Sunday, April 15, 2012

Why I attended OWS Spring Training

Call to Action:  99% Spring Training      

With the goal of training 100,000 people this Spring in community organizing and non-violent direct action, the 99% Spring coalition hopes to gather a critical mass of people power to “draw a line in the sand and say ‘No More!” to the corporations and wealthy power brokers who collectively have hijacked our democracy.

Given last year’s Supreme Court decision granting corporations and superpacs legal provisions to spend unlimited money to influence the political process, I personally agree that its time to demand a “separation of Corporation and State.”  (See my earlier posts on OWS   for why I have supported this original and primary goal of Occupy)

A broad-base coalition of national organizations (initiated by Occupy Wall Street and MoveOn.org) invited community activists to today’s training session in various cities across the country. Several friends and supporters of Communities of Shalom registered for trainings in Harlem, Morristown, Oakland, Los Angeles, and other cities where Communities of Shalom is active.

I was quite impressed with the quality of the Spring Training in both its content and video-based delivery system utilizing a local facilitator supplied by MoveOn.org    Link to Training Materials:  http://the99spring.com/materials/

In my local group in Morristown, NJ, twenty people from the area gathered in the living room of a private home for the 3-hour training.  We first watched a short video of interviews with ordinary people saying why they identified with the so-called 99%.  Then, each of us were invited to write down and then share our story of why we are part of the 99%. 

Storytelling:  “We are the 99%”

Those who identify with the so-called 1% of the world's population (characterized as extremely rich individuals and corporations who exercise an unfair and controlling influence on the American economy, political system, and democracy) certainly have their story to tell.   And those who identify with the so-called 1% also have a story to tell of personal struggles and frustrations with the current economic hardships and inequities in America.  We are tempted to blame the wealthy for the plight of the poor, yet a couple of us in the room expressed gratitude for many of the 1% (e.g. Warren Buffet, George Soros and many others) for their support of the 99% movement.  

We all told our story in brief, and I cannot tell other people's stories, but here's the story I told about myself and why I came today to participate in the 99% Spring Training:  

“My name is Michael, I teach at Drew Theological School where I direct the Shalom Resource & Training Center for the 8-million-member United Methodist Church’s Communities of Shalom Initiative  www.communiitesofshalom.org I’ve participated with OccupyFaithNYC since October 2011 in support of many of the goals of OWS.  Our coalition of faith-based organizations and churches facilitated the interfaith services on Sundays in Zuccotti Park, led the Occupy march across the Brooklyn Bridge, and tried to Occupy Christmas at Trinity Church Wall Street where several in our group were arrested for non-violent direct action.

I’m here today in to honor the legacy of the man who instigated the United Methodist Shalom Initiative--Rev. James Lawson, colleague of Martin Luther King, JR.  asked by King to train the Freedom Riders and others in civil right movement in Nonviolent Direct Action (long before he helped us start Communities of Shalom in April 1992 in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict in LA—exactly 20 years ago).

Personally, I don’t really feel part of the 99%.  Based on the economic indicators of poverty and wealth.  I have a good job, adequate salary, no student loans to repay, and we own our home with equity.   I’m probably part of the 95% rather than the 99% in terms of net worth and income.  But as a Christian, I’m in direct solidarity with the frustrations and struggles of the 99%, and with them believe that “a better world is possible.”  I believe in the separation of Corporations and State, and believe its time to stand up to the principalities and powers that have a stranglehold on our economy and democratic process.“

What I did not feel led to say is why I am disappointed with Occupy in terms of its strategy for social transformation. I think that OWS was distracted by taking on too many social issues (bank foreclosures, global warming, reproductive rights, support for LBGT justice issues, support for Unions, etc) and incorporating too many advocacy organizations within their ranks.  The original call to occupy Wall Street last summer was to focus world attention on the disproportionate influence of Wall Street, Big Corporations and the interests of the Wealthy on Lawmakers in Washington DC.   After the early success of OWS, there now are too many ideological groups and social causes diluting the movement that still is without identifiable leaders and realistic, clear-cut proposals for incremental change (as the Civil Rights Movement was wise enough to do).

Nonetheless, I appreciated the group of citizens I was with and the training we received today from our gifted facilitator, Hatem.

I was delighted that United Methodist pastor and civil rights leader James Lawson was featured in the OWS training video on the history of non-violent direct action in America, and proud of is connection to Communities of Shalom.  (Rev. Lawson is the Honorary Co-Chair of the 20th Anniversary Shalom Summit in Los Angeles in October 2012)

Among the Direct Actions that members of the group came up with during the training was to occupy the Post Office in wealthy Mendham, NJ (and other cities in the country) on Monday, April 17 (Tax Day)—in order to attract media attention and raise awareness about the low tax rate many of the 1% enjoy due to legal loopholes for tax avoidance and passive income provisions in the Tax Code; and how mega corporations are paying record low taxes while social safety nets continue to get cut out of the national budget by lawmakers who follow the priorities of their benefactors.

Tax Code Reform (starting with implementing the ‘Buffet Rule’) is just one of many proposals by the 99% Spring Training campaign, but its important not to lose sight of the larger picture represented by the movement:  that the “world as it is” is not the “world as it should be” and that “a new world is possible” in which social and economic inequities are made right, human rights restored, community health valued, and spiritual values supported.  I still believe in Dr. King’s dream of the Beloved Community of Shalom, and Isaiah’s vision of the Peaceable Kingdom (Isa 65).  As a product of the idealism of the 1960’s and Jesus Movement of the 1970’s, and after decades of urban ministry and community development work in the world, I still believe that radical change and social-spiritual transformation is possible; and have committed my life to teaching others about the Kingdom of God--here and now and an in the world to come.  

“You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.
I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”