A Face That Looks Like You: Matthew Septimus and the Protestors of Occupy Wall Street
As the Occupy movement wanes, its protestors brought issues of economic inequality to the forefront of our national political discourse. On Being looks back at the protestors driven out of Zuccotti Park in November and the faces that look like you.
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
As the Occupy Wall Street movement took root, Brooklyn-based photographer Matthew Septimus found himself visiting Zuccotti Park as much as possible. Now in his 50s, Septimus says he’s no stranger to protest movements, but describes his experience of Occupy Wall Street as “something different.” The people he encountered were open, trusting, and eager to have a conversation.
Walking into the park for the first time, Septimus remembers being overwhelmed by a wave of emotion and kept going back for more:
"The thing that resonated was the civility and genuine interest. All are willing to look me in the eye and acknowledge my existence. Not all is peace and love. But on the whole, the community is positive and committed. Finally people are speaking up. And I am engaged, too. It feels good to see people having a conversation."
Over the course of several months, Septimus generated over 1,200 images documenting the scores of people who were drawn to Lower Manhattan to experience the energy and potential of the OWS phenomenon.
Using a vintage Rolleiflex camera, Septimus crafted intimate portraits revealing people’s humanity, diversity, and complexity. “The protester,” as seen through Septimus’ lens, flies in the face of stereotypes. His photographs challenge us to see them more completely.
Parker Palmer on Healing the Heart of Democracy
by Kate Moos, executive producer
Parker Palmer is the founder of the Center for Courage & Renewal and the author of nine books, including well-known titles such as The Courage to Teach and Let Your Life Speak. He is the recipient of many awards and honorary degrees, perhaps most recently the Utne Reader’s 2011 Visionaries, 25 People Who are Changing the World.
His new book, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, takes a deep and wise look at the loss of values that have impoverished American democracy and public life. Palmer proposes ways to rediscover what the great political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” that are essential to a democracy.
“The human heart, this vital core of the human self, holds the power to destroy democracy or to make it whole. That is why our nineteenth-century visitor, Alexis de Tocqueville, insisted in his classic Democracy in America that democracy’s future would depend heavily on generations of American citizens cultivating the habits of the heart that support political wholeness.”
We corresponded by email over the course of several weeks for this interview.
Parker, you cite five habits of the heart you feel are necessary to moving forward as a democracy: understand that we are all in this together, develop an appreciation for the value of “otherness,” cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways, generate a sense of personal voice and agency, and strengthen our capacity to create community.
In and of themselves, none of these habits seem too complex or difficult for us to achieve, and I’m guessing most people would find it easy to embrace them, at least conceptually. What prevents us from becoming better at practicing these habits?
You’re right, Kate, of course. Saying the thing is always easier than doing the thing! So it’s important to understand why we have trouble embracing good ideas and allowing them to animate the way we live.
We resist the first habit of understanding that we are all in this together because it’s easier to pretend that we live in individual silos than to allow ourselves to get the fact. To take but one example, that the large and tragic achievement gap in public education between white kids and kids of color is something we all pay a price for sooner or later. If my son is doing well in school, great; I’m happy. But if his black and Latino classmates are doing poorly, I need to be unhappy about that, very unhappy, and advocate for the changes in public education that would help close the gap.
Among other things, that gap helps explain the fact that we now have more African Americans somewhere in the judicial and penal system than we had in slavery ten years before the Civil War. And that’s not only costly to this society in terms of the threat of crime, the cost of incarceration, etc., it’s flat-out evil in the way it crushes the spirits of young people who have just as much promise as my son does.
So, when you step outside your silo and understand your interconnectedness, life becomes more complicated and ethically demanding. But the bottom line is, what do you stand for: narrow self-interest or the common good? And do you understand that narrow self-interest can be self-defeating while caring about the common good can be a way of caring about yourself and those you love?
I’m 72 years old, so I reflect more often on the fact that I’m going to die than I did when I was 30, or 40, or 50. On that day, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be saying to myself, “Boy, am I glad that I spent all my years on Earth feathering my own nest and not giving a hoot about anyone other than my family and friends!” I’m pretty sure I’d rather be saying, “I’m glad I did what I could during my brief sojourn on this planet to help bring a caring community into being, to love my neighbor as myself.”
As you know, Kate, I say quite a lot in the book about each of those five habits, but let me say a few words about one more: “Cultivate the ability to hold tension in life-giving ways.” This one is right at the heart of our democracy, both institutionally and personally. America’s founders, for all their blind spots, gave us a set of governing institutions whose genius lies in their ability to hold tension creatively over time. Democracy is all about taking the tension of our differences and using it as an engine to keep moving us forward on important social issues. So why is it hard to live this one? Because it requires us to resist the ancient and well-known “fight or flight response” that kicks in when we find ourselves in a tension-ridden situation. Our instinct is either to run away or to punch out the source of the tension!
