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Panelists Address Civil Rights and Occupy

Jesse Jackson and Kathleen McQuillen of AFSC from 1996
In this 1996 file photo, the Rev. Jesse Jackson stands with Kathleen McQuillen after an economic justice forum in Des Moines. Kathleen is the program coordinator for AFSC Iowa. For a slidewshow of photos from a 2011 progressives forum featuring Jesse Jackson, click here. Photo: AFSC

How would you feel if you were asked to fill in for Jesse Jackson on a civil rights panel? Kathleen McQuillen, AFSC Iowa Program Coordinator, knows the feeling and describes it as “humbling.”

In the week before the Iowa Caucuses, Occupy Des Moines organized a panel discussion comparing the civil rights movement with today’s Occupy effort. John Nichols, a political writer for the Nation magazine and a contributor to MSNBC, and State Rep. Ako Abdul-Samad of Des Moines joined McQuillen in the conversation at the Occupy the Caucuses headquarters.

“The commitment to nonviolence, human rights and human dignity are shared values of the civil rights movement and Occupy,” McQuillen said. On behalf of AFSC, McQuillen co-led several nonviolence trainings in advance of Occupy protests outside the campaign headquarters of the presidential candidates.

While civil rights activists nonviolently responded to several kinds of violence, including the physical threat of attack dogs, fire hoses and worse, Occupy activists have generally faced less physical forms of violence, including verbal abuse and distortion or dismissal of their message of economic justice.

McQuillen said that civil rights workers often grounded themselves in their faith. Occupy people need to draw upon their deepest values, as well, to remain nonviolent in the struggle. McQuillen referred to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said that, “True charity is more than throwing coins to a beggar. True charity understands that structures producing beggars need to be transformed.” That understanding unites the civil rights and Occupy movements.

John Nichols emphasized the importance of knowing the history and the people of our communities in order to forge a common bond. Such knowledge is crucial in successful organizing efforts such as the 2011 labor rallies in Wisconsin.

Ako Abdul-Samad stressed the need for reaching out and inviting people not currently represented into the struggle. Listening well is a key skill for this work.

The following day, Jesse Jackson, whose plane arrived too late for the first panel, headlined a forum for progressives at the Unitarian Church in Des Moines. An audio portion of that forum is available here.