Letter From DC: Occupy Wall Street Spreads to Nation's Capitol, Middle Class Fed Up

Is the “pragmatic middle” revolution next?

By , Columnist

It seemed particularly poignant that the Occupy Wall Street phenomenon spreading throughout the country asserted its presence here in DC the day after the passing of both Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and Southern Christian Leadership Conference co-founder the Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth.

One visionary brought the protesters the means by which to organize and document their movement, while the other visionary provided the method and the playbook for non-violent protest and civil disobedience to reveal societal inequities.

The Occupy DC chapter has asserted a modest presence over the last month, with between 15 and 50 folks camping out in McPherson Square at any given time (chosen for its location at the base of lobbying row on K Street and its proximity to the White House). But it took the attention generated by its New York City neighbors and joint organizing with the October 2011’s “Stop the Machine” to boost the momentum.


“Wall Street is the loaded casino where the top 1% is consolidating all the wealth,” said an organizer at Washington’s Freedom Plaza on Pennsylvania Avenue just east of the White House with an unobstructed view to the U.S. Capitol. “K Street spreads the cash of their winnings throughout Washington to make sure their rolls continue to come up sevens.”

While the total numbers at Freedom Plaza barely flirted with the 700 people arrested over the weekend on the Brooklyn Bridge, one could get a sense that something is brewing here; that a counterweight to the extremist wing of the Tea Party is developing. 

And with that counterweight, some cover starts to develop for the pragmatic middle’s desperation for shared solutions to the economic and social issues putting the world’s “Greatest Experiment” in jeopardy. 

The growing sentiment seems to be this: You can deal with us, or those long-haired hippie wannabes that not only want you taxed into oblivion, but quite possibly, your scalp as well.

The pragmatic middle is growing tired of the hypocrisy, inflammatory posturing and the rhetoric of the right. It is excruciating to watch U.S. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor criticize President Obama’s latest jobs bill as “my way or the highway” just months after he brazenly deployed that very strategy during the debt ceiling fiasco.

One just shakes one’s head to hear GOP Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney label the protests as “dangerous” and “class warfare,” while he quadruples the size of his $12 million La Jolla, CA vacation home as these folks set up tents. It’s just… in bad taste.

Meanwhile his fellow candidate Herman Cain shows a breathtaking ignorance of the grievances and those who have them. “Don’t blame Wall Street, don’t blame the big banks, if you don’t have a job and you’re not rich, blame yourself,” he said. That certainly must have gone over well with the nine million Americans actively looking for work. Their fault...

On the other hand, the answers do not lie in incense-inspired calls to nationalize the banks, establish a legal “maximum wage,” and increase taxes exorbitantly on the wealthy.

But what the Tea Partiers and Herman Cain fail to see is that the pragmatic middle hears “Tax the Rich” from the “Occupiers” and translates it to “reform the tax code” so its not weighted toward loopholes provided by and only for the wealthiest.

The pragmatic middle does not view the new service fee gouging by the largest banks as symptomatic of an overly aggressive regulatory regime. It’s confirmation that they were making all their money on risky loans and screwing their paycheck-to-paycheck customers with dubious overdraft and service fees. The banks themselves drew attention to the need for the regulation they now lament with their own abusive practices.

ben bernanke.jpgThe protesters are blaming “with some justification the problems in the financial sector for getting us into this mess,” Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told Congress’s Joint Economic Committee earlier this week. “At some level, I can’t blame them. [Americans] are dissatisfied with the policy response here in Washington.”

The seeds of the Tea Party were sown with George Bush’s prescription drug benefit he added to Medicare and the TARP bailouts just before the end of his term. The Tea Party was utterly galvanized by the mere election of President Obama and became frothy with his passage of health care reform.

To their credit, Tea Partiers did force the issue of deficits and the debt to the forefront of the political discussion. The pragmatic middle filtered through the divisive rhetoric and concluded that fiscal discipline should be a shared priority with belt-tightening AND reforms to the tax code to eliminate favored loopholes to better equalize responsibility.

The seeds of the Occupy Wall Street movement were sown with the invasion of Iraq, the foreclosure crisis, and ironically enough, the TARP bailouts that seemed to them to reward fat cat failure, not avert a potential economic disaster. It was galvanized by the debt ceiling fiasco and assault on unions in Wisconsin that assigned sole blame for the economic mess on teacher pensions, poor people not paying taxes, student aid, and collective bargaining.

To their credit, they have forced a powerful rebuttal to right wing extremists who think that every American’s aspiration should be the presidency of Godfather Pizza. (Also, it’s pretty easy to have more empathy for the working single mom fighting her fraudulent foreclosure than Bank of America board members wolfing down lamb chops at 21 in midtown Manhattan.)

The pragmatic middle has filtered through the overly heated rhetoric and recognizes that political accommodations must be made that represent the interests of all Americans, not just those that dictate their own interests to all Americans.

The pragmatic middle may just be starting to rear its collective head. Its seeds were sown this past spring with the “Restore Sanity And/Or Fear” rally by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert that attracted 215,000 people to the National Mall. It appears to be galvanizing around the impatience and disgust that the nation has degenerated to the point that it has.

“It’s maddening to sit here in Virginia and let the world unravel,” Charlie Fink, a member of a group called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength told the Washington Post. “Which is a huge, huge threat to my personal wealth.” Fink realizes that a rising tide may lift all boats, but a falling tide puts his boat at risk if it’s not far enough off shore with the super yachts.

Fink, like others in the pragmatic middle, doesn’t think it’s an either/or proposition between the Herman Cains and the so-called pinko commies occupying Freedom Plaza. The pragmatic middle thinks that Charlie Fink should be able to earn and enjoy his millions and the pinko commies should be able to earn a living and enjoy life.

And the pragmatic middle is starting to show up. Most obvious at the Freedom Plaza rally were the scores and scores of DC’s downtown middle managers strolling through the crowds during their lunch break.


City workers lunch next to a protester who asks, "How About a Maximum Wage?"

With lanyards wrapped around their necks and pass keys clipped to their belts, many availed themselves of the opportunity to engage the protestor class. “I don’t agree with the tone or extremism on a lot of this,” said one DC non-union professional. “But one place I do agree is that we’re both getting the short end of the stick.”

“My kids’ college funds have taken a huge hit, and [borrowing] money has become prohibitively expensive, even with my stellar credit rating,” she added. “And I’m sick of being told it’s my fault.”

Class warrior? Or the growing impatience of the pragmatic middle?

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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