First it was the teachers occupying the statehouse in Wisconsin to highlight the importance of collective bargaining rights to their middle-class existence. Now throngs of young people and their supporters have organized a sleep-in at America's epicenter of greed to push their grievance that our country is run by and for plutocrats.
In its broadest terms, the Occupy Wall Street protest is over the nation's gaping economic inequality. The protesters, while largely leaderless, have for weeks been braving the elements, mass arrests and pepper-spray-bearing police to represent the "99 percent" of Americans for whom there are no government bailouts.
They want to know why nearly 25 percent of the income and 40 percent of this nation's wealth are in the hands of the top 1 percent of Americans. Why is it that so many of Wall Street's bankers whose recklessness and self-dealing brought the country to the brink of financial disaster are still earning a king's ransom (never mind not in jail) while the rest of the country is desperately mired in the doldrums they caused?
This is a message that resonates. The nascent "99 percent" movement has uncorked a spigot of populist anger and frustration that has spawned sympathetic "Occupy America" actions in major cities across the country, including in Tampa last week.
Is this an awakening of some good old-fashioned Woody Guthrie class consciousness? Will yesterday's rallying song This Land is Your Land become the ringtone of today?
It's too soon to tell, but it behooves those on Wall Street and their Washington handmaidens to pay attention.
Just think of the Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi, from whose fiery self-immolation sprang the Arab Spring; or Indian anticorruption activist Anna Hazare, who turned the world's attention to the rampant graft of his government with a hunger strike until India's Parliament acceded to some of his demands.
America started with a revolution, it should be remembered. We have been spirited before in demanding economic and social justice.
You can thank the Bonus Army in 1932 for helping usher in the age of the New Deal. When thousands of hungry, desperate veterans of World War I and their families descended on Washington to demand an early payment of a service bonus, President Herbert Hoover sent in the military to rout the mostly peaceable activists. Troops used sabers, gas and bayonets, and burned protesters' makeshift camps in an aggressive overreaction that turned people more potently against Hoover's do-nothing administration.
America's middle class rose out of the December 1936 sit-down strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., which started when a group of night shift workers refused to load dies that were being moved to a plant with a weaker union. In trying to protect their jobs, the workers locked themselves in their factory for 44 days, withstanding police attempts to break the strike. A call for solidarity brought 150,000 people to Cadillac Square in Detroit. In the end, GM signed an agreement with the United Auto Workers. The action emboldened industrial workers across the country to make wage and working condition demands, giving rank-and-file workers real power for the first time.
Throughout most of the latter part of the 20th century Americans have employed collective action to obtain civil rights and economic fairness for African-Americans, women and gays and lesbians. It's just recently that we stopped exercising this muscle.
But now that the richest 1 percent have backed the rest of us into a corner — a corner without health care, decent wages and jobs that are not in danger of being outsourced — we have no choice but to organize and fight. Leaders in Washington have shown they won't champion progressive reforms unless pushed.
The growth and resilience of the Wall Street protests remind us that there is power in taking to the streets to demand change. We've done it effectively in the past. And if enough people join up and speak up, even the plutocrats will have to listen.