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Letter: A Perspective on the Occupy Wall Street Movement

The Occupy Wall Street movement, like all radical movements, has obliterated the narrow political parameters. It proposes something new. It will not make concessions with corrupt systems of corporate power. It holds fast to moral imperatives regardless of the cost. It confronts authority out of a sense of responsibility. It is not interested in formal positions of power. It is not seeking office. It is not trying to get people to vote. It has no resources. It can’t carry suitcases of money to congressional offices or run millions of dollars of advertisements. All it can do is ask folks to use their bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back. It has no other way of defying the corporate state. This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and independent human beings who shoulder personal responsibility. This, after a month of the Occupy Wall Street movement gone global is how the occupation sees itself, at least from what I’ve come to learn. I have some thoughts.

Martin Luther King was repeatedly betrayed by liberal supporters, especially when he began to challenge economic forms of discrimination, which demanded that liberals, rather than simply white Southern racists, begin to make sacrifices. King too was a radical. He would not compromise on nonviolence, racism or justice. He understood that movements – such as the Liberty party, which fought slavery/the suffragists, who fought for women’s rights/the labor movement and the civil rights movement – have always been the true correctives in American democracy. None of those movements achieved formal political power.

But by holding fast to moral imperatives they made the powerful fear them. King knew that racial equality was impossible without economic justice and an end to militarism. And he had no intention of ceding to the demands of the liberal establishment that called on him to be calm and patience. “For years, I labored with the idea of reforming the existing institutions in the South, a little change here, a little change there,” King said shortly before he was assassinated. “Now I feel quite differently, I think you’ve got to have a reconstruction of the entire system, a revolution of values.”

King was killed in 1968 when he was in Memphis to support a strike by sanitation workers. By then he had begun to say that his dream, the one that the corporate state has frozen into a few safe clichés from his 1963 speech in Washington, had turned into a nightmare. King called at the end of his life for massive federal funds to rebuild inner cities, what he called “a radical redistribution of economic and political power,” a complete restructuring of “the architecture of American society.”

He grasped that the inequities of capitalism had become the instrument by which the poor would always remain poor. “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism,” King said, “but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” I recall Pope John Paul II the Great repeatedly warning our nation’s leaders about “American’s unbridled capitalism’/its ‘savage capitalism’” – these were the exact terms he used. I remember once being at the entranceway to the United Nations welcoming his arrival where he would again use those words when addressing the General Assembly.

On the eve of King’s murder he was preparing to organize a poor people’s march on Washington, DC, designed to cause “major, massive dislocations,” a nonviolent demand by the poor, including the white underclass, for a system of economic equality. I recall being on stage with King just days before his assassination promoting that march. It would be 43 years before his vision was realized by an eclectic group of protesters who gathered before the gates of Wall Street.

Because economics is a tricky business and can be dangerous, I have a prayer … My prayer for this movement is that it remain peaceful, nonviolent, that it not be co-opted or hijacked or in any way used for reasons other than the pursuit of “economic democracy.” The Civil Rights Movement in which I played an active role gave us “social democracy” – But…the absence of economic democracy is what has kept our country from the realization of “full democracy.” I recall having sent trainloads of folks from Long Island to hear what would be King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. His dream of course was to see realized a “full democracy.” Amen.

Ted Conlin