Understanding Occupy Wall Street

The Occupy Wall Street protests started on September 17, 2011. It is only relatively recently that the media has paid them any attention whatsoever. Even then, despite these protests being large and ongoing and having spread nationally, those who comment or report on them act as bemused and puzzled by the protests as a friend of mine just was when she reported that her young daughter had just walked by wearing sandwich baggies on her feet. The treatment is so blatant it can’t be missed.

On her new CNN show on Monday night, host Erin Burnett was joined by Rudy Giuliani’s former speechwriter John Avlon and together they heaped condescending scorn on the Wall Street protests while defending the banking industry, offering — as FAIR documented — several misleading statements along the way.  Burnett “reported” that while she “saw dancing, bongo drums, even a clown” at the protest, the participants “did not know what they want,” except that “it seems like people want a messiah leader, just like they did when they anointed Barack Obama.”  She featured a video clip of herself explaining to one of the protesters that the U.S. Government made money from TARP, and then demanded to know if that changed his negative views of Wall Street.

Nor was it isolated:

Meanwhile, Burnett’s CNN colleague, business reporter Alison Kosik, was encouraged on Twitter to ask the Wall Street protesters to explain the purpose of the protest in 140 characters (the limit for Twitter).  As NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen documented, this is how that CNN journalist replied to the suggestion:

After numerous people criticized her for that, she ignored the criticisms but deleted the tweet without comment; what a brave and intrepid thing for a reporter to do.

Despite Erin Burnett and Alison Kosik being roundly criticized for their behavior, columnist Caroline Baum went on to do the same thing:

From the looks of the youthful, costumed characters swaying to the music and flying colorful balloons, it was hard to tell if Occupy Wall Street was a street fair, a ‘60s-style love-in or a protest rally.

To get up to speed on the leaderless movement that started in New York City on Sept. 17 and has expanded to about 150 cities nationwide, I tuned in to what looks to be its website to watch the “Global Revolution” being streamed live. After hours of watching a lot of folks milling around, apparently waiting for something to happen (nothing did), I still couldn’t identify the target of their angst (the options seem to include capitalism, banks, greed, bailouts, foreclosures, taxes, foreign wars, income inequality, the police, the Federal Reserve and a fiat currency) or their goal.

One man with dreadlocks spent a few minutes trying to determine whether it was morning or afternoon. An off-screen voice directed the crowd where to go for “donation-based cigarettes,” with the caveat that “cigarettes kill you and help corporations.” (Judging from the laptops, cameras and other kinds of technology on display, corporations are getting all kinds of help from the protesters.)

After dismissing Occupy Wall Street for failing to dress like Wall Street, she then went on to fill the gaps left by her ignorance from her imagination and write a long column about how we couldn’t afford to pay for all the social programs she was sure Occupy Wall Street wanted. She could have saved herself some time (but would still have had a column to write) had she simply Googled “Occupy Wall Street demands.” I did that several days ago, and while the list, being democratically generated, has changed slightly in that time, the top demands remain the same now, a couple hours before this post is published.


