Poop-Smearing Aside, The Occupy Philly Protesters Are Right

But maybe it's time for them to reevaluate this whole hygiene issue ...

Let’s get something out of the way: The Occupy Philly kids who have been haunting Dilworth Plaza over the last month really are a bunch of stinky, smelly, dirty hippies—a group of unhygenic radicals who have probably spread more poop than enlightenment in their weeks’ long campaign against the “1 percent.” Between their odors and rush-hour traffic-stopping antics, is it any wonder if the rest of the 99 percent is a bit squeamish about the project? Not at all.

But who cares?

The Occupy Philly protesters are right. They’re right that the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are struggling more than ever. They’re right that big corporations and wealthy campaign donors are distorting our democracy. They’re right about what’s wrong with our economy and government. And the recent fecal focus of the local media doesn’t change that.

You know what really smells? The fact that the Top 1 percent of households nearly tripled their income over the last 30 years, while the middle class grew their paychecks just 40 percent—and the poorest among us didn’t even get a 20 percent raise.

You know what’s putrid? Hard work doesn’t solve the problem. While Americans like to celebrate Horatio Alger stories that tell us that anybody can get rich—or at least comfortably middle class—with the proper application of a nose to the grindstone, that’s not really true anymore. If you’re born poor you stay poor; if you’re born rich, you stay rich. If you’re looking for a true-life rags-to-riches story, you’re more likely to find it in France, Germany, Sweden, Canada, Finland, Norway or Denmark.

And you know what stinks to high heaven? It doesn’t have to be this way. Writers and academics like Paul Krugman, Lawrence Lessig, Jacob Hacker, and Paul Pierson—among many others—have amply documented how the federal government has spent the last few decades kowtowing to the rich: Cracking down on unions and doling out huge tax breaks to the people who need them least, exacerbating income inequality and destabilizing our democracy.

The triumph of the Occupy protesters is that they’ve forced these issues into the national conversation. Nearly three-quarters of Americans now believe that income inequality is a big problem for the country. Even Republicans—whose preferred anti-tax, anti-union, anti-regulation policies helped bring about the present crisis—are being forced to pay lip-service to the issue, with Ayn Rand-loving conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan trying to make the case that their policies address the growing problem of income inequality.

Why? Because the Occupy Philly folks—though they might stink—are right.

Now, it’s true the Occupy folks can be a bit utopian at times. (One protester told the Inquirer’s Monica Yant Kinney he wouldn’t leave Dilworth until “until every issue of every human on this planet is resolved.” That could take awhile.) And Occupy Philly didn’t gain any allies by refusing to move away from Dilworth Plaza to make room for a $50 million renovation project that should vastly improve the space and provide useful work for the job-seekers protesters claim to defend.
But something smelled funny about last week’s media push to portray the protesters as dirty undesirables who are attracting the mentally ill and homeless to their side. Daily News writer Will Bunch openly protested his newspaper’s coverage on Twitter, and Philadelphia journalist Jeff Deeney pointed out at length that the mentally ill and homeless found a home on the plaza long before the protesters showed up. And it’s not as though the Daily News itself hasn’t spent the last few months taking the entire city to task for our collective slovenliness. The whole effort reeked of hype over substance.

It also served as a fair warning to the Occupy crowd: The protests aren’t cute anymore. The smell is alienating. So now would be a good time for the protesters to step back and figure out what’s next. They’ve won the first round: We’re talking about their issues. Now it’s time to move to the next stage of the debate and focus that discussion on actual solutions.

Poop won’t get the job done. But the rest of us might resolve not to be so easily distracted by the hygiene hyperbole, either. That smell coming from Dilworth Plaza? It’s the odor of righteous truth.