A year ago, New Yorkers watched in horror as voters in the heartland of Wisconsin replaced progressive standard-bearer Russ Feingold with a Tea Party mega-millionaire and the state’s capitol came under the control of self-described Tea Party Republicans. Months later, the impact of that electoral change became clear when Governor Scott Walker unleashed attacks on the right to organize, to engage in collective bargaining, to access health care, food, shelter and a quality education, and even on the right to vote.
Walker and his cohorts were elected because hundreds of thousands of young people and poor people, alienated by the failures of the political system, chose not to vote. They’d voted in 2008 in record numbers. But in 2010, after the Obama administration and congressional Democrats failed to end the wars or deliver a new deal for America’s poor and young people, the turnout was just not there for Wisconsin Democrats. Walker took power, and took ever more power away from regular people.
Recent politics have predominately been a struggle between the far-right and the left. Some went so far as to say that Wisconsinites deserved what they got. But the state that birthed the Progressive Party is not the state most riddled with Tea Party supporters; it is the state where people stood up to them first and hardest. The corporate funders of the Tea Party movement may hearken back to the Revolutionary era, yet what they call for is not revolution, but reaction. They want to go back in time. When they speak of the Founding Fathers, they often mean the time before the end of slavery, before labor unions were legalized, before women were considered people under law, before the civil rights era and before the environmental movement. In fact, many of them seem to want to go back to the time before the Boston Tea Party itself, to the days when only the propertied elite could vote.
What makes Occupy Wall Street, which in caricature has been depicted as the left’s answer to the contemporary Tea Party movement, different from its far-right “counterpart”?
FROM THE LIBERTY TREE TO LIBERTY SQUARE
As workers walk Wall Street every day, they traverse an African burial ground, passing over many layers of history without a thought. Let us add, in the twenty-first century, another layer. Liberty Square is the twenty-first century Liberty Tree. If you want to understand what is happening there, imagine: Under the Liberty
Tree that stood in Boston Common, early in the first American Revolution, any and all could come to air their grievances and hammer out solutions collectively, and it was there the promise of American democracy first took root. We are reclaiming a democratic practice in Liberty Square.
The fomenters of the American Revolution included people of many classes, and many more ethnicities, genders, and races than our high school history books tell. Working-class radicals worked the Boston docks, among them Crispus Attucks. There were artisans like Paul and Rachel Revere, lawyers and agitators like John and Sam Adams. The Liberty Tree was a place where all these people—many who would not have ordinarily associated with one another—could gather and unite in common cause. The biggest act of sabotage against a multinational corporation in American history began with a gathering at the Liberty Tree. That act was the Boston Tea Party.
IMPASSIONED & PROGRESSIVE
We in the occupation at Wall Street have been compared by news media to the contemporary Tea Party movement. Is this because they seem to be impassioned and we also are impassioned? Is it because they use the rhetoric of revolution? Is passion and conviction now the domain of the Tea Party? They’ve appropriated it? And anyone who also speaks of the American Revolution with passion must worry about being associated with them? Some fear the nonviolent direct action being taken at Liberty Square. They are afraid of being too impolite, too disruptive, as they ask for progress—they are afraid of appearing as fringe fanatics like the Tea Party.
Many of us in Liberty Square also hearken to the efforts of the revolutionaries of 1776. It seems both sides are eager to employ the language of revolution. What makes us fundamentally different from the new Tea Party movement is that our revolution descends from a multitude of revolutions: the abolitionist movement, the workers’ rights movement, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the feminist and queer liberation movements, the environmental movement. We take great pride in the advancements of this country under all the movements for equal social, racial, gender and economic rights since this country was first founded. We love our country for its progress on these fronts. We believe in seeing more progress on these fronts. The Tea Party can only look back. We move with the flow of history, looking forward.
With contributions from B.R. Manski and Rizzo.