Rep. Jan Schakowsky’s glad to see folks participating in protests like Occupy Wall Street in New York, even if the demonstrations remain something of an enigma to her after watching them firsthand.
The Illinois Democrat is about as friendly an ally as the protesters are likely to encounter in Congress. As a member of President Obama’s deficit-reduction task force, Schakowsky rejected the panel’s majority approach, and instead put forward her own comprehensive progressive deficit-reduction plan, a proposal which would have cut the government’s red ink by more than Obama’s target while also protecting Social Security and other domestic spending programs from any budget cuts.
Now in her seventh term in the House, Schakowsky began her career decades ago as an activist and community organizer, working as program director of Illinois Public Action in the 1970s and ’80s.
Attending the Take Back the American Dream conference this week in Washington, she took time to talk with The Democratic Daily about the growing anti-Wall Street protests which have engulfed the area around Wall Street for more than two weeks now and have captured the imaginations of progressives everywhere.
Schakowsky says she had just gotten back from seeing Occupy Wall Street for herself.
“I actually was in New York over the weekend [and] briefly went down, quite late in the evening, and saw part of the protest: lots of young people, lots of energy,” she says. “I really don’t know much about it. I don’t know who’s organizing it or how. It seems like a lot of social media has helped to pull all that together.”
There remains much she needs to learn about the protests, however, she says, adding, “It’s not really focused on demands that I can see.”
That clear lack of demands — coupled with with the fact that mainstream media only recently started catching up with the story — has limited a broader understanding of the protests, Schakowsky says.
“I think it is a problem in really understanding what’s going on,” she says. “It’s now being reported in the media, which is a good thing. They talked about the [protesters’ takeover of the] Brooklyn Bridge, but what they focus on now are the arrests. When it comes to what do they want, it’s a little bit hard to articulate that.
“There is this sense that Wall Street helped to bring down the economy, that the rich are getting richer, kind of this income-disparity stuff. There are even some signs, apparently, for a four-day [work] week,” she adds. “There’s a lot of different messages coming out of there, I was going to say, [as reasons] for people to join it. But apparently, people are joining it.”
Even with its diffuse messages, the protests are a good sign, Schakowsky says.
“I don’t know if it’s just an outlet, right now, for discontent. But, frankly, I want to see people with their hair on fire, rather than feeling resigned to what the Republicans want to create as a new normal for our country. I want people to push back,” she says. “I want to find out more if it’s a movement, if it’s a phenomenon, if there’s any organization behind it, and what it really means. I don’t know.”
The House was on recess last week and Schakowsky says she hasn’t heard much discussion yet of the protests among her progressive colleagues on Capitol Hill, “nor has there been any particular effort to connect it with us.”
Putting a spotlight back on Wall Street and the actions there that led to the 2008 financial collapse is important because, unlike past financial wrongdoing, those responsible so far haven’t seen any consequences, Schakowsky says.
“I certainly like the idea of Wall Street being targeted. I think that not enough blame [has been assigned to the big banks], and Americans have a very short memory of how we got to where we are,” she says. “In the savings-and-loan crisis of the ‘80s, people were indicted and people went to jail. No consequences, really, for people on Wall Street. They may have lost some money, but it seems like they’re actually doing pretty well. Bonuses are back. They probably bet both sides, and these rich guys never really were hurt. So I think naming Wall Street as a problem here, in general, is a good thing.
“But I’d like to know more of the genesis [of the protests], their organizing strategy, and what the goal is,” she adds. “I don’t know what their goals are.”
Scott Nance is the editor and publisher of the news site The Washington Current. He has covered Congress and the federal government for more than a decade.