On September 17, 2011, Manhattan’s Liberty Square became home to Occupy Wall Street, a force of people united against the injustice of economic disparity in the United States. When I first heard about the protests taking place in New York, I was immediately ambivalent about Occupy’s actions. In no way did I believe the protests were wrong — quite the contrary. But having seen the dying flames of the 1960s social revolution from the perspective of a twelve year old, I was fairly certain that after thirty some years, another mass demonstration regarding social injustice would only implode if not sputter out before it even got off the ground.
My ambivalence was probably more the result of believing that major social change is almost always the product of severe trauma. As peace-loving as I am, it seems a reality that human beings must lose their lives in order to create a new order. Whether the death and destruction come from the masses, the 99%, or from a narrow faction of elected officials, people must ultimately engage in some form of violence to achieve the goal of widespread change. I could easily provide a list of historical events that affirm my belief that loss of life must precede justice, but I assume anyone reading this will be familiar with those pivotal movements. I very much want to argue that civil disobedience, economic sanctions, and education are the tools that must be used to not only dismantle corrupt corporations and banks, any entity that inflicts harm on people, but sadly, I feel I have to defer to the overwhelming evidence that history provides.
In Knoxville, we were like many other mid-sized cities across the United States in organizing our own local Occupy. A small group of folks began responding to the protests by testing the waters via Facebook. Soon, there were two Occupy groups with pages on Facebook, and I joined both thinking they would immediately merge as soon as they discovered each other’s existence. Surprisingly, to me, this did not occur. There was a steady, low-level tension between the two similar to sibling rivalry: Love and, well, not hate, but competitiveness. It disappointed me. As one of the two groups began to grow in the number of supporters by leaps and bounds, the other group didn’t wither, but it seemed to become the bastard child of the Knoxville Occupy. And as much as people said the contrary, there were individuals in charge of these groups. Occupy is rightly proud of its reliance on what it perceives as a pure form of democracy; however, the train won’t stay on track without an engineer.
My initial involvement with Occupy in Knoxville was to encourage the smaller group to keep going and to offer my talents to the second group. My disillusionment was fast acting. The Occupy Wall Street (Knoxville) group had conviction, but it was misdirected,in my opinion. The first planned action was of all things a candle light vigil. Boy, I thought, nothing says revolution like several hundred folks walking with candles in a circle in downtown Knoxville at night after drawing money earlier from the very banks we should have been protesting. It all seemed ill-conceived. Although I was a tad embarrassed to participate in such a tender affair, I did, and I was happily surprised at the turn out, over 500 people, and the electric energy produced by the mass of people. We were vocal but not violent. I had feared complete passivity.
Since the “action” happened on a weekend night on Market Square, a city block of trendy shops and restaurants, where chiefly young adults and college kids were out eating and drinking, resistance to the protest was non-existent. There were some folks who rolled their eyes, but otherwise, the atmosphere was that of a party. And we had a good time. A few weeks later, Occupy Wall Street (Knoxville) organized a march to coincide with the University of Tennessee football team game day. The idea was to line a major road that a large number of fans would have to cross in order to reach the football stadium. In the humid September air, we walked the three blocks from home base on Market Square to Henley Street where we stood for two hours holding signs and chanting, “We…are…the 99%.” On a footbridge above us, hundreds and hundreds of football fans poured across the road. As they passed, their shouts at us created a familiar theme: Worthlessness. “Get a job, you worthless piece of shit” was quite popular. Sneers, obscenities, hate, stupidity, and even spit left the mouths of the people going to the game. I became so furious I wanted to cry. There was no hope of dialogue. No common ground they could see.
Two or three times I almost left because I was afraid I was going to hit someone. I wanted them to listen, to think, to think. They were going to a football game. What enraged me was that I had been misunderstood; people who did not know me were judging me unfairly. Nothing angers me more than being misunderstood. And I almost left because I had no idea why we were directing our protest at, mostly, football fans. Hell, I would have been at the game myself — I love the sport. Why were we not surrounding Bank Of America and challenging their policies and practices?
After that Saturday, I watched Occupy from afar. I suggested we march on banks, but instead, the group had a knitting circle for justice in Krutch Park. They continued to make signs and walk in the same circles. For a few weeks, I pouted over what I deemed missed opportunities to truly send strong messages to the criminal banks and corporations. And I wondered if perhaps I were idealizing violence, if such a thing can be, and if maybe I liked the thought of using violence before exhausting other means of communication. Maybe I wanted a fight to have a fight. Or maybe I was truly prepared to be authentic in my desire for change regardless of personal consequences.