Occupy Public Discourse

Let every man make known what kind of government would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it.

Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”

To be honest, I haven’t known what to think of the Occupy movements. I understood why they were protesting. I thought people who claimed not to know why they were protesting were being disingenuous.

The middle class is collapsing. We are deeply entrenched in an economic crisis that has seen the top tier corporations post record profits while jobs were drying up and everyone else was getting poorer and poorer. We’ve experience, in the past few years, the loss of what we had always taken for granted — our sense that opportunity in this country is for anyone who works hard enough. You can work plenty hard in this economy and still end up with less in the end than you had when you started out. Meanwhile, the system seems broken. Congress, Obama, and everyone who ought to be leading us out of this have all proven worse than ineffectual.

We are all feeling this. No one really disagrees that things have gone wildly wrong and that the powers that be have hurt more than they’ve helped in the process.

And so we all understand, whether we admit it or not, that the Occupy protests are about this loss of opportunity coupled with this loss of faith in the system.

What I wasn’t sure about was whether I agreed with the methods. I’ve had lots of questions.

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What’s the big deal about camping out in parks? Why not follow the normal posted rules of the park? Why not show up when it opens and leave when it closes?

Why am I only hearing about occupations and never hearing about speeches? Where are the voices of this movement? Where is the substance of the movement? Where are the points of great debate?

Why are you targeting Wall Street and not targeting Washington?

Are you sure you really understand the civil part of civil disobedience? Even Thoreau who called for people to refuse to serve governments they found to be corrupt said, “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”

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Thus, while I’ve been vaguely supportive, I’ve also been skeptical. I may have been even more skeptical, but I kept remembering Emmeline Pankhurst, a very militant suffragette seen as downright crazy and foolish by many of her day. Perhaps she was crazy and foolish, but without people like her, women would not have gained the vote. It took the extremists to move the conversation into the mainstream discourse.

For that I do support the Occupy movements. I might sometimes think they ought to have gone to more effort to procure permits to camp out in their parks of choice, but I do appreciate that they are doing the job of bringing the subject of income inequality into the mainstream conversation. We are rapidly moving into a feudal system without room for middle class opportunity, and we need to be talking. We need to be scared.

I look at the college students just starting out, and for the first time in my life, I am not sure they are better off going to college. They will be more likely to make a living driving a truck or cutting sheet metal than as a lawyer or as a mid-level business manager.

Meanwhile, college fees continue to skyrocket, making it unlikely that today’s college graduates will even be able to repay their student loans.

Am I exaggerating when I say this? I hope I am, but I fear I am not.

That’s why I believe college campuses are precisely the right places for protest movements to take hold. The purpose of the college is to promote the free exchange of ideas. Colleges ought not to be sitting back waiting for the Occupy movements to come to them, only to behave reactively without first thinking through their actions. They ought to be proactive. They ought to be getting out ahead of the movements and organizing their own ways of addressing the economic and political crisis of our day.

In other words, the California universities that have been the sights of conflict between students and police officers this week are in the wrong. I may not be sure how I feel about the methods of the Occupy movements, but I am sure that a university campus is not a city park. The university holds a different set of responsibilities to its citizenry. The university holds a greater-than-average responsibility to protect free expression. The university holds a greater-than-average responsibility to treat even uncooperative citizens humanely, compassionately, and respectfully. Police measures at peaceful protests should last resorts.

I am not going to go radical and say the police should never be there. If a student brought a gun into the crowd, people would be quick enough to want the police involved. I am only saying that there are plenty of other options available to university administrations before they reach the point of pepper spraying their students and beating their faculty members with police batons.

I am also saying that it is time for all of us to these movements seriously. You don’t have to occupy a park bench. You can occupy public debate instead.

It’s time to research, think, and speak up. It’s time to look for solutions. It’s time to make known the kind of government and the kind of society we can respect.

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