Protesting and Pro-testifying: How the 99-Percent Movement Can Change Things

"Like" the Patheos Progressive Christian Page on Facebook to receive today's best commentary on Progressive Christian issues.

"We are the 99 percent." That's a statement with both substance and intrigue, and I think it signals that something important is happening in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown.

The substance: both the market-driven disease and its government-driven cures have further enriched and advantaged the most powerful economic elites (the 1 percent) at the expense of the rest of us. After the crisis and bailouts, the 1 percent has a larger share of the wealth and power than before, and the 99 percent have more unemployment, more debt, and more frustration.

The intrigue: what are the 99 percent going to do, beyond occupying public spaces, making signs, marching, and sometimes getting arrested? As media attention comes their way, and with it, increasing support (and with that, opposition), where will they direct their growing fund of attention and support?

The answers to those questions will unfold in the weeks to come, but just in case anybody's listening, here are a few unsolicited suggestions.

1) Name what's wrong. I think the movement is right to diagnose the problem as the concentration of wealth and opportunity among powerful elites (including banking, corporate, media, military-industrial, educational, and political elites). There are deeper diagnoses too—the waning of the era of dirty energy and the extractive economy, for example, and the need for societal narratives that lead to vision and collaboration rather than reaction and polarization. But sometimes it takes a focus on the presenting problem to get us ready for those deeper diagnoses, and I think the 1/99 message is pretty darn good.

2) Protest what's wrong. Protesting isn't everything, but it is something, and it matters. Protest mobilizes frustration and anger. It seeks to tap reservoirs of potentially destructive emotional energies so they can be directed toward constructive ends. Of course, doing so is risky, but letting those pressures build and then explode without purpose or direction is even more risky, as is letting them simmer and sour into national malaise and despair.

3) Name the goals. Just as naming the problem matters, so naming the solutions matters. And that will probably make all the difference for the movement. In the Arab Spring, the goal was clearly named: the people wanted democracy, not dictatorship. What goal will be named in this American movement? Accountability for the 1 percent? Shared sacrifice and responsibility? A more democratic, less corpocratic capitalism? Maybe the primary goal is more like the Arab Spring's goal than we've realized: the people want a renewed democracy, not creeping corpocracy.

4) Pro-testify for solutions. Protesting is being against something worth being against. But that's not enough. We must also pro-testify for something worth being for. That's why urban occupiers and their sympathizers will need to pro-testify for a concrete list of proposals. What might they be? Here, street-level activists and organizers will need some serious face-time with academics, analysts, and other smart people with an uncommonly elevated perspective. Here's what I imagine:

  1. Adjust relevant laws so they favor maximizing employment for the 99 percent over maximizing profits for the 1 percent, so that they favor green/renewable energy over dirty/extractive energy, and so that they encourage accessible education and entrepreneurship.
  2. Roll back the laws that made it possible for banks and other agencies of the 1 percent to become too big to fail and too dominating to hold accountable.
  3. Enact campaign finance reform that re-democratizes and de-plutocratizes our democratic systems.
  4. Re-empower unions and other organs of civil society, and/or encourage more employee ownership of companies.
  5. Name and boycott corporations that oppose the movement's goals, and name and buy-cott corporations that support them.

5) Create a squadron of actionable constituencies flying in formation. Coalition building isn't easy, but it's essential, and I think it's highly possible at this moment.

6) Be ruthlessly nonviolent—in deed and word (and poster). Any popular movement will attract some people whose anger outstrips their judgment and whose rhetoric veers out of bounds. Movement leaders and participants will need to learn to say, "That is not acceptable here."

7) Keep the movement spiritual and beautiful. The two are related, and so artists (who inspire beauty) and spiritual leaders (who inspire spirituality) will need to come forward and be welcomed into the movement. Most movements know they need songs and singers (and yes, some drummers too). Sometimes they don't know when they also need pastors, priests, rabbis, imams . . . not to control, not to dominate, but to serve, inspire, guide, and contribute. The Civil Rights movement got this right, and I hope the 99 Percent Movement will too.

If the movement is only about money or taxes or laws or lobbyists, it will have some value. But if the movement is consciously aware that it is also about our national soul and individual character, so much the better. As Wendell Berry has wisely said, "Protest that endures . . . is moved by a hope far more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one's own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence."

10/12/2011 4:00:00 AM
  • Progressive Christian
  • Naked Theology
  • Economy
  • Media
  • Occupy Wall Street
  • Protests
  • Reform
  • Christianity
  • Brian McLaren
    About Brian McLaren
    Brian D. McLaren is an author, speaker, activist, and networker among innovative Christian leaders. His dozen-plus books include A New Kind of Christianity, A Generous Orthodoxy, Naked Spirituality, and Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? He and his wife, Grace, live in Florida and have four adult children and four grandchildren. He's an avid wildlife and outdoors enthusiast. His newest book, We Make the Road by Walking, is available now and offers 52+ fresh readings of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation.