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OWS is Only the Beginning

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It is a wonderfully warming sight. Thousands camped out now for weeks in solidarity and protest against the deteriorating state of social justice in our society.

There is much to say -- and much has already been said -- about the OccupyWallStreet movement: the first call to action; how to sustain and shape the momentum; where it will lead; the rising concerns over messaging, leadership and demands.

For those of us inclined toward liberal democracy and social justice, this is a tremendous moment. Commentators in the alternative media have long called -- largely in vain, it appeared -- for action against the excesses of a corporate culture that now dominates almost every facet of our lives. In the OWS movement, we have finally found an answer to Ralph Nadar's questionWhere's the Spark?.

In posing his question, Nadar was reacting to the first swell of protests in the Arab Spring, which had begun to fire the imagination of many around the world. Wishing for some of that magic at home, he said,

"How do we break the cycle of despair, exclusion, powerlessness and endless betrayal by those given authority to bring down the exploiters and oppressors to lawful accountability?

The spark can come from a recurrent sequence of abuses that strike a special chord of deeply felt injustice. Or it could be a unique episode or bullying that tolls the feeling 'enough already' throughout the land. Such sparks cannot be manufactured; the power to arouse and break people's routines is spontaneous.

When that moment comes, millions of Americans whose self-respect and keen sense of wrong will remind them precisely why our Constitution begins with We the People and not, We the Corporations."

And so we finally see the spark. Following from the protests in Greece, Israel and in the Arab Spring, there is a growing sense that public dissent is the only viable path by which we can achieve social change. The OWS movement is the first tangible effort to affect that change.

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I say "first" because it may be just that. It might be the first of many sparks, the first among many faltering steps. If OWS is seen as a good beginning, it might be just that, a beginning.

The early success of OWS is, in my view, the spontaneous gathering of like-minded people who are finally heeding Mr. Nadar's remarks to say "enough already" -- those who are mad as hell and aren't going to take it any more. And they've done it without leadership and top-down thinking, a revolutionary concept in and of itself that typifies the movement's anti-corporatist sentiment. If OWS can sustain itself, perhaps its greatest legacy will be the notion that active dissent is a right and a duty, and that opposition to unjust power is a habit and a mindset that requires effort and dedication.

But for all the hopeful reporting from the left, we are nowhere near such an outcome. Chris Hedges recently wrote that the rich are now trembling at the prospect of the OWS movement. They are most certainly not. Naomi Klein says that OWS is the most important thing in the world. It is not -- at least, not yet.

The rich will tremble, and OWS will become truly important, only when millions take to the streets. It is certainly a welcome start that 2500 people (or more, or less) have taken on the occupation of Wall Street. And it is a good beginning  that hundreds (maybe thousands) of like-minded citizens are occupying and protesting in solidarity in communities across the country and in countries around the world.

But there are more than 25 million unemployed people in the United States. Millions more live in poverty and millions have lost their homes to the avarice of our now dominant corporate culture. This is the core constituency from which the dissenters must be drawn and mobilized. And even this subset does not fully represent the 99%. There are millions of union and government workers, teachers and healthcare providers, whose rights have been trampled; there are millions of students who will not find work for which they have trained; and there are millions from the so-called middle class who now hang on in quiet desperation, hoping against hope to keep the modest lifestyle they've won through a lifetime of playing by the rules. And then there are the millions more around the world suffering under government imposed austerity designed only to rescue the rich from themselves.

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It is the concerted action of these millions, in countries around the world, that will finally put the elite and the governments that serve them on notice that change is inevitable. Bring 25 thousand to the streets and they will be denounced as hoodlums and radicals; send a million to the streets and governments will put their security forces on high alert. But bring 25 million out in sustained protest, and then, truly, Hedges and Klein will be right.

The trick is getting from here to there -- and doing so in the most peaceful way possible. The power that will oppose the OWS movement (and anything that looks like it) is the enormous power of the state. Even in our so-called democracy, the state will employ every means at its disposal to suppress the exercise of free will and public dissent, as was made clear this past weekend, when security forces were on full display at Occupy events around the world.

It will take time to nurture and mobilize the numbers needed to truly tip the balance in favor of the 99, so there is no immediate need for a list of demands. In fact, the absence of specific demands deprives our opponents of a recognizable target. And in any case, there is no doubt that the monied class, and the governments who serve them, know full well what the issues and grievances really are. They have spent the last 30 years denying them.

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David Ruhlen is a writer and musician living in Canada. He notes with great alarm the profoundly negative trends that will increasingly affect us all. And the trends that have come to so completely reflect the human condition are these: (more...)

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