A confession. This retired academic mathematician and author has been hanging out with the unwashed hippies, anarchists, and “economic terrorists” of Occupy Harrisonburg (Virginia).
In truth, the sandals-on-the-ground experience is a lot different than you’d gather from the mainstream’s jaundiced portrayal of Occupy. In our semi-rural neck of Virginia, Occupy Harrisonburg (#ohb) has met weekly — uninterrupted and without incident — for nearly two years. A lot has transpired. Since the first enthusiastic gatherings, which topped out at well over 100, students have gone back to classes and families back to breadwinning and soccer games. A small, persistent core remains, mostly gray, those with the luxury of time.
So, why do I — both bald and gray — Occupy? For starters, I’ve come to love my fellow Occupiers. They’re the salt of the earth: the most passionate, savvy, and pure-hearted people I’ve ever met. Among the faithful are a retired orthopedic surgeon and songsmith, an award-winning Native American filmmaker, a brilliant and wise sociologist, an equally brilliant and wise historian, an octogenarian priest, an indefatigable organizer, an editor, and a walking encyclopedia, homeless by choice, but informed on every conceivable topic. Among the irregulars are three lawyers, an art historian, the founder of a peace and justice center, an octogenarian mathematician, a statistician, and sundry others. We scrap, interrupt, pontificate, get our dander up, and sometimes make fools of ourselves. But we often find consensus, and we always leave our irreverent general assemblies (GA) more enlightened than when we came. In short, we’ve become a family.
Why do I Occupy? Because slowly but surely our collective voices are making a difference, at least in the Burg. We’ve waged an effective “move your money” campaign to support small banks and credit unions, institutions that invest locally and would never dream of bundling your mortgage into credit-default swaps. We’ve joined forces with the beautiful young folks of Mountain Justice to protest Bank of America’s bankrolling of mountaintop removal. We’ve successfully halted the deportation of mothers and fathers whose only crime is to be undocumented. We’ve bolstered the local climate alliance, educated about the perils of the Keystone XL pipeline, and represented Harrisonburg at the nation’s largest-ever climate rally. We’ve demanded reversal of the worst ruling in Supreme Court history — Citizens United — which leveraged the buy-out of American democracy by opening the floodgates of corporate contributions to political campaigns. We’ve held a teach-in to awaken a sleeping public to the dangers of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (#tpp), a corporate coups in the guise of “free” trade. We’ve picketed with Walmart workers, lobbied for municipal bikeways, and held cash mobs to support local mom and pop stores and restaurants. We’ve celebrated the courageous whistleblowers — Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden — and collectively wept on August 28 at a near-perfect re-enactment of Martin Luther King junior’s complete “Dream” speech.
Why do we Occupy? Because, damn it all, 50 years later we’re still waiting for this nation to deliver on King’s Dream, which was at least as much about jobs and economic justice as racial equality. We Occupy because income inequality in this country, now at an all-time high, is growing. Because a single family — the Waltons — controls as much wealth as the bottom 40 percent of Americans, yet Walmart will not pay its workers a living wage. We Occupy to demand that this nation live up to its hype: “We hold these truths to be self-evident … ” and “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Why do we Occupy? Because we are appalled and ashamed at what our generation is leaving for the next: dysfunctional politics, a climate spinning out of control, a paucity of living-wage jobs, massive student debt. We’ll turn the juggernaut or die trying. We Occupy to end our collective enabling, insisting that this nation kick its twin addictions to war and fossil fuels. By our Occupation we howl in protest that America has become a land of financial predation, with rogue corporations and too-big-to-fail (or regulate) banks consuming one demographic prey after another: the elderly, credit cards owners, mortgage holders, college students up to the hilt in loans. We Occupy to name and shame the predators: Enron, Wall Street, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wells Fargo, Walmart, Monsanto. We Occupy to grieve the devastation that the Chicago-school’s neoliberal economics of scarcity, austerity, deregulation, and debt-servitude leaves everywhere in its wake: in Chile in 1973, in Central America in the 1980s and ’90s, at home in 2008. And we Occupy to advocate and grow a vibrant “new economy” modeled on solidarity and sustainability.
At the edge of our town’s courthouse square is a gazebo that invites locals and tourists alike to pause and rest at the spring from which early Harrisonburg arose. For eight seasons and through all weathers, we Harrisonburg Occupiers have gathered for GA each Tuesday evening at the beloved “Zeebo.” The site has become sacred ground. In each of us who makes the weekly trek, transformation is occurring. Tired and disillusioned, we find camaraderie, energy, and hope.
Something else happens as we gather. In the Zeebo’s give and take — the teaching and the being taught; the laughter, the anger, and the grieving; the oh-shit and the ah-ha moments — many of us are spontaneously reconnecting with our tattered or abandoned spiritual traditions. For too long, we’ve sat idly by as the powers of oppression, division, and greed have poisoned the well of compassion. For too long, we have let the false prophets preach eternal paradise in exchange for economic exploitation in the here and now.
At the Zeebo, a kind of liberation theology is arising, like a phoenix, from the ashes of Tahrir Square, Zuccotti Park, and the American Dream. Why do I Occupy? Because, by God, when Jesus drove the moneychangers from the Temple, what was he but an Occupier?