By Sheldon Taylor
This revolution of values must go beyond traditional capitalism and Communism. We must honestly admit that capitalism has often left a gulf between superfluous wealth and abject poverty, has created conditions permitting necessities to be taken from the many to give
luxuries to the few, and has encouraged smallhearted men to become cold and conscienceless so that, like Dives before Lazarus, they are unmoved by suffering, poverty-stricken humanity.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), p. 186
Some in the media have pointed to the lack of diversity among the protesters and marchers dubbed the 99 percenters who are representative of the Occupy Movement in North America. Many of these dedicated men and women, ones who regularly brave the police teargas canisters, sleep away from home in damp and cold tents, eat donated food that is often cold, suffer cat calls from alienated passersby and march in the pouring rain fall in the under thirty age group category. Committed to social justice and equality, they are swelling the ranks of what is a growing 21st-century response to shrinking opportunities and corporate greed. Furthermore, to the benefit of the rest of us this army of people protesting against excessive behavior and don’t give a damn politics of the 1 percenters, the Robber Barons and puppet politicians, mirror the efforts of the earlier Civil Rights Movement.
That at present Blacks and other minority groups appear less visible on the ground in the Occupy Movement matters little in the age of social media fueled by cell phones, laptops, iPads and other mobile devices. The idea of how people assemble and show solidarity has changed more recently. One gets a sense from Twitter and Facebook that not only is the whole world watching this new phenomenon develop its competencies, but that people across the racial, economic, class and social divide are tuned in to these 21st-century beginnings of a popular revolution. It is one energized by technological advancements and outrage many young people in concert with other Americans and Canadians convey. At the same time a larger multiethnic presence wouldn’t hurt.
The talk before of the under thirty-something’s blissful existence, their selfishness and divorce from the realities of everyday living formed the basis of much discussion until now. Suddenly, the tide has shifted and in looking for something else to scrutinize, the commentary is about the Occupy Movement’s lack of a spectrum of human colours linking hands, singing we shall overcome, and having a good old Pot Party. Attempting to create dissension some on the Right have gone even further in making scurrilous remarks about the possibility of Anti-Semitism within the Occupy Movement’s ranks. Occupy Movement detractors complain the protesters are part of the great unwashed; hippies and loafers. Where have we heard such claims before?
Well-known civil rights actions, activities and events of the 1960s were part of a Movement for social justice that began even before African American Rosa Parks’ selfless act on December 01, 1955 of refusing to sit at the back of the bus the way black people were supposed to in Montgomery, Alabama,. By that date the Movement was already changing gears. Even in the 1930s and continuing during the Second World War years some African Americans were testing the patience of the sentinels of the American apartheid system by standing up to old Jim Crow’s belief they were not fit to vote and die for their country. Into the 1950s it was mainly black people who suffered the police barrages, the calls by politicians that in searching for their dignity, African Americans were communist-influenced and didn’t know what was best for them. Nothing was further from the truth and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. even spoke of the limitations of communism. Some whites in the 1950s were positioned on the front lines, but like before white financial and other means of support took place mainly behind doors.
The Birmingham Bus Boycott under Martin Luther King’s leadership brought matters to a head and summoned the attention of North Americans and the rest of the world. Television as a new medium showcased on news programs how black people were terrorized. They were attacked, brutalized, jailed and some lost their lives for the cause of freedom in an era when the former Soviet Union was labeled, “a threat to world peace, and the enemy of democracy.” Amidst the corporate rhetoric of what’s good for America is good for the world, forward-thinking Americans started realizing the historic costs African Americans paid for their “land of liberty.”
Many white Americans were still caught up in the blissful consciousness brought on by consumerism and their country’s position as the world’s economic superpower. Conformity encouraged by the McCarthy Hearings likened to the Salem Witch Trials created an environment that was not best suited to fight for just causes. But, the-in- support of African Americans, Brown v. the Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision put enough wind in the sails of people with intrepid spirits who wished to repair the damage the earlier Separate but Equal 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision had done to US Blacks.
The issues in Canada, on the surface at least, were less egregious and dramatic. But like other former British Crown Jewels, New Zealand, South African and Australia, Canada had a racial problem. Even with the passage of fairer enactments to stem the tide of excluding black people from public places, employment and immigration, the country was still Lilly White; in mind and deed. Acceptance even for most Jews, given the existence of restricted covenants and religious intolerance was nothing more than an abstract concept. Institutional changes and an altering of how Canadians behaved toward minorities were still years away. As for French Canadians, their quiet revolution would not yield equalities on par with the majority Anglo-Saxon powerbase for some time to come.
