Occupy Yourself With Justice

My wife and I recently took our two young children down to Cleveland Public Square. It was our intent to join the Occupy Cleveland crowd gathered there to protest Wall Street greed as part of the Occupy Wall Street movements sprouting up across the nation and expose them to one of history’s most important acts--civil disobedience.

They were both fascinated by the stories my wife and I told them of the many protests and acts of civil disobedience (some were very significant) that we have been part of in the past twenty-five years. We explained to them in great detail that the vast majority of gains made in the realm of social justice in this country would never have been achieved if people did not take to the streets in solidarity.

As fate would have it, I nearly bumped shoulders with former Lakewood Mayor and now Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald as I was demonstrating to my children how to hold your protest sign aloft so that it could be read and potentially caught on camera. It was quite the contrast to watch he who could very well be the most powerful man in Cuyahoga County walk through the midst of a group of approximately 75 protesters with not a soul knowing who he was other than myself. To Ed FitzGerald’s credit, he acted like it was nothing out of the ordinary and carried on with his stroll along Public Square--or as I later thought--maybe we all were just invisible to him.

The lords of finance in the looming towers surrounding Public Square, who, like their brethren on Wall Street, toy with money and lives; who make the political class, the press and the judiciary jump at their demands; who destroy the ecosystem for profit and drain the United States Treasury to gamble and speculate, took little notice of my family or any of the other activists on the street below them. The elites consider everyone outside their sphere marginal or invisible.

I have heard the corporate mouthpieces in the press, as they continue to puzzle over what those “Occupy People” want. What are their demands? Why can’t they articulate an agenda? The goal of these so-called “Occupy People” is very simple and very clear. It can be articulated in one word—revolution. These protesters have not come to camp out on sidewalks to work within the system. They are not pleading with Congress for electoral reform. They know national electoral politics is a farce and have found another way to be heard and exercise power. They have no faith, nor should they, in the political system or the two major political parties. They know the press will not amplify their voices, and so they created a voice of their own. They know the economy serves the top one percent, so they formed their own communal system. This movement is an effort to take our country back. It has to start somewhere…why not with civil disobedience?

This is a goal the power elite cannot understand. They cannot picture a day when they will not be in charge of our lives. The elites believe, and seek to make us believe, that globalization and unfettered capitalism is a permanent and eternal dynamic that can never be altered. What those at the top fail to realize is that the revolution will not stop until the corporate state is extinguished. It will not stop until there is an end to the corporate abuse of the poor, the working class, the elderly, the sick, children and those being slaughtered in our imperial wars. It will not stop until foreclosures and bank repossessions stop. It will not stop until students and families no longer have to go into massive debt to pursue an education, and families no longer have to go bankrupt to pay medical bills. It will not stop until the corporate destruction of the environment stops, and our relationships with each other and the planet are radically changed. And that is why the elites, and the rotted system of corporate power they sustain, are in trouble. That is why they keep asking what the demands are. They just don’t understand what is happening.

A couple more rants and raves later, I noticed a young woman standing next to us clutching a book tightly with both arms. I was most curious to know what this so obviously important book was that this person held so tightly to her body. And then, I caught a glimpse of the title and it was the most appropriate and relevant book that one could think of to bring to a protest--Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”

I have been thinking incessantly about Howard Zinn ever since. He was one of my personal heroes who died a year ago at the age of 87. With his death, we lost a man who did nothing less than rewrite the narrative of the United States. We lost a historian who also made history. On a more personal level, Howard Zinn altered the course of my history--changed my narrative. Forever altering how I view America and the world.

Of course I’m referring to the way Howard Zinn spoke about history; it was from the perspective of having written “A People’s History of the United States,” a book that changed the lives of countless people like that young woman at Occupy Cleveland.

Count me among them. Back in 1985, when I was 20 and picked up a copy of Zinn’s book, I thought history was about learning that the Magna Carta was signed in 1215. I couldn’t tell then what the Magna Carta was, but I knew it was signed in 1215. Howard Zinn took this history of great men in powdered wigs and turned it on its pompous head.

In Zinn’s book, the central actors were the runaway slaves, the labor radicals, the masses and the misfits. Howard Zinn wrote history as if written by Robin Hood, speaking to a desire so many share --to actually make history instead of being history’s victim. His book made me come alive.

Anyone who believes that the United States is now immune to radical politics never attended a lecture by Howard Zinn. I am fortunate to have twice seen and heard him speak. The rooms would be packed to the rafters, as entire families, black, white and brown, would arrive to hear their own history made humorous as well as heroic. I will always remember that famous Zinn quote: “What matters is not who’s sitting in the White House. What matters is who’s sitting in!”

Like the people he wrote about, Howard Zinn was entirely authentic. When he spoke against poverty it was from the perspective of someone whose family became homeless during the Great Depression. When he spoke against war, it was from the perspective of someone who flew as a bombardier during World War II, and was forever changed by the experience. When he spoke against racism it was from the perspective of someone who taught at Spelman College during the civil rights movement and was arrested sitting in with his students.

I always wondered why Howard Zinn was considered a radical. He was an unbelievably decent man who felt obliged to challenge injustice and unfairness wherever he found it. What is so radical about believing that workers should get a fair shake on the job, that corporations have too much power over our lives and much too much influence within government, that wars are so murderously destructive that alternatives to warfare should be found, that the interests of powerful political leaders and corporate elites are not the same as those of ordinary people who are struggling from week to week to make ends meet?

In addition to the shouts one can hear at Occupy Cleveland, I want to shout out a thank you to Howard Zinn for having the courage to peel back the rosy veneer of much of American history to reveal sordid realities that had remained hidden for too long until the printing of “A People’s History of the United States.”

Is this too radical? Hardly. I remember the propaganda that filled my old high school textbooks in American History--you will find our Founding Fathers portrayed as rugged frontiersman, soldier, democrat, man of the people--not the slaveholder, land speculator, executioner of dissident soldiers, exterminator of Indians. Thankfully, I was a receptive audience for his message, and Howard Zinn became my rock star.

It’s easy to feel helpless about the ruthless corporate politics of our day, but the legacy of Howard Zinn will always continue to hold up a mirror to the power that we already possess to make change: the potency of our words, the strength of our convictions, and the long history of activism and resistance that is our birthright.

That he was considered radical says way more about this society than it does about him. We should strive to build on Howard Zinn’s work and go out and make some history.

Chris Perry

My Family and I relocated to the City of Lakewood in 2008 to be near my Wife’s extended Family. We have two young children that attend Lincoln Elementary School.

I have over 25 years experience as a community organizer, political campaign manager, director of a non-profit, environmental and social/economic justice writer, lobbyist, demonstrator, non-profit board member and lifelong community activist and volunteer. I am passionate about economic and social justice, environmental causes and identifying and addressing the root cause of social, economic and ecological ailments that undermine our long-term prosperity and sustainability.

In my spare time I enjoy time with my wife and kids hiking, kayaking, gardening, traveling, enjoying all four seasons and exploring all that Lakewood and Northeast Ohio have to offer. I’m also an avid runner and have a passion/addiction for running marathons and 100-mile ultra-marathons.

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Volume 7, Issue 21, Posted 7:12 PM, 10.19.2011