Where's the Rage? Recession Sparks Mild Protests

The economy fuels massive demonstrations everywhere but here.

March 17, 2009, 10:43 AM

March 18, 2009— -- There's been no shortage of public outrage over the current state of the world financial system. Anger peaked this weekend when news broke that insurance giant AIG would be using some of the taxpayer dollars it received -- $165 million of $170 billion -- in a government bailout to pay bonuses to the same executives whose actions helped wreck the company and threatened the global financial system.

But while the recession and its attendant problems have fueled anger from Main Street to the White House, that anger has not translated into the mass demonstrations seen in other parts of the world.

The economy has sparked tepid rallies in a handful of cities around the country and more are planned, but if history is any guide, the vast silent majority of Americans will remain that way.

"We're not seeing mass demonstrations," said historian and social activist Howard Zinn, author of "A People's History of the United States." "We are seeing individuals expressing anger, but it is not taking the form of organized protests."

There have been angry words, but few angry deeds.

"The first thing that would make me feel a little bit better toward them would be if they'd follow the Japanese model and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say I'm sorry, and then either do one of two things -- resign, or go commit suicide,'' said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on an Iowa radio station referring to AIG executives.

In Europe, however, when people get mad, they tend to show it.

Some 100,000 protestors took to the streets of Dublin last month to protest higher taxes and a deepening recession. Greece was brought to a standstill when riots over unemployment and food prices turned violent. High unemployment rates, especially among the young, have led to protests in Chile, Italy, Mexico, Bulgaria and France.

Protesters enraged at the way their leaders have handled the economic crisis toppled the governments of Iceland and Latvia, and police in London, anticipating mass protests over rising unemployment and the recession, warn of an upcoming "summer of rage."

In the United States, where billions of taxpayer dollars have been funneled to banks that refuse to explain how they are spending that money, where nearly 2 million homes are in foreclosure, where 651,000 people lost their jobs last month, where daily headlines remind people of their dwindling savings, the streets are virtually empty of protesters.

Economic crisis has led Americans to take to the streets before, Zinn said. In the 1930s, workers protested in Minneapolis, in San Francisco and New York, organized "by a large and powerful labor movement."

Great Depression: Unions and Breadlines

During the Great Depression, nearly a quarter of the labor force belonged to a union; today, it's less than 10 percent.

"There is definitely a relationship between protests and the severity of the crisis. The Depression had more immediate and drastic repercussions. One-third of the labor force was unemployed; today, its 8 percent. There is a difference in the scale of the misery. There are no breadlines, no one selling apples from a cart in the street," Zinn said.

There have been only a handful of U.S. protests tied to the recession in recent weeks.

Those rallies have been small, decidedly local and received little attention, but they reflect a diversity of grievances -- from people unable to pay their mortgages and about to lose their homes to citizens who do not want their taxes used to bail out companies.

In Chicago in December, 250 employees staged a sit-in at the window factory where they worked to protest losing their jobs. The weeks-long protest culminated in another manufacturer announcing in February that it would reopen the plant and hire back the workers.

Last month, several hundred Sunoco refinery workers rallied outside City Hall in Philadelphia and marched to the company's headquarters to protest staffing cutbacks.

It is not just the unemployed or the soon-to-be unemployed who are speaking out. In Cincinnati last Sunday several thousand people attended a rally to protest the use of taxpayer dollars to fund the bailout and stimulus package.

Police estimated that 4,000 people attended a rally organized by a group calling itself the Cincinnati Tea Party to protest recent spending legislation. Protesters carried signs that read "Honk If I'm Paying Your Mortgage" and "Stop Spending My Allowance."

"In talking with my friends and family, I realized there was a frustration with the overall level of government spending," said Mike Wilson, the group's founder.

Wilson said many of the people there had never before attended a protest because they had "spent their lives with their noses to the grindstone and getting things done. Things have just gotten so out of control."

The protesters in Cincinnati are as likely frustrated as those planning on attending an upcoming rally this week in Dallas, sponsored by the community-activist group Acorn to protest the eviction of a woman from her foreclosed home.


The Dallas protest is the latest the group will hold in 13 cities across the country to call attention to the foreclosure mess.

"We've built teams of 'home defenders' to keep out authorities looking to throw people out of their homes," said Acorn campaign director Craig Robbins. "We've got teams of folks committing to getting arrested if the authorities try to put people out."

Robbins said Acorn was also planning to hold protests outside the homes of AIG executives in Connecticut.

As a community organizer for 23 years, Robbins said he wanted to see more people demonstrating.

"I've wondered for a long time as an organizer why people aren't more motivated. My job exists to put people in the streets," he said.

Part of the reason Robbins believes people are not protesting is they still have faith in a recently elected President Obama.

But more protests on a national scale are in the offing. The Service Employees International Union is planning nationwide demonstrations Thursday outside major banking institutions in an attempt to turn the populist anger at Wall Street into legislative action in Washington.

An SEIU official told ABC's Rick Klein that the union hopes to deploy some 10,000 protesters at 100 locations in 30 states -- in front of branches of financial institutions that include Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.

If the protests go according to plan, they would be the biggest in the United States since the recession began.

Why Americans Don't Demonstrate or Protest in Mass

Historically, Americans have not demonstrated en masse, especially over economic issues. Scholars offer a wide range of reasons for why the Europeans paint signs, erect barricades, go on strike and take to the streets at the drop of a hat and Americans do not.

For starters, when Americans have a problem, they take it out on their politicians through elections and not through mass demonstrations, said Robert Reich, former U.S. secretary of labor and now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

"We take our grievances out on our politicians. Europe's parliamentary systems are not terribly responsive to the public, and as a result, people take to the streets," Reich said.

"You're seeing so much outrage over AIG in Congress because they're getting deluged with letters and e-mails. Even the members in safe seats aren't that safe right now," he said.

Americans do not protest in the way Europeans do because our ideas of class are much less strict, said Melissa Weiner, a sociology professor at Quinnipiac University who studies protest movements.

Aside from ideology, Americans have practical reasons for not protesting. People do not know who to protest against or where to go. There are few leaders or well-organized groups to organize people, and many of the angriest Americans are simply ashamed that they've lost their jobs, homes or savings, according to Weiner.

"We have no organizational framework for workers like we did during the labor campaigns," said Weiner, "of the early 20th century. There is no leadership and people don't know where to go."

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