Martha Southgate is the author of The Taste of Salt, and multiple other novels. She is also a signatory of OccupyWriters.com. Today she is here talking about why she supports Occupy Wall Street. For more information about Martha, check out her website|twitter|facebook.
I had a hard time getting started on this piece. For one thing, OWS is not a movement that I wholeheartedly embraced from the moment it began—I didn’t think they were wrong. I just couldn’t see what they were going to get done. Further, I don’t think of myself as a political writer in any way. None of my fiction engages the great issues of the day (at least not yet). While as an African-American woman and writer, I can hardly ignore the weight of history and of political movements on my life and the life of my family, taking an active part in the political process is not something that I engage with easily by temperament, even though I come from a long line of rabble-rousers. Both parents were active in the civil rights movement and my mother was an abortion clinic counselor in the 1970’s, shortly after abortion was legalized. Following in their footsteps, I became a community organizer in Cleveland in the mid 1980’s. The organization I worked for was built on the model that Saul Alinsky outlined in his seminal Rules for Radicals. Briefly, the goal was to start with getting communities mobilized around a small goal, like better trash collection.
Then over time, as they became more skilled and organized, Alinsky posited that the grassroots folk would make the leap to actions that would change the system altogether. The community organizing that Obama did was in an organization that worked on this model. Mostly the work was phone calls, door-knocking and meetings, meetings, meetings.
Noble work, I still believe. But I hated it. I hated the meetings. I hated knocking on strange doors. Every phone call made my heart contract. Finally, after a few unhappy months. I quit. I never doubted the rightness of the organization. But I wasn’t certain that they would ever reach their ultimate goal of systemic change. And I was not the person to get out there and get my hands dirty finding out. I was too internal, too meeting-averse, too full of other notions. Too much a writer (or at that time, a writer-to-be. I did not start writing fiction seriously until my 30’s)
I’m not particularly proud of walking away from organizing but one thing about getting older is that it forces you to come to terms
with who you are, not who you wish you were. I’m not the activist type. I got out there for Obama (and imagine I will again) but I’m never going to do it in the bone-deep, vivid way that true activists do. And I think that may contribute to my ambivalence about Occupy Wall Street.
Let me say here loud and clear that I have absolutely no ambivalence about the overriding message of the movement. The gap between the wealthy and the poor in this country has reached obscene levels and the breakdowns in the system that have led to it are mind-boggling (in a bad way). The crazed Republicans who hope only to carry out policies that will make everything worse terrify me. There is no doubt who is in the right in this fight.
But it took me a while to get on board. Like many, I couldn’t quite see what was being accomplished at first. They seemed to just be sitting there, with a mass of very vaguely articulated demands and a lot of justifiable anger. Even though I live here in New York, it took me a while before I got to Zucotti park to see what was up—and the night I finally went, frankly, not much was. Drumming. Sitting. Signs.
And I’ll admit that I still have some concerns about what the next step is. In the civil rights movement, which some of the images of OWS directly echo, there was a clear series of more easily specified demands: Let us be full citizens. End laws that prevent that from happening. With OWS, because the roots of the problem are so much more complex and entrenched, it’s harder to see what specific actions can be taken and how they should be taken. I am hopeful that as the winter wears on, that those actions will begin to emerge, just as what started out as vague popular sentiment in the 1960’s ultimately wrought enormous changes in the nation.
I’m not gonna grab a sleeping bag and move down to Zucotti Park. But as the phrase “the 99%” has entered the lexicon and there is discussion, substantive discussion about how this country might begin to be repaired, I have come to believe that this is where change starts. With a rumble. With a noise. With a sleeping bag in a park. With pointing out an injustice and refusing to waver. This is where it starts.