Monday, December 12, 2011

On "Occupy"

A personal note: I suspect I am about to disappoint many of my friends and acquaintances with what follows. To those who find themselves disappointed with my words, or with me, I apologize. I do hope, however, that each person who lands on this page will take the time to read and to ponder my thoughts. Thank you!

I lived through the Sixties and Seventies, decades which in some sense give definition to the word, 'protest.' I watched the Civil Rights movement unfold, as well as the anti-war movement. I witnessed the murders at Kent State (and yes, I say, 'murders', intentionally). Memories fade with time and I am certain that representatives of the establishment at that time were not pleased with any of the protests, but I remember particularly rather more extreme angst expressed at the some of the behaviors of the Black Panther Party, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Weather Underground. What differentiated the more extreme groups from the larger corpus of protesters was the intensity of the behaviors. A passive sit-down on public property was one thing; bombings were another thing. Striving to change the minds and hearts of the populace was thing; instilling terror into the populace was another thing.

While many at the time believed the goals were laudable and noted that most of the methods non-violent, such violence and intimidation as existed served to inhibit the overall success in the minds of most thoughtful people. Although I am sure that there were many spokespersons who articulated a host of perhaps even rambling demands, the two central foci of the times were (1) an end to the war in Viet Nam and (2) an end to bigotry and racism. Among those participating in the non-violent forms of protest, as least as I remember it now many years later, most all activities, demonstrations, sit-downs, etc., took place on public properties. I do remember a few microphones being seized at conventions and some sit-downs in private universities, but one can legitimately argue that said institutions, while privately owned, are quasi public in nature. Generally, there seemed at the time to be a connection between the goals of the movements and the behaviors of the participants.

As I fast-forward to the current protests which fall under the banner of 'Occupy", or "Occupy Wall Street", I observe some similarities and I observe some differences to the protests of what I am fond of calling, 'The Age of Protest.' For the most part, the current movement seems to be non-violent in nature although there certainly have been some notable exceptions. For the most part the activities have taken place on public lands, but again, there are some very notable exceptions. While there seems to be an underlying concern about economic injustice which binds the various activities together, there is a notable dearth of agreement across the various demonstrations on goals, methods and the statements of grievances. To be sure, ending a major war is a relatively easy goal to articulate. It is harder both to measure and to accomplish, but the goal of ending bigotry and racism is also easy to articulate.

Bringing an end to economic injustice is a much more difficult concept to articulate and finally to understand than are the goals of ending a war and eradicating racism. One has first to define what is economic injustice in a way that will win the hearts and minds of the majority of people, and then one has to articulate both goals and methodologies by which the task will be accomplished. USA Today reported that at least two members of Occupy believe they have a right to seize and live in foreclosed properties, in one case because of an allegation that the foreclosure is illegal and in another simply because the protester wants a nicer place to live. Foreclosed properties universally represent people who have not kept a commitment to pay a mortgage. There are a myriad of reasons for such failure to pay, from the loss of job or major medical emergency on the one side of the spectrum, to the recognition that a property no longer has the worth it did when purchased resulting in a personal choice to abandon the house and loan on the other side of the spectrum. One can argue unfair lending practices, pressure to purchase, a desire to participate in the American Dream, etc., but finally and inescapably, no mortgage is granted without the willing signatures of the purchasers, a process often accompanied by a fairly rigorous routine of approval such that the purchaser knows something very important is taking place. There is an element of personal responsibility when one assumes debt which at least to a degree mitigates the charge of 'economic injustice'.

People of good conscience can (and do) look at the same facts and come away with differing analyses. Two actions of the Occupy movement involving the response of churches strike me as inappropriate, although I recognize that many of my colleagues deeply disagree with my analysis. The efforts to seize property at St. Paul's Cathedral, London, and again, to seize property owned by Trinity, Wall Street, were, I believe, both unfounded and ill-advised. Both churches, St. Paul's, London, and Trinity, Wall Street, were at the time actively involved in trying to aid Occupy, but were perceived by participants as not helping enough. How much is enough, and what happens, again I opine, to the hearts and minds of the populace when a movement steps over a line. Quite recently (12/12/2011) ports on the West Coast of the USA and Canada were seized bringing an effective end to business as usual and inflicting economic harm to often unrelated parties. While the target may have been as cited by some, Goldman Sachs, it is also true that working women and men as well as consumers are, to borrow a not-so-nice term, 'incidentally damaged'. As one who worked in a union while in college to make ends meet, and one who knows what it is to earn a living on an hourly wage, I ache for those whose lives are being upended by the very people who are protesting such heartache in their own lives. It seems as if the method does not meet the goal.

I prefer to be on the positive side of movements for change. I prefer to see the good in the behaviors of those who are willing to step up to protest perceived inequalities. I suspect, although I do not know, that the vast majority of those who are participating in Occupy wish to engage in behaviors which are (1) non-violent, (2) with the bounds of the law, and (3) held on public property. My observation is, thus far, that Occupy is not wholly non-violent, is often not within the bounds of the law, and simply is not confining its protests to public land. Choosing to squat on and/or seize private land does nothing to impress me. Taunting police does nothing to impress me. Closing down places of work where folk are striving to eek out a living does nothing to impress me. If the battle is for the hearts and minds of the populace, refraining from anarchical behavior while engaged in non-violent, legitimate protest does impress me. Clearly making the case for one's concerns while recognizing and addressing both sides of an argument impresses me. Recognizing that those charged with keeping order in society are also human beings, people with spouses and children, people giving of themselves often in very difficult and dangerous places, impresses me.

One final test for me, and one which I observed time and again in the movements of the Sixties and Seventies, is the acceptance of personal responsibility for one's behaviors. Sadly, I do not see much acceptance of personal responsibility in Occupy. To be sure, folk are choosing to give of themselves, to put themselves on the line, to be present in the protests. I acknowledge that with a certain degree of gratitude. There is, however, a need for those who cite 'economic injustice' with regard to issues of debt to ask themselves how they have participated in the problem. I am not impressed by cries of undo pressure to take on debt, the need to have what everyone else seems to have as an entitlement, and the right to a prosperous life. As I recall, the unalienable right is to the pursuit of happiness -- pursuit means effort, commitment, and yes, personal responsibility.