I don’t like cowards and I don’t like hypocrites.
So you can imagine my delight to discover that I am both of those things.
I was a failed hippie. Born in 1956, I was just twelve years old during The Summer Of Love. Too young to be part of the war protests or pay much attention to Woodstock or smoke marijuana. The older, “cool” kids did. I probably wouldn’t have anyway, because I was a singer and didn’t want to hurt my vocal cords, and I didn’t like rock music anyway. I had a Don Giovanni poster on my bedroom wall, which I thought was pretty risqué.
I did grow my hair long, but since I was a girl, it didn’t get a lot of notice.
And here I am, washed up on the shore of 2011, and once again I’m not being an agent of change. Or maybe I’m just washed up. I should be doing something.
I am, of course, talking about the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.
I just read in the New York Times that, according to the Census Bureau, 17% of four-person American households have an average income that is four times the poverty level. That’s about $95,000 a year, or two fairly modest middle-class incomes, say, a technical writer and a public school teacher. That’s enough to pay a mortgage on a small house, put two kids through a state school and put a little away for retirement, if you’re careful.
Only 17%? That’s a problem.
We’re not even talking about poor people. One-third of similarly-sized households earn between 100% and 200% of the poverty level. The poverty level is defined as $22,350 for a household of four. After taxes, that’s about $1,375 a month. A three-bedroom apartment would be nice if you have two kids, say $900. Plus heat and electricity. Food. Gas and insurance for two cars and could you save up enough cash for those cars on that income? So a car loan. Don’t worry about a health insurance premium, at that pay you have no health insurance. So just don’t get sick or hurt. I don’t know about you, but the number on my calculator just went way over $1,375.
Sixteen percent of the country lives below the poverty level. I’m adding up the numbers here, and realizing for the first time that half of the American population is struggling to pay for basic expenses.
Then there’s the folks who have fallen off the map entirely, because they’re mentally ill and we closed those hospitals and care facilities a couple of decades ago, or because we would rather treat addicts as criminals instead of people with a reparable problem, or because they have been unemployed so long that they have exhausted all their resources and no longer have a place to live.
Like all of us, I’ve been aware that there are fewer cars on the roads, that there are more empty storefronts than there used to be and that there seem to be panhandlers at every traffic light. I’ve been worried about where this country is headed and will the economy ever come back.
There have been a few times when I’ve read an article about unions losing the right to negotiate or something and thought, “For heaven’s sake! Since when do unions need permission to organize!” I’ve read history. I know that people gave their lives in the 1920s to organize unions. They were beaten and shot and ostracized. Unions weren’t just unpopular then, they were crushed. Because workers were asking for things like an eight-hour day and work conditions that had some safeguards and weren’t necessarily lethal.
There have been plenty of times when the “little people” have stood up to be counted. In 1932, unemployed World War I veterans camped in Washington D.C. to demand redemption of their bonus payment tickets. They were tear-gassed, beaten, and their encampment burned. But their actions cost Hoover the election. Freedom Riders in the 1960s risked, and sometimes lost, their lives to register voters who had been disenfranchised because of their color. Their actions, unpopular then (and in some history books now) were part of a civil rights movement that resulted in real change for people of color. But these events happened comfortably in the past, where we don’t have to look at them.
I admit, I’ve been a little curious about what it would take to get folks to demand change in a way that might get some attention here in the present day. But my mild curiosity didn’t stop me from clicking right past the MoveOn requests for money on my e-mail screen. I even stopped reading the paper. Fingers in ears, eyes squinched shut. La la la la!!
Until this week. Because the Occupy Wall Street protests didn’t stay on Wall Street. There’s one downtown in my city right now. And the discussion about it landed on my Facebook page so I couldn’t ignore it anymore.
My friends and family and acquaintances, not to mention my hometown paper, all have opinions about the people “manning the barricades” in the little park downtown across from City Hall and the police station. (They’re not manning any barricades. Boy, that does sound scary! Mostly they’re camping in the mud and the rain, because this is November in the Pacific Northwest, after all. Sometimes people do talk through a megaphone. That is a little intimidating.)
Mostly the opinions are, they’re ruining the grass. There’s been some vandalism. It’s harder to get around downtown. They should get those people out of there because they’re going to hurt the Christmas shopping season. Crime is up downtown because of them. (Never mind that they’re parked right in front of the jail, where people being released from jail can go immediately to get a meal instead of dispersing throughout the city, or that they’re camped right in front of the police station.) Here’s the statement I keep hearing over and over – they’re not even organized! They’re not even mostly real protesters! A lot of them are homeless and mentally ill!
No, listen to that last sentence. A lot of them are homeless and mentally ill.
The unspoken part of that sentence is, So they shouldn’t be part of the protest. They are a problem. They are causing a problem.
My friends, you may see them as being a problem or causing a problem. And I agree that it’s hard to cheerfully go about your Christmas shopping while “those people” are ruining the grass in the park.
But they are not causing a problem. They have a problem. They have run out of options. They are sleeping in the rain and the mud in November in Portland, Oregon. And the people down there who are not homeless and mentally ill are trying to speak for those who have fallen off the map or who are falling and don’t know what else to do, except to all go to one place where you can see them, right downtown where you want to go out to lunch and do your shopping. Because they are visible there.
I said I was a coward and a hypocrite. That’s because I don’t want to go downtown and join them. I don’t want to get shot by a rubber bullet or even have to listen to my friends and family’s opinions about involving myself in such a questionable venture.
But I can at least have my own opinion about the protests, and it is this.
If, as a community, our average reaction to the growing numbers of people who are falling out of the middle class or even right off the map and who have to sleep outside and eat in soup kitchens is that they make it unpleasant and inconvenient for us to go buy more stuff with our charge cards, then as Mrs. Landingham said to President Bartlet in the second season of West Wing, I want to say, Jeez. Jed, I don’t even want to know you.
It makes my heart sick.
As you care for the least of these…
As we make our annual sojourn towards the winter solstice and the darkest day of the year, could we prepare for the return of the light, in our hearts and minds as well?