In the course of my duties as a PhD student here at the University of Alabama, I have had to teach Public Administration. It is not a fun class; the books on the subject are often reactionary in ideology, the material itself is dry, and the specificities of government infrastructure is a bit much for my 200-level students to handle. As most undergrad political science majors do, they want to talk about elections. They want to talk about social movements. They want to talk about the exciting stuff that they see all the powerful people do on MSNBC or FOX or House of Cards.
In that sense, they are no different from their older counterparts. After all, no one is talking about the state legislative races that will determine most of the policies that affect American lives daily; rather we get 24-7 coverage of a presidential race that does not have its first primary contest for another nine months. Yet both groups of people should realize that activism and frontline politics is but one side of the coin; policy and administration is the other.
The Occupy movement took off right as I was entering my PhD program. It was a sight to behold, and the way in which it transformed American political dialogue is something that we will be grappling with for a long time. It used to be that poverty and inequality were framed as personal failings, things that only a hard work ethic can fix. Now you have elected officials like U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) releasing plans for combatting poverty (horrible as they might be) and the same Barack Obama who chastised parents on the campaign trail in 2008 for “getting that cold Popeyes out for breakfast” to feed their children would introduce a program six years later (flawed as that was also) that would dedicate resources to young Black men in urban areas for education.
Yet amidst all the plans and the discussion, we have seen very little in the way of concrete measures aimed at redistributing wealth and closing inequalities. And if you peruse the website of the NYC General Assembly, the organization that kicked off the Occupy movement, it is hard to find anything in the realm of concrete demands. The closest that you will come is their Principles of Solidarity, which is less a list of demands than it is a loose statement of ideologies that underpin the movement. And good luck wading through the fifty documents under the Demands tag, which appear to be little more than minutes from a committee meeting.
As easy as it may be to pin this solely on Occupy, it is not limited to just them. The most concrete proposals to come out of the police slayings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner last summer are to fit every police officer with a body camera. That seems like a good idea until you remember that Eric Garner’s murder was captured on film, in addition to the fact that he was killed in broad daylight on a busy street corner in Staten Island. The rest of the demands from assorted groups are no less ephemeral than Occupy: truth and reconciliation commissions (typically done after any hope for justice is lost, since no one who has been involved in police brutality would ever forgo their right against self-incrimination), Congressional hearings into police abuse (to what end, no one is particularly sure), and more effective community oversight (with a civilian review board? a streamlined complaint system?). One list of demands even calls for President Obama’s administration to “develop, legislate, and enact” a “National Plan For Racial Justice”. Aside from the fact that the President cannot legislate anything, the details of such a plan are largely left to the imagination.
Given all this, it is little wonder why we have not seen any movement on these issues legislatively or administratively.
The opposite side of that coin, of course, is the Fight For 15 movement. What are the demands of this movement? Well, it is right there in the title: fast-food workers are fighting for a minimum wage of $15 per hour, which would bring some of America’s most vulnerable members of the working class to a living wage in most areas of the country. While fast-food workers demanding such a wage would have been thought laughable just a few years ago, the movement has scored successes in Seattle and San Francisco, and Portland, OR has raised its minimum wage for city employees to $15 an hour. Even by those standards, the movement would have been considered one of the more successful ones initiated by the working class and their allied organizations (labor unions such as SEIU have greatly assisted in the Fight For 15 effort) in the last generation.
But it did not stop there. The 2014 elections saw minimum wage increases on the ballots in several states, and some of the ones that voted Yes may surprise you: Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota are on no one’s list of most labor-friendly political environments, and yet those states all voted to increase the minimum wage by substantial margins. In fact, the victories in these states were probably the only highlight in an election that saw Republicans win eleven more state legislative chambers and take back the U.S. Senate. The issue also featured prominently in the last dash to the polls in Chicago’s just-concluded mayoral election, where challenger and Cook County Commissioner Jesus “Chuy” Garcia has come out in favor of a $15 minimum wage for employees of the city’s public school system, which has been decimated by budget cuts and closings under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
There are many factors that go into organizing on different issues, and I am not trying to make the case that there are tight parallels between organizing around law enforcement issues and doing the same with regards to the economy. But Occupy and the protests of police violence have failed to “make it plain” and give people something that they can take into their communities and begin mobilizing for social change. That has to change if we are to see the working class build enough power to dismantle the structures that holds progress back.