On Oct. 15, as an Orange County Register writer's column headed to the printer to advocate weakened pro-consumer regulation, higher corporate profits and new tax breaks for the wealthy as the "immediate" solution to the nation's economic woes, a large, emotional crowd of American-flag-waving protesters gathered in Irvine to argue the opposite.
The protesters' signs were mostly unambiguous: "Stop corporate greed now," "Tax the rich," "Robin Hood was right," "I'll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one," "The 99% solution: economic revolution," "Prosecute the money whores," "Wall Street fraud is a government-sponsored enterprise" and "Separation of corporation and state."
A clever, twentysomething, Asian American protester placed the image of Karl Marx's head on a cardboard cutout of a ghost but added no words. As he waved the sign at passing, horn-honking motorists, he explained his point: "The ghost of Karl Marx is back, you know? Wall Street should be very afraid. That's what we're saying. Corporations are abusing the masses."
He wasn't alone. Scattered throughout the crowd were people in black T-shirts bearing Marx's face. One person even carried a sign reading, "Marx was right!"
Conservative, John Birch Society Orange County, what has become of you? This was the birthplace of more than a few of the nation's most right-wing notions and characters. Here, it was well-established for time immemorial that at least two sacred cows were never questioned, certainly not ridiculed: law enforcement and corporate righteousness.
Yet this year, it hasn't been just professors and plumbers waving "Fuck the police" signs while protesting cop brutality in Fullerton or lambasting corporations in Irvine. Prominent in the crowds are housewives, businessmen, construction workers, dentists, doctors, grandmothers, students—you name it. At the Register, they predictably credited this shift in political activism not to real issues or real emotion, but to the power of social media, namely Facebook.
That tidy, superficial stance ignores the real phenomena at work here. What the Irvine march demonstrated is that beneath its diehard Republicanism, OC has a vibrant progressive community that doesn't consist solely of wide-eyed college students or union members. Agree with their anti-corporate-abuse positions or not, these people are becoming energized. That old political enemies are joining their ranks is also invigorating.
"I am so sick of the bullshit," said Anne, a 59-year-old self-identified longtime Republican and college-educated Irvine housewife who declined to give her last name because she said she didn't want to jeopardize her husband's job at a major OC electronics corporation. "We've got to stand up to all the greed and politicians who work for the corporations that are cheating. I really think they will destroy the middle class if we continue to keep our mouths shut. Look at how many good people are hurting—and the people at the top don't give a damn."
Nearby, another marcher declared this Occupy Orange County event the "biggest protest" in local history. It's been so long since deflated area lefties got off their sofas that few remember what happened a quarter of a century ago: bigger, more determined protests against Donald Bren and his Irvine Co.'s plans to bulldoze huge swaths of coastal OC for housing and commercial developments. People actually chained themselves to bulldozers.
But the politically well-connected real-estate developer eventually won by offering superficial concessions, infiltrating the protesters with secret loyalists, employing crafty public-relations flacks to portray him as an "environmentalist" and waiting out their patience. A greedy billionaire can do that and, in that case, did. The protests eventually fizzled.
Using the politicians of both major political parties in his stable, Bren got the public to build expensive toll roads next to his future private developments. As a result, he didn't spend a dime on them but easily quadrupled his net worth to make him one of the 50 richest men in the world. Nowadays, Bren's snotty flacks are working on adding another "legacy": generous philanthropist. The tag "publicly subsidized" won't make it into an Irvine Co. press release.
If the Bren saga isn't uplifting, the one involving the effort to convert a mothballed military base at El Toro into an international airport in the heart of suburban Irvine is. Neither partisan nor ideological in nature, residents of all persuasions joined enthusiastically together to defeat what at one point looked like a certainty: George Argyros' massive airport plans. The people united can never be defeated, so the chant goes.
But there's a tremendous divide in politics today. What drove protesters to give up their beautiful Saturday morning to march and chant in the streets caused others to drive by sipping $5 lattes in their BMWs and stare contemptuously. The protesters believe corporations use vast financial resources and lobbyists to control politicians and the government at the expense of the everyone else. As often expressed by the Register and our national radio celebrity, Hugh Hewitt, others just as firmly believe that government bureaucrats control business with an iron fist and prevent the free market from working its economic magic.
Can Occupy OC and other related efforts around the nation continue to swell their ranks with likeminded individuals? At the Oct. 15 rally and protest, there were mostly Democratic Party sympathizers, a few Republicans, a handful of Ron Paul supporters, a sprinkling of Lyndon LaRouche fans, as well as the decidedly right-wing Oath Keepers, who advocate armed civil rebellion against what they see as un-American government decisions. Elected officials of all parties—the folks who supposedly lead our community—stayed far away, apparently afraid to risk their reputations for an unproven endeavor.
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That's okay, though. For now, the protests in OC seem genuine. Warped, entrenched political interests don't yet respect the newborn movement enough to either infiltrate or co-opt it.
But as if to remind the Irvine protesters of the difficulty of their mission, an old, beat-up van drove by, the couple inside honking the horn. They weren't supportive honks. The woman—who looked to be in her mid-to-late 60s and not a patron of fashionable Newport Beach salons or swank oceanfront restaurants—angrily screamed out of her passenger window an anti-Barack Obama rant. "Nothing changed," she repeatedly yelled. "Go, George W. Bush!"
This column appeared in print as "Playing the Percentages: Even Orange County has far more 99 percenters than 1 percenters. Can Occupy OC turn their discontent into real change?"