By Gautam Jagannath, Winter 2011
The Occupy movement in Oakland has no peer. With its mix of diversity, poor reputation, vibrant city feel and sense of malaise, Oakland is perfect for protests. Occupy Oakland stands against corporate greed, socioeconomic inequality, police brutality, the excessive incarceration of poor, and white collar crime gone unpunished. The Occupy movement is imperative, but I feel its efforts are misplaced.
Occupy makes me pause and recall an oft abused Jefferson quote which states that the "tree of liberty" should be watered with the blood of tyrants. The "the blood from patriots" part of the quote is often omitted. Jefferson imagined that government might not be peaceably changed every time change was needed. If "democracy is messy" as Oakland Mayor Quan noted, she hasn't seen nuttin' yet.
I realize that the income disparity is a legitimate, burgeoning problem (99% v. 1%), and during tough economic times the income disparity hurts more people in a more dramatic fashion. But how does "marching on banks and corporations" facilitate the process of reaching income equality? Shutting down the banks would not halt the financial system, however it would stop a few wage slaves from earning their hourly keep. Aren't these the 99%? Issues get muddled and the cause diluted.
I am concerned about what seem to be the mistaken efforts of the Occupy movement because they detract from the real goals and focus media attention on ruckus rather than a resolution via government. Our founders thought protests sought governmental change. Protests should be geared toward altering or scrapping government altogether. Maybe the original notion of protests doesn't matter. But an excuse to enjoy oneself in public should not be disguised as resistance.
The Occupy Oakland website declared that "they" (the 99%?) would engage in a "general strike." Yes, maybe the system is run by the 1%, but it's hard to keep the 99% content absent food, water, and shelter. If we opt to shut down corporations and banks then the jobs will actually just disappear. Occupy Oakland was not large enough to shut anything down completely; but even if it had, I cannot see how the tactic proves to give any power to the masses. In fact, the November strike made news, increased police presence, and then was quickly forgotten.
The 1% will not disappear no matter how hard we shout, cry, and run amok. I imagine the 1% laughs harder the more we hurt; it possesses a stranglehold on everyone. It is a mistake to think that the 1% is divorced from the 99%. The 1% has its hands in every aspect of government, makes our decisions by altering policy, elects judges, and decides elections. Such a powerful contingent could not be brought down by marches and protests. We should at least respect an enemy if we want to unravel it.
Regardless of what one thinks about "the system," our system (governance, economy) is premised upon corporate interests. These interests are not simply financial, but they are part of the corner liquor store, church, hospital, and school. They feed our families, fill our gas tanks, and essentially manage our lives. No corporations means no movies, baseball games, or school supplies. Grassroots organizations are corporations. The gamut of corporate control over our lives is so immense that there is not a person in America who is not significantly affected by corporations.
This is not to say that corporations are great, wonderful, or deserving of respect. I'm not advocating for them. I do not think that they represent the sole form of collective human capital. I'm not saying they are eternal. However, if we believe that the current system is flawed then we must do more than just advocate for rash decisions. If corporate crime and mismanagement is a problem in our system, change can only happen from within. This does not involve stopping the daily operations of corporations, picketing, or anything else that seeks to exist outside of the process. We are far too entrenched in corporations for the major entities that pervade our lives to just disappear.
The founding of our nation was brutal and it would be disingenuous to call the American Revolution simply a protest. Near complete movements such as that for the Equal Rights Amendment died prematurely. The Civil Rights Movement cannot be reduced to a protest. The bloodshed it entailed to yield a pittance of a change is exemplary. I don't think protests in the United States have staunched wars, altered policies, or removed leaders. Ours is a country in which protests have actually done very little.
We should not stop protesting. I think that protests make for great awareness campaigns. If they become large enough, they make headlines. Perhaps that is enough. I just think that if the goal is to undo corporate America, you should start your own non-profit. That's certainly a counterintuitive idea and I suspect that for many at Occupy it may be blasphemous. Twiddling your thumbs in a tent for days on end cannot begin to solve our problems. I'm not sure that preventing banks from operating can do that either, considering they manage all of the money. Spending time making a point can only go so far. The goals of Occupy are too important for protests.
Sadly, the Occupy movement in Oakland became extremely sophisticated--an indication of wasted efforts. The encampment in front of City Hall divided labor and devised its own miniature government. The Occupy Oakland site posts minutes on committee meetings. It advocates active participation of Occupy protesters in quasi-governmental activities. One wonders why there is so much diligence, focus on, and dedication to a cause which seems so lost--so Utopian and far-fetched that grappling with the basics of the demands requires shattering the very premises that we work with every day.
If you resent corporations, the 1%, or our current system, then do something--become a "system actor." System actors are indistinguishable from the 1% because they work within. They may wear suits, but they are on your side and working to change our lives. Implement the most radical of the Occupy movement's ideas in a more effective way than lobbying. I cannot think of a better way to stave off police brutality than by choosing a career as a public defender or by enforcing civil rights. Choose to reduce income inequality by becoming a public school teacher. Changing two minds can make more of a difference than a day at Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Gautam Jagannath is a student at Northeastern University School of Law and pursuing a masters in education at Alliant International University.