Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Street Smarts

It may have been game 4 of the World Series between the Orioles and Mets at Shea Stadium, but on Wednesday, October 15, 1969 in New York City there was a much more significant occurrence going on. It was Moratorium Day whereby anti-Vietnam War protesters took to the streets of New York and around the country in an effort to persuade our government to end the war. These historic events took place on 300 college campuses with marches, rallies and prayer vigils nationwide. In all, 2 million participated.

It was my first such demonstration, and I recall us singing the Youngbloods’ “Get Together” while we chanted and listened to speeches at the rally I attended. This was something I never thought I’d do, but the realization that the Vietnam War needed to stop motivated me. Having tasted the experience of a protest demonstration as a young man, I participated in several gay rights marches in Washington, D.C. in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

Those memories were summoned back to me in a flash when I noticed how the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, which began somewhat quietly on September 17 in lower Manhattan, spread like wildfire across the country, from Boston to Anchorage, including Baltimore, to eventually become a worldwide phenomenon.

Indeed, on October 15—the 42nd anniversary of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam—this newest entry in the protest movement officially went global with over 950 cities spanning 82 countries and hundreds of thousands of people involved. The intention was to be non-violent but, alas, there were reports that violence and destruction erupted in some locales.

This country has seen a plethora of marches and demonstrations for social, economic and political justice during the course of its history. In the modern era we had numerous (and at times bloody) civil rights marches, demonstrations, sit-ins and rallies. There was a clear objective: end discrimination, segregation and disenfranchisement based on race. Through the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, the goals were largely met.

We had seen demonstrations and sit-ins on college campuses particularly in the mid 1960’s to early 1970’s. Most of them were tied to the Vietnam War protests and the individual college’s policy of allowing the ROTC to recruit students on campus. These as well as the general anti-draft, anti-Vietnam War protests ended when the war ended. Again, there was a specific goal that had a clear remedy.

Gay rights marches also sought specific objectives that ranged from equality in the workplace to ending discrimination in the military. With the stroke of pens at the local, state and federal levels, while still incomplete, many goals have been achieved.

The Occupy movement is quite dissimilar from these other examples. Not only are the participants railing against government dysfunction and the inequities it spews, they are also fired up against corporate America and its associated behavior and influence. As such, there is a broad mix of grievances stemming from individuals representing myriad backgrounds and viewpoints.

While most of these gripes are economic-related, they have been boiled down by many Occupy participants and the media to these: corporate greed and income disparities (one percent of the population controlling most of the wealth).

Here’s where it gets complicated. Unlike those other aforementioned protests, there is no single outcome that will alleviate their concerns. Greed is a human trait, similar to hate, that cannot be legislated away. Income or wealth re-distribution likewise cannot be corrected simply; the rich will certainly not part with their money voluntarily.

What needs to be done, what would be smart, is for the Occupy movement in the U.S. to follow the model of the right wing’s protest counterpart, the Tea Party, and delve into electoral politics whereby these complaints could be effectively addressed by a government that’s sympathetic to its causes.

While I believe the Tea Party’s vast success will be short-lived, mainly because its ideology runs counter to mainstream thinking as well as its deliberate strangulation of government, the movement already had an oversized impact. They sought and backed like-minded candidates using the economic downturn, health care reform, an anti-Obama, anti-big government and anti-debt mindset as catalysts and succeeded spectacularly in taking over the House of Representatives in the 2010 elections.

Though the Occupy movement consists of a loose array of political allegiances and goals, the preponderance of the ideas are left-leaning and are opposed to the inequities promulgated by Republicans. The Occupy movement needs to harness its own good energy and do more than protest.

I realize many, if not most, of the Occupiers are turned off by both major parties. But these folks would be wise to develop a political strategy with support from other progressives and bring in national and local Democrat organizations that can help with logistical support, fundraising and targeting opponents.

To be fair, Democrats have had a role in creating some of the conditions that the Occupy participants are protesting. But overwhelmingly the fault lies with the Republicans for advancing tax breaks for the wealthy, opposing regulation of Wall Street and big banks, and allowing corporations to escape paying their fair share of taxes. The Tea Party-controlled GOP is also responsible, strictly for political purposes, for preventing President Obama from implementing a jobs bill to help get some of the unemployed back to work.

Protesting is fine but there must be a mechanism to realize goals. Politicization would be the key strategy to give the movement its best chance at righting the wrongs. As John F. Kennedy said, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.”

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