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Occupy Together: Witness Carefully

Choose Love over Fear at Occupy Philly Photo: Tony Heriza / AFSC

Note: This guest post by Paul Lacey reflects on the Occupy movement, its relationship to past movements, and the damage done by Wall Street.  - Lucy

The Wall Street bailouts remind me of the sick joke about the young man who murders his parents then asks the judge for mercy because he is an orphan. No, I’m not laughing, either, but the application to Wall Street banking seems apt. First, there is the breathtaking gall and sense of entitlement of the big banks, the big traders, those who were too  big to be allowed to fail.  The free enterprise system, the noblest economic system ever devised, must be held sacred; freedom and free enterprise are the same thing, really.  (No, I am not laughing at that joke, either). Government should not regulate, only shell out when the richest Americans, the top 1% of wealth, have dug a pit for themselves and the rest of us.  What are you, some kind of a socialist?

I need to declare an interest, here. My family is not of the 1%, but we are safely in the comfortable end of the 99%. Over my working career, I made socially responsible investment in my pension fund, to the extent possible. Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, weeks after I had retired, my pension lost 25%, it has lost further and will never recover. But I do not complain about that. We sit comfortably in the middle class, and I would be ashamed had we not lost like everyone else.

I am deeply ashamed at present, however, of the attitudes of congressional leaders and media flacks who tell us that expecting the wealthiest Americans to pay their fair share of taxes is fomenting “class warfare.” Politicians and media darlings who wouldn’t know a socialist if one kissed them on the nose (eek! Class warfare!) try to convince us that the Bolsheviks are coming, the reign of terror has begun. That joke is also not funny.

Occupy Wall Street has now appeared in many cities in the United States and elsewhere in the world. So far, there has been careful discipline on all sides, but just another day of peaceful demonstration may mean the media will lose interest. Selling stories requires that something be happening, and the motto is, "if it bleeds, it leads."

It is not clear what the end-game will be, for these occupations. A prolonged occupation in damp, increasingly cold conditions, getting no response from officialdom, is exhausting and frustrating. Sensitivity continually frustrated adds pressure to change tactics and raise the level of confrontation.

Some of us recall our demonstrations against the Vietnam War in a rosy glow over what we accomplished when we were young, so we may be poor advisers to current demonstrators. In the days of the 1970s Moratoriums, many people had taken training in nonviolent action and how to monitor the marches.

But there were also earnest people who found themselves caught in unexpected confrontations. In the Second Moratorium (the one President Nixon was proud to say he ignored in favor of watching football on television) not everyone who accepted the casual invitation to picket the Justice Department knew what to do when hit with tear gas. Walking with a friend back to International House, we encountered people sick in the streets, beaten, cornering lone policemen to shout at them, baffled by what had happened and how they could have prepared. Attorney General Mitchell said it looked like the start of the Bolshevik revolution, but that’s what they always say.

Don’t let our inflated war stories mislead you. There were a lot of demonstrations, sit-ins and other forms of nonviolent direct action against the war, and those who took part did so out of a need to make a witness. And if some around you begin urging more confrontational tactics, at least consider the possibility that some provocateurs may be at work with you. Be skeptical of my generation’s memories of our achievements and, if you can, be at least a little skeptical of the myths already building around you.

Here in the comfort of a warm house I send my respect and good wishes to the several Occupy sites. Witness carefully and be safe, if you can.


About the Author

Paul Lacey earned a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and was awarded a Ph.D. by Harvard University. He taught in the English Department at Earlham from 1960-2003 and is Professor Emeritus of English. Well-known on an international level, Lacey has shared his wisdom through extensive writing and speaking.

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