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Heightening the contradictions on Wall Street

The #occupywallstreet protests lead to unconscionable actions by the NYPD, including pepper-spraying peaceful woman protesters. It would be nice if the protesters were more focused, but the bottom line is they're sounding the alarm for social change in America.

One of the many things I learned when I read Rick Perlstein's fantastic epic "Nixonland," arguably the best political tome of the last decade or so, was about a phrase that was once popular with leftist demonstrators: "Heighten the contradictions." Simply put, it meant that provoking The Establishment -- especially the police -- into a violent overreaction was, in essence, a good thing, because it would prove the true brutality of the reactionary regime they were fighting.

When I first heard and then wrote a couple of blog posts about #OccupyWallStreet, it occured to me that the thing would probably never get any real media attention unless the NYPD seriously overreacted -- and there was likely no way the police would, to paraphrase a famous American political figure, "act stupidly" and do that.

Shows how much I know.

Whatever you think of the smallish but hearty band of left-wing protesters trying to create Tahrir-Square-on-the-Hudson, the arrest of some 80-90 people yesterday(some of them were arrested only for "resisting arrest" can you you "resist arrest" if you haven't committed any other crime?) and -- more seriously -- the pepper-spraying of peaceful demonstrators is at the least over-the-top and at the worst, in the case of the cowardly lawman pepper-spraying a young woman for absolutely no apparent reason (picture above, video below), unconscionable and immoral. New York's Mayor Bloomberg -- who's readily available to glibly talk about the failings of the GOP presidential field -- needs instead to explain why his city is becoming a no-free-speech zone.

As for the protest goes on, and the arrests and police brutality may well have breathed new life into them. The debate over the "occupation" of lower Manhattan -- a discussion I helped trigger last week -- seems to have divided liberals into two camps: A) These are spoiled kids who don't know anything about Wall Street or even what they want to accomplish, or B) their lack of focus isn't the issue, but rather a sign that "the other 99 percent" are finally fed up with the accumulation of wealth and power in the hands of a small American oligarchy...and thus the start of something more powerful. And something to be cheered.

I see some logic in the A) position -- it would be nice to see some actual goals (prosecuting the crookson Wall Street?...just a friendly suggestion) and I think a protest could be much more powerful with simple organization like recruiting advocates for the 25 million unemployed and underemployed Americans. Unfortunately, the people who called for this protest disdain "organization" -- I think that's a mistake. But still my sympathies are clearly with the B) position -- I applaud people for at least doing something, and there's plenty of time to coalesce around a message. The NYPD, by so foolishly heightening the contradictions, probably bought them even more time.

Meanwhile, some of the media have reacted predictably: by answering calls for coverage of the protest by covering how silly they think the whole thing is. The New York Times took that snooty and dismissive approach when it weighed in with its long overdue piece on the protest in its backyard:

The group's lack of cohesion and its apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably is unsettling in the face of the challenges so many of its generation face — finding work, repaying student loans, figuring out ways to finish college when money has run out. But what were the chances that its members were going to receive the attention they so richly deserve carrying signs like "Even if the World Were to End Tomorrow I'd Still Plant a Tree Today"?

I thought the reasoned reaction of some Times readers were more eloquent than anything I could say, so here's a couple:

What we have is a growing group, all over the US, of unemployed young people with expensive degrees with few prospects of anything other than a job at Walmart or McDonalds. They grew up in a world of middle-class expectations. They are facing a third-world future as debt slaves in depressing soul-crushing jobs. They are angry, full of youthful energy, and are seeking a purpose. This country is shooting itself in the foot if we don't get together to make this economy work for them. I feel sorry for these kids and I feel sorry for all of us that we've allowed this situation to develop and continue. And, yes, these kids may not have a coherent message but they're in the right place. Previous generations (including my own just before them) have screwed up so badly that our only hope is that these kids can figure it out and dig us all out. I wish them well and I'm rooting for them. -- Laura from New Jersey.

Protests like this one are a reaction against a failed system.The facts associated with the failure are as clear as a bell but they are ignored or whispered about within the mainstream media and reporters such as this one work hard to demean the efforts of these people in hopes it will all go away because they are just "kids" who somehow don't have the answer to what is a deep and critical problem. As others have mentioned, if this were a Tea Party group there would be all kinds of dramatic coverage. There is not simply because the mainstream media are as culpable as those the protestors are confronting directly.-- J. Hallett, Delray Beach, Fla.

I'm reminded of what happened at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama in 1965. 1) A smallish, young vanguard of the civil rights movement marched for the right to vote 2) The police overreacted with thugish brutality 3) The "grown-ups" like Dr. Martin Luther King rallied to the cause and led the Selma-to-Montgomery march across the bridge 4) the result was the Voting Rights Act of 1965, still arguably the most significant federal law of the last half-century.

Meanwhile, down on Wall Street, the whole world isn't watching...yet.