Martin Luther King and Occupy Wall Street

Martin Luther King said in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “You deplore the demonstrations taking place in Birmingham. But your statement, I am sorry to say, fails to express a similar concern for the conditions that brought about the demonstrations. You may well ask: ‘Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?”

King added: “[Non-violent direct . . . action] seeks to so dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. . . . We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressors; it must be demanded by the oppressed . . . For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ . . . This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’”

King’s statements about racial oppression could also apply to economic oppression and injustice, and his ideas about non-violent direct political action can apply to the Occupy Wall Street movement today. To better understand the reasons for the movement, it helps to look at the underlying history of the conditions being protested.

The corruption in our financial system started to mushroom in the 1980s when the Reagan-Bush administration deregulated banking institutions. The BNL, BCCI and Savings and Loan scandals that occurred in the 1980s and early 1990s symbolize the breakdown in our representative democracy.

Politicians and the mainstream media knew about the reckless lending practices and the impending failures of the banks and savings and loans, but they didn’t inform the public. The $10 billion bailout of the failed industry was dumped on the taxpayers.

During the late 80s and early 90s financial corruption became epidemic, and government officials did little to stop it. There was embezzlement and fraud in insurance companies, brokerage houses, workers’ compensation systems, and in every case it was “the little guy,“ the average citizen, who took suffered the greatest losses.

Though most in the media and government, including members of the House Banking Committee, knew about the coming debacle, they were either unable or unwilling to halt it. Many of the interested parties in power were compromised; some politicians, such as Democratic Representative Henry B. Gonzalez of Texas and Republican Representative Jim Leach of Iowa, tried to send out warnings but were ignored or repressed.

The flagrant lawlessness that characterized the financial industry just after deregulation started in the 1980’s has continued through this day. The corruption goes so deep that some members of Congress consider it an intractable problem. The finance industry has many supporters in Congress, in part because Wall Street money helps finance their campaigns. Politicians’ dependence on Wall Street money is at the root of the problem.

When Wall Street investors lose huge sums of money through high-risk investments, their friends in government put the burden of bailing them out on the taxpayer, the average working person. When critics of Occupy Wall Street claim the protesters don’t know what they’re complaining about, tell them it’s about putting enough distance between Wall Street and our politicians so that government officials will pass legislation to curb the corruption.

Martin Luther King had it right. Freedom from any kind of oppression, including economic oppression, is never given voluntarily by the oppressors but must be demanded by the oppressed through non-violent direct action. The protests serve to “dramatize the issue so it can no longer be ignored.” Let’s combine this direct action with King’s reflection, thoughtfulness and spirit of peace and good will. There is no inherent conflict between conscious, non-violent political engagement and being based in the kind of inner peace and enlightenment King embodied.

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