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Occupy's message tries to draw in endangered middle-class

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 9, 2011 - A platoon of Occupy St. Louis demonstrators was on a protest stroll from Kiener Plaza to the Federal Reserve Bank, led by Ashley Hinman, 24, a student at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who carried a bullhorn and directed her followers in a singsong chorus of dissent:

We are the 99 percent.

Banks got bailed out; we got sold out.

Hey, hey, ho, ho, corporate greed has got to go.

The temperature was unseasonably warm on this first day of December, and the chanting demonstrators drew an occasional glance from passersby and a handful of folks enjoying the spring-like afternoon amid the holiday decorations at Kiener.

Janet Cuenca, 73, of Creve Coeur, followed behind the 20 or so protesters on her motorized scooter. Cuenca, who has various health issues, said she began coming to Kiener in October after the St. Louis offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement set up camp. She has continued to make the commute nearly every other day though the demonstrators were evicted by the city on Nov. 13.

"I'm not an organizer. I'm just here," said Cuenca. "On Tuesday nobody was here, but I was here. It was freezing."

On the front of her scooter, Cuenca had attached a hand-lettered sign: Jail the Wall Street Crooks. She had also made another sign: They Only Call It "Class Warfare" When We Fight Back.

"I've been angry for a long time so I'm very grateful to Occupy for providing a framework for me to come out and express my outrage," said Cuenca. She added that the last time she participated in a demonstration was 1970 -- after the Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students during an antiwar rally at Kent State University.

Cuenca, a teacher for 40 years, said she's always been in the middle class and believes her own family is doing fine.

"I'm out here on principles; it's about wanting to see things be right," Cuenca said. "I'm sorry that the visual focus was taken away by dispersing the gatherings and the tents, but I think the conversation has gotten started and there's a lot in the news about it. I'm glad for that."

Since their eviction from Kiener Plaza, Occupiers have held "general assemblies" at sites ranging from the St. Louis Galleria to the Delmar Loop to the houses of homeowners facing foreclosure. They spread the word through social media -- Facebook and Twitter -- as well as their website. This week, members from St. Louis are in the nation's capital participating in Occupy D.C., a protest against lobbyists and the political system.

Occupiers had returned to Kiener, which they've dubbed "Freedom Square," on Dec. 1 to celebrate their two-month anniversary in St. Louis. The gathering, called Occu-Fest, included the march to the St. Louis Federal Reserve. As city police officers on bicycles watched, the walkers stayed on the sidewalk and minded the traffic lights, pausing for a brief moment outside the bank before circling back.

Hinman believes that people are still listening to the movement.

"I think pretty much everyone is. Even the police," she said after the group returned to the park. "They realize they're part of the 99 percent. These are the people we're fighting for."

Us Vs. Them

The country was still mired in the Great Depression when Cuenca, now a grandmother, was born -- during the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Hinman, a single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, was born during the second term of President Ronald Reagan. Though they are of different generations and separated in age by more than a half-century, the women say they were drawn to the Occupy movement by a shared concern: the growing economic divide that they believe is fostered by powerful corporations and the wealthy.

While concerns over a shrinking American middle class have grown louder in the aftermath of the Great Recession, Occupy's message is simpler and more inclusive: We are the 99 percent.

The 1 percent "don't care about the rest of us. It's not fair," said Hinman. "I think everybody here is interested in worldwide social justice. Everyone deserves equal rights to the basic human needs: food, clean water, energy. It's not right for multinational corporations to take millions and millions [of dollars] rather than everybody having enough to survive."

Robert Cropf, an associate professor of public policy at Saint Louis University, said the Occupy movement has broadened the discussion of wealth disparity in the United States, but the trend itself -- the financial squeezing of middle- and working-class Americans -- started at least three decades ago.

"There had been a conversation regarding the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots, but it had been carried out in a more narrow circle," Cropf said.

Academics, economists and policy-makers can point to years of research tracking the stagnation of middle-class incomes since the late 1970s, but it was the financial meltdown of the nation's large financial institutions in 2008 that brought the pain home.

In addition to wiping out 8 million jobs, the Great Recession ended years of easy credit that had masked declining incomes; middle class Americans had maintained their standard of living by taking readily available loans, mortgages and credit-card debt.

Economists who study income distribution, such as Emmanuel Saez at the University of California-Berkeley, offer numbers to explain the trend. Among Saez's findings: During the economic expansion of 2002-06, the top 1 percent captured nearly 75 percent of the nation's total income growth. The rest of the nation -- 99 percent of Americans -- split the remaining 25 percent of the increase.

The Occupiers were able to simplify complex economics in a slogan -- We are the 99 percent -- that is memorable, easy to understand and propagate.

"That's important," Cropf said. "Because in order to have a social movement today you have to be savvy when it comes to marketing and branding."

