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What Occupy WS, Occupy Italy, and Marilyn Manson Taught Me

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When Marilyn Manson in the course of human events has a teachable moment, I'm all ears. Let me first explain how I got there.

I am a business law professor at a large urban university in Atlanta, Georgia. In October 2011, I walked to class each day past Woodruff/Troy Davis Park and gawked at the 20 or so tents set up by Occupy Atlanta. I was curious about what was happening at the foot of my campus, but never ventured into the area to speak with anyone. Since I don't bring politics into the classroom, there was no academic reason to go in. But the simple truth is, I didn't speak to the Occupy people because I had nothing of value to say or offer anyone.

Then on October 26, 2011, the city of Atlanta police instructed occupants to leave the park and erected barriers so people could not go inside at night. Occupy Atlanta was gone from the park, but organizers continued to assist local residents with perceived issues of injustice, including those affected by the home mortgage crisis.

Fast forward to February 2012, when I saw four tents pitched on the park's three-acres of grass. This time, I spoke with people sitting outside their makeshift homes. They were homeless and unconnected to many things, including the Occupy movement. I also met Michael that day. Like me, he was looking for Occupy Atlanta because he camped out with the movement back in November.

Michael, 42, started living the American Dream (Duke University degree plus training in holistic neuromuscular medicine) but was now living in a friend's basement in Southern California. In Atlanta, he was staying with family and working intermittently with local clients in need of holistic healing. Michael offered: We need a better foreclosure program (his mom's house was foreclosed after his dad passed away), more jobs (Michael was laid off after working at a hospital for six years), and affordable healthcare (he no longer has health insurance).

I asked him what he would say to the Occupy movement in Europe, since I was soon teaching a law class in Florence, Italy. In a telling statement about problems with complex solutions, Michael had no clue what to say to them. I internalized his frustration, eventually got on an airplane, and in a lame attempt to find a connection between continental Occupy movements, intended to deliver Michael's message abroad:

I spoke with someone from Occupy Atlanta in the United States. He wanted more jobs and better health care. What does the Occupy movement want here in Italy?

Ho parlato con qualcuno dal "Occupy Atlanta" negli stati uniti. Lui voleva piu lavori e meglio assistenza sanitaria. Che cosa vuole l' 'Occupy' movimento qua in italia?

On May 6, 2012, I went to Piazza della Santissima Annunziata, where Occupy Firenze was camped in November 2011. We will stay for an indeterminate period of time, a spokesperson for the Florence Indignados stated that month. The Indignados are students, unemployed, laid off, retired, a mixture of generations combined with indignation against a state where the unemployment rate is 21 percent.

I found dozens of tents in the piazza, but instead of Occupy occupants, they housed arts and crafts items for sale. Occupy Firenze was decamped in late November, before the annual Christmas markets opened. There were no Michaels roaming around for me to speak with -- only people walking into gelato shops, hotels, and the Museo degli Innocenti, which ironically exhibited "Children of Italy: The Innocenti and the Birth of a National Project for Childhood." At the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata, I gave a gypsy a few coins because she was the clearest reminder of inequality in the piazza that day.

What can a professor learn from this experience? I'll defer to Professor Marilyn Manson, who I know little about except for his shocking appearance and controversial lyrics. Years ago, he said something simple which stuck with me, but didn't remember back in October 2011. Manson, in response to a question about what he would say to the kids or community in Columbine in Michael Moore's movie Bowling for Columbine, said: "I wouldn't say a single thing to them. I would listen to what they have to say and no one did."

I am not suggesting that the Occupy movement would lead to a random violent incident from a participant. Just the opposite -- I believe that city officials need to listen more attentively to the Occupy movement in order to engage anxious communities and avoid future police overreactions and mistakes with peaceful protesters. But everyone must start paying attention to each other. Manson's songs are understandably ignored by many in our society, but his thoughtful words above shouldn't be dismissed. We instead seem to prefer living day-to-day like the lyrics of Paul Simon's "Sound of Silence:" People talking without speaking. People hearing without listening.

Occupy Wall Street intends to regroup this summer with various social justice activities. Though its agenda may lack clarity, the movement continues to tap into an unseen but universally painful nerve of disparity and despair.

There are many mainstream people worldwide on the sidelines paying attention. Listening for reasons to get off the couch, discuss issues, and act responsibly. Last February, as I got Michael's contact information, he either sensed that I was metaphysically out of whack or just saw a good business opportunity when he said: "Call me if you need an adjustment."

The 99 percenters are ready and eager to work.

Perry Binder, J.D. is an Assistant Professor of Legal Studies at Georgia State University.