TOO HOLY TO FAIL
“You can’t evict an idea whose time has come.” Cornell West
Finally, this past week, we’ve seen the remake everyone has been waiting for. What was first shown “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” has left the friendly confines of the theatre and emerged on the streets of cities and colleges throughout the nation. Call it “The Empire Strikes Back – the Sequel!” Only this time, Darth Vader is gone, as is Luke Skywalker. Instead, we have cops armed with pepper spray firing at protesters, young and old, disheveled, disorganized, disempowered … and disgusted at the fact that not a single person responsible for the recent meltdown of our economy has been prosecuted for his or her conduct.
America now has a new image – rows of people sitting down and looking toward the ground while the men in blue unload canisters of painful chemicals onto their heads. But perhaps an even more profound, if fuzzier, picture is that of the men “behind the curtain” – the wizards of City Hall, who direct their police chiefs to fire up the pepper spray and remove anyone who has been assembling on behalf of what has become an un-American idea: economic equity for its own sake. Many of these wizards, a/k/a mayors, were elected because they supposedly empathized with the values and the concerns of the common person. And yet, once they took power, these wizards realized that their own lives go most smoothly when the trains run on time, the protesters clear the streets, the bankers rake in money, and the lobbyists pull the strings. Call it law and order. It’s the mayor’s best friend. And it has been our Empire’s bromide for decades.
Two generations have come and gone since we last saw street protesters make any meaningful impact on our country. I was but a boy then. And when my parents took me down to the National Mall to join in the Civil Rights protests, that all made so much sense. Even today, what was accomplished with those protests makes most of us proud Since then, I’ve hit the streets on many occasions to rally on behalf of all sorts of causes – against wars, against poverty, against guns, for abortion rights, for gay rights … for sanity. But there has always been something missing. There’s always been a sense that the protest would have little if any staying power. We’d assemble for an afternoon, chant our slogans, march a bit, go home, go to work, make money, and go back to our self-obsessed lives. We could read about sit-ins and strikes that made a difference, but they were always events from our nation’s past. Now that our nation has become the most powerful Empire the world has ever seen, what need do we have for sustained boycotts and strikes and sit-ins and other forms of protest? Isn’t that so … one century ago? Haven’t we evolved to an understanding that a rising tide lifts all boats, and the best way to achieve such a tide is for as many of us as possible to put down our bullhorns and picket signs, get a law or business degree, and work within the system?
Yesterday, I got together with a number of friends, most of whom do indeed have law degrees, to celebrate the birthday of a man who would have turned 86 on Sunday had he not been assassinated during the last era of mass protest in American history. I’m referring to the great Robert F. Kennedy. As we reflected about his legacy, I couldn’t help think that here was a man who believed in the system but didn’t let that paralyze his passion for the value of mass protest. He watched his brother be elected President. He himself served as the Attorney General and as a United States Senator. Yet, for all the time he spent in American officialdom, his voice remained that of the activist. Consider the following words, spoken at Berkeley on October 22, 1966:
“...It is not enough to allow dissent. We must demand it. For there is much to dissent from. We dissent from the fact that millions are trapped in poverty while the nation grows rich. We dissent from the conditions and hatred which deny a full life to our fellow citizens because of the color of their skin. We dissent from the monstrous absurdity of a world where nations stand poised to destroy one another, and men must kill their fellow men. We dissent from the sight of most of mankind living in poverty, stricken by disease, threatened by hunger and doomed to an early death after a life of unremitting labor. We dissent from cities which blunt our senses and turn the ordinary acts of daily life into a painful struggle. We dissent from the willful, heedless destruction of natural pleasure and beauty. We dissent from all those structures -- of technology and of society itself -- which strip from the individual the dignity and warmth of sharing in the common tasks of his community and his country.”
The key word in that entire passage is “must.” And those who remember Robert F. Kennedy realize that he meant that word with all his heart. It was not an option for him to forget the needs of “the people” and revert back to cultivating our own garden. To be satisfied in life, he had to join the fight. And so, despite being a member of the one percent, he devoted his life’s work to the betterment of the 99 percent.
As I stood at yesterday’s ceremony, I asked myself what RFK would think about the Occupy movement if he were alive today and at the height of his energies. Would he focus on the movement’s excesses and growing pains? To a degree, yes. A former Attorney General couldn’t help but care about any signs of lawlessness. But I suspect he would care even more about ensuring that this movement lasts and ultimately succeeds. For the biggest problem that is facing our nation’s cities right now isn’t that in one or two parks, 24/7 protests are resulting in sanitation issues. The deeper problem is that for decades, while our Kennedys lay under the ground, our college students tailgated, and our workers lost their collective bargaining rights, the denizens of Wall Street and K Street have been pepper-spraying our democracy. They are the ones who asked for billion-dollar bail-outs. They are the ones who have bought our politicians. In short, they are the ones who have gamed our financial and political systems and who have succeeded in putting the judges in place to ensure that all their games are perfectly legal.
And so … the most committed representatives of the 99 percent now come across as lawless, while the one percent are seen as law abiding. Talk about ironic.
Mayor Bloomberg might not realize this, but it will take more than pepper spray and cold air to shut down the Occupy movement. The present protesters might not know what they’re doing, yet there’s no denying the righteousness of their cause. Wall Street and K Street have had their chance to show this country that they won’t abuse their power. And the results can be seen throughout the nation on unemployment lines, in homeless shelters, and through corporate welfare checks. It’s time for a new Luke Skywalker to emerge and tell the Bloombergs, the Boehners, and yes, the Obamas of this country that enough is enough.
Soon enough gifted men and women will appear to lead the Occupy movement. It could be in New York, or Washington, or Berkeley … or maybe at UC Davis. Who knows where they will coalesce. But it will happen somewhere. And then, look out one percent! Protests made a difference in the 60s, and they’ll be heard from again a half century later.
Mark my words – the decade is young.