The push for black equality drew national and international attention, especially after the election of John F. Kennedy as president of the United States in 1960 and the sometimes supportive responses of his brother, Robert Kennedy as US Attorney General. The small “l”: liberalizing of North America created a thaw and brought about a unique moment that is linked to the 1930s when disaffected and disappointed people searched for a fairer and just society. Once again in the 1960s intellectuals, Jews, women, labour unions and other classes of whites protesting the Vietnam War, along with Blacks, fearful of the effects of shrinking opportunities, or in search of meaningful financial and participatory integration took the streets.
Such efforts combined with African Americans’ desire to ensure Jim Crow became no more than a mat made dirtier with millions of feet stepping on it brought on a people’s revolution. The efforts embodied in white support for the Movement cannot be minimized, since any successful struggle for justice must eventually become greater than the sum of its parts.
Now in its earlier stages of development the Occupy Movement has not as yet reached that point of achieving its predecessor’s success. This is a good thing because it means there is still time for the Movement’s leaders to learn more about the 1960s Civil Rights Movement’s successes and failures. But as the Occupy Movement grows focusing on economic inequality and corporate greed gives it the potential of becoming as large as or even more impactful than its predecessor. All things considered, if the countervailing forces already at work are unable to sustain a chokehold on the Movement it will possibly change North America for the better.
As the 99 percenters remind everyone, the issues of concern affect a majority of Americans and Canadians. No one needs be reminded here of the often quoted statistics painting a sullen picture of how bad the economy is. Many North Americans could not have imagined that in their lifetime dire circumstances would manifest and compete with events that unfolded during the Great Depression.
Since 2008 opportunities didn’t just shrink, in many instances they disappeared without a trace. Who in their right mind would not worry; panic a little, after witnessing economic disruption, or seeing family members, friends and neighbours downsize, reinvent themselves, do all they could to save house and lifestyle, only to end up on the side of the road after the sheriff padlocks the once familiar home.
The issue now isn’t the numbers of people making up a spectrum of colours in New York’s Zucotti Park, or which groups of men and women Occupy Toronto in tents in St. James Park. The primary concern is the 1 percent of the population who shamelessness brought their nations, Canada and the US, to a point where hardworking people are hurting. Worse than the current pain is fear of a future with no apparent relief in sight. A lack of solutions abound as the gap between rich and poor widens. Many more people believe they face the possibility of going from rags to destitution and that their anguish brought on by trepidation will turn to deep agony. Matters are not helped when with an economic tsunami steering politicians in the face, all they do is put their energy into shining the shoes of wealthy benefactors.
Who leads efforts bent on getting the ball rolling to fight against inhumanity, economic and social exclusion, and corporate greed is not the issue. Occupy Movement members should cautiously screen individuals taking on leadership positions to prevent the types of infiltrations and treachery that occurred in the earlier Civil Rights Movement. That it is now growing numbers of mainly white men and women standing on the frontlines makes the fight worthwhile. This trend belies the claim that only African Americans suffer at the hands of the overly greedy, and the agents of power who seek to corrupt absolutely. Class as a variable is talked about more now in the US than before the fall of the Soviet Union. Fact is however, while as scholars such as Cornel West report, race matters; so too do class-based issues.
We are witnessing a collective response to what Martin Luther King referred to at a time when the bigoted Theophilus “Bull” Connor had fire hoses and ferocious dogs in Birmingham, Alabama turned against unarmed and peaceful demonstrators: Injustice anywhere discredits the justice we may find in certain nooks and crannies of the societies we live in. The fight for social and economic justice should be understood beyond the existing differences of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, nationality, sexual orientation, age, language, socioeconomic status, region, and abilities and disabilities.
Recently in Jamaica a small number of people created their own Occupy Movement by protesting in Half-Way Tree against, “skyrocketing food and electricity prices, a shrinking job market, poverty, corruption and intolerable income gaps.” At the moment economic hardship cannot be differentiated along lines of colour, language group, class or ethnicity; nor for that matter nationality and geographic region.
Jamaica has a majority black population and is politically administered by an overwhelming number of black people in government. Of course many Jamaicans knowing the significance of their country’s dependence on export-led growth would claim that their economic shortcomings are made all the more possible by the international dictates of money lenders: the International Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
But both the Jamaican and North American examples illustrate how people in the developing and developed world are responding to a common set of exploitation tools. They are ones used by the purveyors of greed and corruption in concert with politicians who happily side with influential people whose only concern is about the corrupting Midas touch.
