Potential for real change

As tent camps were dismantled in Tel Aviv last week, critics quickly tried to diminish what the protesters had accomplished with predictions that the movement would now die. Across the Middle East, through violent force and appeasement measures, dictators continued to meet with public resistance as they try to hold on to power. There, as here in America, the establishment has failed or been slow to recognize the growing power of these movements — people increasingly feel they have nothing left to lose, fighting for their basic dignity, now more willing to risk everything — and in the process creating the very real potential for change.

America has joined this movement of global social upheaval through Occupy Wall Street/99 Percent as frustrated citizens from Cairo to Tel Aviv to Athens to London to Wall Street and beyond have been galvanized, each in their own cultural context, rising up to protest oppression by systems that are constantly rigged against them. Similar to the moment when Rosa Parks simply did not have the energy to move from her seat on the bus, Americans in more than 100 cities have reached a tipping point. 

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Not surprisingly, many elected leaders and “the establishment” are ignoring the lesson from the Arab Spring and the civil-rights and anti-war movements here in America. Reps. Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) ignorantly dismissed the valid concerns of Americans, demonstrating yet again how out of touch they are with reality, along with their willingness to ignore poll after poll after poll showing that Americans disagree with their extremist agenda. They are also ignoring the initial message from the early Tea Party movement, before it was co-opted by the Koch brothers, Scaife and Washington insider Dick Armey through Freedomworks. As Time magazine reported from the Tea Party convention in Nashville in 2009, the Tea Party groups that initially sprouted up across the country were composed of people from an array of political views, with no clear leader. While they leaned right and libertarian, the groups did include some Democrats, united by their frustration at government — “The talk in the registration line ranged from frustration at having to postpone retirement because of the economic downturn to the care and training of horses.” 

Similarly, the social movements of the ’60s and ’70s started as disparate efforts, with different ideas, philosophies and legal strategies, and as they became increasingly self-aware of their power and potential, they galvanized around a core principle. As it says on its website, Occupy Wall Street/99 Percent had a similar beginning:

Occupy Wall Street is leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions. The one thing we all have in common is that We Are The 99 percent that will no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent. We are using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic to achieve our ends and encourage the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants.

As The New York Times pointed out, while many ideas are being articulated, at this point the movement is the message. But from the many, there is also one core principle that can be heard loud and clear: Americans won’t let a broken system destroy a bedrock principle — that in this country, everyone deserves the opportunity to pursue happiness and live a good life if they are willing to work hard and meet obligations to self, family and community.

We ignore their message at our peril.

Karen Finney is a political analyst for MSNBC and Democratic consultant.