Final Thoughts (for now) on Occupy Wall Street/Occupy Knoxville/Slutwalk

The sign in which the Slutwalk meets Occupy Knoxville.

I have a little experience with marches and protests of various sorts. Before moving to Knoxville many years ago I lived in Gainesville, Florida which is where I clarified many of my political views. Actions of various sorts were common, from rallies to marches and blockading the post office. I came to Knoxville expecting a similar community of activists.

I found the groups to be smaller and more isolated. Sure, there was a group annually protesting in Oak Ridge on Hiroshima Day. Other minor groups gathered for various reasons. As often conservative as liberal, I’ve seen groups gather to oppose abortion, oppose the movie “The Last Temptation,” oppose the first war in Iraq, oppose the second war in Iraq, support gay rights and on. It’s generally a faithful few.

The largest turnout I remember seeing was documented thoroughly on this blog. In August of 2010, when neo-Nazis came to town to demonstrate against immigration, a large contingent greeted them with mockery and a very clear non-welcome. There was great debate at the time whether it would be better to ignore them or to confront them. Several hundred Knoxvillians chose confrontation and at the time I felt like that was the better choice. I didn’t notice any supporters cheering the neo-Nazis and it seemed a clear statement was made in opposition to the group.

So, what of our current activities?

I’ll start with the Slutwalk. In number, it appears to be the typical two or three dozen committed souls Knoxville generally can muster. Their cause is, on face, a no-brainer. Rape isn’t the fault of the victim. Rape is never acceptable. No means no. Who will argue? Not me, but . . . I do have a small queasiness regarding the premise that dressing as a “slut” is unrelated. It should be, but we have bad people in our city and in our world, and I’m not sure daring them to do bad things or telling them it isn’t OK is going to keep women safe. Still, certainly the general point behind the group stands and I applaud them.

Occupy Knoxville, Krutch Park, October 2011

 As for the Occupy Knoxville/Occupy Wall Street movement, I’m still forming my opinion. I can emphatically state that I’ve never seen anything energize this many people in Knoxville in the thirty years I’ve lived here. I think the reports of two-hundred-fifty or five hundred are far too low. I guessed a thousand gathered by the time the march moved to Market Square. Maybe I over-shot the number, but it was more than five-hundred and it was an extremely large crowd for Knoxville.

It was also a diverse crowd. I’ve read comments on Knoxnews suggesting that this is a movement of young neo-hippy types. They certainly were present, but if you look at the pictures I’ve posted the last two days, you can’t maintain that stereotype. There were older people, white and black, hippies and very typical east-Tennesseeans. Families, middle-aged couples, people in suits and people in jeans mingled throughout the crowd.

Is it a liberal response to the Tea Party? Maybe, but confounding that premise is the fact that a current poll on Fox News’ website shows over two-thirds of their respondents supporting the basic thrust of the movement. There is certainly a liberal element to many of the slogans. Liberals or progressives tend to be the ones who typically raise objections to the extremely unbalanced distribution of wealth in this country, which seems to be a focal point in the protests.

One way of framing that issue is that in 2001 the top 10% of Americans controlled 71% of the wealth, while the bottom 60% controlled 4.2% of the wealth. In 1970 top CEOs made 39 times the pay of average workers, but by the year 2000, top CEOs made 1039 times the pay of an average worker. These statistics come from the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality.

Maybe we are, as a group, starting to question the fairness of such a system. Are the bottom sixty percent all lazy? If you think so, you must not have a very high regard for your country. Why is the gap getting larger? Are we happy with policies that produce this kind of disparity?

What does it have to do with Wall Street? As major corporations have gotten bailed out by our government (read: “from our pockets”), they have responded by increasing their profits and giving larger bonuses to people who make more money in a year than most Americans make in a lifetime. They haven’t hired workers. During the Bush administration we gave the richest Americans huge tax cuts because this would “make jobs.” They didn’t hire anybody, they just got richer. Is it any wonder that this makes people angry?

One other word on the focus of the movement: As a commenter on this blog noted in the last couple of days, he got answers that were wide-ranging and often poorly formulated when he asked people why they were there. I suspect some people can’t articulate this thing they feel so passionately about. Van Morrison called it the “inarticulate speech of the heart.” Still, there are themes to what they say as is noted above and it wouldn’t be the first movement to start as pure emotion and evolve into a focused, goal oriented organization. It will likely have to become focused or it will die.

I worry as I watch our city and our country at this juncture in our history. If the left is angry and the right is angry, if everyone is yelling more and more loudly, who will listen? Some of the banners I’ve seen recently imply that we have a choice: anger or apathy. Is that the extent of our options? If so, God help us. I do, however, like the fact that Knoxville seems to be awakening politically. If the emotion can be sustained and can become focused on solving our problems, perhaps there is hope.

By the way, Gainesville has a similar rally planned – four days after Knoxville!

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