  1. CONGRESS PASS HR 1489 (“RETURN TO PRUDENT BANKING ACT” http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bill.xpd?bill=h112-1489 ). THIS REINSTATES MANY PROVISIONS OF THE GLASS-STEAGALL ACT. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass–Steagall_Act — Wiki entry summary: The repeal of provisions of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act in 1999 effectively removed the separation that previously existed between investment banking which issued securities and commercial banks which accepted deposits. The deregulation also removed conflict of interest prohibitions between investment bankers serving as officers of commercial banks. Most economists believe this repeal directly contributed to the severity of the Financial crisis of 2007–2011 by allowing Wall Street investment banking firms to gamble with their depositors’ money that was held in commercial banks owned or created by the investment firms. Here’s detail on repeal in 1999 and how it happened: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glass–Steagall_Act#Repeal .
  2. USE CONGRESSIONAL AUTHORITY AND OVERSIGHT TO ENSURE APPROPRIATE FEDERAL AGENCIES FULLY INVESTIGATE AND PROSECUTE THE WALL STREET CRIMINALS who clearly broke the law and helped cause the 2008 financial crisis in the following notable cases: (insert list of the most clear cut criminal actions). There is a pretty broad consensus that there is a clear group of people who got away with millions / billions illegally and haven’t been brought to justice. Boy would this be long overdue and cathartic for millions of Americans. It would also be a shot across the bow for the financial industry. If you watch the solidly researched and awared winning documentary film “Inside Job” that was narrated by Matt Damon (pretty brave Matt!) and do other research, it wouldn’t take long to develop the list.
  3. CONGRESS ENACT LEGISLATION TO PROTECT OUR DEMOCRACY BY REVERSING THE EFFECTS OF THE CITIZENS UNITED SUPREME COURT DECISION which essentially said corporations can spend as much as they want on elections. The result is that corporations can pretty much buy elections. Corporations should be highly limited in ability to contribute to political campaigns no matter what the election and no matter what the form of media. This legislation should also RE-ESTABLISH THE PUBLIC AIRWAVES IN THE U.S. SO THAT POLITICAL CANDIDATES ARE GIVEN EQUAL TIME FOR FREE AT REASONABLE INTERVALS IN DAILY PROGRAMMING DURING CAMPAIGN SEASON. The same should extend to other media.
  4. CONGRESS PASS THE BUFFETT RULE ON FAIR TAXATION SO THE RICH AND CORPORATIONS PAY THEIR FAIR SHARE & CLOSE CORPORATE TAX LOOP HOLES AND ENACT A PROHIBITION ON HIDING FUNDS OFF SHORE. No more GE paying zero or negative taxes. Pass the Buffet Rule on fair taxation so the rich pay their fair share. (If we have a really had a good negotiating position and have the place surrounded, we could actually dial up taxes on millionaires, billionaires and corporations even higher…back to what they once were in the 50’s and 60’s.
  5. CONGRESS COMPLETELY REVAMP THE SECURITIES AND EXCHANGE COMMISSION and staff it at all levels with proven professionals who get the job done protecting the integrity of the marketplace so citizens and investors are both protected. This agency needs a large staff and needs to be well-funded. It’s currently has a joke of a budget and is run by Wall St. insiders who often leave for high ticket cushy jobs with the corporations they were just regulating. Hmmm.
  7. CONGRESS PASSING “Revolving Door Legislation” LEGISLATION ELIMINATING THE ABILITY OF FORMER GOVERNMENT REGULATORS GOING TO WORK FOR CORPORATIONS THAT THEY ONCE REGULATED. So, you don’t get to work at the FDA for five years playing softball with Pfizer and then go to work for Pfizer making $195,000 a year. While they’re at it, Congress should pass specific and effective laws to enforce strict judicial standards of conduct in matters concerning conflicts of interest. So long as judges are culled from the ranks of corporate attorneys the 1% will retain control.
  8. ELIMINATE “PERSONHOOD” LEGAL STATUS FOR CORPORATIONS. The film “The Corporation” has a great section on how corporations won “personhood status”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8SuUzmqBewg . Fast-forward to 2:20. It’ll blow your mind. The 14th amendment was supposed to give equal rights to African Americans. It said you “can’t deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law”. Corporation lawyers wanted corporations to have more power so they basically said “corporations are people.” Amazingly, between 1890 and 1910 there were 307 cases brought before the court under the 14th amendment. 288 of these brought by corporations and only 19 by African Americans. 600,000 people were killed to get rights for people and then judges applied those rights to capital and property while stripping them from people. It’s time to set this straight.

If you’re remotely willing to approach the movement without major preconceptions, the point of the protests is not that difficult to understand, even if you don’t want to hear it. The protestors aren’t PR people, but their meaning is clear. It takes bad reporting to cover a story and not do the most basic diligence on it.

Or maybe that wasn’t the problem. You can look at or listen to what’s in front of you and fail to get it, but it takes work–or a piece of work like P. J. O’Rourke. Contrast O’Rourke’s reaction to Alan Grayson’s clear explanation of what Occupy Wall Street is protesting against to that of the audience.

(Click here if the embedding doesn’t work for you.)

Plenty of people are explaining what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street. You only have to listen.

(Click here if the embedding doesn’t work for you.)

It can’t be that hard to understand and report on this fairly, when even an amateur–who doesn’t agree with the movement–can do a decent job. So why can’t these supposed professionals?

[ETA: Looking back over this, I strongly suspect that most of the links on media coverage came to me through journalism professor Jay Rosen. If this sort of thing gets you going, you could do far worse than to follow him on Twitter.]

Understanding Occupy Wall Street
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34 thoughts on “Understanding Occupy Wall Street

  1. 2

    Thank you Stephanie. That’s the clearest explanation I’ve seen in any media, and I’ve asked people who are actually participating in the movement.

