Lessons America's Founding Fathers can teach us about the Occupy movement

Individually, middle class Americans are generally powerless. But taken as a cohort, the American middle class is the single most powerful economic entity that has ever existed.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

All photos courtesy fellow ZDNet blogger Michael Krigsman. See his amazing Flickr stream.

Unless you live under a rock, you're quite well aware of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It's been going on for a month in New York, and there are splinter movements going on in major cities throughout the world.

And yet, a lot of us live under a rock.

A lot of us are only tangentially aware that there's a major meatspace event taking place across the world, fueled by the Babel that is cyberspace. A lot of us aren't in the big cities and a lot of us are far more concerned with making ends meet than with the latest protestor Meetups.

And yet, this is important stuff, worthy of attention and discourse.

There's talk of 99-percenters and 1-percenters, of have-nots and haves, of huge income disparity and bail-outs, of unions and disunity. The #OWS movement is both important and curious. It deserves attention here in ZDNet Government, especially since this is a story made possible primarily through social media.

I am not, by nature, a protestor. I've always thought it would be easier to be The Man than try to get on The Man's friends-and-family calling plan. I gave up sleeping in tents once I got my Eagle Scout award, lo those many decades ago. I much prefer room service at the Four Seasons over self-service or sleeping on the ground in a park. I respect the time-honored tradition of protest by peaceful assembly, but I'm just not a take-to-the-streets kind of guy.

But I do feel it's necessary to speak truth to power. That, more than anything else, is why I write. There are many ways individuals can be heard. Some of us write. Some of us are even fortunate enough to have big readerships and relationships with Washington insiders, so what we say is heard farther and wider -- and sometimes even listened to and acted upon.

Others protest. Even if you don't have an audience, a gig, or writing chops, merely showing up can be an act of enormous power.

Although I don't really identify with the current Tea Party movement, the real tea party, the original tea part was such an act. It was criminal, of course. It was destructive. And as such, if it happened today, it would not be something we could or should tolerate. But it was an act of desperation, it was a marketing effort, and it got attention. The backlash it created resulted in a series of Coercive Act laws that further restricted the colonists.

When old Sam Adams called for his big meeting in Faneuil Hall on November 29, 1773, the meeting that led to the world's most famous mass tea-acide, he knew he was poking at a hornet's nest. He didn't quite know what would happen, but he knew stirring up anger would disrupt, and that would be good enough.

By the way, these wonderful pictures by Michael Krigsman you're looking at were also taken in Boston.

The destruction of the tea forced King George to react, and he reacted by making things worse. It was that making things worse that eventually led to the revolution and American independence.

It is with this in mind that we must think about the Occupy movements. It is important to understand that many Americans are hurting. Many Americans are unemployed and others are under-employed. Our people are having trouble making ends meet.

Even as millions clamor to buy an iPhone 4S or Kindle Fire, the price of a box of Corn Flakes has jumped 33% since 2008, while at the same time, median household income during the same period fell by about 10%.

In 2005, the average price for a gallon of gas was $1.83. By contrast, as of last May, the cost of a gallon was between $3.70 and $4.14, depending on where you live in the U.S. and right now, in my neighborhood, it's $3.35 a gallon.

The bottom line is simple: when, in a few short years, basic food costs (the price of Corn Flakes is a fair indicator) go up 33%, gas prices almost double, and income goes down 10%, people are going to be freaked out and angry.

Worse, most middle class Americans can't sustain much more of a cost-to-income slam and remain in the middle class. Many are underwater as it is.

News flash: it's the American middle class that drives everything in the world economy. Everything. Without a strong American middle class, the economic consumption engine will not turn over.

And that, Dear Reader, is why Occupy Wall Street is important. It's not that this group (such as it is) is more important or more relevant that any other group. It's not that Wall Street is even really the issue (although I, too, was personally enraged at audacity and mendacity of the Wall Street and banking bailouts).

#OWS isn't even important because of the rising income disparity between the haves and the used-to-haves.

Instead, the Occupy movements are important because they are an indicator that we've reached something of a boiling point. They reflect -- whether completely spontaneous, as the PR would have you believe, or organized by some agenda-wielding socialist-pinko cabal, as some others would have you believe -- they reflect a worldwide pissed-off-edness that could be a prelude to chaos.

The lessons of the original tea party are important, both for participants in the current protests and for our political leaders.

Peaceful protesting is an American right, the quintessence of the spirit of First Amendment to the United States Constitution. On the other hand, no government -- no government, whether local or national -- can stand by and accept acts of violence on its citizens or their property.

Should #OWS turn violent, local governments and the federal government will have to crack down. This would be the right-action of governance, for the greater good. However, should #OWS turn violent, and then, should the government crack down, it will all turn very ugly, very, very quickly.

This, then, is the fine line that the protestors and our politicians must tread. The protestors, if they choose to continue, must continue their protests in a non-violent fashion. New York's Finest (and those in similar roles, throughout the world), must maintain the peace by actually maintaining the peace. Each individual officer on the street must be slow to react in anger and thoughtful in all dealings with the protestors.

Bizarre as it may seem, we're witnessing something of a dance between civil servants and protestors, a dance where one or the other will need to lead at different times, and a dance that must not become a danse macabre.

Make no mistake about it. American economic policy has been flawed this last decade or so. Banks, healthcare providers, financial manipulators, and the politicians who suck at their teats have taken the American middle class both for granted and for a ride.

Individually, middle class Americans are generally powerless. But taken as a cohort, the American middle class of 2011 is the single most powerful economic entity that has ever existed on Planet Earth.

As we move forward to a year of primaries and elections, it would be wise for those who seek to govern and those who seek to continue to govern to remember that their true constituency is not their billionaire benefactors, but Ma and Pa Mainstreet.

For without the middle class, no other economic class will survive unharmed.

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