We all know at some level that if we can hold tension creatively — in the family, in the workplace, in the larger community — we often emerge with a better solution to the problem than if we ran away or used force to control the situation. My favorite close-to-the-bone example involves raising a teenager. Good parents can see their teenage child’s potential and “true self” while they also see that child making some bad choices and perhaps even going off the rails. But good parenting means holding our children in a way that both acknowledges their long-term possibilities and their current realities, knowing that the worst thing we could do is to try to force the outcome. Many of us know how to do that kind of “holding” in our private lives, so we have the capacity to do some of the same in our public lives.
The key, of course, is love. Love leads us to hold the tensions we experience as parents in a creative way. Of course, the kind of love we have for those close to us cannot be replicated in the public realm. But can a different form of love — love of the promise of the human spirit, love of the common good — lead us to hold political tensions creatively? I’m not sure, but I sure hope so, because a politics rooted in greed or hunger for power rather than love of the commonweal is a politics headed toward self-destruction.
I’d like to devote much of my remaining time and energy toward helping to make our public life more compassionate and more generative — and I know many, many people who share that vision and that desire.
Grace Lee Boggs Challenges Occupy Wall Street Protestors to Reinvent Society and Not Just “Expose the Enemy”
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
A couple of weeks ago we posted Grace Lee Boggs’ first video in which she called on Occupy Wall Street participants to use this moment as a time for personal contemplation and reflection. Here is a follow-up video in which she challenges the 99% movement not to just “expose the enemy” but to become the solution by reinventing society, work, education, and culture.
We’ll be interviewing her today at 1 p.m. Central for a public radio show to air in few weeks. If you want to participate and ask questions while we live-tweet, follow us at @Beingtweets.
(Big thanks to WDET’s Mikel Ellcessor for the alert!)
Infographic: The People Who Make Up Occupy Wall Street
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Some interesting stats on OccupyWallStreet.org visitors courtesy of Fast Company:
- More than 80% of participants are white
- 90% are college-educated
- Nearly half of participants are 25-44
- Nearly half have full-time jobs and make under $25k/year
- More than 70% are political independents
- More than 60% are male
- Participation in Occupy events jumped from 24% in early October to 43% two weeks later
Me? I’m curious to know how these types of movements can include different types of minority communities — whether by race, by gender, by religion, or by socioeconomics — in the protests and what difference it makes when they do so.
I have a comment/query out to Fast Company and the author about the spiritual/religious makeup of participants. I’ll share more if I receive it.
The news from St Paul’s comes in a brief press release received by Riazat Butt. It reads:
‘The Chapter has previously asked the encampment to leave the cathedral precinct in peace. This has not yet happened and so, following the advice of our lawyers, legal action has regrettably become necessary.
The Chapter only takes this step with the greatest reluctance and remains committed to a peaceful solution. At each step of the legal process the Chapter will continue to entreat the protesters to agree to a peaceful solution and, if an injunction is granted, will then be able to discuss with the protesters how to reach this solution.
Theirs is a message that the Chapter has both heard and shares and looks forward to engaging with the protesters to identify how the message may continue to be debated at St Paul’s and acted upon.’
In short: we’re officially sympathetic to you, but we’ll still call the police in.
During live coverage, The Guardian’s Peter Walker sums up St. Paul’s Cathedral’s stance as it seeks to remove Occupy London protestors from its steps. Only the Brits can cut through the muck with one succinct line.
~Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Grace Lee Boggs on the Challenge and Responsibility of the Occupy Wall Street Participants
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"This enemy of ours is not just Wall Street; it’s a whole culture."
Who better to turn to about Occupy Wall Street and all its other offshoots than Grace Lee Boggs. Born to Chinese immigrants in 1915, the philosopher has seen and thought deeply about issues of social justice, racial and gender equality, and the resurrection of community for more than 70 years now — not from within the halls of academia but from the pedestrian malls and streets of the United States.
"You’re going to have to be thinking about values and not just abuses."
She offers a historical, sideways approach to OWS and provides a long view of constant questioning. Not only does she think on the grand, larger scale of social values, but she also is embedded, rooted and dedicated to a place — the city of Detroit.
In the video above, she addresses all the people participating in Occupy Wall Street with a note of encouragement and a call for contemplation and reflection. She embraces the movement but also challenges the protestors too, asking them to examine their own minds and hearts about whether they’d happily be part of the culture their against, if they were given the opportunity. She also calls for deep introspection and intellectual rigor as part of the effort.
For a good introduction to Grace Lee Boggs life, check out this two-minute introduction from the documentary film tracing her life, American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. It’s definitely worth watching.
(Photo of Grace Lee Boggs by Photo by David Schalliol/Flickr)