Writing in The New York Times Oct 27, 2011, Richard Thompson Ford says: “Today’s most pressing injustices require comprehensive changes in the practices of the police, schools and employers — not simply responses to individual injuries.” It is within this train of thought that consideration must allow for the forging of a collective response to the apparent social and economic justices. These are wrongs bordering at times on tyrannies that until now are best understood in black communities on both sides of the 49th-parallel. But as more white children feel the pinch with so many of their teachers being laid off; as their parents see even more of their jobs heading overseas; as nearing retirement persons watch helplessly and in horror while pensions depreciate, and with the Occupy Movement facing the lash of The Police who are themselves members of the 99 percent, racial, class, and economic schism will lessen even more.
It is long over due for the concerns identified by Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Toronto and Occupy Movements elsewhere to be seriously addressed. No one expects immediate solutions. It is generally accepted that the ills plaguing North Americans, 99 percent of who are affected by the economic downswing, fallout from corporate greed, a shrinking asset base and uncertainty brought on by living from pay cheque to pay cheque will require patience and sacrifice.
Instead, a majority of Americans and Canadians in making the sacrifice suffer while the top 1 percent of the population becomes greedily richer, more opulent and less caring about the workforce whose labour has helped to make them Kings and Queens with the Midas Touch. Public disappointment and despair were fueled by inaction and indecision in Washington and state capitals around the US. People can only be distracted for so long by the shenanigans of celebrities, themselves 1 percenters, or with questionable sightings of spacecrafts from other planets.
Canada is less affected by the global economic downswing. Yet many people are already feeling the strains of an economy that is cooling down. Postsecondary students shoulder unprecedented debt in a period when employment prospects are gloomy. Elected representatives have become more fascinated with the hole in the doughnut than with the widening breach in Canadians’ pocketbooks. Drivers dodge deepening potholes on once pristine highways and municipalities coldly eye already strapped taxpayers to assume greater tax burdens.
As the electorate shifts farther right once left-of-centre or centrists politicians play the game of follow the leader. Canada’s safety net hallmarked by its healthcare programs are failing stress tests precipitated by an aging Boomer and generally better informed population. Without the sound of fury coming from politicians’ mouths Canadians are left to wonder who is really on their side. How will they cope at a time when corporate power and wealth are more concentrated and they are being told to “inherit the wind?” Their knee jerk embracing of conservative politics is less a reflection of support for do-nothing politics and more so an attempt to preserve what is left of the Canada they wish to hold on to.
Left on their own and with the Occupy Movement saying and doing what many people are either afraid of saying and doing, a majority of North Americans are not yet ready to Occupy the Streets. But as pollsters report they are tacitly supporting the efforts of the Movement. The way forward requires actions and support by Chinese and other Oriental peoples, and brown, First Nations, black and white people. There should be no misjudging of how low the 1 percenters will stoop to stop the Occupy Movement. Unresolved issues like the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy remind people in their fifties and older of how hopes and dreams were dashed in the past. Calling for change now in North America where most of the wealth and power are controlled by a few people runs the risk of being singled out and persecuted. The police attacks against Occupy Oakland and Occupy Denver are likely to be tame compared to responses yet to come if the Movement gains not just traction, but tangible victories.
As was the case with the earlier Civil Rights Movement the Occupy Movement will be further attacked. Its leadership will be spied on, jailed and blacklisted thereby making it harder in the foreseeable future for its members to support themselves, let alone families. But this is the risk and sacrifice protesters and activists must make in order for real change to occur.
By the 1970s, many of those who had not been killed or jailed, had suffered untold horrors, and decidedly threw in the towel. They were tormented by the deaths of so many and remembered lessons others wanted them to transport into the future. Like the lynchings in Mississippi of the two white men, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and their black colleague James E. Chaney. These Freedom and Civil Rights fighters like ones among the ranks of the Occupy Movement faced injustices that are pockmarks on the societies so many people are struggling in.
It wasn’t only on the American side of the border that the struggle for civil rights unfolded. Here in Canada a few bold leaders like the almost forgotten Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, himself quite a status quo politician, raised a flag of hope with the 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights. His government responded positively to societal pressures to begin the process of creating a just society that Pierre Elliott Trudeau adopted later on as Prime Minister. The current holder of that office Stephen Harper has stepped away from such an exemplar legacy. In its place are crime enactments that will supposedly deter criminals; hopefully, ones too, who were allegedly in his own government. Provincial initiatives do more to remind Canadians that politicians are struggling to understand the problems they should eagerly address; or that these politicians are hamstringed by the 1 percenters who bankroll their quests for office.
