Who Will Occupy History?

Who Will Occupy History?

The mist that night cast a gauzy film over the National Mall. It was the week before Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and as I cleared the trees lining the north side of the Reflecting Pool, I took in one of the most iconic scenes in the United States. I stood and let my eyes trace the path from the Lincoln Memorial, along the Reflecting Pool, to the base of the Washington Monument.

As I climbed the steps to visit our sixteenth president cast in marble—and listening to a pair of young women babble about how part of Forrest Gump had been filmed there on the Mall—the cold drizzle coated my hair and shoulders. The atmosphere seemed to hold the scene suspended. I stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back, the pool and the Washington Monument stretching before me.

This is where he stood, I thought. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from this very spot fifty years ago.

As a former forensicator, a coach, an educator, a young American traveling for business, a woman, a daughter, a partner, a human with ears . . . I couldn’t help but be moved, feeling a rush of something come over me standing there at that spot. Power, maybe? Significance?

Or resonance, a word we use often in literature and writing classrooms. Because of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, because of the other iconic leaders memorialized in these spaces, I felt energy, a ringing amplification of meaning across time.

I thought of how, for all its shortcomings, the American elementary school classroom had at least successfully conveyed this much to students: King led the civil rights movement.

King was undeniably one of the most influential people of his time, rising in various organizations to the point of national and international prominence. He was a pastor, the patriarch to a family with four children, an executive committee member of the NAACP by the mid-1950s, and the first president of the SCLC by the late 50s. He led protests and marches, speaking to groups of all shapes and sizes across his highly political career.

He was TIME’s Man of the Year in 1963.

When I think about revolutionary leaders of today, it’s hard to imagine who will remain iconic of their particular movements across generations. When we consider the uprisings across the Middle East and Africa, will we remember the individuals who sparked action? Those who self-sacrificed, such as the young Mohamed Bouazizi of Tunisia? The victims turned martyrs such as Iran’s Neda Agha-Soltan? Or perhaps the national leaders who surfaced when others were removed?

And here in the United States, what leaders will stand out?

Surely history will remember movements such as Occupy Wall Street, beginning in late 2011 and touching communities throughout the country, including my own Lincoln, Nebraska. Occupy has been characterized by its nontraditional approach of “direct democracy,” a structure in which individuals rather than representatives voice the needs of the people. It’s hard to tell, however, whether this approach has served the group to its potential.

CNN’s Marty Linsky wrote in October 2011, “It is relatively easy to get disempowered, angry, frustrated people together to rail against a wide range of enemies and scapegoats.” His article—titled “Occupy Wall Street is going nowhere without leadership”—continued, “It is quite another to effect change.” He suggested that without any positions of authority, no consensus could be formed about the group’s goals. The issues of concern ranged from education to corporate greed to unemployment to the housing bubble.

But without anyone to prioritize these issues, the movement remained—appropriately—what it sought to be: an outlet for the individual voice.

In his second inaugural address, President Obama said, “You and I as citizens have the obligation to shape the debates of our time, not only with the votes we cast, but with the voices we lift in defense of our most ancient values and enduring ideals.”

In light of the impact of modern movements like Occupy, though, I have to ask: aren’t there strategies for making more effective use of our voices?

I realize that under certain circumstances, the individual identity does not provide the most powerful impact. Take Anonymous—a group that supported the Occupy movement, actually—whose members are often described as digital vigilantes. The movement, operating through a decentralized Internet community, has focused on a number of targets, from government entities to pedophile chat sites. Yet because this group has rallied around specific action—namely, hacking relevant websites to interrupt activity of the targets—its impact has been immediately evident.

Sure, Anonymous members operate remotely. Sure, their symbol is not original: as others have, they’ve adopted the Guy Fawkes mask to blur individual identity while providing a single, nuanced image. Such a symbol, however, can serve a powerful function. A mask cannot embody a movement the way a dynamic, human representative could, but it can provide a rallying point.

In the Occupy movement, the individual who had suffered was able to adopt a unifying symbol—a placard stating “We are the 99%”—and personalize the message: “IN 3 HOURS MY CEO MAKES MORE THAN I DO IN A YEAR!” or “I’m a student with $25,000+ in school loans… I’m the 99%.

"Occupy Wall Street October 1st" - Photo by Adrian Kinloch

And yet, as a reader, listener, and fellow citizen, it’s been hard for me to wrap my head around the specific plights of so many without a unified, action-oriented movement that responds directly to their situations.

When I think of my dark and rainy visit to the Lincoln Memorial, standing on the steps where King delivered one of the most famous speeches in our nation’s history, I can’t help but consider the legacy he left not only by the direct impact on the civil rights movement, but by the impact on how we understand power in protest.

King said that day that with hope for a unified future, we “will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.

Without this resonance, it’s hard to tell who among us will endure long enough to occupy our history books.

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