When Barack Obama ran for president, many people were inspired by his message of hope. The hope was that there would be no business as usual for the wealthy benefiting from the military-industrial-financial complex. The hope was for shifting control of our economy and politics from those who profit from policies favoring banks and corporations to a government for the people.
However, we have seen little of the change we hoped for. Many experience continuing job loss, home foreclosures, growing inequality, ongoing war-making, bank bailouts, tax breaks for the wealthy along with huge cuts in programs needed in our communities. At the same time we have seen the shrinking influence of ordinary people as the Supreme Court validated the best government money can buy.
When Occupy Wall Street bravely and creatively challenged business as usual rewarding the top 1 percent at the expense of the 99 percent, encampments quickly spread across the country and overnight new hope emerged. The amazing national “mike check” echoed across the country.
Signs reading “Tax the Rich” and “End the Wars” sprouted from New York to California and in between. Overnight the focus was on ordinary people, marginalized by business as usual, who were claiming public space to challenge the status quo. Overnight the control of the economy, politics and the media by the 1 percent for their own profit to the detriment to the majority emerged as the focus of our attention.
We listened to each other, not to the politicians, pundits and celebrities dished out by mainstream media.
On Oct. 29, when Occupy Bangor held a rally in support of Occupy Wall Street, hundreds joined together and were delighted by the little girl who held a handmade sign saying “I want things to be fair.” We were encouraged by a high school student who held another handmade sign reading “If corporations are people why don’t they pay taxes like I do?”
The Occupy Bangor encampment offered us hope. People stopped by to share their stories, their homemade soups, their wood, their dollars and their good will. We found inspiration in people willing to spend cold nights in order to show the strength of their conviction about the need for change and to express solidarity with other encampments around the state and across the nation and to affirm their First Amendment right to free speech and assembly.
Now that the tents are no longer visible in Bangor and in most communities across the country, has the Occupy Movement disappeared? Is the hope for fundamental change dashed once more? The Occupy Wall Street media team sent out a powerful statement on Nov. 15 as occupiers were being arrested and tents destroyed in New York. They highlighted the enduring nature of this movement:
“This burgeoning movement is more than a protest, more than an occupation, more than a tactic. The ‘us’ in the movement is far broader than those who are able to participate in physical occupations. The movement is everyone who sends supplies, who talks to their friends and families about the underlying issues, everyone who takes some form of action to get involved in this civic process … such a movement cannot be evicted. … Some politicians may physically remove us from public spaces — our spaces — and physically they may succeed. But we are engaged in a battle over ideas. Our idea is that our political structures should serve us, the people — all of us, not just those who have amassed great wealth and power.”
This one idea united the 99 percent despite all of our differences. We are not united by a list of the ten or one hundred most important reforms. This battle over ideas can take many forms, and reforms are urgently needed. And actions are planned.
But it is not a battle for “mission accomplished.” The ongoing struggle for truly participatory and representative democracy can only be won if “we the people” become actively engaged in redefining the priorities of this country and creating sustainable alternatives. And we need to stay involved for the long haul.
On Saturday, April 21 more than 70 organizations working on a variety issues will share information about how to become involved at the free HOPE Festival at the Student Recreation and Fitness Center in Orono from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. With music and live entertainment we will celebrate our connections to the earth and to each other. We’ll be inspired by a keynote by renowned author and environmental activist Bill McKibben.
Let’s occupy HOPE and nurture the seeds that have been sown.
Ilze Petersons works with the Peace & Justice Center of Eastern Maine.