  2. 3

    CONGRESS PASS HR 1489 (“RETURN TO PRUDENT BANKING ACT”). THIS REINSTATES MANY PROVISIONS OF THE GLASS-STEAGALL ACT. summary: The repeal of provisions of the Glass–Steagall Act of 1933 by the Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act in 1999 effectively removed the separation that previously existed between investment banking which issued securities and commercial banks which accepted deposits.

    One of the things I’m most proud of doing was arguing with the Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Summers, about Gramm-Leach-Bliley. I tried to get Summers to understand that Gramm-Leach-Bliley was one of the most economically ruinous pieces of legislation ever to be considered by Congress. Unfortunately I lost the argument and so resigned from the Treasury Department.

    Not quite two years ago I was at a conference where Summers was one of the speakers. During the question period after his presentation, I got up and was handed the microphone. I said, “I fucking told you so!” I got a round of applause from the other economists and financial types at the conference, most of whom knew about my argument with Summers. He did have the integrity to admit I was right and he was wrong about Gramm-Leach-Bliley. Of course it’s too late now.

  3. 7

    Watching major media coverage of OWS leaves me with the impression that the media doesn’t want to actually understand it and give it fair treatment. Instead, it seems like they just want to find ways to dismiss it as “a bunch of hippie kids.” Because the movement is dominated by people in their 20s and 30s, a large chunk of the main stream media just assumes that there can’t be serious issues involved. So the media invents its own narrative for OWS, which is that it’s a chaotic mess of young whiny people and then looks for ways to reinforce that idea.

    Furthermore, the police violence that happened earlier in the movement got a big pass (in my opinion) because it was directed at young people. After all, everyone knows that young people are disorderly and like to riot. . . I bet if a cop had maced somebody’s grandmother at a Tea Party rally, there would be a real investigation into it.

  4. 9

    Love the list of demands. Except:


    Such a requirement as part of the licensure to use (physically limited) public airwaves sounds good to me, but requiring other media, which don’t need such regulation, to do the same seems unconstitutional.

  5. 10

    As regards Citizens United, I half-agree; I think the effect of the decision was bad, and it should be reversed. However, I’d say the primary criticism should be directed not at Citizens United, but at the earlier decision in Buckley v Valeo and subsequent line of authority, which establishes in principle that spending money to influence elections is a form of constitutionally-protected free speech which falls within the ambit of the First Amendment. I think that’s wrong; I’d say that, as long as such regulations do not discriminate between candidates or viewpoints and apply equally to everyone, it should be constitutional for Congress to impose strict restrictions on electioneering and campaign donations.

    Most other democracies have such restrictions; in my home country of Britain, for instance, political advertising on TV is limited to designated “party election broadcasts”, with equal airtime allocated to parties, and overall campaign spending is very tightly restricted. While I wouldn’t say that the US should go that far, I do think that

    In this regard, I see no reason to discriminate between speech according to the identity of the speaker. I think the Court in Citizens United was correct, in principle, in saying that the First Amendment does protect speech by corporations and unions (which are, after all, incorporated associations of individuals formed to pursue particular goals), on the same basis that it protects speech by individuals. Where I think they erred, both in Citizens United and in Buckley, is in conflating freedom of speech with freedom to spend unlimited money on speech. I think Buckley was wrong, and the First Amendment should be understood to permit across-the-board restrictions on electioneering and campaign finance, provided that these do not discriminate between candidates or between viewpoints.

    I’m also not in favour of ending corporate personhood completely. It’s important to understand that “corporate personhood” does not mean that corporations must enjoy all the rights and protections that natural persons enjoy. (The Supreme Court in Citizens United, and much of its previous jurisprudence, created a lot of unnecessary confusion in that regard.) Rather, as ordinarily understood in most countries, treating corporations as “legal persons” primarily means that corporations can own property, enter into contracts, and sue and be sued in their own name. This is important for a whole host of reasons: it would be extremely inconvenient, for the purposes of litigation, contract, property-ownership, insolvency and a whole range of other legal areas, if all businesses were unincorporated associations of individuals rather than bodies corporate. For one thing, someone wishing to sue the business would have to sue the members individually. And all the members of the unincorporated association would be individually liable for the business’s debts, which would be a serious deterrent to potential investors.