The Canadian Civil Rights Movement was not as large or as efficacious as ones elsewhere. Yet to the credit of countless men and women who marched in the streets from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, many Canadians stood shoulder to shoulder with people who suffered most and some minimal changes took effect. In a period when so many Americans in dodging their country’s draft to escape military service in Viet Nam ventured to Canada there was a thaw occurring which attuned many Canadians to principles of equality. But just as in the American example, and even before the courts south of the border attacked affirmative action embodied in the Bakke Case (1978), in Canada, some of those white people who marched and cried out the loudest about the need for social justice retreated and left the north of the border Civil Rights Movement in shambles.
Later on when provincial governments in Ontario appeased women for example with an Ontario Women’s Directorate, it would be white women who benefited the most. When the Ontario Human Rights Commission expanded its workforce, it was white people who got the work. When universities’ faculties expanded their curricula it would be in disciplines that hardly recognized continental and Diaspora African Studies. Needless to say Aboriginals and First Nations’ People governed in Canada by an instrument called the Indian Act suffered untold indignities. By the early 1980s, one would hardly notice, even with greater human diversity in Canada, that from the 1950s until the start of the 1970s Canadians were a part of an international movement for positive social change. This legacy of abandonment lay at the heart of the trepidation some people now feel as they dither on the sidelines.
Canadians now live amidst an environment filled with derision: east and west cleavages; immigrant versus Canadian-born; black versus white; the poor being exploited by the rich; students’ mountainous debt; seniors without the means to maintain decent standards of living and politicians who thumb their noses at the law. Harper acting in the name of his Bay Street cronies has helped fuel an atmosphere in which insensitivity reigns supreme. With so many dashed hopes, fallen dreams and betrayal on both sides of the border, people are crying out for justice. It is for reasons like this one that the pull to become engaged will overcome the fear of again being betrayed.
Thompson is also correct in reminding us: “If civil rights’ ideals are to be as relevant in the 21st-century as they were in the 20th, we must adapt the tactics of the past to the complexities of the present.” Members of the Occupy Movement must continue to ensure that everyone understands they are welcome. That means eliminating the rifts others have fashioned to undermine with and rule by.
The Occupy Movement is responding on behalf of the rest of the 99 percenters to brashness and corpulent greed as the scions of enterprise remind governments of being “too big to fail.” J. David Hulchanski points out in a recent Toronto Star article: “the belief is “…the economy is rigged in favour of the very few, and … politicians act on behalf of those few.” But if Billionaire Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffet understands he should be paying more taxes, why is it so many among the 1 percenters think it is their duty to plunder as much treasure as possible, engage in tax evasion and tax avoidance while Americans and Canadians pay with their blood, sweat and tears?
This discussion began with media claims of a lack of diversity in the Occupy Movement. There is some legitimacy in asking for example why aren’t there more people of African origin visibly swelling the ranks of this new protest movement? Why is it to this point they seem to be not well represented among the rank and file? But too, why does it appear they may not have secured important leadership roles in efforts intended to benefit North American society?
Why it is with the growing ranks of black unemployed, significant numbers of black school dropouts and incarcerated black youth and young adults, and severe decline in income and asset accumulation seemingly black people may be hesitating to become part of the Occupy efforts? Is it due to what supposedly occurred just after the end of the earlier US and Canadian Civil Rights Movement when many Whites walked away before the agenda was fully realized? Is it an issue of region, how Movement networks are built or are there other issues like age and alienation to be considered?
It is true that some Whites opted to become part of the very system they vowed to vehemently challenge and are now members of the 1 percenters. So too did some black brothers and sisters. Other Whites cut their hair, picked up briefcases and donning business attire took their place in line leading on a journey to Mahogany Row. Is there some sense of remembering the betrayal provoking younger generations of African Americans and African Canadians to fear again being left in the lurch? Or is it about uncertainty that the Movement is not only anti-1 percenters, but has within its ranks, anti Barack Obama supporters as well? These are all legitimate questions that should be posed and addressed.
But they won’t be if other people are allowed to set the terms and conditions of the dialogue. Just as in earlier times coming together to discuss issues of concern; ones that remain bothersome should be encouraged by the parties who’ve always found ways to unite in the fight against social and economic injustice. After all, to fully Occupy requires occupying one’s mind as well.
© Sheldon Taylor November 05, 2011