Wading through the news about the Occupy Wall Street movement these days is like watching a bad jazz band riff off into cacophony-land. But one thing rings clear as a bell: if you’re not among the richest Americans, you’re officially getting screwed.
That feeling that the system is rigged, that regular folks are getting treated unfairly by unaccountable, greedy powerful financial fat-cats and politically tainted governmental policies—personified most recently by the Citizens United legal conclusion that corporations are people for the purposes of political contributions—is fueling the new grassroots movement protesting the unpatriotic inequality killing the American Dream. Even billionaire Warren Buffet says it’s fundamentally unfair that he pays less in taxes than his secretary.
And while it may appear that the Occupy movement is spearheaded by young people—many of whom are college students with no jobs and a huge student loan debt—many of the longtime unemployed and laid-off middle class have joined the movement, too.
Part of the cacophony that makes the news so hard to follow is how Wall Street, the banks, the Federal Reserve, the Obama administration, Congress, 14 percent national unemployment (higher in communities of color), the mortgage crisis, the European economic crisis and projections of economic growth all weave in and around and feed on each other. And then there’s the political silly season leading up to the 2012 elections, where Republican presidential contenders now favor the discredited flat tax.
But then on Oct. 25 that clear bell rang through. The non-partisan, independent Congressional Budget Office released a major study on income inequality that showed, as the New York Times put it in a print headline: “It’s Official: The rich are getting richer!” The report officially stamped the imprimatur of truth on the claims by the Occupy movement underscoring a growing class warfare over tax inequities.
“The study,” Jim Lobe explained for the online publication Nation of Change, ”found that the average after-tax real income of the top one percent of the nation’s households grew by 275 percent between 1979 and 2007—about seven times greater than the increase in income by the remaining 99 percent over the same period.”
The report also said that the income of the poorest 20 percent of income earners grew by only 18 percent—or less than one percent per year.
Supporters of the principles of the Occupy protesters who don’t want to go the encampment route have dubbed themselves the 99 Percent Movement.
And awareness of the economic divide created by political policies continues to grow. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll showed popular support for the “Occupy” movement, which has not only grown nationwide since it was launched in Wall Street’s Zucotti Park on Sept. 17, but now has encampments in several countries. The time was ripe—with fears in August that the economy was about to dip into a dark recession and conservatives in Congress debating whether to extend unemployment benefits for the increasingly perennially unemployed.
In a Newsweek article entitled “You Say You Want a Revolution,” openly gay conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan writes about how seeing the diversity of the protesters in D.C. and “the same kind of phenomenon popping up in Frankfurt and Madrid or Tel Aviv or outside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London” has caused him to look past “the goddam hippies” to the core of their argument, which suggests “a much deeper shift in consciousness than a mere pop-cultural fad.”
Sullivan writes, “The theme that connects them all is disenfranchisement, the sense that the world is shifting deeply and inexorably beyond our ability to control it through our democratic institutions. You can call this many things, but a ‘democratic deficit’ gets to the nub of it. Democracy means rule by the people—however rough-edged, however blunted by representative government, however imperfect. But everywhere the people feel as if someone else is now ruling them—and see no way to regain control.
“In the U.S., the hefty majority for sweeping reform behind Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 has been stopped in its tracks by slightly more than half of one house in the Congress and by a historically unprecedented filibuster in the Senate,” Sullivan continues. “The global public, more aware than ever of what is going on in the world, and more able than ever before to share ideas, facts, experiences and testimonies, is acutely sensitive to the vested interests of the powerful who stand in the way of their dreams.”
It is important to remember that the Occupy movement tends to be a leaderless movement, made up of loose self-selected and ever-changing committees and affinity groups. Everyone is welcome to the encampments, where opinions are shared, committee group reports are given and affinity groups can proffer statements at a 7:30 p.m. General Assembly. As of Oct. 27, there appeared to be four official members of the Occupy L.A. Queer Affinity Group (which has a Facebook page). On Saturday night, Oct. 22, Nestor Lemus delivered their mission statement, part of which reads:
“We are in solidarity with the 99 percent and strongly believe oppression to one is oppression to all. One of the many tools used by the corporate power structure to divide us is the competing ‘oppressions game’ where we are encouraged to compete against each other for a piece of the ‘rights’ pie. We’re labeled as wanting special rights—we argue that there are no special rights, just human rights—and full equality belongs to everyone.”
Lemus and another member of the Queer Affinity Group went on to read the shocking statistics (though they did not mention the sources)—among them that LGBTQ youth “are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers; between 30-40 percent of LGBT youth have attempted suicide; 20 percent of homeless youth are LGBT. And LGBTs [are] 7.4 times likely to experience acts of sexual violence than heterosexual homelessness.”
They went on to say, “We plan to work with the Education Committee within the Occupy structure to inform people of our issues—not in the sense that they are worse or any more important than anyone else’s issues, but of the fact that they exist. And we wish to visibly participate in actions addressing all oppressions. We welcome everyone and anyone to join our discussion. We stand with the women and allies affinity group in the call for everyone to please examine and check their privilege. And we suggest that you think about the fact that heterosexualism is a privilege.”