    The solution to corporate power is not to abolish corporate personhood, a legal concept which exists in pretty much every jurisdiction of which I am aware. Rather, the answer is to impose tighter financial regulation, campaign finance restrictions, higher taxes, antimonopoly legislation, employment rights legislation, etc., to reduce the inequality of power between corporations and ordinary consumers and employees. In this regard, I agree with most of the other suggestions on the protestors’ list.

  6. 11


    Oh yes, I missed that. It’s horribly vague. I’m not necessarily opposed to regulating and restricting political advertising, but I’m certainly opposed to any attempt to reinstitute the “Fairness Doctrine” or any other legal restrictions on the editorial freedom of the media. And I’d be strongly opposed to any attempt to regulate political activity in the press or on the Internet, something which would be frighteningly repressive.

  7. 12

    While I wouldn’t say that the US should go that far, I do think that

    …it should be acceptable constitutionally, and would be good policy, to impose restrictions on the total amount of airtime candidates can buy for political advertising, and the total amount each candidate can spend on a campaign.

    (Sorry. Forgot to finish my sentence there.)

  8. 13


    Here’s the thing about this. US companies have already demonstrated that in the interest of profits they are more than willing to send our jobs overseas. If we take away their tax breaks, they’ll just up and leave entirely. No sense staying here if one of the big perks they get for staying here is taken away. If they stay at the very least we get to keep *some* jobs here.

  9. 14

    I rather like the protests, as they are very amusing. There are many people who, having purchased more home than they can afford, want a moratorium on foreclosures. There are students who majored in ethnic studies and dope smoking and can’t pay their debts. They want those loans forgiven. There is the usual contingent of nutty anarchists. Basically, the protests are carried out by people who want to accept no responsibility for anything. What makes it funny is the attempt of the Democratic Party to take ownership of this. I hope they succeed. They will become even more pathetic than they already are (if that is humanely possible).

  10. 15

    Alexander: Obvious troll is obvious

    On topic: I’m sure the fact that the MSM are primarily whores for their corporate masters has nothing at all to do with the way they’re covering this story, oh no!

    (Sorry to insult whores like that. Literal prostitutes perform a professional service and should not be persecuted for a victimless crime. Talking Heads are the ones who should be shunned by civil society, for lying to the public and dishonestly promoting the agenda of a privileged few.)

  11. 16

    Thank you! I did not understand what the protests were about until now mostly because I didn’t have time to sit and read and when I did I wasn’t sure where to start. I was also confused by the few people who would ask me ‘have you heard about Wall Street?’ and then proceed to reply with ‘banks and shit’ when I asked what it’s all about.
    So thank you again! I finally feel like I can hold a conversation about it.

  12. 17

    Well, I’m under the impression that I’m getting more, more accurate and more “benevolent” information about “Occupy Wall Street” on German national TV than you get in the States.

    I’m still not over the fact that they arrested people on fucking Brookly Bridge.

  13. 21

    While many of these goals are worthwhile and laudable (the banking regulations should never have been relaxed in the first place, for example), there are a few which need to be rethought.

    One example, the “personhood” of the corporation is a vital legal concept. Only “persons” can engage in contracts, and only “persons” can be sued for tortuous actions committed by their employees or agents. Removing “personhood” from corporations means they would no longer be able to rent premises in which to do business, sign contracts with unions and sell anything to you – it would have to be in the name of an individual, the actual owner of the firm. That’s great if you think your car should be built by Henry Ford on his parents’ farm, but anything mass-produced would no longer be made in the United States. Would unions likewise lose their “personhood”, and be unable to sign a collective agreement on behalf of their members? Would charities cease to be “persons” and lose their ability to raise money and contract for goods and services?

    By forcing us to resort again to partnerships and sole proprietorships, we close ourselves off from many of the benefits of living in a modern economy – benefits like eating, and sleeping indoors.

    Other goals, like “passing specific and effective laws limiting the influence of lobbyists”, have a bit of a problem: there is no objective metric to measure whether you’ve achieved it. An objective metric can be measured consistently by neutral third parties, subjective metrics can lead to frustration or premature feelings of success.

    Taxes – is it fairer to have flat/progressive rates or regressive rates? Simplify or increase the poor people’s ability to deduct? What’s fairer? This is a huge debate, with supporters of simplification on both ends of the political spectrum – and supporters of increased deductions likewise on both ends, although that would increase complexity.

  14. 22

    I don’t think limiting the influence of lobbyists is as hard as all that. Corporations routinely insert non-compete clauses into contracts, for instance, and British ones have “gardening leave” so you don’t poach clients (in say an investment bank or law firm).

