Violence and the #occupy movement

Don Ryan AP A protester carries a sign referring to Scott Olsen, who was seriously injured at an Occupy event … Continued

Don Ryan


A protester carries a sign referring to Scott Olsen, who was seriously injured at an Occupy event in Oakland, Calif., at Jamison Park in Portland, Ore., early Sunday, Oct. 30, 2011. A large group or protesters marched from the downtown Occupy Portland camp in an attempt to occupy the park when police moved in with riot gear and horses to make approximately 30 arrests.(AP Photo/Don Ryan)

Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen, blood flowing down the side of his head, is now the face of the #occupy movement. Olsen, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, was severely injured, apparently hit in the head with a tear-gas canister when the Oakland, CA police department used the gas to clear out the #occupyoakland encampment. “We are all Scott Olsen” declares the #occupywallstreet Web site.

“We are all Scott Olsen” is a reference to the famous Facebook group, “We are all Khalid Said” that was dedicated to a young Egyptian man who died, beaten to death, after having been arrested by the Egyptian police. This Facebook group brought attention to his death and helped lead up to the Jan. 25th Egyptian revolution.

We definitely need to condemn police brutality against peacefully protesting demonstrators in the U.S.; there are reports of escalating force used by police in Denver, Colo. this weekend. Faith leaders are uniting to condemn violence by police in a petition from the group Faithful America. The petition says, “As people of faith, we condemn all violence and repression targeting the Occupy Wall Street movement. In communities across America, occupiers are providing a peaceful witness against corporate greed and economic injustice. We call on local authorities to respect their freedom of expression.”

We must not lose sight of the fact, as the Faithful America petition highlights, that there is an original violence that created the #occupy protests in the United States; this is the “corporate greed and economic injustice” of Wall Street. This is not the murderous regime of Hosni Mubarak, certainly. But it is violence nonetheless.

Crystal Chatham


In this Oct. 27, 2011, photo, Occupy Coachella Valley protestors, in support of the Occupy Wall Street movement, hold a candlelight vigil in Palm Desert, Calif., for injured Occupy Oakland protestor and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, 24, who suffered a fractured skull during a confrontation between protestors and Oakland area law enforcement on Tuesday.

In the United States what we are up against is “institutionalized violence,” as Mary Potter Engel and I describe it in
Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside
. Institutionalized violence is the violence of systems that create and sustain economic and social injustice on a wide scale. What we are struggling against in the U.S. is the deliberate creation, especially over the last thirty years, of an economic system that is squeezing out the middle and lower classes, the 99%, and creating a small group of megarich, the 1 percent.

This kind of violence may be systemic, but that does not mean it does not have physically violent effects. This violence is the child who goes to bed hungry, and becomes more and more malnourished as child hunger is rising dramatically in our nation. This violence is the 45, 000 Americans who now die annually from lack of health insurance. This is the strangling of the body, soul and spirit of the young who live in increasingly violent and decaying urban areas where gun violence is an every-day reality, as in Chicago.

First you need to know the faces of institutionalized economic violence in the U.S., the pinched face of the hungry child, the uninsured parent choosing paying the rent over taking their sick child to the doctor, and the anguish of whole communities riddled with bullets.

Then you also need charts. In the three decades before the beginning of the Great Recession, Congressional Budget Office data shows “Among the poorest fifth of households, income grew 18 percent. For the next three quintiles, it grew just shy of 40 percent. For the richest fifth, it grew 65 percent. And for the top percentile, it grew by a whopping 275 percent, which means it nearly tripled. Bottom line: Income inequality exists.”

Or, as Mother Jones put it so well, “It’s the Inequality, Stupid.”

It is these decades of dramatically increasing income inequality that are the institutionalized violence that gave rise to the #occupywallstreet movement.

The #occupy demonstrations have by and large been nonviolent. They are deliberately, even exhaustingly inclusive with the decision-making by the general assembly process adopted throughout the country. Rita Nakashima Brock, who has been at the #occupyoakland demonstrations several times, observes, “The 99% Movement I have been seeing in Oakland has that bedrock of good will, determination, and complexity.”

There is shouting and pushing and shoving by demonstrators, certainly. But that is a response to police interference in their constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.

But even as we decry policy brutality against the #occupy protestors, we must not lose sight of the original, institutionalized violence of the drastic increase in income inequality that is why, as Eugene Robinson writes, “Occupy Wall Street struck a nerve.” What has been happening in the last thirty years is “Republican-style redistribution — stealing from the poor to give to the rich.”

You know, “stealing from the poor to give to the rich” isn’t good for the rich either. Jesus asks us to consider not only the effects of drastic income inequality on the 99 percent, but also what it does to the 1percent to create such inequality. “What does it profit you,” he asked, “if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36)

That is the heart of institutionalized violence, the drive to ‘gain the whole world’ at the expense of everybody else. It is a profound corruption at the heart of our nation and it will not be easy to disassemble its long-term structures, but it must be done.

