OWS, While Just Protest, Not The Same As Civil Rights Movement

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I believe once the economy improves OWS will get their jobs and move on. Meanwhile, our struggle continues. That’s why OWS is not just like the Civil Rights Movement.


Why do we sell our history so cheap?

I have heard too many allude to Occupy Wall Street as being "just like the Civil Rights Movement." OWS should align itself with specific causes and use its clout and shine light on issues of unfairness.

However, not all of us are willing to equate our historic struggle over decades albeit centuries to OWS. Black people who placed their lives and livelihoods in jeopardy for civil rights are the topics of my books.

Criminal cases of murdered Blacks, who “forgot their place,” remain unsolved. I am old enough to have been bused across town for integration's sake. The n-word is not foreign to me; it was spewed in my face and written on my locker in high school. This was not in the 1950s or 1960s.

After talking with protesters at Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park, I understood what was so different between OWS and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The gripe of OWS is with those who stole too much and left too little for others. Millions feel this way. But, that does not place OWS protesters in the shoes of Fannie Lou Hamer. 

At Zuccotti Park, I heard shouting about the homeless. I read signs about student loan debt. Anti-war buttons were sold. I bought t-shirts deriding invasion of privacy with caricatures of Uncle Sam. One tourist from France asked, “Why are you here?” A young man with a bull horn, tan skin, and curly brown hair, stood on a short stone wall, and shouted this nonsensical line, “The fact that the government does not want us here is reason enough to be here.”

My business in the Wall Street area that day was simple. I was to be a guest on a radio show on WBAI, a Pacifica radio station, later that afternoon, discussing discrimination in the New York City Fire Department. A federal judge had found the test and post-test process to be unfair to Black and Latino applicants resulting in people of color being only 2% of the entire FDNY force. I thought of those plaintiffs as I walked around Zuccotti Park closely examining the cacophony of complaints of mostly White people there.

I agree that the OWS protesters were abused by law enforcement. Then again, Black people will never know the lives and livelihoods lost during the George Wallace-era of race baiting. OWS displays a rage of one betrayed, cheated by the 1%. They were cheated out of good jobs promised upon receipt of college diplomas.

They were cheated out of nice homes and quality public schools for their children. Blacks had been cheated out of human rights for hundreds of years.

The Civil Rights Movement was about getting rights clearly guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. That fight took discipline, foresight, strategies, and cooperation, while we were embattled on all fronts. Young people and our elders sacrificed 381 days for the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Charles Hamilton Houston worked himself to death creating legal strategies to overturn the apartheid ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson.

Have we forgotten? 

Yes, the OWS issues are important. Police abused OWS protesters. Like the sheriffs of the Jim Crow era, police respond to power. OWS expected the police to honor their rights. In this hard-scrabble economy, being White in the 99% bears little weight to politicians relying on big donations.

Those Black and Latino firefighters expected a fair hiring procedure. The police abuse of OWS is nothing compared to the depraved attacks suffered by Black women as punishment for gains in Civil Rights.

OWS should not suffer trial by fire before they can claim to be a legitimate movement. But, claims of hostilities against OWS become questionable when Russell Simmons and other celebrities are dropping by for photo-ops.

Yet, earlier in their campaign, U.S. Representative John Lewis, the respected civil rights icon, was rejected from the podium of Occupy Atlanta. John Lewis had been severely beaten protesting for voting rights in Alabama. Lewis, a believer in nonviolence, was spat upon by White Tea Party members for supporting the President Obama’s Healthcare Legislation.

We all need to stand against injustice. The First Amendment provides a right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis protesting on behalf of sanitation workers. OWS, like the Hippie Movement of the 1960s, seek a better life. Young people worldwide want opportunities and feel stifled by this economic downturn. I believe once the economy improves OWS will get their jobs and move on. Until then, they will protest.

I wish them well. Meanwhile, our struggle continues. That’s why OWS is not just like the Civil Rights Movement.  
Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an Associate Professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is the Director/Founder of The Law and Policy Group, Inc., and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.” 

"Speaking Truth To Empower."

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