Occupy: “It’s common feeling and common conviction
that makes a movement.”
By James McMurtry
About a week ago, at the end of a short solo tour of Southwest Alaska, I wandered down to Occupy Anchorage.
The camp was only a block from my hotel.
The temperature was in the single digits with a light
snow. There were three tents, the first of which was wide open. Inside were
four young men, two white and two native, a dog, and a propane heater. I offered them some smoked salmon and some
CDs. They took great interest in the salmon and it was quickly consumed. The
white guys introduced themselves. The natives did not.
I guess I should have introduced myself to all of
them, but I felt sheepish and shy, like an interloper or a tourist. They all
seemed to handle the cold pretty well. I asked them if they had any tips to
help Occupiers in the lower forty eight get through the winter. They shrugged.
John, the dog’s owner, said, “It’s pretty simple. You need shelter, heat,
and food.” About then, a nice woman named Wendy, who lived in the neighborhood,
came in with a crock of hot soup. Morale improved instantly. Wendy struck up a
lively conversation with a young man named Matt, who seemed like he could
become a spokesman, if the movement wanted a spokesman. He had something of a
thousand yard stare from, I guessed, fatigue and constant cold.
Matt considered himself lucky to be protesting in Anchorage rather than Portland
because the Anchorage Police were not bothering the protesters, and some
officers were openly supportive of the movement, stopping by to chat and to
gripe about departmental budget cuts. Matt said he thought he preferred sub
zero temperatures to pepper spray, horses, and batons. He offered me some of
the soup. I’d had plenty to eat and had to catch an early flight, so I
declined, wished them luck, and left. I was struck by their generosity. I liked
the salmon, but they needed that soup.
Historically, it’s always been pretty easy for the
powerful to get poor people to swing sticks at other poor people. The powerful
simply have to pay the stick swingers just a little bit more than they used to
pay the strikers or the protesters or whatever group is causing them annoyance;
divide and suppress. Police officers may not live in abject poverty, but
they’re certainly not rich. They need their jobs and they’re trained to follow
orders. They are not paid to care whether or not they belong to the one percent
that gives the orders, though I don’t doubt that some of them do care anyway.
I’m curious about the origin of the orders.
With regard to Occupy and Law enforcement, mayors and
college presidents seemed to be charged with giving the orders, at least
officially, and they are subsequently charged with taking the heat when the
execution of any of their orders goes terribly wrong and produces violence,
physical injury, and embarrassing YouTube videos. Politicians and
Administrators don’t generally like controversy, it’s bad for careers. I don’t
think such people would give orders that would likely result in some really
messy controversy, unless enough pressure were brought to bear on them that
they would fear for their careers anyway. I think there are bigger forces at
In October, the New York City Police Department
arrested over seven hundred Occupy protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Some were held for hours without charge. Earlier this year, J.P. Morgan/Chase,
one of the recipients of the government bailout, derided by both Occupy and the
Tea Party, donated 4.6 million dollars, partly in technology, patrol car laptops
and such, to the New York City Police Department. This was the largest single
donation ever received by NYPD. You can’t tell me there were no strings
attached. City Budgets are strapped. Departments are underfunded. A direct
donation from a major corporation must be like manna from heaven to a police
department. But of course, the department will need more in the future, and it
won’t get more if it turns on its new benefactor.
No one gives away 4.6 million expecting nothing in
return. J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon is quoted as saying, “These officers
put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe, we’re incredibly proud
to help them build this program and let them know how much we value their hard
work.” I wouldn’t argue that NYPD, or any police department, is not worthy
of such a donation, but I must question the motive and the timing. I wonder if Mr. Dimon actually lives in the
City. The few New York CEOs I’ve had the pleasure of dealing with all lived in Connecticut and rode
limos down the Merritt Parkway
to work and back. Wherever Mr. Dimon lives, I doubt he fears for his safety.
complaints that the protest is unfocused, that the protesters’ rejection of
traditional hierarchy renders the movement ineffective as a political force,
that it has no clear message. But I don’t see a problem yet. Occupy has been
effective simply by coming into existence. No one organized Occupy ahead of
time. A call went out and people showed up.
They’re still showing up and their numbers and
tenacity do have an effect. They get noticed. As for the message, one can Google
Keith Olbermann and hear the message, well written by Occupy and well read by
Olbermann. Basically, occupiers want to take their country back
from the banks and lobbyists. Their demands aren’t that different from those of
the Tea Party. The two groups should join forces. They’re mad about
the same conditions, though they disagree on where to put the blame.
The Tea party blames the government; Occupy blames the
corporations that now own the government. Is there that much difference?
Ultimately, we will all have to join forces if we are to call ourselves a
nation. Right now, we are too polarized to be effective. We no longer recognize
each other as Americans. The mayors and college presidents who call out the
riot squads apparently don’t know that those are their fellow Americans getting
beaten and pepper sprayed. Those are American sons and daughters. Those are
American students, American librarians, American grandmothers, and American veterans,
and when they get hurt, we all get hurt. The stick swinging has to stop. It
serves no useful human purpose.
I’ve taken part in very few protests. I attended one
No Nukes march in Washington
D.C. in the late seventies. It
seemed to be conducted mostly by old hippies who wanted to do it again, and
younger people like myself who thought we were sorry to have missed the
sixties. My son and I attended several anti war protests in Austin
at the start of the Iraq
war. Our fellow Americans screamed expletives at us as we stood on the street,
but we didn’t get arrested. There were some “protest for fun” types
I think Occupy is different. I’ll have to go to New York and check it
out. I’m pretty sure the guys in Anchorage
weren’t out there for the fun of it. They seemed to feel that they needed to be
there, that they had no choice. It’s common feeling and common conviction that
makes a movement. And it seems that more and more of us feel that we have no
Singer-songwriter James McMurtry lives in Austin, Texas.
When he’s not touring, you can see him at the Continental Club every Wednesday,
‘round about midnight. Full details at his official website.