Holding Their Ground

Rosemary Feurer, an associate professor of history at Northern Illinois University, notes that labor unions have offered support to Occupiers and even joined in some of their actions. In St. Louis, local labor unions joined a Nov. 17 rally and march to the Martin Luther King Bridge, where 14 men and women were arrested. The local event was part of a national day of action held by Occupy movements across the U.S. intended to call attention to infrastructure in need of repair -- and the jobs such projects could create.

"That's one of the most interesting and important things that happened -- the labor unions did not find themselves in antagonism to these mostly young people, they saw themselves in alliance," said Feurer, who grew up in the St. Louis region, and has studied the local union movement.

Feurer said that as savvy as Occupiers are with social media and the Internet, they've also turned to an old but proven tactic of social protest: Taking space. Holding their ground.

"Demonstrators have to challenge the ability to do business as usual, and the only way that happens is to at least try to make your presence known regularly," Feurer said.

During the Great Depression, she points out, the unemployed in St. Louis held demonstrations demanding that the wealthy contribute to relief efforts.

"One of the things they did was occupy City Hall," she said. "Mass numbers of people taking space or ground, putting bodies on the line."

Occupy Wall Street got rolling in September with several hundred protesters in New York's financial district protesting what the movement calls "the corrosive power of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process, and the role of Wall Street in creating an economic collapse that has caused the greatest recession in generations." The movement claims to have spawned "occupations" in more than 100 cities in the United States.

The Occupy "branding" was developed by Adbusters, an anticonsumerist magazine based in Vancouver, B.C., that credits the uprising at Egypt's Tahrir Square for its inspiration. While Occupy Wall Street describes itself as a "leaderless, people-powered" organization, the Adbusters website counts it among "our campaigns to reclaim our mental and physical environments."

Feurer and Cropf note that Occupy was initially dismissed by observers and given little coverage by the mainstream media.

"History is unpredictable," Feurer notes. "Occupy came from Adbusters, a small organization, and it was supported by an anonymous movement. My first impression was that you can't create a social movement by people who are anonymous."

Will the Movement Last?

Cropf believes the long-term future -- and clout -- of Occupy remains to be seen.

"I think that Occupy has a potent message that a lot of people can understand and grasp immediately. I think the longer run issue is whether or not it can mobilize people and politicize people in a way that gets them to act," Cropf said. "Part of the criticism that has been leveled at the Occupiers is they don't have a coherent message. 'You're part of the 99 percent -- you should make common cause with us.' But what does that mean?"

Cropf said the conservative tea-party movement was able to mobilize people to support particular candidates and policies, but time will tell whether Occupy will even attempt to take such an approach in the 2012 election.

Rik Hafer, chair of the economics and finance department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, questions the staying power of the Occupiers, but also sees some similarity between the Tea Party and the Occupy moment.

"The Tea Party doesn't like government because of regulation, and the Occupy movement doesn't like government because of the wrong regulation," he said. "So the Occupy movement wants more regulation because they view companies as having gotten off -- as not having paid their share of pain during the recession."

Hafer said that, while there are examples of large corporations that appear to have escaped the recession, many businesses did suffer.

"And the people who owned those business -- they paid the price of the recession, too," he said. "So it's not just labor."

Hafer sees the Occupy movement as having tapped into a growing populist sentiment that the playing field needs to be leveled - an attitude that is not surprising given the state of the economy. But economic downturns are cyclical, he adds. He believes Occupiers are reacting to unmet expectations based on an extended period of economic growth period that had experienced a few bumps but was nothing like the recession.

"You hear people say, 'I got a degree and I can't get a job and I have student debt and it's not fair.' Essentially, it's not that 'It's not fair.' It's that their expectations didn't get met: 'I did everything I was told to do. How come I don't get a job?' That's hard to deal with," Hafer said.

Hafer believes that demands to raise taxes on the wealthy -- the 1 percent -- play well to the Occupy movement but would have little impact for unemployed Americans with college loan debt. Instead, he suggests an overhaul of the tax structure, up and down the line, to make it more equitable.

"You can raise taxes on the top 1 percent, but it's going to basically have a minuscule effect on the deficit problem, and it's not going to do anything to really get the economy going in the great scheme of things," he said.

Hinman believes the Occupy movement will survive, despite the closing of their tent cities.

"Whether we sleep here doesn't matter," she said. "We'll still march. We'll still stand up for our rights. We'll still make corporations understand that they're making us suffer for unnecessary reasons."

Hinman said she gives as much time as she can to Occupy, but she has other commitments: She is majoring in conservational biology at UMSL, works as an intern at Environment Missouri, an environmental advocacy group, and has a job as a bartender and server. And she's a mom.

"I read that Newt Gingrich calls us dirty hippies that need to take a bath and get a job. I bathe and I have multiple jobs and I go to school," she said. "It's a very peaceful movement. We are following our First Amendment rights and doing the best we can so that every individual has rights and their voice heard."

Hinman said her parents are middle class, but she doesn't think of herself as belonging to any class.

"I don't care where I stand in the 99 percent, but I am in the 99 percent," she said.{jcomments on}

Note: Professors Cropf and Hafer contribute regularly to the Beacon.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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