It's hard to see the forest for the trees. And it's hard to see a movement when it is happening. It's easier to look back in time and read about successful campaigns by individuals that changed the course of human history. If we look back upon the Civil Rights Movement, we find similarities of purpose, citizens peacefully demonstrating for rights and freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution. The Occupy Wall Street movement doesn't have a powerful, charismatic spokesperson that the Civil Rights movement had in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., yet. And it may not need one. OWS cannot see beyond the trees yet because it is immersed in the developing swirl of details. Being bullied and criticized while under the trees of Zuccotti Park, being pepper sprayed, beaten, and misunderstood, is helping us all to see the forest we live in.
I stepped back from the images of police brutality and violence, the militant attacks upon my fellow citizens, to try and "see" more clearly what is actually happening. As an artist, looking at this situation reminded me of something Pablo Picasso is supposed to have said, "Are we to paint the face, what's inside the face, or what's behind it?" In this case, what is behind the face is what is most important. The foundation of the Occupy movement, its rancor, grows from a soil poisoned with political and economic lies.
I recently met Erri de Luca, a gentleman from Naples who has been called the Italian "writer of the decade" (by the Corriere della Sera literature critic Giorgio De Rienzo). Mr. de Luca has written about Occupy. But not the Occupy we are living with at present. In the 70's he was a member of the Lotta Continua ("continuous struggle") group in Italy. Founded in 1969 by the student-worker movement in Turin and spread across Italy to universities and factories. Their struggle was similar to the Occupy movement in that they recognized that without a fight, those with economic power would always suppress the rights and freedoms of the working class and poor.
In Erri de Luca's short story, "The Wind in Your Face", I saw the image of an elderly woman being carried through the streets of Seattle, Washington. Her face slathered with pepper spray. The 84-year-old woman, Dorli Rainey is a former schoolteacher and, like de Luca, has been active in politics since the 1960's. When she ran for mayor in 2009 she said, "I am old and should learn to be old, stay home, watch TV." So why did she not learn? Why would she join the Occupy Seattle movement at her age? "Now you know something that you didn't' know then: some forms of courage spring up out of shame..." de Luca's short story is a lesson in shame and shame as a blessing. We can be motivated into action out of personal shame.
As a nation we are experiencing collective shame, a painful feeling of humiliation and distress caused by the knowledge that, for years, we have acted out of greed, we've behaved with ignorance toward the environment, we've lived with economic denial, and foolish behavior. We feel shame because we allowed it to happen. We didn't speak up when we needed to have our voices heard.
In de Luca's short story you see how a young girl or boy from the 70's could easily be a young boy or girl being beaten and pepper sprayed at anyone of the Occupy villages across the United States today: "The ones who don't want to run are starting to meet. The stubborn are starting to form a line...they're still far and few between, but they recognize each other.... In the morning they let you out. You don't go to the emergency room, but instead to a doctor who helps wounded demonstrators, he brings you to him, your friend for less than a day, someone you'd trust with both your eyes. Because these are the sort of days where trust comes quickly, loyalty too, and destiny likewise" de Luca says that the "difference between State violence and that of the people, is that one is abusive, the other not...it's a street battle, to stay in the street even when it's prohibited, to not be crushed, to not be arrested... we don't liberate territory, we only grab the right to oppose established power.... It's our duty to act as if, as if revolution were indeed the next order of business -- to be in the world as revolutionaries. Not because of the revolution, but because the right to demonstrate is the most basic emblem of democracy.... In the fray you needed calm, not fire, someone with discipline, not a hero."
People like de Luca and Dorli Rainey are heroes. They are calm and reasonable voices that speak truth to power and oppression. I find courage in their continued example of how to live with dignity and to not stay at home and watch the world through an electronic box, but to go to into the trees and be heard. This Thanksgiving my thanks and prayers go to all the OWS supporters in 951 cities in 83 countries around the world. Because "the right to demonstrate is the most basic emblem of democracy".
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