New York City – If you want to understand how thousands of ordinary Americans have recently been transformed into corporate “whistleblowers,” just spend a few days hanging out with the demonstrators who’ve gathered here for the social protest known as “Occupy Wall Street”.
The dramatic signs of their spontaneous whistle-blowing are everywhere. PEOPLE ARE WHAT MATTER – NOT PROFITS!
WE ARE THE 99 PERCENT!
STOP CORPORATE GREED AND START RESPECTING HUMAN NEEDS! As you wander among the pounding drummers and the leaping dancers at Lower Manhattan’s now-famous Zuccotti Park, it’s easy to see how an astonishing new “social awakening” is beginning to transform the American landscape.
Like the “Arab Spring” of 2011, in which one Middle Eastern dictatorship after another (think Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and maybe Syria) sank beneath the waves of surging popular dissent, the “American Fall” of rapidly accelerating social awareness now promises to make whistleblowers out of ordinary citizens from Maine to California . . . with earthquake-like consequences that cannot as yet be predicted.
Something new is happening in American, and it’s happening right now.
“Something’s coming, mister,” says Paul Armstrong, a 48-year-old, Los Angeles-based ironworker in a hard hat, as he waves his sign (“I am a union ironworker, I vote, I work, I pay taxes, I’m pissed, so I’m here!” at the swarming TV cameras. “The working people of this country aren’t stupid. They see how things have been going lately, and they’re starting to wake up. They see the widespread unemployment, and they see how people are being forced below the poverty line every single day.
“They’re demanding jobs and decent wages, that’s certainly true. But they’re also demanding respect. They’re letting everybody know that the old days of being ‘talked down to’ by bosses at the top of some distant pecking order are over. Those days are gone for good!
“What we’re now seeing here in New York is the same spirit that was at work in Cairo during the Arab Spring. We’re seeing an outcry from workers who want to be treated with dignity, and who want to be able to make decent wages on the job. If you talk with the working people at this Occupation, you soon start to realize: there’s a big change moving on the wind. I speak only for myself here – not for the ironworkers’ union or anybody else – but I sincerely believe that we have to change the way working people are being treated in this country, and soon.”
Still Looking – And Hoping – For Justice
Like the heavily tattooed Paul Armstrong, thousands of American working people are now speaking up in an act of collective whistle-blowing that continues to make headlines daily. Speaking out against a backdrop of thunderous drums and in a setting where nearby skyscrapers often shut out the sun, they spend their days reiterating a few startling facts about the America of 2011.
Fact: More than 17 percent of the adult population of the United States is now unemployed, if you include those who have stopped looking for work and those who are working part-time out of necessity and not making enough to feed their families.
Fact: More than 49 million Americans are now living beneath the federal poverty line . . . which means their families are living on less than $23,000 a year . . . while in many cases struggling with inadequate housing, medical care and nutrition.
Fact: More than 46 million Americans are now living on food stamps – without which they would literally be walking the streets all day long in search of food. (Yes, that’s right: nearly one-sixth of the entire U.S. population in 2011 is now unable to feed itself and surviving courtesy of federal government handouts.)
Fact: While more and more individual people are sinking into abject poverty in this country, most of the nation’s major corporations and most of its major banks are continuing to make handsome profits. One number says it all: Less than one percent of the American public now controls nearly half of its total wealth . . . and the stories of corporate executives making $10 million and $20 million and even $50 million bonuses (while their companies are laying off thousands of workers each month) long ago became strictly routine.
As the nation sinks into the grind of relentless poverty, however, more and more economic whistleblowers are stepping forward to insist that this degrading state of affairs cannot long continue.
Take John Bird, a Blackfoot Indian who drove to the Big Apple all the way from Tucson, Arizona. Why? It’s actually quite simple, he says: “I never gave up my hope for justice!”
He’s sitting on a plastic crate, three feet from a hand-lettered sign:
Sure, You Can Trust the Government – Just Ask an Indian
“Indian people have never given up hope that some day there will be justice,” says John Bird. “Our elders teach us that, so we carry it on. Some days, it all seems pretty hopeless. But this” – and he waves at the huge throng of protesters in Zuccotti Park, located in the heart of Manhattan’s Financial District – “this is hope. And what we’re hoping for is not only economic justice, but also environmental justice.”
The reporter leans in closer, with his tape recorder at the ready.
It’s eight o’clock on a recent Friday morning at the nation’s longest-running “Occupation” protest. Since last September 17th, about 300 people per day (on average) have been living here, crammed into a tiny urban green space surrounded by high-rise office buildings and by long blue ranks of silent, expressionless police.
The Occupation encampment houses ironworkers, teachers, truck drivers, college students, clergy members, military veterans, job counselors, environmental activists, psychologists, homeless grandmothers in wheelchairs and a few Native Americans who say they traveled to New York in order to call attention to the various ways in which the current “recession” is making life hard for Indians in American cities and on reservations.
Question for Mr. Bird: Can we really hope to bridge the gulf between Indian society and the rest of America, in 2011? Isn’t it too late for that now?
His answer: “I think we’re going to have to bridge it, and soon – if we’re gonna survive. I’m very hopeful . . . but I also think it’s our last opportunity, and we better not squander it!”
Donald R. Soeken LCSW-C, Ph.D., a social worker in Washington, D.C., frequently counsels whistleblowers. Journalist Tom Nugent, the author of a book about coal mining in Appalachia (Death at Buffalo Creek, W.W. Norton) often writes about U.S. labor issues.