I spent Christmas Eve, 2011, with my brother, his wife, three of his four children and other kith. As is true of all of our family gatherings, there was an abundance of laughter, teasing, drinking, eating, dancing, and storytelling. My brother is a pretty taciturn character until he’s had a bit of holiday cheer, at which point he becomes as garrulous as the rest of us, often remembering incidents that have been long forgotten.
Among the many trips we took down memory lane yesterday was his memory of my first publicized protest many years ago. He was reminded of the incident when he saw a photo of me at Zucotti/Liberation Park in support of OWS. The earlier posting had been in our local paper when a band of other teens and I staged a protest in our favorite park against a long-established curfew time. I was 17 and deeply in love with the spirit of the ’60’s and the Civil Rights Movement and my friends and I took every opportunity to express solidarity with the great protests of the time and to bring to light the real and imagined areas of oppression in our lives. With the self righteousness that only teens can muster, we decided to protest the local park curfew, gathering our little band of malcontents in front of the Lincoln statue, thus emphasizing our naively imagined connection to “The Great Liberator.” We were successful enough to garner police attention and some local news coverage, and the next day, my darker image stood out among the small group of white teen protesters whose photograph now graced the front page of the most widely read paper in our city.
I don’t remember how I found out about the photo, but I do remember the lightning fast understanding that my mother would “kill” me when she saw it. My brilliant solution was to reach every doorstep on our block and smudge or remove the incriminating picture before my mom could see it. This kind of childish logic should be proof enough that the human brain doesn’t finish working out the kinks until we’re in our twenties, because of course I couldn’t get to every paper in a city with more than 1/2 million people, many of whom had called my mother by the time I reluctantly returned home to hide. I had foolishly wasted time smudging photos rather than patching up my integrity and preparing to defend my belief in my cause. I had also unwittingly given my siblings ammunition for decades of teasing, perhaps the worst outcome of all.
I hadn’t thought about that incident for years when my brother brought it up yesterday, but once he did, I realized-not for the first time-that my basic character had been set from an early age. I truly believed in the rights of human beings, the protection of all living creatures, and the sacredness of the earth. I believed in true love, the innate goodness of people, and the ability of each generation to make the word a better place for all.
Over the years life has been hard, and childhood beliefs have taken a beating, to say the least. I’ve spent my life continuing to support my values through social actions, charitable donations, and as a professor who (I hope) provides an opportunity for students to gain some insight and appreciation for the realities and cultures of other people, as well as the chance to consider the construction of their own realities and cultures, often for the first time. It’s good work and I enjoy my students, who are smart and kind and generally willing to grapple with the very foreign ideas that I present to them. But at the core, I’ve been damaged-by the greed of the 80’s, ignorance and apathy of the 90’s, self-interests of the aughts, the failure of relationships, and my own historical research which is full of enough horrific examples of inhumanity to force even the most optimistic or naive person to recognize an unhappy pattern among humans, and to doubt the innate goodness of our species.
There have been events and actions that kept me from giving up and sometimes buoyed my spirits, but I was too experienced and educated to believe that we were going to save ourselves, much less the world. While others “blissed-out” on Obama, I felt a now familiar disappointment as he began building a cabinet with people whose policies helped bring us to our already unhappy state. Protests in Seattle and around the world gave me the satisfaction of knowing that there were some people to carry the torch and to continue to chip away at the mortar of the fortress of the world-wide oppression, discrimination and injustice, but that nugget of sadness remained in my heart.
I was sad and I saw the roots of cynicism reaching out to my soul. My personal dreams hadn’t come true and it seemed pretty clear that the world was- as my elders so often predicted, “going to Hell in a hand-basket.” And then came Occupy.
What appeared to most to be an unorganized group of “kids” were, to me, the representatives of a real dialectic, a very diverse group of people from every possible walk of life. I am not seeking, nor do I support concepts of perfection. Occupy is far from perfect and still far from obtaining its many goals. But what it is and represents is more than a glimmer of hope. It is diverse groups of people coming together in common cause. It is the first time since the mid 70’s that people seem to understand that most of us (the 99%) have more in common with one another than with our common oppressors and that together, we have the power to bring about change and perhaps even create a more just society. What a concept!
Occupy Wall Street got people talking and thinking again, and it has forced politicians to pay attention and change their agendas. That’s not small. And now it has spread around the world, a rallying point for the disparate issues that people must deal with in their own ways and through their own ideas about solidarity. Since I started this draft, many things have occurred, some aimed at belittling Occupy as well as the usual ego issues that every group has to face. But despite the many issues, the force continues, here- through movements like Occupy Sandy and Occupy Student Debt-and abroad, where people have actively mobilized against governments and cultural forces such as gender discrimination.
I have no more to say. The struggle is real and the work continues, but I remain thankful for all those out there who heed the call and continue to contribute in any way they can, to the betterment of this world that we all do occupy.