The Occupy Wall Street protest is well into its second month and itís still not clear what the goals are. The position of the protesters seems to be something Yogi Berra might have said: ďWe donít really know what we want and weíre not going to leave until we get it.Ē
In St. Louis the message is even more confusing. On a recent night the Occupy St. Louis encampment in Kiener Plaza featured signs one would find in other cities: denunciations of corporate greed, unequal distribution of wealth etc. There was also a large banner that said, ďGo Cards from the 99%.Ē
Think about it. The same people who condemn greedy, overpaid executives were making a public declaration of their support for athletes who think a salary of $15 million per year is inadequate. Protesters who decry government bailouts for corporations simultaneously proclaimed their allegiance to a baseball team -- a business that receives government subsidies and tax breaks. One could easily understand the puzzled looks on the faces of passersby who wondered what exactly are the demonstrators for or against.
Itís not immediately clear why the St. Louis demonstrators put their camp across the street from the local office of Bank of America; and why the protests around the country are focused on financial institutions. There are highly compensated executives in every industry. A list of the highest paid executives in St. Louis would certainly include officers of financial companies. But the list would also include executives from a lot of other industries.
Why is there no Occupy Detroit Movement? U.S. auto companies received huge government bailouts and these executives are also paid very, very well. Why is there no Occupy Hollywood movement? There are people in the entertainment industry who make as much money as the fattest cats on Wall Street.
To the extent that the protests reflect popular anxiety over globalization, itís somewhat ironic that theyíre aimed primarily at the financial industry. This is one area in which America is able to compete effectively in the global economy. Globalization has been blamed for much greater job losses in the American manufacturing sector than in the financial sector. Yet the wrath of the protesters is directed at bankers, not at the manufacturers who moved production overseas.
The St. Louis protest raises the additional question: Why demonstrate in front of Bank of America? Itís not a local company? Why not camp in front of the headquarters of company thatís based in St. Louis? If the purpose of the protests is to bring about some kind of change, doesnít it make sense to protest in front of those who have the authority to implement these changes? Why demonstrate in front of a branch office that takes its orders from a corporate headquarters hundreds of miles away? Wouldnít it make more sense to protest directly to decision-makers at the top of the corporate chain of command?
Actually, thereís a simple explanation for the decision by protesters in St. Louis, like their counterparts around the country, to demonstrate downtown. Itís the same rationale given for climbing Mount Everest: Because itís there. Metropolitan areas need common spaces in their urban cores where citizens can collectively express their opinions. From McPherson Square in Washington, DC to Zuccotti Park in Manhattan to Kiener Plaza in St. Louis, public places in the hearts of cities provide necessary venues for citizens to voice their sentiments. Our democracy requires venues like these, even if the citizens who occupy them sometimes have messages that arenít totally comprehensible.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Tom Schlafly is an attorney in St. Louis.