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

Emphasis Mine


Occupy the Education System: Students, Teachers and Parents Find New Spirit and Challenge the Attack on Public Schools

In the past couple of weeks, Occupy Wall Street has spurred dedicated education activists into some of the most innovative and inspiring actions.

From: Alternet

By:Sarah Jaffe

“I work hard, but my grades don’t matter. But I have a voice and I will be heard!”

Jordan is 13, and she’s speaking to a crowd of mostly adults, sitting on the granite steps of the New York City Department of Education at Tweed Hall. Or rather, she is speaking through them, as her words echo through the people’s mic used at Occupy Wall Street just few blocks south from where she’s speaking.

Tonight the steps of the DOE themselves have been occupied and are packed with teachers, students, parents, and supporters holding a general assembly on the state of public education in New York.

Jordan was far from the only student to speak. A young girl holding up one end of a sign that read “Nothing about us, without us, is for us!” declared “I am angry! I am PISSED! And I want JUSTICE!” in ringing tones, and Devan, a poet, read a poem over the people’s mic.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this event was the way in which it brought together those who might be considered adversaries in a conversation about the things they feel are hurting schools.

Students spoke about the pressure of high-stakes testing, but also of their teachers’ hard work and low pay. Teachers worried that their students were not learning because they were cramming for tests, and parents called for teachers to be supported, not threatened.

Rosie Frascella, a teacher and one of the organizers of this general assembly, told me before the event happened that invitations to speak had been issued to Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott.

“If Chancellor Walcott and Bloomberg choose to show up, they will have the same opportunity to speak as all of us, and to show them what a democratic process looks like, because obviously they don’t know,” she said.

The Fight in New York

The first Occupy the Department of Education (Occupy the DOE) action took place on October 25 at the Panel for Educational Policy’s regular public meeting where teachers, parents and students are invited to speak to the city’s education policymakers—but on the policymakers’ terms.

“The PEP represents the struggle of OWS in many ways. The PEP is essentially mayoral control, the mayor appoints eight out of 13 panelists, so whatever Bloomberg decides, he makes sure that his panelists vote in alliance with his beliefs. It’s very clear who the 1 percent is in education: Bloomberg and Chancellor Walcott. The rest of us feel like the 99 percent: teachers, students, and parents,” Frascella said.

Brian Jones, a teacher at Brooklyn’s PS 261, told me there was intense frustration with the PEP among parents and teachers who had gone to many meetings and testified through the approved channels, only to have their voices ignored. “When they tried to close the 19 schools people testified until four in the morning, hundreds testified, and the PEP of course votes with the mayor,” he said. “We’re going through these motions of democracy even though what stands behind it is a dictatorship.”

The discussion that night was supposed to have been on new standards to be implemented in the schools. “We should’ve had the discussion before the implementation of such standards,” Jones said. “These standards were funded by Bill Gates. The guy who wrote them is not even a teacher. it’s like having a Surgeon General who never practiced medicine.”

Frascella said, “We’re thinking of new ways that we can allow parents and students and teachers to have a voice in the decisions that are affecting our lives, our working conditions, addressing and combating this mayoral control. Mayoral control is really killing our city.”

She noted that Mayor Bloomberg renewed a $120 million contract with Verizon while 45,000 of its workers were on strike, and when the company was already involved in a scandal around fraudulent billing—in August, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer called for the return of $800,000 to the city from Verizon.

“We don’t have mayoral control in white suburbia, you only see policies like these in urban settings,” Frascella said.

It’s not just the handing over of education department dollars to big corporations that led to the education actions, though. Standardized, high-stakes testing at the expense of real teaching time is also a major complaint. Jones told me that plans are now underway for high-stakes testing in arts and music. “There’s urgency around making sure that every kid takes a music test but not that every kid has a music teacher,” he said. “The city has laid off 700 school aides. Meanwhile we have tens of millions of dollars wasted on technology consultants, and the DOE is hiring more data specialists, data consultants at very high salaries.”

And the drive toward more charter schools led the Grassroots Education Movement (of which Jones is a part) to create a documentary called The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Supermanto push back against the seemingly endless flood of pro-charter-school media.