Interestingly, neither Sullivan nor the Queer Affinity group members mentioned the hard facts (reported by the Williams Institute, the Center for American Progress and others) that LGBTs are still officially second-class citizens who are dramatically impacted by the economic crisis. Ending anti-gay policies such as the Defense of Marriage Act would enable same-sex couples to receive the Social Security benefits to which they are entitled, among over 1,000 other benefits denied LGBT taxpayers and passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would prohibit employers from considering sexual orientation or gender identity in their hiring, promotion and firing practices. Currently, only 15 states and the District of Columbia have employment protections for LGBT people.
Not to mention that LGBTs are also among the unemployed. Arturo Sernas, 26, who participated in the Occupy L.A. protest for two weeks, has been chronically unemployed or underemployed, as with many of his fellow protesters. “Work or full-time employment seems to be the exception, not the rule,“ he told Frontiers. “Being with other people makes unemployment less isolating.” He hopes to go back to school to become a teacher.
Medical marijuana activist Richard Eastman, 58, who has been HIV-positive since 1994, was also at Occupy L.A. with four tents set up for medical marijuana patients. “We need to get the greed out of weed,” he told Frontiers. “Medical marijuana is about freedom.” Nov. 5-6 marks the 15th anniversary of the passage of the California medical marijuana initiative Prop 215. He plans to hold a major rally at Occupy L.A. at L.A. City Hall.
That might not happen as he would like. Openly gay L.A. City Councilmember Bill Rosendahl and Councilmember Richard Alarcon passed a resolution supporting the Occupy L.A. protesters who set up camps around City Hall starting on Oct. 1. The resolution made many with whom Frontiers spoke at the encampment “proud to be from L.A.”
But now Rosendahl and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa—who is also supportive—want the protesters to move the encampment. Villaraigosa told the L.A. Times, “I respect the protesters’ right to peacefully assemble and express their views. City officials have been in a continuous and open dialogue with the organizers of Occupy L.A. However, the protesters must respect city laws and regulations, and while they have been allowed to camp on City Hall lawns, that cannot continue indefinitely.”
Rosendahl is also worried about the grass and the trees not getting water. “They’ve made their statement. I agree with their statement, but it is time to move on,” he told KABC.
L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutinich, who is running for L.A. County District Attorney, said: “To protect the public health and safety of all residents, the LAPD and General Services Police can and should enforce the law in a fair, consistent and even-handed manner. The law addresses conduct. Enforcement may not be based on the content of any political or personal opinion or message.”
The LADP has been “cool” by all accounts so far—but there is growing fear among the protesters that there will be another sweep action that could lead to the kind of violence seen when Oakland police confronted the Occupy protesters there. Apparently the city is looking for another site where Occupy L.A. can re-establish an encampment.
If the Occupy and 99 Percent Movement protests continue, as many suspect, others such as openly gay Rep. Barney Frank are asking how their energy will translate into action. Unlike grassroots conservative Tea Party factions, the Occupy movements do not seem to be interested in electoral politics. Frank insists that the best way for them to be heard is to vote. Stonewall Democratic Club voted on Oct. 24 to not only support the Occupy movement, but to also see if their political action committee will set up a voter registration area on-site.
But there are still greater, deeper areas of concern for LGBT people, issues that should be part of the larger debate and conversation than limiting LGBT concerns to hate crimes and gay teen suicides. On Oct. 25, the Family Equality Council, the Center for America Progress and the Movement Advancement Project released a new report called “All Children Matter: How Legal and Social Inequalities Hurt LGBT Families.” In a report posted on CAP’s website, they write, “Unfortunately, public policy has not kept up with the changing reality of the American family. Indeed, our laws and discourse largely ignore the roughly 2 million children being raised by LGBT parents. They also ignore children in other family configurations, such as those with unmarried heterosexual parents. As a result, most Americans are probably unaware of the many ways in which unequal treatment and social stigma harm the millions of children whose families do not fit into a certain mold.
Families such as that of Naz Meftah and Banuelos who had to move from California to Arizona for a job, and then back again to register as domestic partners before moving back to Arizona with “proof” that they’re a family.
The report also blasts the old myth that gays are all white and rich. One finding says, “LGBT families are more likely to be poor. Contrary to stereotypes, children living in same-sex-couple households are twice as likely to live in poverty as children being raised by married heterosexual households. Same-sex couples of color raising children are more likely to be poor than white same-sex couples raising children.”
Additionally, the report says, “Children fall through the safety net. Because many safety net programs apply antiquated definitions of family, a child with LGBT parents might be denied benefits provided to his or her non-LGBT counterpart simply because the child’s parents are LGBT. Most government safety net programs use a narrow definition of family tied to marital status, which often excludes same-sex partners and non-legally recognized parents and children. The result is that financially struggling families with LGBT or unmarried parents cannot accurately reflect their household size or economic resources and may be denied adequate assistance.”
And: “LGBT families face a higher tax burden. A series of tax credits and deductions are designed to help all families, regardless of economic circumstance, ease the financial costs of raising children. Tax law, however, also uses a narrow definition of family that excludes LGBT families. This exclusion usually results in a significantly higher tax burden for LGBT families.”
These are just a few of the reasons why LGBT people have an enormous stake in the Occupy and 99 Percent Movement.