MLK’s spirit lives in Occupy Wall Street protests

January 16, 2012

If Martin Luther King Jr. were somehow able to attend Lexington’s annual celebration of his birth Monday, where would he spend his time?

He probably would get up early for the unity breakfast, then walk in the symbolic march around downtown, which attracts several thousand people. He probably would return to Heritage Hall at 11 a.m. for the inspirational program and guest speaker.

This year’s event includes music from Mahalia, a musical honoring the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson that was first performed in Lexington in 1983. The guest speaker is Marc Lamont Hill, a Columbia University professor, host of the syndicated TV show Our World With Black Enterprise, and political commentator on CNN, MSNBC and Fox News.

After that, King could choose among many other activities, including a program at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning and a screening of the documentary film Freedom Riders at the Kentucky Theatre.

But I suspect that King would be most interested in spending some time at the corner of Main Street and Esplanade, where local participants in the Occupy Wall Street protest have kept a steady vigil for 107 days, as of Friday, and counting.

Hill, this year’s guest speaker, thinks so, too. That is because the Occupy protesters in Lexington and cities across America echo many of the concerns about economic justice that King expressed, especially during the final year before an assassin’s bullet silenced him in 1968.

“We’ve always needed to talk about the have-nots and the have-gots,” Hill said in a telephone interview last week. “The Occupy movement kind of revives that conversation.”

Hill, who is best known to many TV viewers as a liberal foil to Fox talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, plans to discuss some of those issues during his Lexington speech.

“We live in a really, really dangerous moment, for a variety of reasons — politically, socially, culturally,” Hill said. “There has never been a moment where we more needed to draw on the insights of Dr. King’s legacy, not only to bring the nation together but to move the nation forward.”

Hill thinks America’s core problem is poverty, because it is a major cause of the crises in health care, education, crime, violence and high rates of incarceration.

“What we see is a gap between what we have and what’s possible,” he said. “And the gap isn’t an intelligence gap, an effort gap, it’s an opportunity gap.”

One reason for rising economic inequality, Hill said, has been a lack of effective regulation of big business since the 1980s.

“The point is not to demonize business, it’s not to demonize success, but to certainly challenge and critique excess,” he said. “There’s a way to have responsible corporations. There’s a way to have responsible markets.”

Hill said Americans can best honor King’s legacy by continuing to work toward the goals he pursued.

“I want to challenge us to go deeper,” he said. “To not just think about the man who wanted people holding hands and singing We Shall Overcome, but someone who really forced us to reimagine the relationship between the government and its citizens, between the rich and the vulnerable.”

That thought and work will be especially important during this election year, Hill said.

“Beyond the everyday political banter we hear on cable television and read in the newspapers, we have to pay attention to what’s going on in our communities,” he said. “One of the things Dr. King represented was mass action on a national level, but locally rooted. He said that when dogs bit us in Birmingham, we bled everywhere. That kind of mentality is what’s necessary.

“I want to challenge people to do something — to join organizations, to volunteer, to start organizations,” Hill said. “What can we do in our communities? What can we do in our schools? What can we do in our respective religious institutions? What can we do in our homes to bring about the world that is not yet?”

The most dangerous moment in UK history

October 27, 2011

As Occupy Wall Street sympathizers picket on Lexington’s Main Street — and on main streets across America and around the world — veterans of another protest movement will gather in Lexington this weekend for a reunion to remember their demonstrations against the Vietnam War more than four decades ago.

Guy Mendes, a Lexington writer, photographer and retired producer for Kentucky Educational Television, was one of those University of Kentucky students who participated in the Lexington protests during the late 1960s and early 1970s. He has written a great piece about that time, titled The Most Dangerous Moment in UK History, for the community newspaper North of Center. Mendes’ piece is a guided tour through the Lexington of those years, and it is well worth reading.

It was easy then for many people to dismiss the Vietnam War protesters as dirty, dangerous hippies or immature students. But we all know now that they were right. The Vietnam War was a horrible national mistake — one we foolishly repeated in Iraq.

It is easy now for many people to dismiss the Occupy Wall Street protesters as (choose your own derogatory adjective). But a report yesterday by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office offered further confirmation of the truth behind their biggest complaint: growing economic inequity in America.

