Voices of “The 99%” Heard in Protests Across Nation

This week, a 3 week-long protest against economic injustice and inequality in the Financial District in New York City gathered momentum as approximately 20,000 people joined a march in solidarity and similar protests against the excesses of Wall Street spread to almost every other state, fueled by a rising sense of urgency on the economy. The “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York was bolstered by a huge rally on Wednesday organized by labor unions and community groups loudly proclaiming their support for the core group of protesters who have been occupying a plaza a few blocks away from the New York Stock Exchange. As progressive leaders and many elected officials — including state legislators — begin to lend their support to the still-fledgling protest, many are repeating one core message emerging out of the diffuse and leaderless movement: underscoring the increasingly deep economic divide in this country separating the super-wealthy from the 99% of Americans who have borne nearly the entire brunt of the Great Recession and its aftermath.

The show of solidarity for the protest from community groups and unions in New York this week reflected similar efforts by groups and individuals across the nation to do what they could to support an effort which is beginning to have a significant impact on the national debate around jobs and the economy. “We're not trying to grab the steering wheel or to control it,” explained Michael Kink, executive director of Strong Economy For All, a New York coalition of community groups, to one reporter. “We're looking to find common cause and support the effort. It's the right fight at the right time, and we want to be part of it.” Other leaders in the broader progressive movement seemed to follow a similar approach this week. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka released a statement stating, “We support the protesters in their determination to hold Wall Street accountable and create good jobs. We are proud that... bus drivers, painters, nurses and utility workers will join students and homeowners, the unemployed and the underemployed to call for fundamental change.” And Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold told supporters that he was encouraged by the fact that “people around the country are finally organizing to stand up to the huge influence of corporations on government and our lives,” adding that he thought “this kind of citizen reaction to corporate power and corporate greed is long overdue.”

As groups and individuals in states around the nation voice their support, more and more protests are also popping up in their own backyards — including in many state capitals. A count of solidarity rallies and “occupations” around the nation by Daily Kos has mapped over 200 such efforts that have either taken place or are in the planning stages across the 50 states. Elected officials from around the nation are also making their way to the main protest site in New York itself to show their support. Speaking at a General Assembly meeting at the site last week, Kansas State Sen. Marci Francisco promised the assembled crowd, "I will take back what I've seen to Kansas."

This rapid national surge of institutional and political support for what was only a few days ago a largely unnoticed gathering of protesters is happening as more and more evidence emerges of a rising sense of economic insecurity among the 99% of Americans who have been left out of the recovery. A survey published this week found that one in three Americans were worried they would not be able to pay their rent or mortgage for more than one month if they were to lose their job. The Census Bureau released numbers last month showing median household income falling and poverty rising. And a new study in a publication by the International Monetary Fund this week reinforced the danger of rising income inequality of the type we are currently seeing in the United States, noting that it threatens to kill national economic growth.

Meanwhile, in the absence of progress on a jobs bill in Congress, states are also continuing to pursue cuts that undermine economic growth and add to the sense of insecurity. Whether they are passing cuts on to cities and localities, enacting cuts that target the most vulnerable, or requiring broad cuts across entire programs that have no fat left to trim, many states are finding themselves themselves compounding economic problems for working families with devastating cuts, three full years after the recession began. Policymakers in states could take a cue from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s advice to Congress this week where he warned against cutting federal spending, saying “we need to make sure that the recovery continues and doesn't drop back and that the unemployment rate continues to fall downward.”

As the protests against Wall Street continue to evolve, it is the fate of the economic security of the 99% of Americans who have been left out of the recovery, and feel increasingly left out of the political process, that is quickly becoming the frame through which they are being viewed by observers across the country.

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