Richard Reeves

Which Side Are You On!

LOS ANGELES -- I am all for Occupy Wall Street -- and a lot of other places -- but I wish I understood where this is going. And why it took so long to get going.

"When men can speak in liberty, you can bet they won't act," a Philadelphia lawyer named Charles Ingersoll told Alexis de Tocqueville almost 200 years ago as the French writer traveled the United States (24 of them) taking notes for what would become his great work, "Democracy in America."

The United States has followed that line for most of its history, and it has generally worked. Because of Ingersoll's words, I was chilled a bit by the fact that New York City has denied the Occupy people the liberty of a sound system to allow them to speak to more than just the people within earshot.

Does the government want to mute the cries of the "99 percenters"? That would be a great mistake, and I'm sure officials around the country know that. As a veteran of both civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests, I know that when authority uses all the powers at its disposal -- including shooting people -- that is when the rebellion begins. That was what Ingersoll was talking about.

This is not Syria. If the police and their bosses use force against these people in these troubled times, they will reap the whirlwind. So far, the closest historical parallel to these pained cries of people -- people who are losing their livelihoods, even the fabric of their lives -- is the Bonus March of 1931, when World War I veterans marched on Washington during the administration of Herbert Hoover and camped out around the city to demand early payment of their bonuses. They were dismissed as a rabble, as Occupiers are beginning to be branded now. The 1931 protest ended in violence. Troops commanded by Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur charged on horses into the veterans' "Hoovervilles," driving the protesters from the city.

In fairness, Hoover had ordered the Army not to use violence, but in the aftermath he said: "Thank God we still have a government in Washington that knows how to deal with a mob."

In New York, listening to the radio, the governor of the state, Franklin D. Roosevelt, turned to a friend and talked big change.

"Felix," said Roosevelt to Felix Frankfurter, "this elects me president."

If this confusing movement has the momentum, and the government -- local, state and federal -- has to confront the Occupiers, it will change the politics of the country. People will have to choose sides: order or change.

This may be a momentary thing, a flash in the pan, but the pan is hot, people are hurting, and they do believe they are being robbed by the top 1 percent. The income of the middle class is falling as a few bankers and such are making more than ever -- even though they were a big cause of the collapse of the national economy.

This is powerful stuff. American stuff. Steve Lopez, a Los Angeles Times columnist who stayed in the Occupy tent city around Los Angeles City Hall, recorded the messages on some of the placards around him.

"We Are Not Overthrowing a Democracy, We Are Restoring One," said one.

Another quoted Steve Jobs: "The People Who Are Crazy Enough to Think They Can Change the World Are the Ones That Do."

But the most powerful numbers of the day are not 99 and 1. They are something like 20 and 400. When I wrote about Tocqueville in the 1970s, the salary ratio between chief executive officers and their lowest-paid workers was in the 20s. Now it is more than 400 or so, and that doesn't include bonuses and extended pension plans.

Pay inequality has triggered many a revolution over the centuries. There comes a day when ordinary people have to answer the question:

Which side are you on! Which side are you on!

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