I do not put my trust in the 1 percent to come up with the solutions. I believe all of those who are demonstrating around the country at the #occupy encampments are getting us on the right track, and causing us to ask the right questions.

Are we really going to put up with more of the institutionalized violence of income inequality, or will we exercise the power we have as the 99 percent and find another way?


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • w8rcom

    Yours is a thoughtful response that is perhaps not popular in America’s church pulpits. Note the ring of prayer Christians are providing in Occupy London at St. Paul’s. These are truly interesting times, and to see what is happening in America, despite the violent protest crackdowns by law enforcement and those in power, is inspiring, and will continue its due course here and around the globe. And, yes, this was “the deliberate creation” of an unjust economic system where the bubble had to eventually burst and has done so. We will see how far money will go in order to save itself from the power of the 99%. There will be no stone unturned.

  • w8rcom

    Sounds like the Oakland police aren’t too popular right now.

  • ejhickey

    I will have more respect for Occupy Chicago if they occupy some of the neighborhoods where gun violence is taking place. Let them put their bodies between the victims and the bullets. I am talking about the children who are shot while playing in front of their house , on their porch or in their back yard. the CPD is never going to use deadly force on the protestors and OC knows it . therefore this is really a very safe type of protest where the only danger is the bologna Sandwhich they get if they get locked up. Let them put their lives on the line in the dangerous neighborhoods like Englewood, Garfield Park , west Pullman , etc. Let’s see what they are really made of.

  • WmarkW

    Every socially undesirable circumstance is NOT violence.

    Liberals have used “words are violence” to stifle free speech on campuses and other privately-controlled arenas. The right-wing calls homosexuality violence against God’s plan.

    Violence has a specific meaning, and is a problem that should be dealt with using that understanding of it. Using the term to characterize other circumstances, is a way to claim that the status quo has no right to exist. Current income inequality may be a bad circumstance, but it is not a violent crime from which anyone has an inalienable right to be extricated. It’s matter for the give and take of economics and politics.

  • bcd_erick

    Man, that is a lot of lies and hate in one little rant. This is typical Wapo nonsense but this bigotry is peddled under the logo “On Faith”. What could possibly be more cynical? It has been widely reported, even by “Mother Jones” and the “SF Chronicle”, that the so called protesters in Oakland provoked the police response by physically attacking them and trowing paint on them. Get a life you haters.

  • bugmenot3

    Let me guess you list “moonbat” as your occupation on your tax returns?

    Oh, wait, you’re a mooch who doesn’t pay taxes. Never mind.

  • Steve-Gregg

    The rich are not stealing their wealth from the poor. Must I point out that the poor have no money? That’s why they’re poor. They have no money to steal. The rich make their money by delivering the products and services people want.

    For example, Steve Jobs did not steal his billiions from the poor but rather created computers that were voluntarily bought by customers, enriching their lives many times more than the billions he earned. Likewise, Oprah did not steal her millions from the poor.

    The reason for income inequality in America is the difference in smarts, ambition, and work ethic among people. The poor are not made poor by “institutionalized violence” as wacky lefties would have it, but by their own bad decisions born of inferior moral values. If you graduate from high school, take any job that pays, and wait until marriage to have children, you will not be poor for long in America. Poor people make one or more of these mistakes and throw in drug and alcohol use to boot.

    Needless to say, the rich are not forcing the poor to make any of these mistakes. The violence that the poor suffer is mostly done by themselves to themselves. To be blunt, you have to be a lazy idiot to be poor in America, where education is free and every opportunity beckons.

  • hattmann

    You mean the institutionalized violence where for the last 30 years I have put in 60+ hour weeks, employed as many as 5 people at a time in my business, and also supported gardeners, house cleaners, pool man, and wait staff at a variety of restaurants (20% is my preferred tip). Paid for the college books for those direct and indirect employees children. In addition had given on average 15% of my gross income to charity (compare to Joe Biden). That violence?

  • glink134683

    Susan, you really milked Mark 8:36. Never have read anything so wordy to say so little.

  • landsend

    Good for you. If what you say is true, you must notice the difference between your behavior and that of corporations that close down factories — and whole cities — so that they can export the factories to China or Bangladesh where they can pay workers wretched wages and create toxic waste dumps to their heart’s content — and then reimport the products back into the United States with little or no tariff. It is revealing that our rulers were so eager to set up a “free trade” agreement with Colombia, where more labor union organizers have been killed in recent years than in the rest of the world combined. A nice place to do business.

    But I believe what you say — I know plenty of decent employers. I know others who would like to play fair with their workers but would be ruined by competitors if they did, the result of those same “free trade” deals.

    Almost a hundred years ago, employers like you in San Francisco, faced with ruinous competition from non-union sweatshops in Los Angeles, went into an alliance with their own unions to finance a union organizing drive in LA. The result was that everybody’s wages were raised to decent levels, and the San Francisco employers stayed in business. And LA did better too: higher wages, better tax base, better living standards for all.

