Sunday, November 13, 2011

Observations about Occupy Chapel Hill: Why the Media Shouldn't Generalize the Protesters

By: Maple Seawright

Occupy Wall Street, Photo Credit: Huffington Post
Local Culture versus National Angst
The recent controversy over the Occupy Wall Street Protests has created an even deeper rift between Americans at a time when cooperation is most needed. Critics and news outlets have spent the past weeks questioning the motives of the protesters, highlighting individual character flaws, ripping apart their arguments for equal opportunities and scoffing at the unemployed protesters’ attempt at tackling social issues. The overarching rebuke is the perceived lack of effectiveness, organization or viable solutions. The purpose of the criticism is to delegitimize the movement, shame the protests and discourage the growth of Occupy Protests in other areas. Although I haven’t personally attended the Occupy Wall Street Protests, I think it’s unfair to generalize other Occupy Protests and Movements that have sprouted. It’s even unfair to negatively stereotype the Wall Street Protestors, for example the spiteful comments about getting a job falls flat because 50 percent have fulltime jobs and 20 percent have part time jobs. Critics of the Occupy Chapel Hill have directed the same opposition and arguments against the Occupy Chapel Hill Movement as they do for the Occupy Wall Street Movement, despite the fact that the overall culture of the protest is sharply different. For example, someone made a scathing remark about the Occupy Chapel Hill protesters being against capitalism; however the Chapel Hill protesters actually seem more interested in cleaning up or removing government. Instead of being parked outside of businesses, they are symbolically located in front of a court house.

Each geographical location usually develops their own local culture in the form of distinct morals, dominant personality types, social norms, dialects and other characteristics that distinguish them from the broader population. So although local Occupy Protests and Movements share the same sentiment and are connected by the outrage over those who profited from the misfortune of America, they each are protesting in a way that is more suited to their local culture. We can gain inspiration from national movement, however a protester noted that a “local movement can cause more change.” By generalizing the local movements, we suppress other movements from organizing and advocating for social justice. Just because a national movement seems to be faltering and/or disrupting the peace doesn’t mean that local movements will not achieve their goals. Even if you don’t share the same ideology or characteristics of a national movement, that doesn’t mean that you don’t share the same economic hardship or oppression.

Perhaps instead of physically occupying a street, your local culture supports “occupying” a town hall meeting by encouraging constituents to attend one for the first time. Citizens could “occupy” education by starting a tutoring program. My advice is to not let a national movement or its critics define who you are or prevent you from radically tending to the needs of your community. Many people are calling themselves the 53 percent because they feel alienated by Occupy Wall Street who are denounced by the media as liberals and hippies. But a closer investigation reveals that 70 percent are politically independent. I believe this is a very unfortunate consequence of the overwhelming amounts of negative press. It’s also the tendency of America to form cleavages about issues instead of showing empathy for each other’s adversity. However in order to not maintain the status quo, the 99 percent should work together -- even if they use different methods or have separate identities -- to bring about change.

A general assembly at Occupy Chapel Hill, Photo Credit:
Occupy Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill Demographics Evolves a Protest to an Intellectual & Activist Movement 

Instead of bankers casually sipping wine and jeering at the protesters, downtown Chapel Hill, NC is lined by sympathetic small businesses that range from struggling to pay the high rents on Franklin to flourishing with a loyal customer base. Since many of the small business still depend on the 99 percent in Chapel Hill, most who affiliate with liberalism, it would be unwise for them to openly deride the movement. In fact some of the restaurants on Franklin such as Jimmy John’s, Krispy Kreme and Mediterranean Deli are donating food to the cause. The 1 percent in Chapel Hill, NC still participate in the similar event as the 99 percent, purchase many of the same items as them and are somewhat associated with the 99 percent whether they are professors teaching the 99 percent, small business owner communicating with the 99 percent who are customers or going to college with the 99 percent. Obviously there is still a significant and obvious social divide between the 1 percent and 99 percent and as a protester reminded me of “a thriving business school and old money.” However it’s not as oppressive or demoralizing. Wall Street is quite different because the 1 percent is not accustomed to interacting with the 99 percent. Their lifestyles are worlds apart and many of the financial institutions on Wall Street do not depend on the 99 percent for their income. Their goal is to appeal to the 1 percent. The result is widespread resentment and fewer sympathizers for the 1 percent.

