One of Wangari Maathai’s most powerful political actions was when she and a group of women occupied Uhuru (Freedom) Park in downtown Nairobi, to protest government plans to turn the tree-lined public park into a giant private office complex.
At first it was just twenty women with hand-painted signs, sitting down together in the center of the park in protest. But as word spread, the protest grew, until soon hundreds of people, men and women, were sitting down in the park with Wangari, demanding the right to hold on to one of the last remaining green spaces in their city.
And you know what? They won!
I’m thinking of that story tonight as I watch the coverage of the Occupy Wall Street protests in Liberty Plaza Park, NYC. Protesters have been sitting down there for the past ten days, and despite nasty police pressure and arrests, they are not moving–and the crowd is growing.
Their demands are simple: they want the Masters of the Universe who run Wall Street, and through Wall Street, the world, to pay attention to the ordinary folks at the bottom of the heap.
There are all kinds of people down in Liberty Park–students, housewives, journalists, activists, the unemployed. What they have in common is a deep and abiding belief that the corporate capitalist system symbolized by Wall Street is not serving Americans well–other than the narrow top layer of financiers and their creatures, the politicians and corporate business types.
I am disappointed to see that my hometown newspaper, The New York Times, has treated the protest like a minor disturbance, not worthy of front-page attention. Of course, the Times can’t risk angering its corporate advertisers and sponsors…so they have to tread carefully.
The truth is that this is a REAL grassroots protest movement. There is no charismatic leader calling the shots and getting the glory. There is no fancy media kit or PR person fielding questions.
There’s just “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens,” seeking by their persistent accusatory presence to change the world. As Margaret Mead said, we shouldn’t doubt their ability to do just that.
More than that–we should get out there and join them!