I’m not sure that there’s a way that I can really sufficiently pay tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. But in lieu of an assessment of his life, let me try to talk a bit about his legacy.
I’m not going to step into speculation about what Dr. King would think about the Occupy movement, but given that this past week Washington DC mayor Vincent C. Gray requested that the National Park Service evict Occupy DC protesters from McPherson Square, it may be a good time to take a look at what Dr. King’s actions may have to say to occupiers (and Occupy critics) about the importance of an ongoing physical occupation to the movement as a whole.
After a round of police evictions and the onset of cold weather in Oakland, New York, and elsewhere, Occupy DC is the last major segment of the Occupy movement that is actually occupying a public space. A number of people both supportive and critical of the Occupy movement has suggested that in order to stay relevant, Occupiers need to “come up with a coherent set of goals and policy proposals behind which people — who mostly can’t or don’t want to sit outside for weeks or months at a time — [can] organize.” (See, for example, Ari Kohen, the source of that quote.)
I think Kohen and others are correct that encouraging involvement in the electoral process should be one of the goals of the Occupy movement, but at the same time I think that demanding that the movement refocus on specific policy goals misses two major components of what the Occupy movement is actually doing and what their impact can and should be.
First, the Occupy movement is in part about the failure of our government to be sufficiently representative. At its core, this criticism isn’t about how many Democrats or Republicans are elected, or about whether they play nicely together, it’s about the way that the process itself has alienated representatives from their constituents and vice-versa. There’s been a great deal of attention paid in the media — and rightly so — to the role that campaign financing has played in that alienation, but it’s just as important to talk about the way that local elections are driven by national issues and how national lobbying groups and political organizations hold the attention of people who should be local representatives.
That is to say that a central problem is the fact that members of Congress treat themselves as members of a political party first — or even simply as representatives of the segment of their district who voted for them and not someone else — rather than as representing and responsive to their state or district as a whole.
Another way of saying this is that the political process goes way beyond the voting booth, and that the physical presence of the occupiers — the ongoing and somewhat domestic nature of their activity — speaks to the fact that the body politic (or bodies politic) deserve representation not as a reward for voting or supporting a particular politician’s campaign, but because they’re there.
In this way — without equating their level of their oppression or neglect, or the righteousness of their cause — the Occupiers are the children of the Greensboro sit-in protests and the people of all races who marched with Dr. King for civil rights.
The second major point is that while a great deal of the current political conversation in the country is focused on questions of liberty, the Occupy movement is focused on questions of justice. Liberty is a consideration of the individual — what am I free to do, how can I live my life with the least coercive interference — and thus the conversation can be constructed around a fundamental absence. In many ways, I am most free when I am left alone, particularly by the government.
Justice, on the other hand, has to be a consideration of relationships — between individuals, individuals and organizations, organizations and each other, and what role the government has to play in all of this. That is to say, justice has to do with how various entities can occupy the same spaces at the same time. This is why King didn’t just lobby, he marched. This is why he didn’t just encourage people to vote, he brought them together on the National Mall. This is why on February 1, 1960, four young men sat at a “whites only” lunch counter, ordered coffee, and refused to leave until the store closed.
A large part of the message of the Occupy movement is that justice isn’t about being left alone — especially when “left alone” really means “ignored” — and I’d like to argue that a big part of the reason that people are being ignored is that those who doesn’t fall clearly into one of the two sides of the national “policy” debate find themselves effectively invisible to their elected representatives. The solution to this problem isn’t to find a slogan to shout, it’s to not shout slogans. The solution to this problem isn’t to convince people to align themselves with the people who already have our representatives’ attention. The solution is to stand up and demand to be seen.