After a weeklong blackout by corporate media, news coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement began with the resounding conclusion that no coherent message could be discerned from the sea of signs, slogans and banners in Zuccotti Park. CBC’s Kevin O’Leary declared, “it looks pretty nothing so far…just a few guys, guitars, nobody knows what they want, they can’t even name the names of the firms they’re protesting against.” Perhaps expecting the movement to fizzle out quickly, O’Leary’s impressionistic journalism was typical of mainstream media’s quick and facile attempts to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street participants.
It was not until David Maris’s piece for Forbes Magazine, “Some Say Occupy Wall Street Protesters Aimless; Facts Say Otherwise” (Oct 17, 2011), that mainstream media went beyond cursory accounts of the movement. Conducting a survey of just over 5% of the Zuccotti Park occupants, Maris’s article directly refuted corporate media’s account of the movement as hopelessly lacking in vision and specific demands. Claiming that most mainstream criticisms of the movement are untrue, Maris’ article concludes that the protesters, “knowingly or not, are fairly unified by a few basic beliefs,” including raising higher taxes on the rich, regulating CEO pay (possibly by limiting it to ‘20x or 30x’ that of the lowest paid employee) placing caps on healthcare insurance, controlling drug prices and forgiving student debt.”
In the spirit of Maris’ poll of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, several of us at Media Co-op decided to ask Occupy Toronto participants in St. James Park about what motivates them in an effort to delineate the most urgent demands. Speaking to 30 individuals from a broad ideological spectrum, it became clear that protesters did have both common concerns and demands. Here are some of them:
1) INCOME INEQUALITY AND UNEQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH: Nearly every person we spoke to highlighted the growing gap between rich and poor, with many citing a recent study by the Conference Board of Canada showing income inequality in Canada is rising faster than in the U.S. Most demanded a more progressive tax structure to combat this trend, while others argued for more radical methods of democratizing the economy through a complete restructuring of society.
2) CORPORATE INFLUENCE ON PUBLIC POLICY AND ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION: These three issues were closely tied together, with over 2/3rds of respondents discussing either the financial sector’s support of the Tar Sands and Mining and/or the threat of unchecked environmental exploitation. The role of corporations in dictating government policy on the environment and the failure of self-regulation were common topics, with many urging for a political overhaul to limit the influence of private capital in the political process.
3) ACCESSIBLE AND AFFORDABLE EDUCATION: Natalie, an educator and organic farmer, argued that “education is the keystone to a functional society,” and if we were to see any progressive change in Canada, “we need to treat it that way.” A disproportionate number of protesters were either educators or students, denouncing the steady rise in tuition fees in the last decade and the parallel drop in public money for education. Grave faced students described a potentially desperate future; “I won’t be able to start my life until I pay off all this debt,” lamented a third year Laurentian student, “and I’m worried I won’t even be able to find a job.” Demands went from moderate public support, to all out debt forgiveness for students, many of whom described a debt slavery situation.
4) BUDGET CUTS AND THE REDUCTION OF SOCIAL PROGRAMS: While many people focused on global and national economic issues, around 1/3 of respondents discussed Rob Ford’s budget cuts and local austerity measures, especially when it was recently reported that the city will have a $140 million surplus this year.
With the Occupy Toronto movement devising strategies, goals and potentially a list of demands, Luke, a Ph.D. student at University of Toronto, suggested protesters take a page from the American civil rights and global anti-colonial movements, whose success “was based on wide-spread consensus on simple goals” which could win public support.