Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Wall Street - Lessons From The Past

The Occupy Wall Street protests are bringing back memories of a different time, one I'd like to share with you.  There are obvious differences between these two movements and there are parallels that cannot be ignored.

On a cool, crisp spring day, April 4, 1968, I had retreated into our basement in our Maryland home.  I was 13 years old and loved to sew.  Our sewing machine was set up in our comfortable family room.  With a finished out basement it was like living in a two story home.  Our old Singer sat on the old red card table.  With iron and ironing board close by and the cutting board splayed across the floor I was busy creating new summer outfits.  Along side me was our radio.  It was tuned to WPGC and I was listening to all the hits of the day with Wolfman Jack as the radio announcer (this was years before he became syndicated).  Wolfman was asking us to call in our requests.  The Vietnam War was in full swing and many of the songs on the radio reflected the sentiments of the war.

Then all at once the radio program was interrupted to report the shooting of Martin Luther King.  I had some knowledge of the civil rights movement as my civics teacher had included MLK and his work in our class lectures during that school year.  I remember how she introduced this subject.  On a little record player she had brought from home she played The Young Rascals song People Got To Be Free.  A presentation I will never forget.

I knew what I had just heard on the radio about MLK was tragic and important.  I ran upstairs to tell my mother.  Later that evening, our family gathered around our little black and white television as the facts unfolded.  His violent death rocked the entire nation, riots were shooting up everywhere.  What scared me the most was the riots and looting were heavy on the Washington DC/Maryland line.  We lived just seven miles south of DC, across Branch Ave. from Andrews Air Force base, in a small town called Clinton.  But, even worse, my mom worked in the office of a retail store called Woodward & Lothrops, located right on the DC line.  My mom felt she needed to continue to go to work and believed she would be safe. But as the riots and looting continued and fanned out, the area where she worked became questionable.  My dad called her at work and insisted she come home while we all waited impatiently for her.  She returned to us safe and we were relieved.

What then transpired after the days of rioting subsided were buses and buses from all over the country bringing black people to DC.  They came as a memorial to MLK, they came peacefully out of respect for MLK's life works and they came to make peaceful demonstrations on the need for government intervention in civil rights.  Their methods were a way of honoring and progressing MLK's messages.  Demonstrating the need for action now.

Shantytown was constructed surrounding the long Reflection Pool between the stately Lincoln Memorial and the towering Washington Monument.  It was made up of tents and lean-to open room shacks set out to house those who were bused into DC.   My parents took our family to see Shantytown.  We climbed up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out toward the Washington Monument.  As we looked over the quiet and orderly temporary town built within the nation's capital my father said to us "Look carefully and remember.  I want you to see this, as history is being made today."  I remember tears coming to my eyes, I was touched.  There before me represented a great deal of pain and determination.  My dad further explained, good people were standing up for themselves, asking for equality and justice.

Their purpose was to get both houses of Congress and the President to take notice and understand the importance and power behind the long needed changes in legislating civil rights for all.  They were perhaps the greatest and most convincing lobbyist of our time, a formidable power.  It was past time to place the Constitution of the United States, as agreed upon by our founding fathers, into play for all citizens.  In this case, laws were needed to direct social issues, ensure equal opportunities and treatment,  and eventually move stubborn attitudes that had persisted since the days of slavery.

As a result over the next several years, there was an outpouring of civil rights legislated and affirmative action programs initiated....and change occurred at all levels.  It is still far from perfect, but there have been great strides.

There were vital aspects of this movement that made it successful.  The people were speaking from their hearts, they were determined, they were highly organized with very specific goals and they approached our country's lawmakers with the greatest respect, even when they were not entirely trusting of those people who had been voted into place.

Our current day OWS have some legitimate complaints, our country has long been in economic crisis and we cannot go on as we are.  We are sorely in need of Congress working together rather than all the political posturing we see.  We agree there cannot be waste of our tax dollars.  This past weekend we saw many people joining this movement who have spent a lifetime working hard and have lost everything.  So many people are unemployed who want to work, they are not looking for handouts.  They are demanding answers, they are demanding opportunities.  They are demanding our country work together to resolve these outstanding issues.  Yes, there are many individual agendas, there appears to be some disorganization but they could learn from the days that followed MLK's death, from a movement that was peaceful, organized and clear about what they wanted to see change. 

One of their biggest complaints is that of greed.  It is my humble opinion they will get nowhere with that approach.  Greed has existed since the beginning of time....its there in the Bible.  Further, are the wealthy people and corporations being greedy or are they operating within the boundaries which have been set out by our laws and maximizing profits as called for in their purpose and agreement with stockholders?  Have we forgotten the massive numbers of charitable organizations funded by these individuals and groups?  On the other hand, is it right for the government to take hard earned tax dollars and bail out the largest financial institutions which turn around and pay millions in bonuses to a few?  That is hard to swallow, especially when we see the unemployment lines and the millions in bread lines and soup kitchens.  And how about the failing small businesses?  We see more and more empty store fronts each day.

The OWS are asking for a return to democracy, whereby we have a government representative of all its people. This is not about Obama, this is not about Bush, this is about a country that is fractured and needs healing.  This is about listening to the people...we the people....   But OWS methods can make them or break them.  They need a responsible leadership group within their organization.  They do not need outsiders from the Mideast coming in and taking charge and teaching violence.  Nothing will be accomplished that way, with violence our cities will just become more broken.

So for today, I pray, if their decision is to persist then they will become more organized, determine how best to accomplish their goals and become very specific in those goals, working within the system as the civil rights movement did in the late 60's.