Jones pointed out that charter schools are pushed by people who have an agenda, like Eva Moskowitz, a former city councilwoman and failed candidate for Manhattan borough president who now runs a multi-million-dollar charter school network. Moskowitz has her sights set on Brooklyn now. “This new charter school that Moskowitz is trying to build is backed by Goldman Sachs,” Jones noted. “You don’t have to work very hard to make the connections.”

“I think there’s certainly a critical mass of consciousness–a critical mass of people who through their direct experience with so-called education reform have come to figure out that this is a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Jones said.

Occupy the DOE

The Occupy the DOE movement sprang out of teachers’ involvement with the encampment in Liberty Plaza. Frascella explained, “We were doing these grade-ins at OWS, where teachers would come together and just grade at Wall Street. And while we were grading we were thinking about ways we could bring the Occupy movement to education.”

The group held a meeting at one of their grade-ins and decided to take their movement to the PEP, and gathered supporters to join them.

And so on October 25 over 200 parents, teachers and students headed for the PEP meeting, unsure of what would happen, but determined to make their voices heard.

As the panel began, the cry of “mic check!” familiar to anyone who’s attended an Occupy Wall Street event rang out.”

Eventually, the panel, including Chancellor Walcott, left the room, while parents and teachers and students (including 8-year-old Adriana, who told the meeting about her crowded class of 28 students) continued to hold their teach-in on the state of New York’s schools.

“The first speaker was prepared to be escorted out,” Frascella told me. “We were prepared to cooperate and to leave but to have enough people to keep the people’s mic going. It was kind of the best-case scenario that the panel decided to leave and go upstairs and hold their meeting upstairs.”

“I was almost in tears,” Jones said, explaining that he was seated at the end of a row in the back when the first speaker stood up. “There were cops lining the hallways. another sure sign of a strong democracy. There was a plainclothesman behind us and I’m sitting right on the aisle, and I’m thinking, is he gonna grab me? Well, why me? Sure enough, the police were baffled, they had no idea what to do.”

As Occupy Wall Street has grown and spread, working groups within the movement have explored ways to use its direct action tactics in different places to different ends. This was one of the first times the People’s Mic itself was used as a tactic for occupying a space—which was later done to great effect at a speech by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker as well.

“It was an amazing nonviolent form of civil disobedience,” Jones said. “[The people’s mic] was invented for having a meeting, because [city officials] had prohibited them from having a sound system. They are the ones who prevented people from being amplified and then we used it to amplify ourselves in a different form and a different way.”

“[Chancellor Walcott] tried to spin it like we were taking away the voices of the parents. But we brought out more parents than he did,” Frascella noted.

Jones said the feeling among the crowd was: “We know and you know that this is a sham, it really does not matter, so why should we listen to you at all? Why not just break the farce and do our own thing? That’s what we decided to do. Maybe we were rude but they, with quiet voices and with perfect manners, do horrible things. So frankly I think there’s a lesson in here about form and content. One can do horrible things with perfect manners, is that worse than doing the right thing by shouting?”

Building a National Movement

New York is far from the only state with a fight on its hands over education. Lisa Morrow (a pseudonym) is a Texas schoolteacher who told me, “The school districts are hurting for money big-time.”

To avoid teacher layoffs in her district, Morrow said, they’re packing more and more students to a classroom. “Pre-K is up to 26 now that they can have in a classroom, it went up from 22. It’s a different ratio for different grade levels. It’s 30-something for high school, it’s approaching 30 at the elementary level, which is ridiculous. It’s ridiculous to be expected to teach that many little people.”

In addition, in her district, when teachers are absent, instead of hiring substitutes, they simply split up the kids and send them to other classrooms. “One day last week teachers had 12 extra people,” she said. “Almost 40 little people in your room, you don’t have enough places to put them, you don’t have enough material because you didn’t know you were going to have that many people.”

Finally, despite the fact that many students in her district don’t speak English at home, she said, “They’re phasing out ESL as a separate program, so they’re requiring that all teachers have to get ESL-certified. So all the little kids who don’t speak English, they’re going to split them all up and it’s going to be sink or swim.”

