Is Anybody Listening?

Just curious: why is it that today’s NY Times front page features social protest in Egypt, Yemen and Hamas, but nothing about California?

Way below the digital “fold,” in small print, there’s a piece with the bland headline “From Crowd Control to Mocking Images,” but it’s more about pepper spray itself than about the serious issues raised by the UC Davis incident.

The opinion pages are similarly focused on Egypt and Israel–nothing on the Occupy movement.

Somehow it reminds me of the classic situation where a kid is trying to get her parents’ attention, and Dad is buried behind his newspaper, Mom is talking away on the phone, and NOBODY IS LISTENING!

What does that kid have to do to get the adults’ attention?

Something outrageous. And even then, the focus will most likely be more on returning things to the status quo as fast as possible, rather than on talking through the issues deeply and seriously considering change.

That seems to be the posture of the UC system officials, who are in the current hot seat of the Occupy movement.  They want this whole mess to just go away, so that students will return to their classrooms and dorm rooms and keep paying their ever-higher tuition to earn degrees for jobs that don’t exist.

Things turned violent in the Middle East when people had enough of leaders who refused to listen.  There, soldiers and tanks were called in against civilians.  Here, we have armed riot police called in against students who were doing nothing more challenging than sitting cross-legged in a quad.

 Imagine what could happen here if protesters stopped being so polite and nonviolent and began demanding attention in a no-nonsense way.

How far would our leaders–from university chancellors to mayors to governors and the politicians in Washington DC–go in choosing to repress and stifle dissent rather than listening and engaging in thoughtful dialogue about the best way forward for all?

A couple of decades ago, when people took to the streets to protest working conditions and lack of freedom in Latin America, the U.S. demonized “the Communists” and sent military aid to the dictators to maintain order in the banana republics.  The civil wars there claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.

It is impossible to blame “the Communists” this time, and the unrest is not far away in some other country, it’s right here in our own heartland.

It’s our own sons and daughters who are feeling the crack of the police baton, the burn of the chemical sprays.

What are we going to do about it?

First of all, we’d better start listening.

Don’t Pepper-Spray Our Dreams

New York Times reporter Ginia Bellafante has totally missed the mark in her coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Where I see a vibrant grassroots movement unfolding organically, she sees a disorganized group, marred by a “lack of cohesion” and an “intellectual vaccuum.”

Where I see a clever use of street theater to get across messages that might be too threatening to convey in a more direct, hard-driving tone, she sees an “apparent wish to pantomime progressivism rather than practice it knowledgably.”

Where she sees the cause of the protesters as “impossible to decipher” because of the “diffuse and leaderless” nature of this movement, I see the cause as rather starkly clear, if expressed in a multitude of colorful ways by the individual protesters.

It’s summed up in the movement’s use of the concept of 99% to identify themselves. Last week there were protesters who wore placards saying “I am Troy Davis.”  This week, almost all Americans could don similar placards proclaiming: “I am one of the 99%”–that is, the majority of citizens who are receiving almost nothing in the way of benefits from the vast wealth generated by Wall Street.

Even the disdainful Ginia Bellafante noted the growing economic inequality of America in her article on the protest:

Last week, she said, “The Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans, which included more than 50 New Yorkers whose combined net worth totaled $211 billion, arrived at the same moment as census data showing that the percentage of the city’s population living in poverty had risen to 20.1 percent. And yet the revolution did not appear to be brewing.”


Well look again, Ms. Bellafante and you Wall Street billionaires. The revolution is at your doorstep.  It may be young, motley and impulsive, but have’t revolutions always been started by the young, idealistic and passionate of any society?

They may not be arguing from any one intellectual vantage point, but they don’t need to be quoting Marx or Dewey or John Maynard Keynes to be able to pinpoint the source of the problem in our society: that the rich own our political system, and they are more interested in personal gain than in a healthy society where young people who work hard will know that they can look forward to a secure future.

We’ve seen the same kinds of protests from young people living under dictatorships in the Middle East; and in London; and now in New York and other American cities.  They all want the same thing: a social system that prioritizes the well-being of ordinary people over the need of the wealthy elite to accumulate ever more billions in personal property.

Is this too much to ask?

I don’t think so.  And it’s not “communism,” either. It’s what used to be called the American Dream, a dream that has faded for too many of us as cost of living has soared, wages have stagnated, housing values have fallen, and jobs have disappeared.

In today’s harsh world, idealist visions are often met with pepper spray.

That’s no way to treat the dreams and aspirations of our young people.

Mayor Bloomberg, you should be ashamed.

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