Occupy Wall Street has become a multi-headed hydra of a protest. Once a strong drink, too many ice cubes have been added to the glass. As it spreads around the country its power dilutes, until you are left with a movement that is, in some places, a mere shadow of its former self. Lost in the tensions between the protesters and City Halls, the allegations of crimes, squalor and vandalism in the camp sites, and the understandable outrage that Occupy represents is a larger picture. This is perhaps the most mainstream recognition yet of classism's role as the major segregating factor in America. What borders were once drawn around race, religion or ethnicity have since been replaced by a single line: the bottom line.
Occupy is not limited to one age or race; the heterogenous crowds that have been flooding cities and towns across the country are composed of a cross-section nearly unprecedented in its variety. They have channeled their anger not into stopping immigrants from "stealing" jobs, or bemoaning blacks and Latinos moving into white neighborhoods; there is no advocation of some sort of race war or a desire to discriminate against the LGBT community. This group has moved past those ploys, which has held them back from taking action before. United against a greater threat, they now take aim at the the financial titans and demigods who make up the One Percent, the top wage earners in the United States, the Haves who have kept them Have Nots. This is the class warfare that the top has feared.
It may be impossible to determine when class replaced race as the main cause of division in our society, but the 1980's would be as good a place as any to start. Trickle down economic theories and the lowering of the top marginal tax rate for individuals, combined with the reductions in business income taxes, set the stage for the dizzying heights that Wall Street has so recently fallen from. As the top climbed higher and higher, the gap between the two sides of America expanded so rapidly that it has left the middle class in tatters.
How can a small group of extremely rich and supremely powerful individuals walk out the back door holding the sacks with dollar signs on them? It is simple if the people they are stealing from are too busy fighting with each other. An enemy must be placed to placate the crowds and distract them from the get away. For a time, racism was that decoy. With the death of Jim Crow and the slowly turning tide on Civil Rights, new villains were needed with which to divide and conquer. Illegal immigrants were a popular choice, filling a role they have held since the nation's youth. Joining them was the lower class, the people for whom the middle and top should be feeling at the least sympathy and at the most empathy.
Racist hate utilized stereotypes and generalizations to demean a group of people until one dehumanized them completely. Once this was achieved, they become less than human beings, scapegoats for larger issues and a common enemy for the other side. The new martyrs in America are the welfare state and the homeless. These groups constitute the two lowest classes in America; the "them" to keep away from "us". They are categorized as lazy and unintelligent--parasitic leeches sucking us red-blooded, hard working patriots dry. "I work hard for my money," the party line goes. "Why should I have to pay for a lazy drug fiend, a money sink with a rabbit-like talent for reproduction to keep the checks coming in?" They should be forced to take drug tests, to account for all their spending and to participate in Work for Welfare programs. The homeless are to be feared and chastised, to blame for urban decay and held up as the ultimate examples of those who just could not survive the great meritocracy.
Lost in this general hatred was the fact that many of these people are similarly hard working citizens who have simply fallen on hard times. As the middle and upper classes began to be devoured by the crash, a new realization began to take hold: anyone can plummet into the Welfare State. Anyone can become homeless. Anyone can fall below the new dividing line. One could not simply wake up in the 1950s or 1960s and suddenly turn black, facing all of the stigmas and suppressions that came with that position. But all could fall on hard times.
This frightening epiphany has been combined with the red handed apprehension of the financial titans at the controls of this economic tailspin to spur the kind of anger we are now seeing as Occupy. These rich do not give back; at least the old Captains of Industry provided infrastructure and work. Financial alchemy had become our new economic engine and when we realized that we were making money off of making money, the entire thing ground to a halt. The dumbfounding mystery of it all, how something so nebulous could produce golden parachutes so wondrous, simply salts the wound.
There is a saying: "There but for the grace of God go I." We have realized now how gossamer that grace may be. And we are mad.