Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Come in from the Cold

I think the best thing that could happen for the Occupy Wall Street movement at this time is to come inside. This first phase of the movement has been a total success-- with encampments in cities throughout the country, a developing and more and more clearly defined message, supporters from many segments of the population and a growing student movement. It has been felt internationally and, according to the New York Times, "We are the 99 percent" has officially entered the lexicon.

It is time to use the winter to focus efforts, build programs and platforms and prepare for summer. With the NATO and G8 meetings set in Chicago in May, the possibilities of a 1968 atmosphere of protests in the parks is quite possible. City officials have even said that they see dealing with the Occupy protesters as a "test run" for what they expect will happen this summer. Everyone would like to keep it peaceful, and I hope that is the case. In fact, government officials nationwide seem for the most part supportive of Occupy Wall Street, and seem to be going out of their way to be civil and negotiate. Hearing the mayor of Portland, Oregon on The News Hour along with a spokesperson from the Occupy movement there reflected well on both the protesters and the mayor-- especially on the mayor.

But now, it's cold. And no good can come of protesting 24/7 in the cold parks of the U.S. I have felt that way for a while, but especially when I heard some kind of audio diary produced by a woman who occupied the capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, during the legislature/Scott Walker standoff several months ago. In her diary, she talks about being exhausted, becoming increasingly unfocused and unable to concentrate even on what was going on around her in the halls of the capitol.

There is a very good reason to occupy-- it gets attention, and it provides a forum not just for expressing outrage and solidarity but also talking through issues and hearing a variety of opinions and of bonding. But in the end, people who lead really good chants become the leadership when you're outside for months in the cold. And ultimately, there's no future in it. So I'm not unhappy to see the parks getting cleared. I think regular monthly one-day actions throughout the winter like the one in New York on October 21 should be organized. But also, groups should continue to meet, identify leaders and continue to clarify both positions and programs for change.

I have a specific hope for the students who have begun protesting increases in tuition. When I look around at the colleges in this country, I see a system that promotes privilege and greed and that is unsustainable. Building LEED-certified facilities that cost millions of dollars is not the answer to what college students need. What is at the core of a college education? What do the students value? And how can they demand the universities and colleges provide them with an education-- without frills and perks that have become standard expectations-- at a reasonable cost? Is that something the students are even willing to do? 

There is so much good going on in this country right now-- people growing their own food; living simply; moving their money to small, local banks; making good choices about how they will participate (or not) in credit and debt and even purchasing. People are going "back to the land" literally and figuratively, building community and volunteering. I truly hope that Occupy Wall Street will be able to grow as a movement and consider real solutions-- solutions that involve changes made by all of us, not just the "1 percent" (though I believe nothing good will happen if the banks aren't held accountable for their actions against the public interest and until those entities too big to fail are dismantled). I hope the movement will have integrity and reflect the values it espouses. I am looking forward to summer and the election season and the possibility of continued dialogue and a commitment to the common good. 

The news tonight featured a story on decreases in the amount of money going to provide heat to low income families. The administration has requested even less for this program than most political leaders are willing to approve (or maybe just in northern states like Minnesota!). I'm not sure what that means, but I do know it's one more way in which the "safety net" is being stripped away to cover our nation's debts because we won't/can't raise taxes. I look forward to a time that "safety net" is not pejorative, and when we care for everyone in our society.

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