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Occupy Together: The Prophet and the Castle

George Lakey with his grand daughter at Occupy Philly Photo: Ingrid Lakey / Ingrid Lakey

Note: George Lakey wrote this guest post days before Occupy Wall Street began. When I asked him for a submission, he offered this as it has something to say about the potential of the movement.  - Lucy

by George Lakey

I’ve thought of a metaphor that throws light on the role of Barack Obama in relation to progressives. The man decided not to follow the path of Martin Luther King, Jr., or even Jesse Jackson, admirable prophets though they have been. He decided instead to be a pragmatic politician, doing as much good as he could from inside the structure. 

Obama did enter the castle. And he is, therefore, surrounded by high stone walls, the walls built long before he was born, by the powerful forces of greed and privilege that believe in empire and inequality.

Unlike some presidents, however, he has not forgotten that many of us do hunger for that great tradition of righteous prophets. After all, Obama heard many a sermon in his church in Chicago from one of the most prophetic black preachers of his day.

So from time to time Obama writes a message on paper, crumples it up, and throws it over the castle wall for us to get, to read, and to act on.

One such note, tossed to us several years ago, was to let us know that he believes that single-payer health care (“Medicare for All) would be the best system for the U.S.  We had the opportunity to build a mass movement “demanding” what he, in fact, believes in.

Another such note, again tossed to us in a timely way, was that he believed the smart thing to do with out-of-control banks that lead a nation to the edge of a cliff is what the Swedes did: seize the banks, fire the senior management, make sure the shareholders don’t get a dime. 

A few of us read the notes (they were public), but in neither case did a mass of progressives rise up with nonviolent direct action campaigns to demand that such policies be implemented. If we had taken a minute to notice the occupant of the Oval Office wanted to be “forced” to do what he and we both wanted, we might have taken heart.

Perhaps we’re not politically sophisticated enough to know how the castle works, to know how power is structured in our country.  Or maybe it’s just that there’s more pleasure in complaining about Obama than in stepping up with people power.

In each case – real health care reform and bringing Wall Street under control – we failed to use our organizing skills to build a powerful movement. In each case, we left the stage empty, in a theater full of citizens who cared strongly about the issues. In each case, the forces of privilege then occupied the stage and created the drama!  They did that through manipulating the authentic feelings of working class and middle class people and creating an astro-turf “populist” campaign: the Tea Party, full of people resentful of Wall Street and scared of bankruptcy from family medical emergencies! Despite their schooling, middle class people were even more taken in by this scam than were working class people.

But our President is nothing if not patient. He knows that we progressives do have our own proud history of creating drama, even facing down the White Citizens Councils and Ku Klux Klan defending vicious racial segregation. We do have that legacy. Perhaps he hasn’t given up on the chance that progressives in the U.S. will now take to the streets to give him the space he needs to act more fully, for example, on climate change.

In February of 2011 he threw another note over the castle wall. "Egyptians have inspired us,” he said. “In Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence that bent the arc of history toward justice.”

Perhaps he realized that his previous messages were largely ignored by progressives, because he didn’t stop. He went on to quote Dr. King: “There's something in the soul that cries out for freedom."

Do we, like the Egyptians, cry out for freedom – from the rule of the super-rich? Then how about, instead of acting like dependents complaining about Obama not saving us, we try emulating the Egyptians, drawing on the most effective approach that we Americans ourselves have used in our history: nonviolent direct action? Surely the time has come again!

About the Author

George Lakey has been a leader in the field of nonviolent social change since the 1960s and has published extensively for both activist and academic readers.

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