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.
Photo by James Burns