I asked a friend of mine who is very involved in the Occupy movement to write for the blog an explanation of what it is all about. Throughout I have inserted some pictures that I took while occupying Oakland last Saturday night. I wanted to see things for myself, so I attended the rally, took part in the march, and slept over night in front of city hall. Please let us know what your experiences have been with the movement and how we can bring a religious and Catholic element to it.
THE EXHAUSTED 99%
The workers and students have reached full saturation. They work at one or two jobs, maybe more. They seek to better themselves by college and vocational training. They have no health insurance, no pension and no labor union. They have little financial security, lots of debt and bleak economic and social prospects at least in the near future and possibly for a long time to come. They have lost control of the democratic levers of their government. They are what my grandmother would call “bone-tired.”
Oligarchic interests have purchased both major political parties and virtually all federal elected officials. They have funded think tanks and academicians who advocate almost perpetual warfare and have produced ever more deadly armaments for sale on the open and black market. They have worked to limit court access to petition for grievance and seek remedy. They have supported the militarization of law enforcement agencies and prosecutors who send millions to prison for ever more minor, personal offenses for ever longer periods of time. Of course, in the same process the oligarchs have immunized themselves from criminal or civil sanction for wrongdoing. They kept wages stagnate and favored mechanization of labor at every turn. They have exported what remains of production jobs for people to the developing world in order to exploit cheap labor and natural resources. They colluded with central bankers to keep interest rates low and credit easy to allow for the double enslavement to wage and debt. All of this results in the concentration of wealth in their hands and ensures that the classes below them remain below them.
Let’s be frank: none of this is new or unique to our time and place. Oligarchy is as old as governments and markets. The oligarchs have won. And this is by no means their first experience of victory. Most of the time, they win. It is the nature of power, control and sin. In all likelihood, they will survive this too. And even if certain members of the oligarchy are shamed into submission or removed for malfeasance, there are plenty who crave to take up the mantle after them.
The exhaustion of the worker and the student has resulted in the fullest expression of protest, that being resistance by physical presence. Like Hoovervilles, like Selma, like the Salt Satyagrahah, like Moses in front of Pharaoh, the only means of resistance for the nobody is flesh and bone. This is the meaning and grace of the Occupy Movement. They stand naked, bruised, exposed in front of the hazy reality of those who own them by wage and debt and declare freedom. It is an act of love against the structure of sin. We are again given the privilege of seeing the Cross as displayed in social action.
Thankfully these acts of resistance have been largely non-violent, with the Occupiers and law enforcement able to negotiate over points of tension or disagreement. It is a testament to the tradition of the rule of law and respect for the freedom to resist. But we have also begun to see the cracks in that façade. In Nashville last week, state officials created a park curfew to allow for the removal of Occupiers from public space. 29 Occupiers were arrested, but a local judge found no legal basis for the arrests and refused to allow the police to continue with detentions. More foreboding was the events in Oakland last week. On the orders of who-knows, Oakland police moved to disperse the Occupiers with tear gas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades. One police projectile resulted in a head injury for Scott Olsen, a former Marine and Iraq War veteran. The video of the scene is shocking. The police, in full riot gear, shoot projectiles into the crowd. The Occupiers scramble to avoid the mayhem and soon Scott Olsen is seen lying on the ground. Roughly 15 Occupiers come over to assist this clearly injured man. Then we see the police, who are under no threat or aggression at this time, casually throw a flash-bang grenade into the group. The crowd again scrambles after the projectile goes off, leaving Scott Olsen vulnerable to more injury.
This begins a new chapter in the Occupy Movement. The oligarchic interests have grown tired of the uncomfortable spectacle and will now begin to influence local government and law enforcement to end this. Again, this is nothing new. And honestly the response to coercive power can be typical as well. The pitfall of the Occupy Movement would be the marginalized version of “shock and awe,” in which instability caused by tension with local law enforcement is parlayed into an excuse for property damage and general rampage a la G20 protests. This must be avoided. What then is the mode of resistance if and when police action turns violent? In my personal experience of attending Occupy as well as in reports from friends at Occupy spots across the country, the political and social tone of the crowd is certainly socialist in origin. As someone with socialist sympathies this is no stumbling block in and of itself. Much like liberalism, socialism has contained within it a variety of possible expressions, even (dare I say) a Christian expression.
I would suggest to those in the Occupy Movement with religious sensibilities that now is the time for the spirituality and rhetoric of the Cross to become more robust and central to your mission. In the veneration of Martin Luther King and Gandhi, we Christians must insist that the Occupiers not strip the innate religious impulse for social action from the biographies of these men. Let us remain non-violent in the presence of the state’s coercive power by remaining focused on the witness of physical resistance as a manifestation of God’s love and justice in the world.
As I know this blog is written by men who are priests or studying for the priesthood, I want to challenge you as well. I sit and listen to you preach weekly. You often speak eloquently of the mystery of humanity in relation to God and each other. You sometimes dabble in the business of drawing moral and Scriptural lessons into the political life, most often centering on some aspect of life and the multitude of ways in which humankind has come to destroy it. You rarely speak of economics, employment or finance. You are derelict in your duty when you avoid these topics. I know that you are not trained economists (for the most part), but you are trained sojourners so that by your walk on the path to salvation you may assist others as well. But your state of life has placed distance between you and the people with whom you sojourn. You as clergy in the United States do not lack health insurance. You do not lack money for basic essentials (or luxuries). You (through a diocese or religious congregation) employ a legion of development personnel to raise money for your education and your old age needs. 99% of the faces you preach to on Sundays cannot imagine such a state in life. Please remember this when you compose a Sunday homily from time to time. And maybe come down to an Occupy spot, minister to the Occupiers and law enforcement and stand in the person of Christ among the exhausted.