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Moraff '14: Injustice and soup kitchens

Garret Johnson '14 makes a case for why the Occupy movement is misguided and stupid ("Give back, vote, but don't Occupy," Oct. 24). I think his reasons are mostly bad ones. Here's why.

His main thrust is that we should stop trying to change society and instead start "volunteering at local free clinics and soup kitchens." I think volunteering at soup kitchens is great. But saying we should do that instead of protesting is like saying we should drink water every day instead of pooping in toilets. They both matter, and they are both pretty much unrelated.

This is like the people who volunteer on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King was an activist. He spent his life fighting against racist systems, fighting for workers and justice and generally being an awesome antiwar socialist. Like every antipoverty activist, he knew that while helping out at soup kitchens is great, a society that forces its citizens into soup kitchens while dropping million-dollar bombs on foreigners is fundamentally deranged. That is what being a radical is all about — looking at a problem and finding its true roots.

There was this time called the 18th century when private charities in America administered poorhouses and made feeding and housing the poor one of their primary missions. That was great. What was not so great was that America was a hideously, horrifically unequal society where a few white men with terrific accents owned everything. Over the next 200 years, it got better, not because enough people volunteered at soup kitchens, but because enough people said to themselves, "Selves, maybe it's a little messed up that a few people own all of the land as well as the darker-skinned people on it. Maybe factory owners should not be able to pay workers one cent a week or employ small children. Maybe — just maybe — society should respect the value inherent in every human life, and I can take a few hours off from the soup kitchen to work on that."

The robber barons and slaveholders and factory owners would have loved if everyone who tried to break their stranglehold on society had spent all their time inoffensively volunteering and left well enough alone. Wall Street CEOs would be tickled pink if Occupiers turned Zuccotti Park into one big non-ideological homeless shelter. When Johnson tells us to volunteer, he has a decent point, but maybe we can also try to change the conditions that make such dismal volunteering necessary in the first place.

Shifting gears, Johnson notes the "much talked about relationship between Wall Street and the University. … Brown's connections to Wall Street are neither bad nor good, but they must be acknowledged." Actually, people do acknowledge them, and yes, they are bad. They are bad because Wall Street has spent the last few decades buying up Washington and then causing an economic collapse fueled by short-sightedness and good old cliched-but-true corporate greed — a collapse that hurt a whole lot of people. I personally am not totally thrilled about a mindset that extols dollars above all else, and I do not want to see it exported to Brown. Anyone who glances around our no-property-tax-paying, Wall-Street-investing, increasingly STEM-loving University and is not a little concerned needs to glance harder.

So yes, we can "gripe and moan with integrity about the huge wealth present on Wall Street and corporate America when some of this University was built on that wealth" because that is what people who care about things do. They try to change the way things are to make them just a little bit less indecent.

Finally, we have Johnson's prescription for making everything better — voting! Apparently, "every American student at the University will have a chance to vote against politicians owned by Wall Street." Actually, we will not have that chance, not really, because every single major candidate for president is "owned by Wall Street." His solution? "For many Brunonians, this may even mean voting for the dreaded Republicans." Yes! Let's vote for the candidate who is still owned by Wall Street, but maybe by a slightly lesser degree! That'll show them.

So where does that leave us? Totally hosed is where that leaves us. The reason people are out there in the streets is because voting on its own is not working. Our political system is so completely dominated by corporate money that expecting any successful national candidate to seriously oppose Wall Street at this point is ridiculously optimistic.

The only way to change this is to make a serious dent in the local and national conversation. Maybe Occupy will fail. Most things fail. Maybe it won't. We had over a thousand people in downtown Providence chanting about restoring democracy and ending wars. Tens of thousands more across the country. Every day, thousands of people are talking and listening and figuring out what to do about things.

It's a start, and it is certainly better than Johnson's prescription of voting plus soup kitchens plus nothing.


Daniel Moraff '14 thinks that soup is usually kinda gross and that email is the devil's medium.


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