Occupy Wall Street protesters: Human rights begin at home

AFP/GETTY IMAGES People gather in Washington Square Park in New York on Sept. 15, 2012 during an Occupy Wall Street … Continued


People gather in Washington Square Park in New York on Sept. 15, 2012 during an Occupy Wall Street (OWS) One Year Anniversary Convergence Weekend.

The police crackdown on the Occupy Wall Street movement, since its beginning one- year ago today on Sept. 17, 2011, undermines core American values of freedom in the eyes of the world.

Particularly now, when extremist religious rhetoric is being used (and abused) to spark anti-American demonstrations around the world, this is an especially important time for the practice of respect for freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, freedoms that are indispensable to the freedom of religion and the practice of democracy, to be on display in the United States.

Instead, what the world is seeing is photos of arrests of Occupy protesters as they attempt to take their message of Wall Street’s responsibility for the nation’s economic meltdown to the streets once again and call for policies that support economic equality and fairness.

Suppressing the message of Occupy Wall Street is wrong on many levels, both political and religious. It is anti-democratic, and also, in my view as a Christian pastor and teacher, in contradiction to the message at the center of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth of caring for the poor, and rejecting violence.

View Photo Gallery: Protesters hope to shut down streets in New York’s financial district for Occupy Wall Street’s first anniversary Monday, but the movement has lost momentum. Read: Occupy movement fights for relevance

These messages, both religious and political, are needed now perhaps even more than a year ago.

#S17 is the Twitter hashtag for the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. A year ago, the Internet group Anonymous encouraged its readers to join #OccupyWallStreet calling protesters to “flood lower Manhattan, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and occupy Wall Street.” An Occupy Wall Street page on Facebook began on September 19, 2011 with a YouTube video of the early protests, and by September 22, it had reached critical mass.

By mid-October, Facebook listed 125 Occupy-related pages and roughly one in every 500 hashtags used on Twitter, all around the world, was the movement’s own #OWS.

Seemingly overnight, Americans saw mushrooming tents in the midst of their towns and cities throughout the fall of 2011.

What Americans seldom saw, however, was the full scale of the police response to the Occupy movement. This is due, in large part, to police targeting journalists attempting to cover the movement. According to “Reporters Without Borders,” in their 2011-2012 press ranking, Bahrain and Egypt both fell precipitously in the rankings for their crackdowns on journalistic freedom, but shockingly so did the United States. As the report said, “the United States (47th) also owed its fall of 27 places to the many arrests of journalist covering Occupy Wall Street protests.”

A disturbing trend post-Sept. 11 has been the militarization of the police in general. Radley Balko, a journalist who has studied the issue has written that in 2009, stimulus spending was used to “fund militarization, with police departments requesting federal funds for armored vehicles, SWAT armor, machine guns, surveillance drones, helicopters, and all manner of other tactical gear and equipment.”

Experienced police officers themselves find this incredibly alarming, even tragic. Former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper has said as much. “We needed local police to play a legitimate, continuing role in furthering homeland security back in 2001,” says Stamper, now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “After all, the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place on specific police beats in specific police precincts. Instead, we got a 10-year campaign of increasing militarization, constitution-abusing tactics, needless violence and heartache as the police used federal funds, equipment, and training to ramp up the drug war. It’s just tragic.”

As the New York Times has reported, these are the kind of tactics “used in New York City.” This is more than “tragic,” it is a catastrophe as the very freedoms we are protecting abroad are under attack at home.

This pos-t-Sept. 11 militaristic response of law enforcement, and its role in the suppression of the #OWS movement rarely makes it into stories about “what happened to the Occupy movement,” or about its comeback. Yet, this is a crucial issue we face as a nation: how can we exercise our freedoms in our democracy without speech, assembly, religion, and even today our freedom to vote, being protected?

But like the universality of the idea of freedom itself, it is also the case that the Occupy Wall Street movement was never simply about the tents, the marches and even the lively #OWS twitter feeds. It is about the idea that it is wrong, profoundly wrong, for 1 percent of Americans to hold the vast majority of the nation’s wealth, and the other 99 percent to keep falling further and further behind in terms of income.

Extremes of wealth and poverty are a great wrong; this is the change that #OWS has already made. The 1 percent and the 99 percent have entered into our national vocabulary, and our national ideas in a way that is genuinely new.

Or is it so new? It is my profound conviction Jesus of Nazareth also taught that it was wrong for a few to acquire great wealth at the expense of the rest. It is also wrong, in the teaching of Jesus, to violently suppress those who are trying to call attention to gross economic inequality.

The political and economic ideas of Occupy Wall Street have taken hold; I think more work is needed to help us strongly preach and teach that the core message of Jesus of Nazareth was that economic injustice is an offense to God and the Kingdom of God, as he proclaimed, it was one of community and non-violence.

I believe when we #OccupytheBible, we can learn what Jesus really taught about money and power. And we can learn from Jesus of Nazareth that violence against the expression of a powerful idea, while profoundly wrong, is in the long-run never successful.


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."
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