When I was an up-and-coming lawyer I moved my young family to the top of Belmont Hill, a pretty fancy address with big lawns and big mortgages. It was then that I started to have “the nightmare” that sometimes even woke me: hoards of protesters, angry that people like me had so much wealth when times were hard (as times are always hard for many) finally did what Americans never did: the rose in true mass social protest and marched up my street and broke into my house and took my stuff and burned my fancy valuables and moved into my basement (a la Dr. Zhivago).
The “nightmare” faded; since then I have lived in a series of nice places and not once did the unwashed masses parade down my street.
Today is my first day back in the office from an extended business trip, and as I glance out of my elegant office I look down on Dewey Square, an open area in front of the Boston Federal Reserve Bank. And what do I see? Dozens and dozens of tents, of people camped out protesting corporate greed. Not so large a showing as in New York City (where last Friday my cab driver had to take a detour to get me where I was going at the Battery) but a lot of people.
Down at street level, because the noise rose all 25 stories and penetrated my windows and broke my concentration, I faced something like “the nightmare” in real time. Hundreds and hundreds of people of all sorts marching, chanting, waving signs of a most un-Capitalistic nature. The police, themselves having learned something since I proctered the marches in the 60s and 70s for the Civil Liberties Union, stayed way in the back, an occasional polite policeman in regular gear directing the traffic through the financial district. No cops with shields and dogs.
So what did I learn?
The tents are part of “Occupy Boston,” a knock-off of “Occupy Wall Street,” a protest against corporate greed still pending in New York. The event, as usual for such events, attracted protesters of almost every ilk and disrepair; my collected literature urges an end to war, higher wages for the poor, and something a bit more ambitious from the Revolutionary Communist Party. Men, women, students, workers in union shirts, and a large number of nurses were on the march and the main thrust was the inequality in our country when it comes to economics. Signs and chants proclaimed :”Wall Street got bailed out, we got left out;” “We–are–the–99%;” “Wall Street, you cannot hide, we can see your greedy side;” “Take it back–Tax Wall Street;” and my favorite, for which this post is named.
Now America has not suffered the level of class violence and animosity of many other countries and I suspect there are numerous reasons, but the greatest to my mind has been the open-ness of the American dream, the improvement possible for each person and for each successive generation. Certainly there has been unrest but it has been episodic and contained, and primarily driven by labor issues (there are exceptions for draft riots, bank foreclosures on farms, etc., but basically we have escaped mass sustained class animosity).
But the American dream, that soothing ointment that salves the class abrasions in our society, is fading (as my nightmare faded) and perhaps also fading, in face of the growing wealth disparity, is the lack of belief that it is temporary or can be overcome. Will circumstances at last unleash my reborn nightmare? Certainly the march today was peaceful, almost like a summer outing; but many an anti-war march during Nam started that way and ended up with stones through the windows of the Cambridge Trust Company by the time the hoard reached Harvard Square.
The complacent business folk who observed the march, took the literature and exchanged sympathetic looks with the cops, did not believe I am sure that this is “the beginning” of something big; nor do I. But my fear is that it is the symptom of the start of the beginning of something that is systemic and that our society is not in a position to address over time. Tom Friedman’s new book, That Used to Be Us, makes a case for what is needed to respond to the possibility of our society becoming a class-divided also-ran. Although many conservatives dismiss Friedman as a knee-jerk leftie, the book (co-authored with Professor Mike Mandelbaum of Johns Hopkins) is a great take and I recommend it.
Meanwhile, if you live in a nice house, you might want to check your door locks and stock up your panic room….