“Conflicts are unavoidable because a stage has been reached in which the reality of equality will require extensive adjustments in the way of life of some of the White majority.”
–from “The Last Steep Ascent,” originally published by Martin Luther King Jr. in the March 1966 issue of The Nation.
Martin Luther King Day is upon us again. Coming as it does, in the wake of the new year, it poses a convenient opportunity to assess the progress that has been made and to acknowledge the mistakes in the pursuit of advancement. On that note, it is also an opportunity to compare current political developments like the Occupy phenomenon, with the goals and methodology of the civil rights era.
The contrasting issues of today are all the more remarkable compared to the times during which King made his mark. During the 1960s, America had an image as a place of limitless freedom, despite the hypocrisy in that a large segment of the populace was prohibited from exercising those liberties and partaking in the affluence flaunted so blatantly before the rest of the world. Today, fiscal reality means that vast segments of formerly middle-class Caucasians have been cast down from this comfortable plateau.
Contemporary media is saturated with images of them protesting this “fall from grace,” in a manner echoing the aspirations of other Americans in another time frame not that long ago.
As a result, citizens have revived a time-honored tradition of publicly displaying their dissatisfaction. In the antebellum South, slaves exhibited a form of passive resistance through work slowdowns, unscheduled breaks, and other actions meant to impede the workflow and demonstrate their discontent without resorting to outright revolt. Recent national events (and some episodes overseas) had protesters occupying space at financial and other institutions identified with causing financial hardship, and while they did not actively disrupt commercial transactions, they positioned themselves so that their dissatisfaction was readily apparent to anyone with access to the media.
All the more curious is that the lion’s share of the people making up the ranks of the Occupy Movement were not the chronically impoverished or marginalized segments of society. The appearance of this cross section of mid-America among the ranks of the disgruntled only heightened the drama of the dissent.
In the words of Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.), “People who were previously hanging on have been pushed off the cliff. To sum it up in one word, the current situation is ‘devastating.’” Present-day reality shows that this dilemma of economic displacement crosses economic and cultural boundaries, which increases the possibility of discord.
Nonetheless, Bass remains optimistic.
“Unfortunately, throughout history, many poor Whites have not identified with poor people of color,” she acknowledged. “But it is my hope that like in 2008, Americans come together around the need for continued change within our country,” added the congresswoman in a reference to the spirit of unity that led to President Barack Obama’s election.
Cross culture impasse
As in the epoch of the Civil Rights Movement, political strife and transnational friction dominate the headlines, but the more simplistic conflict manifested in the Cold War has now fragmented into a multitude of squabbles dotting the earth’s typography. Of all these, the Occupy Movement stands out simply because it seems to appeal to a wide swath of disaffected people from a broad economic, geographic, and political spectrum.
Even so, questions have emerged regarding the viability of the Occupy Movement across the racial demographic.
Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA CAN) co-director Pete White has observed the emergence of Occupy L.A., and the drama unfolding during the last quarter of 2011, noting its strengths and flaws.
“The Occupy Movement is definitely relevant to all people interested in equity and the American Dream,” he said. “However, the current demands do not resonate with the immediate issues facing marginalized Black people. For example, the cries of White students–graduate and doctoral–of not having viable job options does not speak to those facing runaway push-out rates at local schools, rapidly disappearing opportunities to attend schools of higher education, and no job options whether you’re educated or not.”
The state of disadvantage is a comparatively new phenomenon for many in the Occupy Movement, but for White and his constituency “this has been the reality for as long as we can remember. The Occupy vehicle, much like the Civil Rights Movement, potentially has something to offer Black people. As such, sub-movements like ‘Occupy the Hood’ have emerged to create and take advantage of those opportunities.”
White is referring to a “splinter” group that sprang up in the wake of the original protest movement.
Bilal Ali’s 20-plus years as a local community organizer led him to the conclusion that Occupy L.A.’s focus on economic hardship was all well and good, but still did not address issues directly impacting “oppressed communities (of color),” specifically social injustice in the form of police abuse. Mindful of this omission, he launched Occupy the Hood in late October of 2011 to fill the void.
Explaining the differences between the two Occupy groups, Ali thinks the original Occupy objectives were “…spearheaded by those who have played by the rules and are now seeing that their way of life based on position and privilege has eroded. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it anymore. A large part of the Occupy Movement, in general, still is based on economic injustice. The Occupy the Hood L.A. Action Assembly is a committee/affinity group formed by local community organizers who want to see Occupy L.A. grow as the most broadly based mass movement for social justice and change in the history of Los Angeles,” explained Ali.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” King wrote eloquently about his pain as he tried to explain to his daughter why she couldn’t go to Funtown, an Atlanta-based amusement park closed to African Americans in the rigid segregation of 1963. Funtown would be virtually forgotten today if King had not immortalized it, but Funtown was merely a touchstone symbolizing King’s desire to assist his “…Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
In a nutshell, the struggle he is synonymous with sought access to the prospects afforded even to newly arrived immigrants. Few could have envisioned a time when the American Dream would seemingly become unattainable to many of their descendants and native-born Americans as well.
The ever-lengthening time since King’s death has seen a continual sequence of infighting within the ranks of his family, his ideological understudies, and others who would appropriate his legacy for agendas he may or may not have approved of. And periodically, the question comes up about the relevancy of his message in an era of MTV-suckled devotees whose mantra seems to be one of instant gratification.
And yet, current events document the existence of a social consciousness, even if it is the result of the loss of material comfort. In this context, the Occupy Movement may be seen as a reflection of America’s societal progress, in which the commingling of cultures may have softened the abrasiveness of unfamiliarity, but has yet to eliminate the barriers of alienation.
Things that unite us / things that separate us
“Harmonizing of peoples of vastly different cultural levels is complicated and frequently abrasive.”
–Excerpt from the “Last Steep Ascent”
Ali noted that the gains made by King and his contemporaries have benefited a plethora of diverse groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender interests, along with the women’s movement, and yet, in Ali’s words “…we’re still in the back of the bus.”
Building on these ideas, Ali sums up his aspirations for Occupy the Hood’s next step forward:
“This vehicle, (I like to call it a bus) will not have back seats. No one will be sitting in the back of this bus that will take us into a world that is truly a just, free and equal society; this bus will have only front seats even if we have to build it sideways. The Occupy Movement presents us with the opportunity to form a broad-based front to challenge the status quo and bring about real permanent change.”
Those interested in Occupy the Hood’s platform may access more information by calling (213) 984-0757, or through its Facebook account at www.facebook.com/pages/Occupy-The-Hood-Los-Angeles/.
Upon clearing the hurdle of segregation, King shifted his focus to improvement in the educational and employment sectors, as additional steppingstones on the road to human dignity that he believed to be an American birthright.
Perhaps the larger lesson that may be considered this Jan. 16 is that the goal of human dignity is one which requires continual striving. The idea that one single association, faction, or special interest group may address all of society’s issues is, at best, an unrealistic one.
Political observers in some circles have whispered the Occupy Movement may be just a “flash in the pan.” Rep. Karen Bass believes that to be an overly cynical point of view. While remaining optimistic, she points to the harsh reality of recent political history as a cautionary note. Passionate activism is full of potential, she said, provided we remember that “…economic hardship also brings out antagonism between competing groups, as demonstrated by the antics of the Tea Partiers and those of that ilk.”
“Economic hardships have the potential to bring people together to fight for justice, but it is the responsibility of elected officials and activists to unite people around that fight. The Occupy Movement has attempted to do just that,” she said.
In the new millennium, a multiracial society has become a reality. Exactly what that means, and how it will play out remains to be seen.