The first sight upon entering Occupy Chapel Hill is the overwhelming amount of literature on display. All the literature is supporting a variety of beliefs while giving background information about their movement. I continued talking to the graduate student who elaborated on his studies in critical theory. “Critical theory lays the ground for later theory.” This is the major goal of Occupy Chapel Hill. They don’t want to stifle discourse but create a platform for building new ideas on progress. The community of tents that make up the Peace and Justice Plaza has become a space that welcomes all kinds of political thought. Kassandra Ofray explained to the Daily Tar Heel, “You wouldn’t have had the conversations with the different kinds of people here if it weren’t for this.”

In addition to conversation she “saw an opportunity to change the world and wanted to invest all my time working on that.” A majority of protesters have experience protesting or rallying against or for an issue, while 48 percent of Occupy Wall Street protesters do not have previous experience protesting, marching or rallying. One protester that I spoke to cited having a passion for social justice and frequently participants in similar events. As a result, Occupy Chapel Hill has naturally evolved into a force for social change. Their site proclaims, “We are the 99% and we have assumed full responsibility for the future of our society, our culture, and most importantly, our own lives.” Recent events include supporting other Occupy Movements, rallying with social justice groups to give them a stronger voice, peacefully protesting corporations through movements such as withdrawing funds from Bank of America, hosting films & discussions to highlight issues, attending government meetings to express their concerns and holding teach-ins that educate the public on academic & lifestyle topics. These events help add substance and sustainability to the movement. They are not just mindlessly protesting, as the media would like to suggest, but making steps towards improving society through education and activism.
Playfully mocking the 1 percent during Halloween, Photo Credit: Daily Tar Heel
Thoughts about Society: A Sobering Perspective

An Occupier that I spoke to raised an interesting perspective that the system was in fact working perfectly... to extract money and labor from the masses. He wasn’t too thrilled about the common sentiment to reform the system because that will only make them more efficient at exploitation. He’s witnessed how pure motives that spurred environmentalism and veganism just resulted in corporations learning how to profit from those motives and better evade responsibilities. The grad student doesn’t know what the future should look like but hopes for an egalitarian society.

I hope for a society that doesn’t support corruption. It easy to point blame at the 1 percent however they are just embracing cultural values that most Americans idolize. I also notice a rising trend claiming that “psychopaths” are among us. However these “corporate psychopaths” are among us because they are supported. Instead of admonishing the bullies, people encourage them because they benefit from their actions. So does this make everyone a psychopath when they are obviously helping these “corporate psychopaths?” It’s always about finding a marginal population to blame even though everyone has contributed to the downfall. For example people complain about bosses who only hire attractive people, yet we only want be serviced by, associate with or sold a product by attractive people. I don’t understand the contradiction. Perhaps we can start with ingraining cooperative values in the youth instead of trying to pressure them to be as unethical as the adults. If it was only 20 percent that were hurt and not the 99 percent would people not care? Perhaps we should care about smaller issues and smaller populations that are suffering, so that the issues won’t get as pervasive. Obviously all those smaller populations combined make up the 99 percent.

I’m a bit more cynical because I believe that even if there wasn’t a government or corporations, we would still have these same issues. For example this was my first time doing an interview for this blog, I was a bit nervous and the interruptions were a bit distracting for me. Once the mini interview got a bit boring for an Occupier instead of being honest, he said that he had something to do. I looked over and he was just talking casually to more Occupiers. So being rude, lying about motives and having impatience with someone who is struggling? Seems familiar… A small example proves that anyone is capable of what the 1 percent did. However since they had more power it was more noticeable and destructive. Therefore we need to learn how to hold everyone accountable, understand that all aspects human nature isn’t appealing and acknowledge that we love what we hate. Once we accept this, then we can learn how to effectively prevent “psychopathic” behavior that can arise in most.

Hopefully the Occupiers can help restore optimism, demonstrate to us how to hold people in power accountable and help us realize that we need to transform destructive values into compassion, selflessness and honesty. I believe that the Occupiers are making an effort however they are slightly ignoring the big picture --everyone is capable of behaving unscrupulously when given the chance. But with time, I believe that the picture will become more defined. Overall I appreciate their movement for economic justice & social progress and I'm glad to see dedicated individuals uniting for a better tomorrow.

nothingprofound said...

Some wonderful points. I suppose real change always begins with oneself and understanding those aspects of human behavior that create social injustice and inequality.

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