A VISIT TO OCCUPY WASHINGTON, D.C.: Some Thoughts on Violence and Nonviolence

occupy

My son and I were in Washington, D.C. on November 20th to attend the “Super Vigil” for a just and fair budget. Afterward, when we had finished visiting with a few of the people who had gathered for the event, we decided to check out the nearby Occupy encampment. In particular we looked around for any hint of violent radicalism. No doubt there has been some violent behavior in the vicinity of some Occupy locations. This has been loudly condemned by the clear majority of the participants who have made it known that they deplore the violence of the fringe. Still in some circles there are voices who claim that at its core Occupy is not nonviolent and that the fringe is not a fringe at all but the real face of the movement.

 

With these things in mind, we walked into the Washington, D.C. Occupy encampment. I was struck by the fact that one of the first tents I saw had a large cross on it and a sign declaring the inhabitants intended to be a Christian presence in the protest. There was no evidence of unruliness anywhere. I talked with a number of the people among the 100 or so tents. I spoke with some Occupiers who have full-time jobs but support the cause during the weekends and some evenings. Others were unemployed. Most of the people seemed to be in their twenties and thirties but some were probably in their fifties or older. I’m pretty sure there were some homeless people mixed in the group. Apparently, that is not the case at all Occupy sites.

 

People were playing board games. Others were involved in serious discussions. Some were just dealing with the mechanics of living in a difficult situation. Among the things I found notable was a very large sign in the middle of the tents outlining what was essentially Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s thoughts on nonviolence and the “beloved community.” While there were other smaller signs with a variety of messages, this particular sign was in fact the clearest and most obvious “values statement” in the encampment. It reminded the Occupiers, not only of the sort of actions they should use as they seek to bring about social change but the attitudes that best guide their efforts. Among these are reminders that “Nonviolence seeks to defeat injustice, not people,” and “Nonviolence chooses love instead of hate.”

 

The only thing resembling violence that we saw was the annoying disruption caused by a loud, obnoxious street preacher with a bullhorn who made a constant stream of noise. Whenever he ran out of words, he just made irritating sounds and shouted random, senseless phrases. I asked if the man was there every day and someone in the encampment told me, “Yep, every day.” I suspected he was mentally unbalanced. He stood across the street and was not part of Occupy but those inclined to slander the movement might claim otherwise. I couldn’t help wondering whether he was getting paid by the city to drive the Occupiers crazy.

 

The attempts to smear the Occupy movement with accusations that it is not truly committed to nonviolence seem disingenuous. Largely they come from those sympathetic toward the sort of politicians who spoke of resorting to “Second Amendment remedies” not so long ago, and those who had participants at their rallies showing up bearing automatic weapons and those who have uttered threats of armed violence against the government if policies veer too far from their vision of how things should be. Similar threatening behavior and ominous warnings have not been characteristic of the supporters of the Occupy movement. One will have to look hard to find Occupiers suggesting they will rise up to use deadly force if they don’t get their way.

 

Certainly, there are dangerous extremists who can insert themselves in any crowd. Those in the Occupy movement will need to do all they can to discourage and distance themselves from anyone who undermines their nonviolent witness. Detractors will get as much mileage as they can from any failure to do so. Clearly, the critics use a double standard when evaluating movements. One can only imagine the kind of reaction the Occupy movement would evoke if participants showed up with automatic weapons and proclaimed the need for “Second Amendment remedies” as Tea Party leaders and sympathizers have done. But Occupiers have not been the ones to suggest that the “tree of liberty” needs to be watered with blood.

 

The vast majority of the incidents of violence at Occupy sites around the country have been due to police abusing their power, not a result of threatening actions by Occupiers. Even some unsympathetic conservative reporters who recently found themselves in the middle of a confrontation between Occupiers and police at Zuccotti Park have admitted that the Occupiers “were actually very kind and helpful. It was the police officers who were very aggressive.” When a writer at Forbes –certainly no hotbed for leftists- can say of the police response to the Occupy movement, “It should have our collective blood boiling, whether or not we even agree with the protesters themselves,” it is hard to deny that there is a serious problem. And the problem is not the protestors. Police officers themselves are beginning to speak out against the excessively violent response of their fellow officers.

 

Whether the Occupy movement will be crushed by the police violence or revitalized by it is yet to be seen. But the central issue the Occupy movement has spotlighted, gross economic inequality, is not likely to fade away any time soon. Nor should it. It is a total distortion of the issue to say, as did Newt Gingrich, “All the Occupy movement starts with the premise that we owe them everything.” Rather the issue is that too much of the wealth and income is concentrated in too few hands. Too many are working hard and still not able to take care of their families while the wealth of the richest few swiftly grows. It is not because they have all worked harder than everyone else. And these favored few are not creating jobs. Further, studies of developed nations indicate the greater the inequality in a society the greater the social problems, ranging from infant mortality rates to murder rates to mental illness to the lack of social mobility. And the United States is the most unequal of them all. I think it is fair to say that gross economic inequality is a form of violence that hurts everyone.

 

Regardless of what happens to the Occupy movement, I believe continuing the trend toward greater economic inequality is both unsustainable and destructive. I don’t claim to know what must be done to address the problem but it can no longer be ignored. To howl, “Communism!” at every idea or effort to deal with gross inequality is both ridiculous and counter-productive. Instead, to put it in the simplest possible terms, I think it is time to ask what it means in our present situation to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and do unto others as we would have them do unto us… in the public realm (Mark 12:31, Luke 6:31). There is no one single right answer. But not one thing I see in the life of Jesus or hear in his teachings would lead me to believe that he would be pleased with his disciples supporting the situation as it stands now.

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