Preachers frequently give their listeners the sermons that they themselves need to hear. I recently preached a sermon on the power of nonviolence and the courage of being a true practitioner of Mahatma Gandhi’s satyagraha, or soul-force. I said: Would I camp out in Tahrir Square? How about Wall Street? There are moments in our lives when the question of what we are living for becomes more urgent.
I am living such a moment in my life today. I have been watching with interest the growing protests on Wall Street, and have been going down to Boston’s financial district to show my support for Occupy Boston (where I was especially pleased that the Peace Abby loaned the protesters a statue of Mahatma Gandhi for their encampment). I have been studying and thinking about economic justice, and watched the online gurgling before the gush of protests burst out. Occupy Wall Street was suggested by the Canadian anti-consumerist magazine Adbusters on its Web site in July, and before that, a group calling itself Stop the Machine was organizing a broad-based coalition to occupy Freedom Plaza in Washington DC in a Tahrir Square-like protest. This group committed itself to arriving en masse in Washington on the tenth anniversary of the US war in Afghanistan (October 6) if we still had troops in that country on that date. They were making the connection between the military-industrial complex, corporate influence on policy makers, social inequities at home and the seemingly never-ending wars overseas. As a passing thought, it occurred to me I could go to Washington DC and participate.
This historic moment now presses me with its urgency. I ask myself what I am willing to do. How am I going to live my convictions about justice, equity and compassion? Would I stop cursing at the newscast and actually get off of the couch and do something? The dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit are urging me to get up.
The courage of the young people in Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston ignited something in me, something between nostalgia and hope—nostalgia (when I was a youth, I camped out on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, protesting nuclear armaments and cruise missile testing in Canada) as homesickness for my own youth, and hope that a movement toward positive change was actually happening. Hope should not be the exclusive domain of the young, I decided, and cynicism is the logic of the chronically complacent.
I’ve written letters and made phone calls. I’ve given my time and treasure. I have attempted to be a witness, in the pulpit, to my faith and hope. The time has come for me to take my witness to the street. Protest movements (though not the be-all and end-all of social change) have their place, and I believe I have a place in this one.
I am joining the protests because we are shoveling our national treasure into the burning furnaces of endless war. At Occupy Boston, they chanted: Want to fix the deficit? Stop the wars! Tax the rich! The billions of dollars we are spending annually on warfare could be building schools and paying teachers, rebuilding infrastructure and creating jobs. Our armed forces and their families (mostly middle and working class folks) are disproportionately making sacrifices for these wars, and the middle class is paying for them. Tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and tax loopholes for corporations have insured that the financial cost of the wars is being borne by middle class Americans. This does not seem fair to me. I am joining the protests because I want the so-called Bush-era tax cuts (they are now actually the Obama tax cuts) for the wealthy to be repealed. I am joining the protests because I think sacrifices must be borne more fairly, the loopholes should be closed, and hiding funds offshore should be prohibited. I am joining the protests because I personally paid more taxes than General Electric did last year.
I am joining the protests because I want the Wall Street financiers who broke the law to be investigated and prosecuted. They helped cause the 2008 financial crisis and are not being held accountable while millions of middle and working class Americans are suffering because of their misdeeds. The protesters cry: They got bailed out; we got sold out! I called Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley (at 617-727-2200) and asked her to refuse any settlement deal that would give big banks wide immunity from investigation and prosecution. And I think more pressure needs to be brought to bear, especially on the Obama administration, made up as it is of many former barons of Wall Street. I am joining the protests because I think this kind of revolving door between industry and government is detrimental to public policy and the rule of law. I believe steps need to be taken to limit the influence of lobbyists and industry insiders in writing legislation. I believe the right of former government regulators to work for the corporations or industries they once regulated needs to be curtailed.
I am joining the protests because I believe the Glass-Steagall regulations need to be reinstated. I believe the Securities Exchange Commission should be given stricter regulatory powers. I think the Citizens United decision of the US Supreme Court needs to be overturned—and I want to support the efforts that have begun to introduce a Constitutional amendment, as cumbersome as that is, to reverse this decision that gave corporations and unions the status of personhood and granted them First Amendment rights of free speech, opening the floodgates of unrestricted spending on political campaigns by these “persons.” I am joining the protests because I want to see campaign finance reform, including the passage of the Fair Elections Now Act.
For good measure, I believe the Consumer Protection Bureau should be strengthened, and compassionate aid should be provided for foreclosed homeowners that were victims of predatory lending. I would like to see basic financial literacy taught to people from across the class strata so that all citizens are equipped to make good choices about mortgages, credit card debt and managing household finances. I believe the “circle of protection” around social programs (including Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security) needs to be reinforced in all discussions of government spending, and that US Senator John Kerry and other members of the US Congress “Super Committee” need to be told so in no uncertain terms. Housing, health care and higher education are becoming less affordable to more people—both because of spiraling costs and depressed wages. I am joining the protests because the growing social inequities in US society are deeply disturbing to me and I think are detrimental to the health of our democracy.
I know the protesters have been criticized for not having demands, and for being incoherent (though I’m not sure “demands” are what they are about). But when I think about the issues that have brought them out onto the public squares of America, I see a tangle of interconnected issues—a corporate and military-industrial-complex stranglehold on government pushing us into expensive wars that are unduly being paid for by middle and working class Americans—who are being actively and increasingly impoverished—and, fired by an engine of unlimited growth, devouring our finite planet, rendering it uninhabitable. I can only speak for myself and for what motivates me, and I hope I have articulated here a sense of what—for me—these protests are all about, as multifaceted as it is. And why I feel compelled to put my voice and my body onto the public square in support of what I see as basic issues of fairness.
I am in Washington DC for several days participating in the Freedom Plaza protest. I don’t expect everybody who reads this to agree with me or join me. I think we can have a robust conversation about these issues—that is what Occupy Wall Street is about. How do you answer the question: How are we to be together as a nation and society, with fairness, prosperity and democracy the markers of our common life? I am answering the Inward Light in my actions in what I understand to be the best way I can.
One percent of the population of the United States controls upwards of a third of the country’s wealth and have a disproportionate influence on public policy and the exercise of the rule of law. The protesters insist: We are the 99% and this seems to me like the vital call of the democratic spirit.
They cry out: We are the 99%! And we are too big to fail!