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“OWS” and civil rights movement

GLORIA J. BROWNE-MARSHALL

“OWS” and civil rights movement

Why do we sell our history so cheaply? I have heard too many allude to Occupy Wall Street (OWS) as being “just like the civil rights movement.” Not all of us are willing to equate our historic struggle over centuries to the Occupy Wallstreeters.

Only recently has OWS begun to align itself with labor groups and use its massive clout to shine light on issues of unfairness for all. Black people lost their lives and livelihoods for civil rights. They remain the topic of my books because they still have not received the attention deserved. Cases of murdered blacks, who “forgot their place,” remain unsolved. I am old enough to have been bused across town for integration’s sake. The n-word is not foreign to me; it was spewed in my face and written on my locker in high school.

This was not in the 1950s or 1960s. After talking with protesters at Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park, I understood what is so different between OWS and the civil rights movement. OWS has a gripe with those who stole too much and left too little for others. Millions feel this way. But, that does not place OWS protesters in the shoes of Fannie Lou Hamer.  

At Zuccotti Park, I heard shouting about the homeless. I read signs about student loan debt. Anti-war buttons were sold. I bought T-shirts deriding invasion of privacy with caricatures of Uncle Sam. One tourist from France asked, “Why are you here?” A young man with a bull horn stood on a short stone wall and shouted this nonsensical line, “The fact that the government does not want us here is reason enough to be here.”

My business in the Wall Street area that day was simple. I was to be a guest on a radio show later that afternoon, discussing discrimination in the New York City Fire Department. A federal judge had found the test and post-test process to be unfair to black and Latino applicants resulting in people of color being only 2 percent of the entire FDNY force. I thought of those plaintiffs as I walked around Zuccotti Park closely examining the cacophony of complaints by the protesters there.

I agree that law enforcement abused the OWS protesters. Like the sheriffs of the Jim Crow era, the police responded to the demands of political power brokers. However, OWS suffered little compared to the depraved attacks against black women as punishment for gains in civil rights. America will never know the total lives lost or displaced during the civil rights protests. Or the fate of blacks driven from their homes during the Red Summer of 1919.  

OWS is enraged by a betrayal of their American Dream. They feel cheated by the 1 percent out of good jobs promised upon receipt of college diplomas. They expected nice homes and quality public schools for their children. The difference is the jobs, homes and schools denied to  blacks are based on racism alone, not the economy. The civil rights movement was about getting rights clearly guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution as ratified in 1789. Their fight took discipline, foresight, strategies and cooperation, in the midst of battles on all fronts.

OWS is tenacious. So were black children who were beaten and jailed for demanding civil rights under law. Young people and elders sacrificed 381 days to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Charles Hamilton Houston worked himself to death creating legal strategies to overturn the “separate but equal” decision in “Plessy v. Ferguson.” In the early OWS campaign, U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), a respected civil rights icon, was rejected from the podium of Occupy Atlanta. As many well recall, Lewis had been severely beaten protesting for voting rights on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Ala. in the 1960s.

Lewis, a believer in nonviolence, was spat upon by White Tea Party members for supporting the president’s health care legislation. The obstacles faced by OWS must be taken in light of Russell Simmons and other celebrities dropping by for photographs with protesters.

OWS protests raise important issues. We all need to stand against injustice. The First Amendment provides a right to petition the government for redress of grievances. Martin Luther King was killed in Memphis, protesting on behalf of sanitation workers.

OWS, like the hippie movement of the 1960s, seeks a better life. Young people in “Occupy” movements worldwide feel stifled by this economic downturn. I believe once the economy moves forward OWS will get their jobs and move on too. Until then, they will protest. I wish them well. Meanwhile, our struggle continues.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall, an associate professor of Constitutional Law at John Jay College in New York City, is the director/founder of The Law and Policy Group, Inc., and author of “Race, Law, and American Society: 1607 to Present.”