Elders & Occupiers Meet: 20th & 21st-Century Movements Connect

Photo of  Rabbi Waskow chanting a new "Dayenu" as Elders lead prayer among Occup

Last Sunday (Nov 20, 2011), a delegation from the Council of Elders (veteran leaders of the freedom and peace movements of the mid-20th century) led an interfaith service at Zuccotti Park in NYC, with hundreds of Occupy Wall Street activists taking part.
 
The 26-minute service included — about 5 minutes in — my leading a modern “Dayenu,” celebrating the victorious steps from Tunisia to the Tar Sands pipeline and to the very moment of our coming together.
 
Later in the afternoon, we Elders and about 600 Occupiers met at Judson Memorial Church for a conversation on the meaning and future of the movement.
 
WBAI radio interviewed those Elders who took part in this conversation and in a similar one in San Francisco.

These people were among the Elders who met with the Occupy movement on Nov. 20, 2011 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland:  Rev. James Lawson, Jr., Dr. Vincent G. Harding, Rev. Phillip Lawson, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Dr. Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Gwendolyn Zoharah Simmons, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Rev. John Fife, Rev. Mel White, Rev. Nelson Johnson, Joyce Hobson Johnson.

Video and audio of these moments can be accessed at URL’s listed at the end of this message. Also at the end are brief biographies of the Elders who took part in these conversations.
 
These encounters between the generations were remarkable both in content and in process.

First of all, during and after the celebratory service we could taste the Occupiers’  hunger for the Spirit. Many occupiers came up to us afterward with tears in their eyes out of the experience of multireligious prayer that was real, was connected to the profound issues in the lives of all of us and of America and of the planet.
 
Some of that intensity arose from the call and response––what the occupiers call “Mic Check” – that the Occupy encampments use because the police have forbidden public address equipment. Someone speaks, and all those who can hear repeat the phrase in a loud voice so that everyone can hear.
 
When this was done with the Dayenu, with a litany of commitment to specific change, and with a statement by the Elders committing us to solidarity with the Occupy movement, the effect of this call-and-response was profound.
 
The Occupiers were not simply repeating by rote some phrases from a dusty book (as many had been asked to do in the churches, synagogues, and mosques that many of them had quit). These litanies addressed their own deepest experiences and desires. They could – and did—affirm their support by “twinkling” gestures of their hands and fingers. As in many Black gospel churches, by shouting out the whole community joined in these covenants.
 
I realized that these folks were so thirsty for the Spirit and for community because they had been denied the time and space to seek the spirit and shape community. They had created both by turning “Zuccotti Park” into “Freedom Square,” where they could work out their own patterns of direct democracy and the Beloved Community.
 
They had dropped out of the spaces of their own homes or campuses or offices, had dropped out of the time for their “regular” jobs or desperate searches for jobs.
 
Not out of laziness or disorderliness. —Instead, they had created their own time and space, their own alternative order. And this “alternative America” is a deep threat to the Corporate Order of official America.
 
That is why in many cities the police – who when push comes harshly to shove defend not the Bill of Rights, not freedom of assembly, but the Corporate Order – have broken up these times and places of assembly.
 
And that is why the Occupiers have so persistently fought back – mostly but not always nonviolently – to defend their liberated, “occupied,” turf.
 
Both by implicit living example during the interfaith service in “Freedom Square” and in explicit conversations later in Judson Church, many of the Occupiers made clear how important this was to them. What should they do when sacred space was torn away from them by outright violence, from billy clubs to tear-gas grenades to pepper spray?
 
My own suggestion is for the movement to be fluid, creative, experimental, about what is sacred communal space – and to develop also a politics of time: free time.
 
For instance, the Occupy movement has already discovered that some churches (Judson, for example) have offered themselves as communal space. Some churches have been much more constricted (and I know of no synagogues or mosques that have yet offered their space in an openhearted way).

So whether congregational space becomes communal space depends on those of us who must choose whether to demand that our congregations ally themselves with Occupy in a spacious way.
 
And there are other possibilities. In many cities, there are neighborhoods pockmarked by homes whose families have been forced to leave by foreclosures. What about working with these exiled families and their neighborhoods to “occupy” these homes and the nearby schools and community centers, mixing the families and the Occupiers as the public Occupy parks have mixed the homeless and the movement?
 
What about “occupying” factories closed by fiat of Wall Street’s disinvestment and job-outsourcing, by working with the exiled disemployed workers to make these factories once again productive?
 
As for freeing time:  In our lives today, overwork is driven by fear of disemployment, by the need to work two or three jobs to pay for food and rent, and for some by the relentless need to “prove” one’s utter dedication to “getting ahead.” The result: Little time or no time for family and neighbors, for grass-roots political involvement, for the Spirit.

