I've been asked quite a few times, "So, what do you think of this Occupy Wall Street movement?" Surprisingly, I'm asked by people you would normally think would be in favor of such a protest. Yet, the fundamental disagreement is not with the protests themselves, but with the lack of a 'point' to the protest. The goals are not 'clear'. The strategies don't make sense. The expressed frustrations lend themselves to discernible or immediate resolution.
So what are they up to? What do they want?
I'll confess that there is a reflex in me that sometimes goes to those very sentiments.
And then, I think about the Civil Rights Movement.
Forty years plus, after the fact, when we know the outcome and when the heroes of the movement - the most prominent heroes - are elderly, we see the context of those protests much more clearly than they were seen then. Imagine the strategies: intentionally going to jail; provoking a response to dramatize unjust and inhumane treatment; defying court orders; risking ostracism, the possibility of getting expelled from school or fired from your job all in the name of 'freedom'.
Imagine risking violence and even death, ostensibly so that you, or a nameless 'someone else' can sit at a lunch counter, or use a restroom, or sleep in a hotel room. When custom, tradition and law has made this a societal norm for more than a century!
Then finally, you look at television and right in the middle of "Judgement at Nuremberg" your television viewing is interrupted and you see children and teen-agers being threatened by billy clubs, dogs and fire hoses as they protest.
What do these people want?!
Nearly 50 years after the fact we can answer that question, with any one of a dozen answers and they would all be readily understood. But probably not back then.
Watch this clip about the Birmingham protests of 1963. Maybe you'll see what I mean...
Recently, Newt Gingrich, candidate for the GOP nomination for President, gave a very glib comment and an effective applause line regarding Occupy protesters. It was essentially 'take a bath and get a job'. Aside from being an incredibly insensitive reaction to the protests and their well understood explicit aims (and they are better understood than most of us would like to admit), Gingrich - the historian - ignored the obvious: change most often comes when there are those who stand outside the system demanding change from the system.
Yes, they need to vote.
Yes it would help everyone if their slogans would readily, clearly and conveniently translated into policy. Yet, somehow 'We Shall Overcome' actually did become the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Laws and anti-lynching legislation.
Newt Gingrich - the historian - also knows that his criticism, ridicule and invective mirrors the criticism, ridicule and invective hurled against those who protested against racism and for civil rights (be sure and watch the end of the video clip). He also knows that it is the job of politicians to wake up and translate the aims of protesters into policy.
And every historian - Newt Gingrich included - knows that eventually this is how change happens.