You may have heard about the Occupy Wall Street protests, now entering their 10th day in New York. Several hundred activists have taken over Zuccotti Park near Wall Street since Sept. 17, and this past Saturday they were joined by over a thousand more. The NYPD, displaying their famously light touch, has arrested dozens of activists, including members of the protest’s media team, and even maced innocent protesters. (The occupation’s Twitter hashtag, #occupywallstreet, and its livestream have plenty more details.) Despite this pressure, the protesters have vowed to stay in the park for the foreseeable future.
Then again, you can’t walk around New York without bumping into some demonstration, so does this protest deserve attention? It’s easy to say that these are just (mostly) college kids with nothing better to do; or to make fun of their demands, which range from ending wealth inequality to ending war; or to use more extreme protesters to dismiss the rest. And it’s easy to believe that the protesters’ cause will be forgotten as soon as the demonstration ends. It’s easy to react this way, because that’s how many protest “movements” have panned out in the past. But this movement is different because of the bleak situation facing the country, especially its youth.
Demonstrations are stronger when protesters are denouncing a target that directly affects them. In 1971, President Nixon’s decision to end student deferments sparked a new wave of antiwar protests on campuses around the country. Many believe the lack of a draft severely weakened protests against the Iraq war. In 1932, the Bonus Army was able to gather thousands of veterans to Washington because their cause was not someone else’s poverty but their own.
Similarly, these demonstrators are protesting not only for a cause but for themselves. Just as many young people in the ’60s and ’70s feared becoming cannon fodder in Southeast Asia, so, too, do many today fear for their futures. The figures are astounding. Three years after Wall Street crashed the economy, youth unemployment stands at 18 percent, double the national rate, while youth employment is at its lowest level since the end of World War II. And because the graduate who spends a year unemployed will still make 23 percent less than a similar classmate a decade later, the young unemployed will feel these effects for years. The average college graduate now carries over $27,000 in debt at graduation; not surprisingly, then, more than 85 percent of the Class of 2011 moved back into their parents’ homes, the highest number on record. Not to mention, when this long recession is finally over, the young get to face reduced Social Security, Medicare and other benefits, largely (though not entirely, of course) because their parents and grandparents decided to let their descendants pay for their tax cuts, their wars and their bailouts.
In short, as Republican candidates have demanded, the youth have skin in this game.
So this isn’t genocide or Palestine or globalization or another geographically or politically distant cause that rarely has staying power beyond a committed activist core. The Wall Street protests are at least in part fueled by the knowledge that, for the first time in almost a century, “you never had it so good” no longer applies to the next generation. The victims of this collapse are not on the other side of the world; they’re the protesters themselves, their friends and classmates, sons and daughters. That’s a personal connection to, and motivation for, their cause that cannot grow artificially.
Will this specific protest, then, last “until our demands are met”? Perhaps, perhaps not. But as long as the sluggish economy continues to hit Americans — and especially young Americans — hard, expect more and bigger demonstrations like “Occupy Wall Street” — unfocused, sometimes excessive, but fundamentally justifiable.