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Occupy: Capture hearts and minds of middle class

Posted By Ellen Ratner On 11/27/2011 @ 7:30 pm In Commentary | Comments Disabled

My first taste of activism was when I was just 12 years old in 1963 and I was visiting my brother’s freshman dorm at Harvard University. I saw people walking though Harvard Square with signs about ending our involvement in Vietnam. I certainly had knowledge of the sit-ins and the gathering on Aug. 28 (my birthday) of Martin Luther King on the Mall in Washington, D.C., but I had not seen a march of any kind till then.

The ’60s got my activism moving along, and I participated in all kinds of marches, conscience-raising groups, etc. I marched, I sang, I read, I joined. So, when I saw the Occupy Wall Street movement, I was curious about what they would do to make their movement as relevant as ours.

Initially, I was pretty critical of their tactics. I was dismayed that the millennial generation was relying on Twitter and the Internet and not as concerned with the visuals. My fellow former lefties, and a few right-wing activists I know, thought middle America would not relate well to tents in the middle of the city. The visuals just don’t quite cut it on people’s home television screens. I thought the Occupy movement had a lot to learn from us old folks.

Then last week I visited Boston. I stopped by the Occupy Boston group situated right at the edge of the financial district. There were the tents and also a newspaper that was handed out to passersby on foot, taxi or car. They were not just relying on the Internet or tweets. The Occupy Boston group was relying on the pamphlet method that had been in existence since the Boston Tea Party two centuries ago.

Not only had the Occupy Boston group started to reach beyond “social media,” they had taken a page right out of some of the most effective movements of the 20th century. They were “getting” it. One article in their newspaper talked about the Gandhi statue brought down from a Quakerg called The Peace Abbey in Sherborn, Mass. They had offered it to the lobby of Goldman Sachs to remind people of greed. It was quickly rejected.

The Occupy Boston folks had also made great headway in getting more visual depictions of their issues by inviting the Bread and Puppet Theater to be part of the endeavor. They are scheduled to perform today, Nov. 28. The theater’s history began with large puppets and giving out bread to form a sense of community around the time of the Vietnam War. The large puppets are hard to miss or ignore. They make much more compelling visuals than tents.

I wondered why the Occupy folks were not using the same techniques that spread the word in the 1960s. I remember as a high-school student going to a Vietnam “teach-in” organized by Howard Zinn at Boston University. The Occupiers had gleaned the lessons learned from those days, too, with “Howard Zinn memorial lectures,” including lectures on the “culture of debt.” Wow, I thought, they have started to glean what worked then, and they are applying it.

As I thought about the good and bad from my old activism days, I began to wonder what else they might do. Plays, I thought, do what even a few YouTube videos can’t. In the early days of the women’s movement, the Caravan Theater in Cambridge, Mass., had a play called, “How to Make a Woman.” Every Friday and Saturday night at the Harvard Epworth Church, this small theater group performed a play about women’s roles in relationships. After, volunteers ran small groups where people could talk about what they saw. Often the groups would meet again on their own. Men talked about what they learned about women, and women talked about being alone with housework and child care. That was in 1970. Things have changed, but small groups such as the Caravan Theater made a difference in middle-class life.

The Occupy people have been successful with the 99 percent meme. It has become part of the conversation and this year’s election discussion. In many ways, the Occupy movement has already been successful. If it is to stay as a movement, like the women’s movement and the Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, it is will to have to do some things like theater and teach-ins that capture the hearts and minds of the middle-class youth and workers. We did it in the 1960s, and they can do it now.


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