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Occupy's crystal-clear message: Quit ripping us off

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In just the last week, the Occupy Wall Street movement, shortened in some places to simply "Occupy," has swept across this country, staging protests in 45 states.

Writes London's Guardian newspaper, "From Seattle and Los Angeles on the west coast to Providence, Rhode Island, and Tampa, Florida, on the east, as many as 70 major cities and more than 600 communities have joined the swelling wave of civil dissent."

And yet the staying power of this 20-something-driven, social-media-savvy wave of protests continues to be questioned by media sages who repeatedly raise this question: Just what does Occupy Wall Street want?

At one level, the answer is simple enough: It wants the stockbrokers, bankers and money moguls of America to stop getting rich on the backs of everyone else. The movement singles out the wealthiest 1 percent who, The Atlantic wrote in a cover story last month, control the equivalent wealth of nine of 10 of all Americans combined -- nearly 300 million people.  The magazine further noted that the gap between rich and everyone else continues to grow rapidly even though it's greater than at any point since 1928.

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At another level, Occupy Wall Street has assiduously avoided affiliation with any political party or ideology.  Its spokespeople make a point of saying they aren't really speaking for anyone but themselves. Its megaphone is the power of the group, as speakers at its general assemblies talk slowly enough to allow the audience to repeat each phrase in unison. Its standard for agreement on action is a steep 75 percent of those present, and protesters vote up or down not by shouting but by wiggling their fingers.

Occupy, in other words, is marching to its own drummer -- not the news media's, not the pundits', not the politicians'.  And that, to me, is part of what makes it both so interesting and, to some extent, a bit baffling.

Call me naive. But I believe despite its resistance to platforms, Occupy will sustain itself if for no other reason that it has touched a nerve that is deep and wide: Americans are smart enough to see the extent to which the political system has been bought by and sold to the monied class. It's not a slogan. The economic statistics are stark, as the linked Atlantic article makes clear. And even though Republicans are more overt in standing up for the rich and for greed, Democrats have done little to rock the boat either.

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So what message should the Occupy movement deliver?  What policies should it demand?  Must it solve what Congress and the president have failed to address?

Listen to some of the  lead editorial in Sunday's New York Times, not generally known as a bastion of American radicalism.  In the end, the paper answers my final question, "no."

Extreme inequality is the hallmark of a dysfunctional economy, dominated by a financial sector that is driven as much by speculation, gouging and government backing as by productive investment.

When the protesters say they represent 99 percent of Americans, they are referring to the concentration of income in today's deeply unequal society...

In the last few years, for instance, corporate profits (which flow largely to the wealthy) have reached their highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while worker pay as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since the mid-1950s....

No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. There are plenty of policy goals to address the grievances of the protesters -- including lasting foreclosure relief, a financial transactions tax, greater legal protection for workers' rights, and more progressive taxation. The country needs a shift in the emphasis of public policy from protecting the banks to fostering full employment....

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[But] it is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That's the job of the nation's leaders...

Amen. Bravo to The Times editorial page. This time, the paper got things precisely right.

 As to those shrugging or sneering on the sidelines as Occupy marches by, my question to them is this: What's your solution?


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Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Emerson College in Boston. He's been a newspaper reporter, columnist, writing coach and editor. His latest book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in January by Rowman & Littlefield.

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