    It wouldn’t be hard to say “OK, you worked for the FDA for X years. Here’s a severance. If you work for Pfizer in the next X months, you give it back.”

    Corporate personhood per se isn’t the problem; it is that all I have to do is incorporate and I can literally get away with murder. Imagine: I am a CEO. I order all my minions to say, ignore the safety regulations in my coal mine or they get fired. 100 people die in an accident. As the CEO I am directly responsible for that, but there is no chance on earth I am going to jail, not in the US.

    Yet if I decide to drive drunk — even if I don’t kill anyone — I go away for months in some states. If I do kill someone I go to jail. WTF? The ability to avoid responsibility as a CEO means we live in a system not unlike that 1000 years ago when the local lord could do anything he wanted to his vassals.

    To me, the simplest thing to do is make the CEO responsible for everything his employees do for that company under his watch. Someone dies? Jail time. It should be a straight-up criminal offense for anyone to die in your employ if it is because of something you ordered them to do. That rule applies to me as an individual right now. I would go to jail for criminally negligent homicide at the very least. No mining executive has ever paid a penny personally for the deaths they cause. They have never faced jail.

    That’s just the simplest example. There are many others. But the ability to hide behind “company policy” is just ridiculous and makes the rule of law a cruel joke.

  15. 23

    If only the Occupy Wall Street crowd would dress up in colonial era costumes with teabags hanging from their tricorner hats, then they wouldn’t look so ridiculous to our “liberal media”.

  16. 24

    Corporate personhood laws shouldn’t be abolished; they should be extended. In particular, serious corporate crime should be punished with corporate imprisonment, amounting to the imprisonment of all board members.

  17. 25

    To say nothing of the entire company of people working for them hyperdeath? The just following orders claim will not work again for a few decades.
    (this reads bad, but I think my point is valid)

  18. 26

    That list of demands is not official and should not be considered official until approved by consensus at the General Assembly. The only statement Occupy Wall Street has officially released is this:

    As we gather together in solidarity to express a feeling of mass injustice, we must not lose sight of what brought us together. We write so that all people who feel wronged by the corporate forces of the world can know that we are your allies.

    As one people, united, we acknowledge the reality: that the future of the human race requires the cooperation of its members; that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments. We have peaceably assembled here, as is our right, to let these facts be known.

    They have taken our houses through an illegal foreclosure process, despite not having the original mortgage.
    They have taken bailouts from taxpayers with impunity, and continue to give Executives exorbitant bonuses.
    They have perpetuated inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.
    They have poisoned the food supply through negligence, and undermined the farming system through monopolization.
    They have profited off of the torture, confinement, and cruel treatment of countless animals, and actively hide these practices.
    They have continuously sought to strip employees of the right to negotiate for better pay and safer working conditions.
    They have held students hostage with tens of thousands of dollars of debt on education, which is itself a human right.
    They have consistently outsourced labor and used that outsourcing as leverage to cut workers’ healthcare and pay.
    They have influenced the courts to achieve the same rights as people, with none of the culpability or responsibility.
    They have spent millions of dollars on legal teams that look for ways to get them out of contracts in regards to health insurance.
    They have sold our privacy as a commodity.
    They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press. They have deliberately declined to recall faulty products endangering lives in pursuit of profit.
    They determine economic policy, despite the catastrophic failures their policies have produced and continue to produce.
    They have donated large sums of money to politicians, who are responsible for regulating them.
    They continue to block alternate forms of energy to keep us dependent on oil.
    They continue to block generic forms of medicine that could save people’s lives or provide relief in order to protect investments that have already turned a substantial profit.
    They have purposely covered up oil spills, accidents, faulty bookkeeping, and inactive ingredients in pursuit of profit.
    They purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.
    They have accepted private contracts to murder prisoners even when presented with serious doubts about their guilt.
    They have perpetuated colonialism at home and abroad. They have participated in the torture and murder of innocent civilians overseas.
    They continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts. *

    To the people of the world,

    We, the New York City General Assembly occupying Wall Street in Liberty Square, urge you to assert your power.

    Exercise your right to peaceably assemble; occupy public space; create a process to address the problems we face, and generate solutions accessible to everyone.

    To all communities that take action and form groups in the spirit of direct democracy, we offer support, documentation, and all of the resources at our disposal.

    Join us and make your voices heard!

    *These grievances are not all-inclusive.

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