We may be in for a bumpy ride | Wally's World

Well, I can’t remember the exact day or week it started, but it was sometime last September. Initially, it was a handful of unemployed college grads, parading down Wall Street carrying novel protest signs:  “We’re the 99 percent,” “Can I get bailed out?” and “Do you feel it trickle down?”

I speak now, of course, of the Wall Street occupiers, who disrupted the money-changing canyons of Lower Manhattan last fall. When they weren’t raising hell in the street, they’re camped out in Zuccotti Park, a few blocks from both the 9/11 site and the Stock Exchange. Given the jumbled tarps, sleeping bags, blankets and mud, the park looked like a crowded homeless camp, but relatively few of the protesters were actually homeless.  Yet nearly all of them chose to spend the night on the ground.

A few days after the occupiers first appeared in New York, similar demonstrations sprung up in Los Angeles, Boston, Seattle and other cities across the U.S. and Canada. The evening TV news carried their story for a couple of days.

Some people dismissed the occupiers as a bunch of kids fooling around and it’s true that youth was well represented – especially college kids – but it’s a mistake to characterize the entire phenomenon in this manner. One Saturday last fall, some of the most powerful unions in New York – transit workers, teamsters, teachers, etc. – answered the protesters’ call for support and approximately 20,000 people swarmed over the Financial District. Similarly, last fall some of the largest unions in Seattle joined in local demonstrations at one time or another.

The whole phenomenon arose more or less spontaneously so, from the start, there weren’t any clearly-defined leaders or formal social structures. Consequently, the occupiers never developed any concrete demands. Though most of their grievances clearly involved unemployment and inequality of wealth, they also promoted more disparate causes like political corruption, the environment and legalizing pot.

Despite their disorganized nature, public opinion seemed to realize there were hard truths behind the “movement,” if that’s the correct word. A CBS/New York Times poll found two-thirds of Americans felt that the nation’s wealth is unfairly distributed and, in general, Americans were rather receptive to the occupiers’ main messages.

For those who remembered the 1960s, there was a  tendency to equate the anti-war movement and the civil-rights revolt of that era with the Wall Street protesters.  At the time, I thought that was a mistake, but I wasn’t really qualified to speak on this subject because I hadn’t marched with the Wall Street “rebels” or talked with them face to face. (Like you, I just read about their exploits and watched TV reports.)   In terms of sheer size, the number of occupiers wasn’t nearly as large as the millions of people involved 40 or 50 years ago. Then too, neither Zuccotti Park nor Westlake Mall was covered with a cloud of pot smoke.

Then, with the coming of winter, most occupiers went back to their homes rather than spend their nights half frozen in sleeping bags. For a time, it looked like the whole thing had fizzled out.

But no. As verified last week by the May Day demonstrations across this country, they’re back in the trenches again. Compared with other cities, the demonstrations in Seattle and Portland seemed especially violent, owing to a handful of goofy, black-hooded “anarchists.” New York City witnessed thousands of people parading through the Financial District, but there were hardly any serious scrabbles or arrests, and certainly not the property damage we saw in Seattle.

Our screwed-up economy is starting to show a few feeble sparks of life, but I doubt the improvement will be great enough to absorb the millions of college grads looking for work. And when they can’t find it, these kids will register their complaints in the streets. In particular, they’ll gather at this summer’s political conventions, their ranks swelled by the addition of various labor unions, homeless camps and those goofy anarchists.

So strap on your seatbelts, gang! I predict we’re in for a bumpy ride.

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