A few weeks ago, a student at the University of Richmond somewhat innocently asked me what I thought the national Occupy Wall Street movement had accomplished. After pointing out that a few weeks’ time is a short horizon to evaluate a movement trying to address a problem decades in the making, I said I thought the movement had accomplished a great deal: by naming and framing a problem, and by changing public conversation on the economy.
That shift can be measured in the thousands of news articles nationwide examining the gaping and rising inequalities of income and wealth in the United States. It also can be measured in the altered rhetoric of President Obama, who offered a major talk on economic policy last week that made the critical move of recognizing excessive inequality as both a moral and an economic problem — and one of the root causes of the current economic stagnation.
But in the cities where occupations have taken place, a more challenging and disturbing dynamic has emerged, with police forces undertaking operations to clear occupation sites. Questions of excessive force have been raised in city after city, from the college town of Chapel Hill, N.C., to New York, to Oakland to the campus of UC-Davis in California, where police pepper sprayed defenseless students.
Richmond hasn’t been exempt from this tension, though we’re fortunate that the Halloween clearance of Kanawha Plaza by Richmond police didn’t lead to significant injuries or violence. Even so, Mayor Dwight Jones has aroused the ire of the local Occupy Richmond movement for, after a two-week waiting period, enforcing the city’s ordinances. Last week, movement member Jeremy Weiland passionately argued in this space that the mayor was devoted to “[preserving] the status quo at all costs.”
It’s easy to see how and why local protest movements that push the envelope almost inevitably come into conflict with local public officials. But it seems odd that Occupy Richmond should be investing so much energy into slamming the mayor.
Think about it: This is a movement that’s targeting the massive economic disparities in the United States, and the disproportionate power, influence and wealth of the top 1 percent. In Richmond we have many potent symbols of the politics of oligarchy. This is the terrain of Congressman Eric Cantor. It’s the terrain of a soon-to-be-Republican-controlled General Assembly that upholds an archaic division of counties and cities, leading to the systematic and deliberate reproduction of racial and economic inequalities, and regularly shortchanges the city out of school funding. And it’s home to countless sites that commemorate a racist past (the Jefferson Davis statue perhaps being the most blatant), and state leaders such as Ken Cuccinelli who have updated and refined Davis’s rhetoric of states’ rights above all.
Given that rich array of potential targets for criticizing inequality, it seems odd and potentially tragic that the movement would settle on a progressive, black mayor who openly speaks of the need to heal the two Richmonds — the affluent Richmond and the poor Richmond — as its prime target.
Let’s consider the structural position of Richmond’s government in the metropolitan area. For the most part, the city has been left to pick up the pieces in a metropolis fractured by race and geography. The main tasks taken up by the city are providing education to children, more than three-quarters of whom are poor, and providing social services for those in need. On top of that, the city does what it can — sometimes well, sometimes not — to generate economic development and bring more resources to the city, and to steward the resources and infrastructure it has. And finally it performs the work of assuring public safety — work that always should be critically scrutinized, but work that the majority of Richmonders in the 99 percent see as essential. The fact that city government is simultaneously overloaded with responsibility for meeting the needs of low-income people and starved for resources is one of the fundamental structural injustices shaping this region.
To be sure, there’s a legitimate question about free speech. Occupy Richmond makes the argument that the First Amendment should trump local ordinances against camping out in public spaces, though it hasn’t put that conviction to a legal test by challenging the law in court. Jones has responded by saying that it’s his constitutional duty to enforce the law, but that he would be receptive to a change in city laws to permit the creation of a 24-hour free-speech zone.
I fail to see the mayor’s stance as unreasonable — and also think City Council would be well advised to adopt some form of the legislation being sponsored by Councilman Marty Jewell to create such a zone at Kanawha Plaza. That’s a change in local law worth fighting for, and there’s no indication that the Jones administration is going to stand in its way.
Once that’s accomplished, Occupy Richmond would be well served to stop viewing local government as the adversary and move on to bigger fish. A local activist movement that simply does battle with the mayor and city government just isn’t a threat to the larger-order status quo — at least not in Virginia.
A movement that instead finds creative ways to work with local government, the mayor and the significant number of his constituents who are poor, underemployed, and economically insecure on matters of shared concern, while also directly challenging the true sources of power in this region and state, is something else entirely. Corporate lobbyists have been practicing their own version of Occupy during sessions of the General Assembly for decades. What if they found unexpected company in the halls of the Capitol in 2012?
Protest surely will have a continuing purpose in such a movement, but so too will constructive actions. In other cities, local government has played an important role in supporting community-oriented economic development as well as innovative, democratic enterprises such as cooperatives, worker-owned companies and community land trusts.
There’s room for a lot more of that here, and Occupy Richmond could be the catalyst to make it happen. But first it’s going to have to think through a little more carefully who its true friends and enemies are. In building an inclusive, enduring social movement that truly engages the 99 percent, picking the right targets is at least half the battle. S
Thad Williamson is an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.