History unfolding: Are Occupy protests the new civil rights movement?

Jonathan Baer, Staff Writer

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Call it a flashback: When the Occupy movement hit San Francisco, it brought back memories of Vietnam, sit-ins, the sexual revolution, the rise of feminism – the glory times that self-proclaimed “old hippie” Rick Fletcher loved.

In a full-body, green jumpsuit, with a matching Army hat, the grey-bearded Fletcher plunged back into the activism that he loved about the 60s by camping out in the Occupy SF encampment.

“I never thought I would see this amount of idealism express itself again in my lifetime,” said Fletcher, 50, a retired investor who enjoys volunteering at the medical tent at the encampment. Fletcher also considers himself a musician, artist, and activist.

“During the summer of love,” continued Fletcher, “I was eight years old so I didn’t get to go to Woodstock… (but) I saw the images on (television). It is the same idealism. And it might be naïve, and it is on many levels. But the truth is, justice, equality, freedom — how in the hell do you argue with that?”

Fletcher is not alone in his view of the recent Occupy movement that has spread throughout the world, with protests from New York City to Israel to Zurich, Switzerland. Many U.S. civil rights leaders have spoken out, not only testifying in favor of the Occupy movement, but also comparing it to the African-American civil rights movement, which is arguably the most powerful instance of civil resistance in American history.

Urban student Stefan Martinez says, “revolutions happen when things get so bad that people have more to gain then to lose by fighting, and I don’t think we’ve reached that point, at least in America. So I would characterize the protests less as a revolution, and as an old teacher of mine described it ‘the start of a conversation.’

“The protests are the first step towards widespread acknowledgement that laissez-faire capitalism isn’t working,” said Martinez.

“The mass appeal of economic justice (and) economic security is a critical civil rights issue of our time,” said civil rights activist Jesse Jackson in an interview with Politico on Nov. 8. “Dr. (Martin Luther) King planned to occupy the Mall in Washington, and planned to engage in civil disobedience to get … Washington to get their priorities straight.”

However, not everyone agrees with this bold comparison. Alveda King, King’s niece and a known tea party supporter, said in an interview on Nov. 8 with Fox News that “my uncle, the whole (civil rights) movement, was founded in prayer, in crying out to God in a peaceful movement. And this (Occupy) movement is not peaceful.”

As violence has broken out at Occupy protests over the past few weeks, there has been considerable frustration with the movement because of the lack of organization, direction, and general purpose.

“You can only protest so long before you want to see results, and nothing tangible is really coming of the protests,” said Martinez. “I don’t think the protests have the staying power, because the people protesting have too much to lose by defying the police. It’s also getting really cold for camping.”

Another Urban senior, Roberto Quadra, says that the protests are “stupid and don’t involve everyone, even though they pretend to …

“Their concerns are strange and they’re surrounded by technology,” Quadra said. “That’s not the 99% … do I think Wall Street is an evil piece of shit? Yes. Do I understand what the (protester’s) goals are? No.”

For Sadhakah, a 43-year-old African American male who has been camping at the Occupy SF encampment for a few weeks, the Occupy SF lacks a lot of spirit that he imagines made the protests in the 60s so powerful. Sadhakah, who declined to give his last name, camps out in a pink tent, where he has stacks of books, piles of clothing, and a tower of protest signs.

“The people here right now are not (motivated for the movement),” said Sadhakah. “A lot of these people are homeless people.  If you open your arms to everybody and say ‘come here, we’ll feed you and keep the police off your back and give you a tent,’ then you end up with a shitload of homeless people.”

“Many of those people are homeless because they have no choice, but I think the overwhelming majority of these people are harmless because they want to be homeless,” Sadhakah said, adding that “you don’t have to be responsible for anything when you’re homeless.“

Even though Sadhakah is currently camping and protesting alongside some people who are not homeless by choice, he is an example of someone who is the opposite. After graduating from San Francisco State University, Sadhakah previously worked for “investment banks and oil companies for 10 years.”

Another difference between the Occupy movement and the civil rights movement is the demographic of people who have been recently protesting.

According to a recent survey by Fast Company, a print and online magazine aimed at innovation in technology and ethical economics, only 1.6 percent of Occupy Wall Street protesters are African American, even though African Americans make up 12.6 percent of the U.S. population. Additionally, the unemployment rate for white Americans is eight percent, whereas the unemployment rate for black Americans is 15 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Yet, for some protesters, Occupy is about fighting racism as well as big banks.

“This movement has started a focus on a group of people who are the wealthiest people on the planet — they have always been the problem,“ said Sadhakah, who is African American. “Problems from things like racism directly come from people who are trying to maintain control.

“I think it’s being laid bare now,” continued Sadhakah. “So I think in that sense a lot of the social injustices that are happening before and throughout the sixties are still alive and well and they are just being readdressed by the people of today. Really, this is attacking the same people. Many of them don’t even realize that it’s the same people that they are attacking.“

Even with some disorganization and divide within the movement, it is apparent that not all of the occupiers are just freeloading.

On Sunday, Dec. 4, at 4 p.m., as Sadhakah read a book in his tent and Fletcher hung around the medical tent, an amateur disc jockey sets up a table and speakers.  As music begins to play throughout the Occupy encampment, some Occupyers stay sitting around their tents and some get up to dance. Their unconventional dancing and delirious movements reaches its peak when a techno mix comes on, full of synthesizer and bass, with an electronic voice rhythmically echoing King’s famous words in 1963: “I have a dream.”

—Reporting assistance by Jessie King Fredel

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