The Meaning of the Occupy Movement

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.

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12 Responses to The Meaning of the Occupy Movement

  1. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating post. It truly gave me new insights into the movement, and in order to process this, I had to take it to my holy hour.

    I must disagree that Catholic socialism is an option. Catholicism does not say that we all must have equal wealth, but that people have basic rights (food, shelter, clothing, medical care) that must be provided for in justice. Socialism, which finds making even equal desirable, is not in line with this (see The Furrow by Escriva, number 623).

    Furthermore, I must say that the problem is not that businesses want to make too much profit, but that economic policies of certain people drive them overseas so that they can make any reasonable profit. Arguably, businesses should not be taxed, only salaries of people. This would keep production in the US and give Americans jobs. It would also enable other countries to develop their own centers of production and truly create, not mass production but, production by the masses. This is why Phyllis Schlafly can write that “Of Republican presidential candidates, only Herman Cain and Rick Santorum understand that what corporations need is lower taxes on their operations inside the United States rather than on the profits they earn in other countries” (“Rick Perry’s Marriage Problems”).

    Lastly, this did get me thinking: why has the Church never created ways for the poor to obtain health insurance? A charity that gives away insurance or something.

  2. Juan Lino says:

    I live in New York, where this all began, and I have strong thoughts about it, particularly since I grew up poor and currently live from paycheck to paycheck in this very expensive city. I applaud the writer for painting a romantic picture but when I go down there and look at the food they were serving (of course now the “freeloaders” are being excluded!) and the tents, etc., that these poor people have (right!) the reality is something else – but I will put those thoughts aside for the moment and ask a question.

    What, ultimately, is the goal? To take from the rich and give to the poor? Shame the “have’s” into distributing their wealth to the “have nots”? But why would they do that? And if they don’t, should we violate the freedom of the “haves” and force them to do it?

    I’ll end with a question to the writer of the post: what does this sentence mean to you: now is the time for the spirituality and rhetoric of the Cross to become more robust and central to your mission. Sounds nice, but what does it really mean?

  3. Peter Wolczuk says:

    In Victoria, B.C., Canada the local civic government announced an intention to build an outdoor skating rink right where the “occupy” group is. This in a climate where freezing temperatures and snow are rare and, sometimes, don’t even happen in the winter. When they do, duration is rarely one week long. But, it’s just a coincidence that they picked a time and place where the “occupy” tents would be forced to move, right? The responses that come my to mind I won’t print in this blog and I very rarely use today.
    Chalk (on public owned surfaces only) is the weapon of choice so far and I’ve tried to reflect the Christian viewpoint with the quote by Pastor Martin Niemoller about nobody speaking up for others. COmputer time limited – Google ref.
    Also, “Dysfunctional people do not ‘fall through the cracks’ they were pushed.”
    More Christian quotes please!

  4. A. Lee says:

    What a load of crap. I work hard form my money, I live paycheck to paycheck, and I have $60K+ in student loans….but I don’t expect to sit on my butt and wait for government handouts. Convenient how the blogger neglects to mention the crimes committed BY the occupiers.

    • Peter Wolczuk says:

      A Lee’s note shows what an easy cop out derision can be, especially when other posters mention facts but the one with the shortest post only alleges that there are some facts.
      Take the “underemployed” in retail and expand the viewpoint to the temporary labour agencies which mainly serve the construction industry.
      In Western Canada (and likely elsewhere) they constantly hire, and only lay off workers in the exceptionally rare case, even when there is very little work to go around. As a result their low pay averages out to progressively less than a full work week and they cannot begin a claim for employment insurance, unemployment insurance or whatever it’s called as the employers shift their word games around.
      The federal government here has legislated the insurance money into the main government fund and; since it is next to impossible for anyone to get enough work or to get the insurance benefits they’ve paid for; the money is all ready to be used to pay the bills that the corporations have “deferred”
      The only time these workers could truthfully say that they “sit on my butt” is when they arrive early in the morning to wait for a dispatch that may only come after hours (or even days) of waiting.
      Pay is only for hours worked so, often, one of the parents is away for long hours every working day to occasionally bring home a day paycheck of 4 to 8 hours. This means less mentoring for families; unless the children turn to the pimps, drug dealers, etc. in the low rent neighbourhoods so many have to live, thereby making each next generation progressivley more vulnerable. If workers don’t sign to waive their right to overtime pay rates of compenstion for on job injuries they tend to be last to get a dispatch.

  5. Occupier says:

    Anon – I would say again that socialism is a diverse political ideology. The socialism of which I speak is seen among the Scandinavian countries as well as in some components of the American system. After all, the federal government currently runs a socialist medical system for veterans, which I don’t see anyone calling to dismantle. I advocate the redistribution of wealth as a matter of justice and concern for the common good, but that in no way requires complete wealth equality.

