The claim was made again a few weeks ago. What claim, you ask? Why, the claim for the mantle of Martin Luther King Jr., of course!
The newest protest group on the block, the 99% Spring, stated on their website that they plan to “take non-violent action in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi” this summer. The organization picked up on the Occupy Wall Street theme that the ills facing our country are caused by the 1% of the wealthiest Americans at the cost of the other 99%.
This isn’t knew, however, as Occupiers were making this claim as early as September and October. Even President Obama subtly linked King to the Occupy Movement in his speech dedicating the King Memorial. “If he were alive today, I believe he would remind us that the unemployed worker can rightly challenge the excesses of Wall Street without demonizing all who work there…”
This claim that King would Occupy bothered me from the moment I heard it. It stands to reason that any person or group who lays claim to the legacy of a major historical figure like King should be considered carefully. And the logic that seemed to justify this particular claim was very shaky at best (“King was a liberal social activist, and we are too!”) especially when held up against some of the less tasteful realities discovered within the Occupy camps.
I spent a large amount of time last semester studying these issues to see if Occupying was in fact ethical, or even permissible under King’s own thinking and ideas. One of my ethics professors pointed me in the direction of King’s book Stride Toward Freedom. Contained within the chapters of this book are not only King’s own background and his record of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, but also a chapter on his philosophical and academic journey to nonviolence. At the end of this chapter, King sums up his personal philosophy and provides with it the six major aspects he felt were critical to nonviolent resistance. Taken as a set of rules, these give us an actual checklist by which we can analyze a social movement to see if it does in fact live up to the standards King set. Armed with these rules, I set out last semester to do just that – to research and analyze the Occupy movement to see if its actions lined up with those standards.
Now that Occupy is set to launch a new wave of activity in May, I thought it would be appropriate to bring this research forward.
As I conducted my original research, I wanted to make sure that my findings were fair. After all, it would be far too easy to jump on one poor sap who did something stupid and mischaracterize the whole movement based on that single incident. So I set up a few rules for myself before I could issue a pass/fail ruling on one of the principles. First, I would stay confined as much a possible to the United States and its native Occupy variety. Second, a single incident should not stand alone as evidence; ideally, there would have to be repeat incidents or a repeated theme among several different incidents for a piece of evidence to hold. Third, I would make sure wherever possible that evidence was drawn from multiple Occupy locations, and not just one bad (or good) group.
Here is what I found:
1) Nonviolent Resistance Must Resist
First, it must be emphasized that nonviolent resistance is not a method for cowards; it does resist. If one uses this method because he is afraid or merely because he lacks the instruments of violence, he is not truly nonviolent. … For while the nonviolent resister is passive in the sense that he is not physically aggressive toward his opponent, his mind and emotions are always active, constantly seeking to persuade his opponent that he is wrong.
(Stride Toward Freedom, P. 90).
There did – and still does – appear to be a genuine outcry from the various Occupy camps around the country in protest of what they perceived to be vast systemic and economic injustice that was forcing them out of their jobs, stealing their political power, and breaking their bank accounts. Of course, they promote this message of victimhood while Tweeting their cause out on their iPads and wearing the latest hipster fashions. Some (including myself at first) thought this was the result of hypocrisy or ignorance, but it turns out there is an actual explanation for this apparent contradiction.
Economists and other scholars have called this phenomenon “relative deprivation” (Quick and dirty background info here) and it can only be seen in wealthy societies. As an analogy, take two people given different quality meals: a sandwich and a steak. Both people are well above abject poverty in food terms, as both meals provide enough nutrients for the person to perform their daily required tasks. However, bologna and cheese is nowhere near the same quality as a medium-rare porterhouse, and the sandwich recipient would be understandably jealous of the steak-eater.
This second person is experiencing feelings of relative deprivation: what he or she perceives as realistic or attainable, eating steak, is not what he or she has realized personally. Back in Occupyland, this is the feeling the protesters are experiencing. “Why do I have to suffer through college debt/unemployment/pricey healthcare when all the ‘rich people’ get those things?” The iPad isn’t an issue in their mind, because the 1% is SO MUCH more wealthy than they are. The iPad is their sandwich in the fight against the steak-eaters.
Those feelings of inequality may be stirred up by class warfare rhetoric or borne out of a misunderstanding of how the American system works, but they are still very real feelings that rest at the core of the causes that the Occupiers protest through their marches, sit-ins, camp-outs, and what have you. And according to Doug Schoen’s poll of the Zuccotti Park protesters they are overwhelmingly willing (98%) to use civil disobedience to achieve their goals. They do in fact have a cause they are protesting, and they are actively resisting in the name of that cause.
2) Nonviolence Seeks Reconciliation
A second basic fact that characterizes nonviolence is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. … The end is redemption and reconciliation. The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community, while the aftermath of violence is tragic bitterness.
The nonviolent protester, at the end of the day, must be able to shake hands with the people on the opposite side who they have been opposing. This is an incredibly hard standard to live up to, especially for a group that espouses to represent 99% of Americans. One of the most tricky tests for this principle has been the Occupiers’ relationship with the police. Most police officers, after all, do not make enough money to classify as members of the top 1%, though in many cases they find themselves at odds with the protesters by enforcing the laws that Occupiers have violated. How do they fit in?
