Occupy Ann Arbor Teach-In Inspires Participants

With the Occupy movement spreading across the nation and around the world, it would be totally out of character if it missed Ann Arbor. Not to worry. It didn’t. Occupy Ann Arbor is in full swing.

I attended a Teach-In on Wednesday November 9 at the 1st Baptist Church in downtown Ann Arbor. The event was sponsored by Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice. A turnout of about sixty concerned activists representing the Vietnam generation and before as well as the Occupy generation, plus generations in between, watched a slideshow provided by the Rebuild the Dream coalition. ICPJ director Chuck Warpehosky provided the commentary while the crowd participated with the high energy that has come to characterize the Occupy movement as it has gained momentum and fought its way onto the front pages of even the most corporate of media.

The theme of the teach-in was, in effect, how did our country get so screwed up. If you are a banker or a corporate mogul or a lobbyist, you would disagree with the whole premise. The country is doing great. Never been better.

I’m not any of them so I agree with the premise. That’s why I attended.

Picture a wall, because those of us in attendance did throughout the presentation. As we go about the business every day of pursuing our dreams, we are hitting a wall, we were reminded. It’s holding us all back. For the first time in American history, we are hearing, the next generation is unlikely to be better off than their parents.

Why is that? Because the rules of the game are made by the people who brought us the wall: Wall Street, along with the big corporations and the legislators in both parties who are owned by the corporations. In 1996, finance became manufacturing’s most powerful business, not production.

We were loaded with statistics throughout the presentation. Here are a few of them:

  • 90% of income goes to the top 10% of Americans.
  • 1% control 40% of the wealth.
  • 50% of the members of Congress are millionaires, compared to 1% of the general population.
  • From 1977 to 2007, income grew 224% for them; it grew 5% for the rest of us.
  • The average pay of the average CEO is 342 times that of the average worker.
  • Corporate lobbyists spend $2 million every hour that Congress is in session.

We are living in one of the most extreme times of inequality in our country’s history and the key lie that we are being fed is that the economy we see is natural; we must have system inequality; we can’t do anything.

We learned about the clash of values between people who make the rules and people who suffer under them:

  • Greed over the common good
  • Next quarter over next generation
  • Justice for some over justice for all

But we were also reminded that this isn’t the first time that the wall seemed too great to topple. We have replaced their values with ours before and instituted rules that benefited people at the bottom: Social Security, the GI Bill, Housing, Medicare, free education, public libraries.

Then in the early seventies, Wall Street started to rebuild the wall. They did this in part by changing the dialogue, with help from politicians and corporate media. Increasingly we came to learn that

  • Rich people know best; trickle-down economics will produce jobs.
  • Eliminating taxes and services, and having less government, will increase our well-being.
  • The foxes should guard the hen house; corporations can regulate themselves.
  • Money = speech; corporations = people.
  • Working together never pays off; you’re on your own; it’s every man for himself.
  • We should blame the victim; if you don’t succeed, it’s your fault—and if you succeed, you did it on your own.
  • Law makers needn’t live by our rules.
  • The demands unions make are crashing the economy.
  • Anything that helps people is socialism.
  • Corporate takeovers are normal.
  • Schools and governments should be run like businesses.
  • The United States is the policeman of the world.
  • If we work hard enough, we can all be in the 1%.
  • You can’t have both a clean environment and a good economy.
  • Alternative fuels can’t produce 100% of our energy needs; therefore, we should ignore them.

Lobbying money influenced politicians to rewrite the rules:

  • Finance rules were gutted.
  • Maintaining the budget became the burden of the 99%.
  • Industries were deregulated.
  • Wages were suppressed.
  • Unions were busted.
  • Jobs were sent overseas.
  • Environmental standards were weakened.
  • Work was taxed; wealth was rewarded.
  • College became more and more a privilege of the rich.

It almost seems too hard to even try to overcome—but that’s what they want us to think. In the same way that no bank is too big to fail, no financial disaster is too big to overcome.

But it takes work—and “woe is me” despair is no help at all.

To begin to tear down the wall, we have to begin by tearing down the divisions among us based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, immigrant status, and all the other reasons why ignorant minds bicker. There is such a thing as an economy that works for everyone but we need to begin changing the dialogue. The Occupy movement has begun the process. We’re reading more about jobs now than we are about “the deficit.” We can’t stop there.

The Rebuild the Dream coalition presented their 10-point plan to get us moving in the right direction:

  1. Invest in infrastructure.
  2. Create clean-energy jobs.
  3. Invest in public education.
  4. Offer Medicare for all.
  5. Make work pay.
  6. Secure Social Security.
  7. Return to fairer tax rates.
  8. End the wars and invest at home.
  9. Tax Wall Street speculation.
  10. Strengthen democracy.

What else can be done? What can you do? Suggestions from the audience:

  • Make it personal—change begins with you.
  • Move your money to credit unions.
  • Take your investments out of toxic corporations.
  • Don’t be silent.
  • Organize.
  • Be a whistle blower.
  • Reduce consumerism.
  • Be critical of the media.
  • Support alternative media.

Some people believe it’s fruitless to vote because politicians are owned by the lobbyists. Others believe that too many people died for the right to vote so voting is necessary if for no other reason than to honor their memory but also because the “lesser of two evils” argument actually can produce an evil that isn’t as bad an another evil. With all the reasons why Obama pisses off progressives, would you rather have had McCain-Palin than Obama-Biden? Also, change is much easier to make on the local level but only if you vote in local elections.

We’ve got our work cut out for us but we just may be moving in the right direction. The recent statewide elections picked up on the positive energy: Ohio voters defeated the anti-union Issue 2. Mississippi voters defeated a “personhood” amendment that would have made a fertilized egg a legal person under the state Constitution (I’m not making this shit up), Maine voters took back the right to register to vote on Election Day, gay and lesbian candidates won big in local elections, an ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation won in a landslide in Traverse City, Michigan, and the author of the anti-immigration policy that has prompted boycotts of Arizona lost in a recall election.

This is good. There’s more coming.