A 1% View of Occupy Wall Street

24 décembre 2011,

by Edwin Matthews *

December  10, 2011

“. . . whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of [securing of the rights of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness] . . . it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government . . . .”            Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4, 1776

I reside in an uncommonly beautiful, organic community in Northwest Connecticut.  I live surrounded by nature’s bounty: a uniquely unspoiled and flourishing landscape.  Renewing forests keep my stove warm. My parents struggled through the depression to give me an extraordinary education, which has given me enlivening interests and a worthy profession.  As a member of a great law firm, I have been able to earn a comfortable living, to offer education to my children, to care for my family and to serve my chosen causes.  I have never been unemployed.  I have never been forced to go hungry.  I have never had to put off medical treatment.  Life has given me, not just well-being beyond the dreams of millions, but room for purpose and joy.  And my life has been enabled by a political and economic democracy along with contributions of my fellow citizens too numerous to identify.  I am among the 1% of favored Americans.

When Wall Street was first “occupied”, I questioned how is it that large numbers of citizens in my country have taken to the streets in protest.  They said they were the 99%.  They plead for equity, fairness and responsibility to life on this Earth.  They argue for an economy and social network responsive to the majority at a time when concentrations of money and power are increasingly making off with our government and motivating its decisions. They insist that our elected representatives be responsive to their electors. Claiming their right to assemble and speak freely, they peacefully petition for redress.  In the course of human events in America, this has happened before.

In a short time, the Occupy movements have mushroomed across America and throughout the world.  Their occupations of public spaces, planned to be inconvenient, have served to alert us to fundamental problems that require urgent and serious attention and that we have ignored.  The protests are not about real estate, but about issues that arise my sympathy.

Strangely, although an exercise of the Constitutional right of all Americans to speak out and petition, our leaders have not welcomed the protesters’ contributions to the democratic dialogue.    The police have assaulted their peaceful assemblies with clubs and pepper spray.  Demonstrators have been arrested and hauled away in vans. It is not a coincidence that, under the cover of health and safety regulations, New York’s billionaire mayor ordered an attack on Occupy Wall Street: is it not irrelevant to his decision that this movement challenges the excessive wealth and influence of America’s most favored 1% including the Mayor himself.  Yet, how, I wonder, could a little mess and noise in a great messy, noisy New York City be a greater concern than the Constitutional right to freedom of peaceful assembly and free speech.  When viewed objectively, I must thank the Occupy movement for raising fundamental questions about our economic and political system that we have too long ignored.  Sadly, the patently defensive, violent reaction of the authorities to this Movement has been not only patently defensive, but this response has been irresponsible; this movement’s contributions to the public dialogue should have been respected and nourished.

Glib commentators have criticized the Occupy movement for not presenting a list of discrete demands.  In so doing, they forget how all reform movements in our country have been born and develop, whether anti-slavery movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement or others.  All began with the expression and sharing of concern and migrated later to specifics.

I went to Zuccotti Park when it was “occupied.”.  I participated in the daily general assemblies there of citizens engaged in orderly deliberations of issues urgently facing our society, debates that I found put to shame those in our Congress and public fora, debates on issues that should be conducted everywhere in our country and have been missing.  I saw dissent in these meetings respectfully expressed by a silent crossing of arms and agreement by the non-threatening fluttering of fingers.  I noticed that time was reserved for the equal participation of all present.  I visited the impressive OWS web page ¾ occupywallst.org  ¾ that openly publishes their meeting agendas and hosts 24/7 a participatory forum on the complex issues facing our country.  I saw these assemblies work to achieve consensus; there were no political demigods, no dominating orators, no Robespierre’s.  The Occupiers have published their own newspaper – called the “Occupy Wall Street Journal” – which has reported on their reflections, while the mainstream media has largely missed the substance of the movement’s message.  The occupiers have practiced their community values: they have provided food more healthy than the food we feed our own children.  They furnished free medical treatment to all.  And they assembled a lending library with thousands of books.  This is engagement, however imperfect, however inconvenient, which must be part of any viable democracy, and that has been sadly missing in ours.

I am ashamed that it has taken the denial of the denial of a decent, working life to tens of millions of Americans to sound this waking call.  I regret that the favored 1% of our citizens, of whom I am a part, have been defensive and not, with their resources and privileges, taken the lead in stimulating our democracy.  I am ashamed when I hear selfish and blind political leaders admonish unemployed protestors to “take a bath and get a job.”  I am outraged that the police would destroy the thousands of books being freely distributed by the Occupiers while all over our country libraries are closed “for lack of funds.”  How tragic it is that non-violent assemblies by citizens – educating us to important,  neglected issues — are violently repressed while we are closing schools, firing teachers and raising tuition beyond the reach of the majority.  How infuriating that our elected representatives and our courts have sold out to money and power and do not respond to people.  I attribute the aggressive opposition to the Occupy movement to the power and relevance of its message to our country.

To me the Occupy movement sounds a warning:  at its peril our government must begin to reapply seriously the values of equality and democracy expressed in the Declaration of Independence and protected by the Constitution. Until we deal seriously with issues such as those the Occupiers have raised from silence, inconvenient protests will not cease and will spread.  Our Declaration reminds us that governments are instituted among men to secure the rights of citizens and derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, which must be the 99%, not merely the 1%.  We must not forget that whenever any form of government no longer secures the rights of the people, it is their right to alter, or even abolish, it and to institute a new government.  Should we ignore the message of the Occupy Movement, we may come to that.

Edwin Matthews

* Member of the New York bar.