Occupy ATL: What would MLK say? - Peachtree Panorama - Blogs - Atlanta Magazine

Occupy ATL: What would MLK say?

Posted By: Rebecca Burns · 10/15/2011 6:35:00 PM

This morning, we set out for a walk from Cabbagetown to the Sweet Auburn Curb Market, and decided to detour around Woodruff Park, hoping to catch a sample of speeches, or at least protest chants, from the members of Occupy Atlanta, who’ve been hunkered down there since last week.

 “Are you sure we’re headed the right way?” my husband asked as we crossed Courtland. “You think we’d hear drumming or singing or something.”

When we reached the park, the only music was the Easy Listening jazz piped through speakers near the gazebo at the park’s south end, where I recognized some of the habitual chess players. Although there were small tents set up across the grass — many of them pricey models with logos from companies like REI and The Northface — the park was quieter than it is on a typical weekday. (I walked past Woodruff Park on my way from work to the Five Points MARTA station almost daily for the past three years.)

“I guess everyone’s sleeping in. Or they’ve all gone to Starbucks,” said my husband.

It was about nine on a lovely fall morning. A few Occupants sat on folding chairs outside their tents (I spotted at least one with a UGA logo) and talked quietly. Two cops stood with crossed arms near the Park Place entrance; they were watching the three young men in knitted skull caps and pale woman wearing all black and a good deal of eyeliner standing in front of a tent with a sign that said “MEDIA” in front of it.

At the north end of the park, where the reading room is, a few men sat at tables enjoying the sunshine and their books. As we looped around the Peachtree Street side of the park, we passed a group in the Occupy tent camp standing around a big wooden shipping pallet that they were getting ready to turn into a protest sign. Tacked on a tree above them was the draft of the sign’s message: “We R the 99 Percent.” Media reports about the Occupy movement have made much about members agreeing to everything via consensus. I wondered how much debate went into agreeing to use “R” versus “are” on the signage and whether anyone suggested a backwards R a la Toys R Us or if that was too corporate.

According to the group’s website, a march from the park to the State Capitol was planned for later in the morning, and indeed, according to AJC reports, it took place around midday.

Tomorrow, the OA schedule calls for a day commemorating Martin Luther King Jr., pegged to the dedication of the King memorial in Washington D.C. This will include another march – to the King tomb on Auburn Avenue.

I wonder what King would make of the protests in his hometown and cities across the country, sparked by the Occupy Wall Street encampment that’s been going on for over a month. Many of the Occupy protestors equate their movement with the civil disobedience of the 1950s and 1960s. On its website, Occupy Atlanta stated:

Our Occupation is an act of civil disobedience. It is very much in line with the history of principled protest which includes Mahatma Ghandi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and is such a rich part of Atlanta’s history.

 Uh, sorry dudes. You’re mistaken.

Crusaders like King and John Lewis (whom the Atlanta group bone-headedly rebuffed when he stopped by to wish them well) engaged in carefully organized protests to address very specific civil and human rights abuses. King was the greatest orator of the twentieth century, but the power of his speeches and writings came from their carefully reasoned logic and arguments against systemic mistreatment of millions of people.

The protests of the 1950s and 1960s made very specific demands: let everyone sit anywhere they want on the bus; give everyone equal access to the ballot; don’t force everyone to fight in a war they didn’t support; give everyone equal pay for equal work; let everyone who wants to walk into Rich’s department store in downtown Atlanta and eat in the Magnolia Room restaurant, use the restrooms, and try on clothes in the same fitting rooms.

Occupy Atlanta, like its sibling groups around the country, is not organized around anything more specific than general frustration with corporate America and its influence on politics. I’m actually on the Occupants’ side when it comes to that irritation. I’d love to see wealthy Americans pay fairer share of taxes. But if you’re going to take to the streets, the parks, or the statehouse, your energy is wasted without a specific demand in place.

Far more effective than camping in city parks would be lobbying Congress to pass a higher tax rate for wealthy Americans. Or demanding that the minimum wage go up from $7.25 to $10 or $15. Or asking Georgia politicians to repeal the immigration law that, civil rights concerns aside, already has cost millions of dollars and thousands of jobs, and will have a long-term impact on corporate relocation decisions. (You might hate corporations, but practically speaking, they do hire and pay people, and having fewer of them in Georgia will mean fewer jobs.)

