Why Martin Luther King’s Support for Occupy Wall Street is Beside the Point


By Ange-Marie Hancock

Last week President Obama and the children of Martin Luther King contended that if he were alive today, Dr. King would have supported the Occupy Wall Street movement. His purported support is actually beside the point. I offer three key differences between Occupy Wall Street and the 20th century Civil Rights Movement as an open letter to the OWS leadership. In doing so I intend to build their movement up rather than to tear it down, presenting critical challenges as they move this country forward.

  1. OWS isn’t the 21st Century Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement had a specific legislative agenda tied to their activism and change rhetoric. Rather than simply stage sit-ins or marches, the Civil Rights Movement was deeply invested in crafting key pieces of legislation to end racial discrimination, broadly defined. The Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were produced by an inside-outside CRM strategy that is often overlooked in popular histories. To what specific legislative agenda is Occupy Wall Street tied? Jobs — yes. But is it the American Jobs Act? Student Loan Reform. Yes. But which piece of legislation? Specifying a legislative agenda that can tangibly change the outcomes for the 99% is something that OWS must do for themselves in order to transform the United States. With the best of intentions labor unions and other groups will provide a legislative agenda for OWS unless they do it for themselves.
  1. This is the United States, not the Arab world. While young people in the Civil Rights Movement had a particularly strong affinity with movements occurring around the world, they also focused on changing the United States using the founding documents and political practices of the United States itself. Connections to the democratic spirit of the peaceful movements in Tunisia and Egypt are incredibly inspiring, bringing increasing numbers of people to what is becoming a global form of activism. The challenge facing both the leaders of the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movement now is how to engage in meaningful political change for the 99% they purport to represent. How do we connect jobs to health care reform to student loan reform to environmental justice policies?

The Civil Rights Movement was able to politically isolate recalcitrant Dixiecrats by crafting a campaign that made their legislative agenda look like the sensible solution. Malcolm X and others to their left also contributed to its success. Beyond leading the occupation, hopefully the people’s leadership will not eschew electoral politics but develop a 50-state strategy to affect 2012 and 2016 that would outflank Dennis Kucinich on the left. In doing so they provide themselves with an effective opportunity to get meaningfully progressive change at the structural level.

  1. President Obama is only part of the solution. I am not the first to make this argument; others have made this argument regarding the now successful effort to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Ultimately executive orders and cabinet-level administrative policies work in conjunction with the laws of the land. Those laws are made by a Congress dominated by two parties that often leave the 99% on their own, losing the infrastructure and safety net they bought with their tax dollars. Such laws are interpreted by a judiciary that is made of up lifetime federally appointed jurists whose confirmations, while politically charged, have been far less contested by the left.

When was the last time the left was able to derail a nomination to the Supreme Court? Twenty-four years ago. In exchange for our relative lack of attention to judicial nominations, progressives have gotten a court that contends:

  • Walmart is too big to answer for discrimination against women,
  • The 1% deserve to freely determine elections through financial free speech, and
  • Recounts in contested elections needn’t proceed to their conclusion.

The Civil Rights Movement used a sequential test case strategy in the courts; threatened political protests to influence presidential policies; and emphasized voting rights protections and the exercise of those rights to transform Congress. We focus our energy solely on the presidency at our peril.

In responding to these challenges I hope that the Occupy Wall Street movement, will not simply fire up the 99% but also serve as conduits of a more inclusive, progressive legislative agenda to be implemented by a more diverse and progressive elected leadership that is committed to working among all generations to bring the United States into its full 21st century glory.

© 2011 Ange-Marie Hancock, author of Solidarity Politics for Millenials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics

Ange-Marie Hancock, author of Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics, joined the Department of Political Science at USC Dana and David Dornsife College in 2008 after five years as Assistant Professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Yale University. Prior to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Hancock worked for the National Basketball Association, where she conducted the preliminary research and wrote the original business plan for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA). She has served as an international expert in American Politics for the U.S. Department of State and during the 2008 presidential election. She has been quoted in the New York Times, Forbes, on National Public Radio, KNBC, and she regularly supports USC’s Annenberg TV News by serving as an expert. She currently serves as the associate director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration (CSII) in the Dornsife College and as one of the inaugural Dornsife College Faculty Fellows.

Over the past eight years Professor Hancock has authored two books and 11 articles. She is a globally recognized scholar of the study of intersectionality — the study of the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality politics and their impact on public policy. Her first book, The Politics of Disgust and the Public Identity of the “Welfare Queen,”(2004, New York University Press) won two national awards.

For more information please visit http://www.ange-mariehancock.com, and follow the author on Facebook and Twitter

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