    I would agree with you by the way on corporate taxes. They tend to be regressive as businesses simply pass along the tax to consumers by increasing prices, effectively making it a consumption tax. I would be more than willing eliminate corporate taxes all together in exchange for robust and progressive rates of income, capital gains, dividends and estate tax.

    Juan – In my experience among the Occupiers, there is not one goal as it is an organic movement among a diverse group of people. In general, I would say these are among the most prominent goals: 1) expressing in an organized and public fashion their anxiety and frustration with the economic and political system as currently constructed, 2) a desire for the restoration of basic justice and fairness that could be accomplished by public policy that supports debt relief, financial regulation, a social safety net and a tax structure that redistributes wealth for the common good. There are no doubt other purposes as well, but I seek here to express the broadest purposes that I can discern.

    Thanks for the opportunity to expand on what I mean by the statement “now is the time for the spirituality and rhetoric of the Cross to become more robust and central to your mission.” Again I made this statement in light of where I see tensions possibly heading. The statement was meant to give Christian Occupiers courage to place the Cross at the center of their reaction to any violence that may result in this movement. In the face of political power using violence, Jesus received his torture and death in order to create all things new. Among the new aspects of creation he provided us in the Cross was the witness of love and peacefulness in the face of violence and oppression. This spirituality of the Cross is what I hope Christian (and all) Occupiers will make central to their movement as this now moves into a stage and space where more confrontation is possible.

    A – Indeed some Occupiers have committed unjust acts in the same spirit as those they protest against. This is in no way surprising as sin is among even the most noble pursuits. Hypocrisy does not defeat the worthiness of ideas, but does taint participants and result in a loss of credibility. I rebuke those Occupiers with commit injustice and hope they will cease.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Occupier, thanks for your thoughts. I’d love to continue this discussion.

    Do you really think that Scandinavia, a country that suffers high suicide and alcoholism rates, should be who we imitate? Or, if what you mean by socialism is merely what Christian Democrats were promoting on the majority of the continent while Europe was having its great economic boom for so much of the second half of the twentieth century, I will agree that that type of socialism has a place in the Christian tradition. But I reject the name socialism for that system. That’s a mixed market.

    Also, I’m surprised to see you support the estate tax. I would encourage you to do a little research into it. It really is a war against small business owners waged by the richest among us. An anecdote: when the father of my brother in law died, the family business was left to the kids, who had to pay something like 25% tax on the total value of the company’s assets. The only way to do such a thing is to sell 25% of the company. However, to do that leave the company unable to function. The company had to sell itself completely so that the family could pay the tax, and it was bought out by a bigger company. The reason (while we cannot attribute motives, this seems to be the reason) that men like Warren Buffet say they support the estate tax is that it allows them to buy out the small companies to increase their riches, and the tax will not affect their own businesses in the same way, as they are structured differently, not being family owned.

    I really wish that the Catholic Church would take this opportunity to promote Catholic social teaching and spiritually minister to the movement. My fear is that the movement is promoting things which are not only unjust but bad for the masses. What we truly need is the ability to the masses to take control of production as explained by men like EF Schumacher.

  7. Occupier says:

    Thanks Anon I am looking forward to more dialogue as well.

    I think your comparison between suicide rates and socialism in Scandinavian countries is a red herring. As to the Christian Democracy movements in Europe, I find much agreement with them. Of course, Europeans have benefited in the post-war period from having political parties that actually vary in ideology and approach – there are liberals, socialists, Christian Democrats. The American party system does not represent the actual diversity of opinion among the populace.

    Ok, then let’s compromise on the estate tax in order to avoid hurting small business and to serve as a check on enormous wealth concentration in family dynasties. A 50% tax levied only on estates valued at $100 million and above. This would accomplish what to me is the noblest value of the estate tax: 1) buffet tremendous wealth transfers among the 1%, 2) encourage the 1% to divest themselves of large portions of their estates to charitable organizations and 3) would encourage the preservation of competitive, localized small business-based economies.

    And I would completing second your appeal to Catholic Social Teaching and economists like E.F. Schumacher as the way forward in proposing a more authentically Christian approach to the economy and markets.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Occupier, I don’t think that the suicide rate in Scandinavia is a red herring at all. It’s just one indicator. Alcoholism, the collapse of the family (before happening in the rest of the world), etc…Scandinavia should not be our model.

    As for the estate tax, or with any tax, I do agree on compromising. Setting it 100 million though is higher than even I would! I think the reason the country is so divided on taxes is because the left normally sets the bar so low for what constitutes “the wealthy” who pay higher taxes. As you know, the cost of living varies greatly across the country. A salary that would make someone “the wealthy” in one state only allows the person in another state to be the middle class. I come from a region that has one of the highest costs of living in the US. My family is not considered “the wealthy” there but the upper-middle class. My family does not mind paying more taxes based on our income, but what upsets us is how much extra we pay. Because the federal government sets standards based on the whole country, we were deemed “the wealthy” and not granted any financial aid to go to college. My parents actually had to sell their house to send me to school and have enough money to live off of in retirement. Did it make us poor? No. But are we tired of being told that we have so much and can give more generously? Yes. Especially when we see people who abuse the federal government’s generosity by staying on welfare or by not seeking a job because unemployment is paying them. Doesn’t it strike you as odd that when the length of time one is allowed to collect unemployment is shorter, people find work faster?

