Donna Smith, American SiCKO, is executive director of the Health Care for All Colorado Foundation
Those who launched the Occupy Wall Street movement that has now blossomed into the occupations around the nation have many to thank for their inspiration. Those brave souls who were and are a part of the Arab Spring, the hundreds of thousands who marched and rallied in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late winter and spring, and the nurses of National Nurses United who marched on Wall Street in June as well as the folks from Adbusters all could lay claim to their parts in the origin of OWS.
Filmmaker Michael Moore certainly has helped document some of OWS’ issues in his life’s work from “Roger & Me,” “The Big One,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine,” and “SiCKO,” all the way forward to “Capitalism: A Love Story.” He and a few others who have substantial personal resources from which to draw have shared their energy and their celebrity with the OWS movement, and that celebrity attention has been necessary to the spread of the movement even if seemingly and simultaneously antithetical.
OWS is about everyone – as equals – being critical in our society and our world rather than just the bankers and the wealthy or currently powerful as controllers of the fate of all humankind and the planet. No one life is more valuable than another yet having a celebrity engaged in order to draw out the media has helped grow this movement. Having a controversial figure like Moore engaged has sweetened the pot for the media hungry to portray OWS in a way that sells and builds an audience. And from my perspective as one who knows, Moore is in it for the right reasons.
It’s a pivotal time. And the origins of the OWS movement are not nearly as difficult to trace as predicting its longer term impact.
It was late this past Friday evening when in one instant I fully integrated in my own heart and mind what has been true for me and millions of others in the working class – and what we have been forced to accept as true. I happened upon an older gentleman who was an office cleaner as he finished his work for the day. He appeared to be in his late 60s, though being working class and working harder physical; jobs without access to decent healthcare and other human needs tends to age us a bit faster, so he might have been younger. He was a tiny fellow.
The man was rolling one of those huge dumpsters with cleaning tools hanging from the sides with a vacuum attached to the cart too. As I rounded the corner, I saw him stuff something in the trash, and he turned away from me. When I greeted him, he looked embarrassed and frightened. He also had a piece of wilted lettuce stuck to the side of his mouth. When he felt it, he quickly wiped it away and turned back to his cleaning. I said, “It’s OK,” as I tried to reassure him against whatever was so terrifying to him in that instant. “Are you hungry?
Then I realized it. He had been eating one of the sandwiches tossed in trash earlier that day. The sandwiches had been cleaned out of the refrigerator after sitting in there for at least the past 10 days following a catered office meeting. For 10 days, this man had cleaned around and not touched those sandwiches. For 10 days or 10 weeks or 10 months, that man had hungered beyond what his paycheck could afford him to eat. He hungered as a working person for the scraps from other working people in America. He hungered so much that he dug in the trash for one of those spoiling sandwiches and then was embarrassed someone saw – and quite possibly afraid he’d lose his job if anyone knew – that he was eating out of the trash. And in his face I also saw the shame we find so quickly to lay on our neighbors and members of our society and on ourselves when we don’t have enough money in this country to measure up. I quickly did what I knew I would want someone to do to relieve my embarrassment at being a financial failure and having allowed it to be seen by someone else. I left.
I felt sick. I knew he shouldn’t eat that food as it might truly be spoiled after all the time it had been saved. I felt sick. He was older than me and needed a meal, but I was afraid I’d embarrass him further so I hadn’t known how to offer it. I went back to my own work, and I left him to return to his. I didn’t know whether to hope he’d not reach back into the trash can for the rest of that sandwich or to hope he’d found one that wasn’t moldy that nourished him a bit.
So, the next day we marched in Washington, D.C., in solidarity with the Occupy DC folks in the cold, the wind, the rain and snow who were marching in solidarity with the OWS in seeking a “Robin Hood” tax – a way to a raise a little more revenue more fairly. I listened to the teach-in about a financial transaction tax – a meaningful one – like that being advocated for by the nurses here and globally as the G20 kicks off in France. We handed out lots of flyers about the FTT and an upcoming action. The FTT – a meaningful one not a half-dose – would bring in an estimated $350 billion a year to help fund reforms like those addressed in the nurses’Main Street Contract.
The nurses and their allies will rally and march this Thursday, November 3rd, in DC, in Los Angeles, in San Francisco and in France to push for the meaningful FTT. As shared in the news report following the OWS action on Friday, folks can join from far and wide. Wall Street’s crumbs are not enough, and for decades we’ve allowed the banking and huge corporate interests to force working class people to dig in dumpsters for their spoilage and feel shame for having done so.
The OWS movement certainly isn’t about one tax or one issue. But on the FTT there is the chance to stand in solidarity globally on one policy effort that could make a difference and as one of the young DC occupiers said in the FTT teach-in, “I certainly don’t have a problem with that.” Others nodded in agreement.
But as we marched together Saturday and were ourselves cold and wet, I wondered how many people really understand what that feels like – that shame of digging in that trash can or the shame and embarrassment in getting caught wiping wilted lettuce off your face. But I think I know the answer to that question. My husband often says, “But for the grace of god there go I.” Many would scoff at the mention of any god but it’s deeper than that as so many people believe themselves superior to the rest of us. The ability to feel empathy is to be valued, I think. Many in our nation don’t feel that at all any more, if they ever did. OWS is challenging and shifting that.
I want a more just society where working class people can openly help one another without fear, seek healthcare and other basic human needs, and celebrate one another’s successes. I want less fear, less stress and more justice. I do not want to feel ashamed in silence or see someone else hiding their shame. Who first inspired and started OWS and who keeps it going and growing are critical to me but so too is where we end up. Rise up.
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