Some groups have sought to reconcile with the protesters early on. Sites like OccupyPolice were launched to try to include law enforcement officials in the Occupy movement. Early videos and stories of protesters claiming that they were representing the interests of police were also posted online.
Some others took a different approach to the issue of police. Bill Ayers, former Weather Underground member and current professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was asked the question of whether or not police were part of the 99%. His response? “They [the police] are [part of the 99%] if they decide to join the 99%. They are not if they decide to arrest us.” Basically, unless the police abandon their post and join the Occupy movement overtly, they cannot count as a part of the movement.
As Occupy progressed, however, and the police had to intervene in more and more overt ways, it became clear that there was some real hostility in the Occupy movement toward the police. Late October saw early signs of anti-police tendencies. At Occupy Phoenix, for example, one protester distributed flyers asking when one should “shoot a cop.” Occupy Wall Street joined in an overtly anti-police march that featured banners with headlines including “How many people of color have to be killed by cops before you hate the state?!” OWS hosted another similar march in early November that explicitly identified police as the protecters of the 1%.
In December, the “Police Brutality Coloring Book” was published. Also in December, Occupy Seattle protesters threw debris, flares, and paint at police officers, and Occupy San Francisco protesters pelted police with bibles and bricks during another protest in January. More recently, Occupiers in New York tempted police officers with donuts on a fishing line, with chants of “Here, piggy piggy piggy” being heard in the background.
While there were clearly some cases of police brutality or excessive force, possibly including those acts committed by Officer Anthony Bologna, it is unfair to label the actions of all police based on the actions of the very few (much as I have tried to avoid doing to Occupiers with this research). Whether it be overtly violent action or just spiteful vilification, it is clear that Occupy has not maintained as positive a relationship with police as it had originally espoused. I cannot see any real grounds for reconciliation with the opponents – the police – in this track record.
3) Nonviolence Targets Evil
A third characteristic of this method is that the attack is directed against forces of evil rather than against persons who happen to be doing the evil. It is evil that the non-violent resister seeks to defeat, not the persons victimized by evil. If he is opposing racial injustice, the nonviolent resister has the vision to see that the basic tension is not between races.
King’s point in the above quote is that the non-violent resister is not supposed to target any specific individual or group, but rather the injustices that are reinforced by the system at hand. King wasn’t targeting the bus companies in Montgomery through the boycott, for example, but rather the unjust system that said it was permissible for human beings to reduce each other to lesser positions in society simply because of race. The bus was merely an expression of that injustice.
Thus should be the efforts of the Occupiers. This is another challenge, but not an impossible one to meet. Targeting major institutions like banks, Wall Street, or Congress that embody the high-end financial and political corruption that prop up injustices would be one way to focus those efforts. The selection of the initial Zucotti Park camp site, just down the street from Wall Street, was one way to do this. The largely symbolic “Bank Transfer Day” was another good example.
It is important to understand, however, how closely this third rule is linked in with the second. It is very difficult for people to specifically target evil rather than the people committing that evil if they have begun to engage in the vilification of their opponents. Doing this conflates the forces of evil with the people who arguably represent those forces. Take, for example, the words of the Rev. Richard Lang, a Pastor at Seattle’s University Temple United Methodist Church, who was pepper-sprayed during an incident at Occupy Seattle in November:
Their [the police’s] quick use of chemical warfare reveals how cowardly they are. The unwillingness of their commanders to maintain discipline reveals how incompetent they are becoming — the only tool in their bag is brutality and like a drunken raging father beating wife and kids, the police have increasingly disgraced themselves. Step by step they are being shaped into the front face of fascism, the emerging police state that protects the property interests of the Marie Antionette’s who have seized control of our government, commerce, media, military and increasingly the Church itself.
For Rev. Lang, the police are immediately at fault for their “cowardice” and “brutality,” and their actions demonstrate their complicity in the evil that plagues our society. Lang later clarifies that the police can be redeemed if they repent from orders to pepper-spray and use force, but implicit with this is the command to “cross the line, and join us [Occupy]” just as Bill Ayers suggested above. Without joining the protesters, it would seem, they are still counted among the oppressors.
I can’t tell if Rev. Lang is truly focusing on the evil, or has become lost in anger at the police that oppose the efforts of the Occupiers. His attacks are highly personal and invective in nature. Just as his voice came across as mixed, so too have actions from other Occupy camps. New York featured several such personalized attacks, including Lloyd Blankfein’s head on a pike and visits to several individual CEOs private residences. Again in Seattle, protesters tried to corner JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon and perform a “citizens arrest” for his alleged financial crimes. And even more startling was the recent graffiti that turned up in late March at both public monuments and at least one city official’s home after an Occupy St. Louis protest: “Only the blood of the rich will stop Occupy.”
Add to this the disturbing trend toward anti-semitism seen at many Occupy rallies around the country, and it would appear that an unsettling number of the protesters are more than willing to vilify particular opponents or groups as evil rather than focus on the evils they seek to protest. Without any centralized authority for the movement to clearly denounce those messages and individualized attacks, those voices remain a part of the Occupy movement’s identity.
Keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon, where I’ll analyze King’s last three principles of nonviolent resistance and offer my view on what this all means for this month’s newest wave of protests.