    As a final note, I’d like to say it’s been a pleasure chatting.

    • Occupier says:

      Your comment reminds me of how effectively the 1% have stoked class tensions among the middle class, the working class and the poor.

      Many middle class folks push for the curtailment the social safety net as if these programs are responsible for the middle class squeeze by wage stagnation, increased personal debt and decreased purchasing power.

      The reason for our great economic contraction since 2008 has virtually nothing to do with the poor. The reason is directly connected to greed and gluttony of the financial services industry in collaboration with their purchased government actors.

      It remains me of the demagoguery of the Jim Crow era in the South. Wealthy white landowners ensured control over the social and political levers of the community by supporting racial segregation and fanning the flames of racial tension. After all the poor white sharecropper and the poor black sharecropper had more in common than not, but the psychological fixation was to focus on racial differences rather than economic similarities. The meme of the wealthy white landowner to the poor white farmer: “Sure you’re life isn’t great, but at least you aren’t some savage.”

      The psychological fixation that the 1% seek to over amplify today is that the poor somehow live better, or at least equal to, the middle class and that get it all for free. Of course, this is empirically not true, but the myth has taken a firm hold in the middle class psyche. And it works over and over again! There is always a segment of the middle class populace that continues to support this myth of poor folk living as good as they do. The new meme: “Sure you’re life isn’t great, but at least you aren’t some freeloader.”

  9. Anonymous says:

    Occupier,

    Unless I said something I did not intend, I do not remember saying that the poor live equally as well as the middle class or that they do so as freeloaders. What I meant to suggest (and am pretty sure I said) is that due to different costs of living across the country, aid for the poor through social services is opposed by the middle class because the way it is currently handled is by waging war on the middle class, not the rich. I did not say it necessarily has to be this way. I did not place the blame for this on the poor. As you saw, I agreed with your plan to place an inheritance tax on the richest among us, and when you agreed to this, you said the richest among us are those with over $100 million in assets. I set the bar lower, at maybe $15 million in assets. I’m not quite sure what it should be exactly, but it should be high enough that it does not destroy family farms, and since I know nothing about the cost of farm equipment, I cannot say what the threshold should be. But what I can clearly state is that I oppose making war on the middle class and setting it at $100,000 in assets, which it has been in the past.

    I also agree with you that capitalism is a form of slavery for everyone outside the 1%. So please do not suggest I am siding the middle class with the rich against the poor. Also, please do not suggest that there are not freeloaders who do abuse the system. By freeloaders, I do NOT mean people on disability, who legitimately need government assistance. I speak of those who are abusing the system.

    Lastly, we cannot place all the blame here on the financial services industry. Much of the blame must also go to massive miscalculations on the part of the government. Both parties supported a costly and horribly unjust war in Iraq, and it’s time both parties take the blame for it. Additionally, it was the government trying to force banks to help the poor without thinking about the human tendency toward greed that created the fabricated situation where banks, for the sake of profits, gave out loans that were not payable.

    http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/editorial_opinion/oped/articles/2008/09/28/franks_fingerprints_are_all_over_the_financial_fiasco/

    And this is why what is needed is NOT just the right candidate, but a spiritual revolution permeated with the message of the Gospel before.

  10. Mike Ruffing says:

    Wow. Where does one begin, really. The “carpet bombing” of charges and claims of victimhood are overwhelming, and with purpose. It is truly sad that that OWS participants are so self-indulgent and self-agrandizing. You want real matyrs- look to the early Christians who were killed for speaking about Christianity, in a time where healthcare didn’t exist, student loans were not available because only royalty was allowed to be taught to read.

    You have no true perspective or propotionality and choos to be “victims” and cheapen real ones. Over the subsequent months since your post, the crimes your group have committed ranging from rape, destruction of property, druges, and more, have come to light to show that your “movement” is really about spoiled kids, who bought into the socialist, Alinski-ite, cliche’s from the college professors who never worked in the real world and try to score with their co-ed student. It is so depressing and sad that I have to stop hear, for I know nothing but time, getting a real life, working, learning from experience, failure, getting back on your feet, having some gratitude tht you live in the best country in the history of the world, have some faith in our Lord, and remember that “Thou shall not covet” is an important commandment your movement conveniently forgets.

    One last thing since I know you and your movement are fixated on the 1%, did you know that if you make $48,000 YOU ARE IN THE 1%…….. of the world. How much in student loans did you take out?
    A little more perspective, a little less coveting and envy would make you and your fellow OWS members less tired, more happy, more money, and probably a little more sensitive to those who built all those college campus palaces you spent so much time in being indoctrinated.

    God Bless,
    Mike

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