When the labor movement in the 1930s finally won the long long battle for a five-day week with an eight-hour day, technologies of work had made that amount of time enough to produce what people needed and wanted.
 
But new technologies since then have greatly increased “productivity.” The result is that workers are deliberately disemployed, wages and salaries drop, corporate owners sell products at the same prices, and the surplus goes not to workers’ income but only to corporate profits.
 
Imagine requiring a four-day week, a seven-hour day. This could begin with direct action by workers and customers, as the fight for the forty-hour week began in the 1880s with strikes and community support  — consumer boycotts of businesses with exploitive hours. Then states and the Federal government could legislate the 28-hour week while forbidding pay cuts and limiting overtime..
 
Profits would drop. A sensible tax policy could cushion this drop for small businesses – say those hiring fewer than 500 workers – while encouraging lower profits for global corporations. Employment would rise. And so would free time.
 
In these ways, the lived practice of the Occupy movements – liberated space and time – could be expanded to include the 99%.  The top-down pyramidal power of Wall Street and our modern corporate pharaohs could be greatly reduced. Democracy and the Spirit-rooted Beloved Community could be renewed.

You can watch the 26-minute service at Zaccutti Park by clicking here.
 
An interview on WBAI radio of those Elders who took part in this conversation and in a similar one in San Francisco can be accessed by clicking here and then  scrolling down to Nov 24 3 pm

These people were among the Elders who met with the Occupy movement on Nov. 20, 2011 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland:

REV. JAMES LAWSON, JR. served 14 months in prison as a conscientious objector to the Korean War draft in 1951. After studying Gandhi’s principles of civil disobedience in India, he went on to train the Freedom Riders and other future leaders of the Civil Rights Movement as director of the Congress for Racial Equality.
 
DR. VINCENT G. HARDING++. Native New Yorker, theologian, civil rights activist, and author of nine books including Hope and History: Why We Must Share the Story of the Movement. He was an educator and activist in the Southern Freedom Movement and continues to advise churches, schools, prisons and community groups.
 
REV. PHILLIP LAWSON** is a long-time civil rights leader, Cofounder of California Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights and Black Alliance for Just Immigration, and Director of East Bay Housing Organization.
 
DR. BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON. Singer, author, educator, and Civil Rights Activist in the Freedom Singers organized by the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee, Reagon has recorded several albums including Lest We Forget, Vol. 3: Sing for Freedom and written on African American culture and history including We Who Believe In Freedom.
 
DR. GRACE LEE BOGGS. At 95, Boggs’ life as feminist, activist, and author, collaborating with scholars such as C.L.R. James in the ‘50s, is world renowned. She has been an integral part of the Detroit Social Justice Movement since the ‘60s, founding Detroit Summer in 1992, a program aimed at connecting youth education with community struggle.
 
DR. GWENDOLYN ZOHARAH SIMMONS++. Activist in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee in the ‘60s, Simmons is also a student of Islam and Sufism and was staff for 23 years with American Friends Service Committee. She currently teaches subjects such as Race, Religion, and Rebellion.
 
RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW** founder and director of The Shalom Center, leader in the movement to end the Vietnam War, author of books on nuclear deterrence and disarmament and on the sit-in movement; author,  the original Freedom Seder, Since 1969 a leader of the movement for Jewish political and spiritual renewal;  ardent peace activist in the Israel-Palestine conflict, pioneer in developing Muslim-Jewish interfaith action.
 
REV. JOHN FIFE.++ co-founded the Sanctuary Movement, which organized over 500 churches to illegally support refugees fleeing U.S.-supported death squads in the ‘80s, and No More Deaths, a coalition to end border deaths.
 
REV. MEL WHITE.** After starting his career ghostwriting for homophobic evangelicals such as Jerry Falwell, White struggled to accept his homosexuality and broke with the Christian Right. He has since become an outspoken LGBTQ advocate and author for and minister to the LGBTQ community.
 
REV. NELSON JOHNSON** is founder of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC and a longtime advocate for poor people. He led the 1979 anti-Klan march in which neo-Nazis and Klan members, with police collusion, murdered 5 protesters on November 3, 1979, and has been a leader in the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation process, designed to seek truth and reconciliation around those events.
 
JOYCE HOBSON JOHNSON.** Active in civil rights struggles since the ‘60s, Johnson is Director of the Jubilee Institute of the Beloved Community Center in Greensboro, NC, which provides institutional support, social and political analysis, and training for the broad-based progressive movement. She was also an important figure in the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation efforts.

 
 
 

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