Our Humanity, Naturally

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What the Occupy Wall Street Protesters Want

Constitutional amendment on corporations is a starting point

To celebrate John Lennon's birthday last weekend, my son and I drove to Manhattan to join Occupy Wall Street for a day. Nothing like a good peaceful protest in the park to honor the memory of a man who knew how to challenge authority. The constant drumming, the speeches, the pamphlets and literature, the clever signs ("I'll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one") and, most importantly, the solidarity of thousands of others who recognize the need for fundamental change - all of this made for a rich experience for a teenager, never mind his old man.

As Andrew Young, a veteran of the civil rights movement, has said, it remains to be seen whether OWS will rise to the level of a real movement. "There's a difference between an emotional outcry and a movement," Young correctly pointed out. Still, with news yesterday that Lech Walesa, the Solidarity leader who later became Poland's president, is traveling to New York to join the protests, there is reason for optimism in Zuccotti Park and beyond.

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Knowing that OWS has been criticized for lacking a clear policy agenda, one thing I tried to discern from my day in the park was whether the protestors have any agreement on a common goal. Press reports seem to suggest that the group is aimless, totally lacking a coherent agenda, but that's not what I found. Though the group would never be mistaken for a unified political party with a platform, there seemed to be more unanimity, at least among those with whom I spoke, than media reports suggest.

In fact, although the general anti-corporatism theme of the protest has been reported widely, a more detailed policy aim that seemed to frequently come up in conversation has not. That policy aim is very specific: a constitutional amendment addressing corporate personhood and redefining the role of corporations. I'm baffled that, having come away from one day at OWS with a clear understanding that this policy objective is important to the protestors, it seems to be unnoticed by journalists much more experienced than myself. A constitutional amendment surely is not the only thing the demonstrators want, but there can be no doubt that it is an important part of the early conversation.

And this shouldn't be surprising. It would arguably be an understatement to suggest that unrestrained corporate interests represent a threat to democracy, because in many ways they have already decimated it. America's anti-intellectualism, the political powerlessness of its ordinary citizens, and the society's mind-numbing consumption mentality - all of these trace back to corporate origins. Banks that are too big to fail, institutions that receive billions in bailouts but still pay their officers perverse salaries, companies that promote themselves as patriotic but then move jobs and tax residence overseas - all of these are the result of fictional corporate persons with no innate moral sense.

Despite this, the issue of corporate influence is almost never mentioned seriously as a key issue in American political campaigns. Candidates talk of taxes, the deficit, spending cuts, foreign policy, and occasional social issues, but they never squarely face the central issue that dwarfs all others in importance: corporate power. In fact, when minimal efforts are made to chip away at the undue dominance of corporate interests, these attempts to return democracy to flesh-and-blood persons are struck down by Supreme Court rulings such as last year's Citizens United decision. As a result, we have corporate-financed politicians, in the wake of an economy destroyed by unregulated financial interests, seriously arguing that the problem with America is too much regulation. Is there any wonder that real people are taking to the streets?

Indeed, if OWS grows into a real movement, it could be more directly systemic than any in history. That is, although other protest movements have targeted specific issues - anti-war, civil rights, women's right, no nukes, etc. - OWS challenges at a fundamental level the power of the corporate institutions that actually control the economic and political system itself, the megacorporations that Adam Smith would have found appalling to honest capitalism. It will be an interesting phenomenon to follow in the weeks and months ahead.

Pre-order Dave's new book, Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans, here.

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Dave Niose is an attorney, activist, and writer. He is president of the Washington-based American Humanist Association.

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