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From Mr. McLaughlin:
When Occupy Wall Street began their protest on September 17th, the Human Rights Institute at IPFW had already been focused on the perceived crisis in American democracy for a full two months. As the social movement spread to Fort Wayne almost one month later, we began to interact more heavily with local occupiers, exploring their motivations and the problems they perceived in our nation. Because of my responsibilities with the Institute, I feel I am in a unique position to observe the relationship between the national movement and Fort Wayne’s own occupiers.
OWS is not quite two months old, nevertheless it has already accomplished a great deal. For starters, the movement has transformed the national conversation from the discussion of deficits to that of jobs and justice. Further, it has established demonstrative camps in hundreds of town squares across the country. In so doing, the Occupy movement has created a political space for communities to come together and share their stories, working together to creatively challenge the status quo.
The encampments also serve a symbolic purpose for the occupiers. By setting up tent in falling temperatures they shout, “The system has been corrupted, and we are not leaving until America corrects course!” The physical camps represent their commitment to this cause, while simultaneously serving as powerful centers for dialogue, reflection, and creative action.
This national movement endures because it points toward a resonating truth: the corrupting influence of money in politics has all but destroyed our democracy. This conviction is the moral thread that binds the numerous occupying camps. As corporations have been deemed persons and money judged equivalent to speech, the occupiers worry that the rights of actual persons and the legitimacy of actual speech have been diminished. They note that Washington failed to correct course after the Great Recession, and those who were responsible were never held accountable for their transgressions. They worry that in all the partisan fervor from both sides, we have lost sight of our commitment to the common good; ultimately, profit has replaced virtue.
The heart of the occupiers’ complaint, then, is not political but moral.
As Rolling Stone contributing editor Matt Taibbi explains, “Occupy Wall Street was always about something much bigger than a movement against big banks and modern finance. It’s about providing a forum for people to show how tired they are not just of Wall Street, but everything. This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become. If there is such a thing as going on strike from one’s own culture, this is it.”
The public doesn’t necessarily “get” this. The average Fort Wayne citizen, for example, sees only protestors, signs, and occasional conflicts in far-off cities. They don’t see the activity that is going on behind the scenes, even in their own community. Our city’s occupiers are quite busy organizing, performing outreach, and building bridges with local organizations. They are educating themselves, and reaching out to educate others. In coming weeks, watch for local occupiers to build on the powerful momentum that the national movement has created by finding creative methods to take the key issues that the movement has placed on the public agenda to every neighborhood, community, workplace and campus.
While they continue to rally and protest national conditions, the Fort Wayne occupiers seem primarily focused on organizing community-building events to help meet the needs of the homeless, the impoverished, and the veterans among us. In these actions, the Fort Wayne natives demonstrate their understanding – the heart of the movement isn’t political at all. The heart of the occupation is in restoring our sense of community and our dedication to the common good.
The movement is now spreading to the smaller towns. Each occupation will necessarily differ, depending on the support or resistance they find. Fort Wayne, for better or worse, finds itself a de facto laboratory for the occupation. Perhaps our community can find ways to work together toward common goals rather than falling into the familiar practices of opposition and partisanship.