Walking through the park this morning, it struck me that if the Occupy group want to compare themselves to a protest of the 1960s, it would be the disorganized, agenda-free Poor People’s Campaign that took place in the summer of 1968 following King’s assassination. Thousands set up a tent city in D.C. without a plan and without definite demands. It was a protest quagmire. And a literal one, too, when rains turned the encampment into a muddy swamp.

Image Credit:
Photo by James Burns

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  1. J posted on 10/16/2011 03:55 PM
    You don't seem to get it. Lobbying congress for higher taxes is a defeatist tactic. To insist upon such demands is to assert that the people have no power to change the world themselves and that change granted from "above" is the only hope.
  2. Sarah Sae posted on 10/17/2011 12:23 PM
    This is just bad reporting. You sound like an immature high school girl with your cynical observations. Maybe as a "journalist" you should do your research first.
  3. purenergy healing posted on 10/17/2011 12:28 PM
    They, why, my dear... does John Lewis publicly support this movement? Do some research and educate yourself. Your ignorance is showing.
  4. Tay posted on 10/17/2011 12:29 PM
    According to his daughter, he'd be out here occupying with us.
  5. Betty Hinton posted on 10/17/2011 12:41 PM

    The point is that in a representative government, like we live in, we do have to make change through our elected representatives. What do you want? Anarchy? Direct government? It isn't going to happen.

    Also, the point that Rebecca makes about coming up with specific demands I'd a valid one. It's an acknowledged problem with this movement. Read a few newspapers and learn something.
    1. Polly Chrome posted on 10/17/2011 02:34 PM
      @Betty Hinton Ms. Hinton,
      You, too, seem to have missed the point. The People of the Occupy movements do not believe that we do have a representative government. The statistics that show that over 80% of elected officials had more money in their coffers than their opponents suggest that this is absolutely true.
      Our politicians do not represent 99% of the people. They represent the 1% that donates to their campaigns and finance them throughout the year.
      These finances are backed by near- or actual monopoly conglomerates.
      The elections that are held are tallied on machines that are actually owned, made and coded by these same conglomerates.

      That there has been no cry of "one demand" is a result of decades of dissemination by the same conglomerates.

      Our first demand? Get your boots off our necks. Once we can breathe again we will try to be more cohesive.
  6. Florencia posted on 10/17/2011 12:42 PM
    Ms. Burns, I am truly sorry that you got such an impression from your visit to the park, especially since as a journalist you have the potential to spread a positive message to lots of people. The movement is actually quite organized, with an office space nearby being utilized for internet access, committee meetings, donations, etc. I suggest that next time you walk by the park, talk to people instead of passing judgment based on their appearance. Personally, I was impressed by the democratic processes taking place there, and the entirely peaceful nature of the protest. Whether we have clear "demands" or not, whether you agree or disagree with the focus of the movement, it is a demonstration of the power of people to govern themselves. The so-called "democracy" of our government is a sham, put on to make us think that our vote matters so that we won't...take the streets, occupy the parks, express ourselves as empowered individuals? Well we are. And we're not going away.
  7. R posted on 10/17/2011 12:43 PM
    Wow, what a verbose pile of "they're not doing what I think they should in the way that I would if it were me so it has no value." Self-aggrandize much?

    About the only bit of promise in this piece is the comparison at the end to the Poor People's Campaign. Yes, it ended in failure - in no small part BECAUSE DR. KING WAS ASSASSINATED.

    The author describes the campaign as one that "took place," separate from Dr. King. In fact, it was a project of Dr. King's, being mapped out and planned, by him and his peers, at the time he was killed. It was as much a part of his work as the Birmingham Campaign. One can easily argue that it flamed out because Dr. King was killed, and some would even argue that it is part of *why* Dr. King was killed.

    The Occupy Everything activities going on, and their associated discussions, are *precisely* in line with the Poor People's Campaign, and consequently, precisely in line with Dr. King's observations and objectives at the time he was killed.

    If the author did any actual reading of his work at the close of his life, she would know that. Issues of income inequality and the like were a Martin Luther King Jr. Pet Project when he was felled.