Now, as then, we would be wise to focus on the message rather than the messengers.

Occupy Wall Street strikes a chord with many

October 16, 2011

Businessman Richard Knittel joined pickets Wednesday evening as part of Lexington's Occupy Wall Street on Main Street. Photo by Tom Eblen

The casually dressed Occupy Wall Street protesters in downtown Lexington last Wednesday evening looked curiously at one another when Richard Knittel approached wearing a suit and tie.

He didn’t want to argue with them. He wanted to join them.

Knittel, 69, of Versailles, explained that he isn’t against capitalism — among other things, he is chairman of a Canadian company that uses environmentally friendly technology to mine metals. But he agreed with the protesters that big money has too much influence in America, especially when it comes to profit-driven disregard for the environment.

“I want people to see that even people with suits on are joining this,” Knittel said before picking up a spare protest sign and waving to passing motorists on Main Street.

Since Occupy Wall Street protests began Sept. 17 in New York’s financial district, similar demonstrations have sprung up in more than 1,300 American cities.

The Lexington protest began Sept. 29 on the sidewalk outside Chase Bank Plaza. Protesters — whose numbers have ranged from two to two dozen — said they have tried to be polite and not make a mess. They have appreciated Lexington police for keeping drunks and troublemakers away. Supporters bring them food, and Gene and Natasha Williams let them use restrooms in their restaurant across the street.

Some people have cast Occupy Wall Street as liberals’ answer to the conservative Tea Party. Both movements include average, passionate people waving protest signs and American flags. Both also have their share of crackpots, are fuzzy about their goals and solutions and are easy for critics to lampoon.

Still, both movements have struck chords with the public because, for so many people, the American dream seems to be slipping away. People on the left, right and in the middle think the system has been rigged against them.

I visited Lexington’s Occupy Wall Street protesters several times last week. Most were 20-something students and low-wage workers, although the group included teachers, retirees, a veteran, a local food activist, an unemployed computer programmer and a man who said he is homeless. Some talked idealistically, but most just seemed worried about the future.

The protesters said they are concerned about economic injustice and political corruption. They aren’t against capitalism, just the crony capitalism and greed that they blame for the financial crisis and widening economic disparity.

Among common themes: The rich have gotten exponentially richer while middle-class workers have lost economic ground for three decades. Financial speculators, who largely caused the 2008 crash and were bailed out by taxpayers, haven’t been brought to justice. Politicians of both parties receive so much corporate cash that they are only looking out for business interests.

“This is about shaping the national discourse so it is more people-based than profit-based,” said Robert Wilhelm, 24, a University of Kentucky student. “People who were part of the Tea Party before it got corporate sponsorship have even come by and said they agree the system is broken.”

Janet Tucker, 64, a retired nurse, said she thought it was important to come out and protest. “But I don’t spend the night here; I leave that to the younger folks,” she said.

“We’re spending trillions on wars overseas, and we can’t afford to deal with all the problems we have here,” Tucker said. “It’s not that there isn’t money; it’s where it is. We need to look at our priorities as a nation.”

Protesters said they have been encouraged because, for every obscene gesture or shout of “get a job” they receive from a passerby, they get 10 thumbs-up or honks of support.

“A lot of folks are struggling, and I think they’re making these connections,” said Greg Capillo, 23, a college graduate who works in a coffee shop. “The ultimate issue is corporate involvement in democracy, because it speaks to the structural elements of democracy itself.”

It is hard to predict the future of Occupy Wall Street. The demonstrations will surely wane as winter comes. Protesters say they don’t want to be co-opted by the Democratic Party the way the Tea Party movement has been by the Republican Party.

The significance of protest movements is never the movements themselves, but how they shape public opinion over time. A national poll last week by Time magazine found that 54 percent of respondents viewed Occupy Wall Street favorably. That compared to 27 percent who viewed the Tea Party favorably, down from 41 percent in December 2009.

Comparing Occupy Wall Street to the Tea Party might not be the best analogy. Better ones might be the Bonus Army veterans who occupied Washington during the worst of the Depression, or even the civil rights movement of a generation ago.

Throughout history, this nation has been forced to address obvious injustice and inequity when enough people objected. The protesters on Wall Street — and on Main Streets across America — seem to be hoping that this time will be no different.