Public Comment

To Occupy or Be Occupied---a bird’s eye view

By Marc Sapir
Wednesday November 16, 2011 - 02:39:00 PM

I’m 70 and on Medicare and Social Security. I still pay-in and I still work. I’m a semi-retired primary care doc now working part time at Alameda County’s Winton Wellness Center. Recently, I’ve spent some hours at the Medic tent at Occupy Oakland. 

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Actuary tables predict that on average a 70 year old U.S. male will live about 8 years. By then I would have taken out about what I paid into Social Security. Elder citizens don’t cause public debt when we get paid back what we put into these funds unless someone hasn’t adjusted the deduction formula rates to account for longevity changes. But Congress and the Presidents who believe Capitalism’s thirst for concentrating power and wealth is far more important than the needs of the population, siphoned off and used up trillions from the Social Security trust fund and now plan to cut benefits to the 99%. Yes, out and out theft. 

Over the past few years the public clinic where I work has seen many people who’ve lost their Kaiser (or other) Insurance when they were laid off or downsized or lost employment in a bankruptcy. And now many people who have been evicted or foreclosed, living on the streets, in cars, in shelters or with their adult kids (or visa versa). Capitalism’s 1% created this mess yet some of the “haves” seem unable to apprehend how they forced these terrible necessities on us. Among our patients are folks who were working and not mentally unstable, now becoming more and more dysfunctional. Such folks are all around us in society, and so they are part of any change movement. 

And yet, while the current near collapse of U.S. Capitalism has been ugly for so many millions, what biased media and political elites suggest with rhetoric turning more critical of Occupy Wall Street --with talk of the unclean and unkempt homeless, the mentally disturbed, the drug users and the violence seeking anarchists-- is that the tent cities—rather than what caused them—have to be made to disappear. In this way they minimize the disgrace of the system’s out of control political-economic ethics and the crises in the lives of millions. They conceal that in the 1920s the political response of the disenfranchised, unemployed and homeless was exactly this: to set up tent cities all over the U.S. (called Hoovervilles to ridicule the President for his inaction). The mouthpieces for the 1% tell the 99% to work for better candidates. But truth is there will not be better viable candidates than Jean Quan or Barack Obama. This system is corrupt and locked down in “park.” 

As Robert Reich and others have made clear, the outrageous economic inequality gap is not only wrecking any semblance of cultural coherence in the U.S., but seriously diminishes any chance of Capitalist economic recovery. The 99%—from the undocumented, to the unemployed to doctors forced to abandon their medical ethics under Wall Street pressures--are all under attack by this cruel culture of bottom line-ism seeking nothing less than to gamble away our futures in order to stay on top. Simply by the numbers, this imploding process can not be kept out of public sight, can no longer be repressed block by block. This is the message America’s Occupy Wall Street represents, an all-American message. The 99% seek visibility, a voice, and justice. 

Hear this: public space and public discourse not only belong to the people but will be enlarged and validated with or without permission. In the S. F. Chronicle’s Insight section, November 13, Susan Gluss wrote condescendingly: “You have no unified message…Quit fighting for the right to camp out in a public park. This movement is not about holding ground.” But Ms. Gluss is wrong. As in Egypt’s Tahrir Square, holding public ground imparts precisely the Occupy movement message and is materially and metaphorically right on target—“the people” must become part of the political discourse. 

Calling upon police forces to destroy Occupy tent cities can not put that genie back in the bottle. Telling the 99% to go back to electoral work in a political system (if not a job) that has shown little capacity to respond to the many crises confronting us is to shout at the wind. Saying Occupy needs clearer demands and focus, practical leaders and practical methods that work, is hollow nonsense. 

“Progressive” politicians, like Jean Quan, whom I know personally, have chosen to rise up into positions of power in a political-economic system that often requires leaders to compromise their values in order to rule. Believing in the “good” matters only a trace at these moments when one’s appointed role is to enforce the order of the powerful. The Occupy movement might like to tell Jean, as well as President Obama, that “good intentions” are a currency without value. 

Who knows what will become of the Occupy movement—so young, so diverse, so vibrant and so potentially divisible? But the anger and frustration of millions in trouble is not easily repressible without the U.S. becoming a more overt fascist state. There are, of course, many signs that this process has been developing—eg. particularly the abuse within, and unregulated privatization of, the prison system and the breaking up of the families of millions of honorable immigrant laborers. Obama has backed both. Occupy Wall Street is being attacked by media and politicians and police force. If we fall for the rhetoric about “threat to public safety and health”, a door to much wider repression may open under these conditions of dysfunctional rule. I urge that readers resist efforts to make the public ambivalent toward Occupy. If it’s our country, but money owns it and runs it all, what is left, people, but to occupy and then to fill the jails. 

Marc Sapir is a family physician, former Medical Director of the Center for Elders’ Independence in Oakland, member of the touring group (for Medicare for All), founder of the Berkeley High School Health Center, a former public health officer, a current AFSCME union member, the founder of He can be reached at