    To the author of this blog post: Sorry, try again.
  8. AC posted on 10/17/2011 12:44 PM
    We were there Saturday as well, taking our children to see this historic movement and dropping off some supplies, but our impressions were much different than yours. And much of your disappointment in what you did or didn't see (the music was piped in, the tents were too nice, it was too quiet) seems awfully petty. It sounds like you were going down for some sightseeing -- expecting live music, rousing speeches, maybe even a little voilence, and you were disappointed because what you saw was so terribly PEACEFUL.

    As for the demands of this group seeming unclear to you, I agree. It's difficult to sum up what's wrong with our culture and our economy (high concentration of wealth is close, but a little too broad) in a few catchy bullet points, let alone put together a short list of "here are the 3 things that need to happen to solve this." No one knows how exactly to solve it. It's a complicated mess. But a movement is underway to address the problems, and I will do what I can to support it.
  9. Donald Ray posted on 10/17/2011 12:49 PM
    Evidently Dr. King's daughter the Rev. Bernice King doesn't agree with you about what Dr. king would think.http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2011/10/17/345391/mlks-daughter-my-father-would-have-supported-99-percent-movement/
  10. k posted on 10/17/2011 12:54 PM
    I was a news reporter in this town for several years and you are an embarrassment to the trade. What a load of condescending, sneering claptrap. The smallness of the group in Atlanta must be measured against the size of the movement worldwide. Besides that, how can you predict the future of any movement from the limited perspective of the present? Did Rosa Parks know what would become of her gesture 40 years on? There's something happening here; what it is, isn't exactly clear ...
  11. Kendall posted on 10/17/2011 12:54 PM
    This is the sorriest excuse for reporting I have read in a long time, and that's saying something as I just moved back from Chicago.
    People have been complaining for years that my generation isn't good for anything, and that we're too apathetic. Now we have a grassroots movement going for over a month, and everyone wants to ridicule people who are trying to have their voices heard. Lobbying to Congress is all well and good, but if we've learned anything from the Civil Rights Movement and The Gay Rights Movement, it doesn't do a whole hell of a lot. Why do you think people are out protesting in the first place? Because our government doesn't care about us, and they certainly aren't listening to us. How do you make them pay attention? The same way the Civil Rights Movement did. By embarrassing them in front of the rest of the world. By letting everyone know that the land of the free ain't free unless you're a rich white man.
    And as a triple minority (black, gay, woman) I have to say that I take offense at anyone who would mock the right to protest, because without it, I would be in a much worse place than being a broke college graduate struggling to find employment.
    Even if it seems trite, until you are willing to stick your neck out, get arrested, or support the movement until you are able to join, maybe you should reserve judgement.
  12. Darin posted on 10/17/2011 12:55 PM
    It's unfair to compare a new movement only a few months old (or in the case of the Atlanta branch, a few weeks) to the totality of the work of Dr. King and the entire civil rights movement.

    I sympathize with you in that, since the Occupy Atlanta movement represents my own views regarding corporate involvement in politics, I would see the movement have a greater level of focus for the sake of effectiveness and longevity. But I think we realistically need to give it time.

    If you expect the Occupy movement to have a vision as clear as Dr. King's right out of the gate, I think you expect too much.
  13. Byron Mathison Kerr posted on 10/17/2011 01:23 PM
    "What would MLK say?" Well... He SAID quite a bit, and it is well documented. Of course Dr. King would embrace the Occupy movement. And by the way, in his time, most of his efforts were about as unappreciated by his contemporaries as the sentiments you expressed in your article about OA.
  14. Amber posted on 10/17/2011 01:35 PM
    I think Ms. Burns is missing the entire point of her own article. What if Dr. King *were* still here? What if we had an enigmatic leader to rally around; a great orator who could take our general grievances and arrange them into a single rallying cry that would be heard around the nation and around the world?

    This, as disorganized as it may be, is a sign of the times. My generation is making a statement, as we come to terms with adulthood and how we want OUR country to run. We have had to sit by as greedy CEO's and corrupt politicians slowly beat us into submission with a terrible cycle of poverty that is so difficult to break.

    You want a succinct message?

    We want our politicians to keep corporate "donations" out of their pockets.
    We want anyone who makes over $250,000 a year to pay a fair share in taxes and be held accountable for their actions.
    We want education to be a PRIORITY, in Georgia and around the country.
    We want any immigrant, legal or not, to be given every opportunity to contribute to our society and become a citizen of these United States.