  • RobertPope

    I’d also be willing to bet you don’t pay yourself 475X what your employees make….

  • RobertPope

    What about switching welfare checks to debit cards that charge the recipients $60 or more a year to lose (not counting ATM transactions) as a society we give that money to the poor so that they may live to fight another day and have a shot a becoming successful, not to give to the banks to add to their Billions. What about usury interest rates? What about the poor college student who has to go into debt to better themselves, gets sick, but cannot have their debt discharged through bankruptcy? What about sales tax on food and basic clothing that the poor pay regressively?

  • landsend

    Nobody is objecting to Steve Jobs. We are objecting to employers like the billionaire who owns Nike, who exported his factories to places like Souitheast Asia, where the workers were paid so miserably that a total month’s wages would not suffice to buy a pair of the shoes they were producing (inhaling toxic fumes in the process).

    “Needless to say, the rich are not forcing the poor to make any of these mistakes.” Oh no? How about the Suharto military dictatorship (imposed on Indonesia by the US government at the behest of transnational corporations) that imprisoned and killed workers and anyone who dared to talk about real unions. Of course, it was the workers’ decision: if they didn’t like the working conditions, they could starve to death.

  • RobertPope

    Well – Occupy China wants higher unit pay per phone – Currently chinese laborers get less that 1% of the phone’s sale price – and in the past have used child labor. Apple isn’t squeaky clean.

  • RobertPope

    I think you need to at least change it to “be a lazy idiot to STAY poor in america”. Most of the poor eventually do make it into the upper quintiles over time (the ones that aren’t lazy idiots – or the unfortunate ones who run into some bad luck).
    Success in America isn’t just about working hard, it’s equally about luck. I don’t see what’s so wrong with feeding the hungry and treating the ill. Perhaps if you are poor you shouldn’t have an iPhone, but we as a people should at least say, “We know you are down on your luck and we are going to give you what you need to pull yourself up (a hand up, not a hand out). The 99 percent are struggling with the fact that making that climb up that ladder is getting harder than ever, and that the UltraRich are squandering our nation’s wealth. Thank you military industrial complex for the endless wars.

  • recklessprocess

    119 acts of rape and assault have been perpetrated by the protestors. They are violent and filled with hate by leftist writers who encourage this bad behaviour. Thistlewaite hasn’t even noticed how the protestors are assaulting one another unlike the TEA protests. Huge piles of trash and these people deficate in the street. They are mad because they want free stuff from the people who actually do work. Taking a hundred thousand dollar loan for hispanic gender studies is asking to be ripped off. There aer no jobs for half the degrees these colleges offer.

  • permagrin

    Do reporters and news folks and “senior fellows” at 1% funded think tanks not realize how lame the sound trying to legitimize OWS? Seriously, there is way to much comedy gold going on at OWS, with video proof taboot, that these lame attempts to pretend they are some large mainstream movement are pathetic.

  • Josh0078

    Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen Was Discharge from the Marine Corps for being Gay and that’s why he has a admin Discharge and not a Honorable one.

  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous
  • Anonymous

Read More Articles

The Internet Is Not Killing Religion. So What Is?

Why is religion in decline in the modern world? And what can save it?

river dusk
Cleaner, Lighter, Closer

What’s a fella got to do to be baptized?

Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

Pope Francis: Stop the Culture of Waste

What is the human cost of our tendency to throw away?

chapel door
“Sometimes You Find Something Quiet and Holy”: A New York Story

In a hidden, underground sanctuary, we were all together for a few minutes in this sweet and holy mystery.

Ten Ways to Make Your Church Autism-Friendly

The author of the Church of England’s autism guidelines shares advice any church can follow.

Valle Header Art
My Life Depended on the Very Act of Writing

How I was saved by writing about God and cancer.

Sociologist: Religion Can Predict Sexual Behavior

“Religion and sex are tracking each other like never before,” says sociologist Mark Regnerus.

Mary Magdalene, the Closest Friend of Jesus

She’s been ignored, dismissed, and misunderstood. But the story of Easter makes it clear that Mary was Jesus’ most faithful friend.

From Passover to Easter: Why I’m Grateful to be Jewish, Christian, and Alive

Passover with friends. Easter with family. It’s almost enough to make you believe in God.

Top 10 Reasons We’re Glad A Catholic Colbert Is Taking Over Letterman’s “Late Show”

How might we love Stephen Colbert as the “Late Show” host? Let us count the ways.

God’s Not Dead? Why the Good News Is Better than That

The resurrection of Jesus is not a matter of private faith — it’s a proclamation for the whole world.

The Three Most Surprising Things Jesus Said

Think you know Jesus? Some of his sayings may surprise you.

Jesus, Bunnies, and Colored Eggs: An Explanation of Holy Week and Easter

So, Easter is a one-day celebration of Jesus rising from the dead and turning into a bunny, right? Not exactly.