Flashback to early 2009. Barack Obama had barely finished the Presidential oath of office before folks started gathering in the public square with teabags hanging from their hats. They were fed up and angry. Among their gripes: over-taxation, bailouts being given to banks and auto companies, and later, the “unauthorized takeover” of health care by the federal government. The Fed was becoming too powerful and these folks who embodied the fledgling Tea Party movement wanted to go back to the fundamentals of the Founding Fathers.
As liberals looked on, a few red flags arose. First, the movement seemed triggered by the election of Barack Obama. At least two major gripes of the movement (exploding deficit and TARP) occurred during the Bush administration but where were they then? Second, there seemed to be precious few people of color at the Tea Party rallies. Third, some of the signs carried at these rallies were outright offensive to anyone of even somewhat thick skin (a sign calling Obama a “lyin’ African”, another with Obama with a bone through his nose like a witch-doctor.) Fourth, for reasons never adequately explained some folks chose to bring their guns to the rallies. Those that didn’t, carried signs saying “We came unarmed …. this time.” Last but not least, before you could say “Patrick Henry”, several powerful players, from Fox News to Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks had attached themselves to the movement.
These factors led many liberals, including me, to declare the Tea Party destructive, dangerous and racist. Sometimes the shoe needs to be on the other foot to realize how wrong you are. I was wrong. Were all the factors I just listed manufactured? Absolutely not. Were they troubling? Damn right they were. But at the core of the Tea Party was something that every American should cherish: freedom of speech and the right of the citizenry to assemble and air their grievances. The great preponderance of Tea Party activists wanted to save a country clearly in trouble. The fact that powerful forces attempted to co-opt the movement was not the fault of the Tea Party members. In fact, when Michele Bachmann kick-started her Tea Party caucus in the House of Representatives, I distinctly remember some TPM members pushing back lest folks start to think Bachmann was “leading the cause”.
Fast forward to Autumn, 2011. A bunch of mostly young folks stage a sit-in of sorts. They camp out in downtown Manhattan and name their gathering “Occupy Wall Street”. Like the Tea Party protesters before them, they are angry that bankers got bailed out and then got huge bonuses, continuing the abuses that precipitated the bailouts. Unlike the Tea Party, they are presently more angry at the bankers who went unpunished, than at the government that bailed them out and let them off the hook. Even so, the OWS crowd recognizes that government has not helped.
Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street are fighting a class struggle. The Tea Party’s attitude, best enunciated in the now famous rant by CNBC’s Rick Santelli, is that irresponsible Americans were looking for assistance at the hard-working middle class’s expense. OWS, on the other hand contends that it is inherently unfair that 1% of Americans control most of the country’s wealth while the remaining 99% struggle to keep their jobs and homes.
What do we see now from conservatives? We see the same reaction that I had back in 2009. The OWS crowd are unkempt, lazy communists and anarchists. They need to get a job. They only want to destroy. They have no focus. They are, according to Eric Cantor, a House Representative from Virginia, a mob. One of my fellow WordPress bloggers, Blackiswhite, Imperial Consigliere posted the most offensive photo he could find of an OWS protester getting ready to defecate on a police car. Reminded me of every liberal who posted pictures of every offensive Tea Party sign we could get our hands on.
As I read the conservative criticisms of Occupy Wall Street (which has spread to Occupy Boston, Occupy Atlanta, Occupy D.C.) I’m angered and ultimately saddened by the myopic view of the critics. But then I consider how I might have no one to blame but myself. It was much easier for me to impugn the motives of the Tea Party than to consider that some, if not most of them, were exercising the time-honored American tradition of protest to right perceived wrongs.
Perhaps I’m letting myself off the hook but I think I suffer from a disease common to most Americans. Those protesters whose message resonates with us are patriots and heroes. Those with whom we don’t empathize are traitors, bigots and criminals. We give lip service to freedom of speech and making our voices heard when our government ignores us. But as soon as a group of people actually exercise this prerogative in the public square, we condemn them if it looks like they’re going to upset our world order.
The simple truth is that the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street crowd share a fundamental common complaint. They are both fed up with a society that ignores their voice and is headed in a direction that will only make matters worse for them. Those who insist that the OWS movement is a front to reelect Barack Obama just don’t get it. They’re not happy with Obama either. They’re not happy with our government. They choose to take their fight to the site that most symbolizes the problem, a corporate environment run amok and in control of our government. Just because they are occupying Wall Street doesn’t mean they don’t want governmental change. The notion that marching in front of the Federal Reserve building is a prerequisite to expressing their dissatisfaction is ridiculous.
The Tea Party’s voice eventually was heard as evidenced by the number of Congressmen and Senators carrying their torch (albeit somewhat disingenuously since they still have big business and big money in their pocket). The OWS movement is in its infancy. If it lasts and matures, it will not manifest itself in the overthrow of our government (as some on the right fear) but will result in legislators who carry their torch.
If we could get past the hypocrisy at the core of the American psyche, we would see that we all ultimately want the same thing. We want a government that promotes equal opportunity for all in an environment where folks are encouraged to play fair and not rewarded for taking advantage. One notable thing about the OWS movement has been its inclusiveness, almost to a fault. Yes, there are anarchists. There are socialists. There are also plain old vanilla liberals. No doubt a smattering of moderates. What I’d really like to see now is a couple of Tea Party Patriots join the crowd and see what they have in common.
We can’t change our lot if we don’t let others speak and we don’t listen to their concerns. The OWS movement should be a wake up call to every liberal who dismissed the Tea Party out of hand. In the words of Lincoln, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Now is the time for us to unite, raise our voices and be heard so that our country can change course and avoid what appears in our darkest days to be an inevitable decline.
Photo credit: Photo via Wikipedia