    We the People want our voices heard. Although there may not be chanting or drumming at 9 o'clock in the morning (considering these people have been living in the cold and rain for over a week), the cry for change can be heard in every corner of this country. Maybe you're just not listening.
  15. Polly Chrome posted on 10/17/2011 02:09 PM
    What you are missing, Ms. Burns, is that this movement is made of those who have been left in the cold for two decades. Who have had an educational system that has failed them. Who have had a financial system that has robbed them. Who have had a media that has outright lied to them at every turn. Who have had a political system that has confused and disenfranchised them to the point of crippling cynicism with the ability of America to ever change.
    Forgive them if it takes more than one week to get their feet underneath them steady and strong. They're only now learning to walk.
    Forgive them that their goals seem disorganized when they themselves haven't had a goal beyond "survive" for most of their lives.
    Forgive them their lack of stirring oratory skills when they are learning for the first time that their voices might actually be heard.
    Forgive them their morning grogginess when they have spent the night trying to sleep in the cold on the hard ground, and know that a long day, indeed long weeks and months are ahead of them.

    They weren't at Starbucks. Most of them can't afford Starbucks. Those that could have have been bleeding their pockets into the donation buckets to assure that there are blankets and food.

    Here in the heart of the South, what you see is all that is left. This is all that is left of the strong civil rights history. A small band of disenfranchised youth with a small representation of their elders. That this is what we have left is our great shame. A shame you should equally feel if you truly are "actually on the Occupants’ side."
    If you were on our side, you would not have gone sightseeing on your weekly privileged stroll to the Market. You would have gone to the park as your destination.

    If you do not see what you hope to see there, it is your responsibility to supply it.
    Go to the middle of the park. Say, "Mic Check! Mic Check! Mic Check!" and speak your piece. You might be surprised to hear your words repeated back to you. To hear people eager to hear what you have to say. To see light in eyes that want to learn. More importantly, you might be surprised to hear what they have to say back. To hear reasoned response. You might actually learn something yourself; if nothing else you would learn what it is that they believe and are trying to do.

    Instead, you turn a cynical eye to eyeliner and brand name logos, much as many in my grandparent's era looked at the unkempt and dirty attire of their war protesting youth and saw no further.

    You don't want a revolution, though. You don't want campaign finance reform, a return to Glass-Steagall, or a repeal of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
    You want a delightful morning stroll on a weekend day, with a little local color to chat about for the rest of the week.

    So sorry we were not able to provide it. We were busy.
  16. lal posted on 10/17/2011 02:12 PM
    There have been many well spoken responses to this article. I appreciate them and I won't repeat them.

    I would like to add that this article had the sense of a knee-jerk response. No research. No facts. Just an impression colored by the author's preconceptions.

    I am one of the 99%.
  17. Brianna Curtis posted on 10/20/2011 04:42 PM

    My name is Brianna Curtis, and I am a teen at VOX Teen Communications. I am very proud of the movement "We R the 99%," however I am so disappointed by the behavior that is taken place here on this article. I myself have my own opinion about comparing this movement with "The Civil Rights Movement," and by saying that I totally disagree. This is why, The Civil Rights Movement was a movement that was powerful and non-violent. I have actually met with some people who were in "The Civil Rights Movement." There were many things the people were protesting for and one of them was economic equality, however there were many other demands. The people in the "Civil Rights Movement were tortured, beaten, and even spit on by the people of the government and others such as whites. Dr. Martin Luther King was that leader and guider who helped the people in the people in the "Civil Rights Movement," stay non- violent. These people were trained to march and protest without fighting back and saying negative comments. These people were not mouthing the police or the people whom disagreed with them, because they knew they were aiming for something bigger than an argument, they wanted their rights! Saying all of this, you people need to watch what you say on the internet about people's opinion especially if you are in t he "We R the 99%" movement," because if you are comparing your campaign to the "Civil Rights Movement," then you have to act like the adults here and not the children. I understand you telling your point, but calling the reporter names such as "immature high school girl, bad reporter, etc" is inappropriate and unacceptable for a person whom is leading a campaign and compares it with the Civil Rights Movement. I think as a previous student at Coretta Scott King High School and now a student at Booker T. Washington High School, you all need to do your research, because no person in the Civil Rights Movement will show hatred towards anyone [your comments towards this reporter]. So, good-luck on the movement and hope you all think this out and make things better. <3

    Be Blessed,

    Brianna Curtis
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