The problem with schools, in other words, is a nationwide issue requiring nationwide solutions as well as local action. But, Jones said, there seems to be little indication of real solutions coming from the top. “Barack Obama campaigned on the idea that he was going to challenge No Child Left Behind, that there was going to be a reversal of this whole top-down high stakes testing policy. Instead of a reversal of the Bush-era approach, we’ve gotten a ramping up of that.”

He argued, “The high-stakes test eliminates the connection between life and learning. It’s this remote, very artificial exercise that is given so much importance. Not only do the children’s careers depend on it but now the adults depend on it too.”

Jordan, the 13-year-old speaking at the Occupy the DOE General Assembly, agreed with him. “A test is a one-shot deal, if I forget something I could do bad.”

Teachers’ unions have faced blame in New York and elsewhere for the problems with education, but Morrow’s school district (and much of Texas) is not unionized and still faces the same crunch. “Teachers really have no power and no voice, they need their jobs and so all kinds of illegal things happen, people find all kinds of creative ways to get around the law, to violate students’ rights, violate teachers’ rights, violate parents’ rights.”

“We’re moving toward a system the same way they did for Wall Street, they want the deregulation of education. They want to get rid of pesky union contracts and let the free market rip. It’s not going to be shocking that we see all kinds of scandals blossom,” Jones said.

But teachers have been at the heart of the resistance that’s sparked in this country this year, from Wisconsin to Wall Street. Jones noted that despite what wound up being a loss in Wisconsin, teachers are very proud of the leading role that Wisconsin’s educators played in fighting back against union-busting.

“Over the summer I went to at least two different meetings that were meetings of teachers from around the country trying to make these local struggles into a national struggle, trying to connect the dots from these different localities. It’s part of the aftermath of Wisconsin, but it’s also it is a national attack.”

School reformers like Michelle Rhee, who recently charged a university $35,000 for a speech, have claimed success for charter schools—Rhee wants to raise $1 billion to fight teachers’ unions. But as Jones noted, scandals have been erupting that disprove some of the claims of success—and the teachers I spoke with feel the system is working just fine for education’s 1 percent.

“What would they do if our students were 100-percent college bound? They don’t have the financial aid and the resources to fund those kids to go to school,” Frascella said. “What would happen? You’d have more educated people with no jobs. They want people to work in the service industry. Until we create more high-paying, respectable jobs, where are the students going to go, even if they do get a college education?”

Morrow said that some people in her part of the country think the ultimate goal for the Right is the end of public schools entirely. “They want to privatize education so that the school districts will go out of business. Public school is really for poor people, moderate-income people, and everyone else can go to private school and they don’t care. It’s shown just how little they really care about the education system.”

She continued, “The way they have education finance set up, it’s unequal in its conception. It’s based off the tax base in your neighborhood, it reinforces the status quo.”

So what can be done? Can Occupy the DOE become a movement that spreads, like its parent movement, around the country and changes the way education conversations happen?

Jones pointed out that the movement’s successes thus far make it seem like a time to dream big. “If we can hold Zuccotti Park, what else can we hold? What else should we hold? If we can take over a PEP meeting, what else can we take over? What else should we take over?”

“The students are really excited about Occupy Wall Street and are interested in it,” Frascella agreed.

But the education reform crowd is big and well-funded, and won’t give up easily. Jones noted, “They don’t have to teach all day, they are working overtime to make sure that that never ever happens again, and we’re busy trying to figure out how to make sure it always happens.”

Still, the New York crowd was elated on Monday night at the Department of Education, the students thrilling to the feeling of speaking to a crowd and having their words repeated back to them with the same gravitas as their teachers and parents. Plans for splitting Occupy the DOE into working groups to plan strategies and more actions going forward were discussed at the general assembly, and on Sunday, Nov. 13, the group will be meeting at 60 Wall Street at noon to plan those working groups.

Jones said, “Once you get a taste of [victory], it’s hard to put that genie back in the bottle. You always remember what it felt like to challenge them and win.”

Sarah Jaffe is an associate editor at AlterNet, a rabblerouser and frequent Twitterer. You can follow her at @seasonothebitch.

Emphasis Mine.