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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Primal Screams on Wall Street

Al Gore has called the demonstrations by the movement known as "Occupy Wall Street" "a primal scream of democracy".

I can't think of a more perfect, poetic description of my experience yesterday in Zuccotti Park, just a few steps away from Trinity Episcopal Church on Wall Street and around the corner from the NY Stock Exchange.

The juxtaposition of these two landmarks provides an ironic, symbolic statement that speaks volumes about the deep, widening chasm between business and ethics and the failure of the church to be a voice of morality in our society and culture.

Occupy Wall Street is part festival with costumes and drums, part protest demonstration with placards, to which is added a pinch of community organizing and a few heavy dashes of chanting and meditation.

If you can grasp that image, you can begin to get a sense of what this movement looks like to those who pass by or walk around Zuccotti Park.

When you enter into center of the large, wandering masses of humanity in the Park, and try to wind your way around piles of sleeping bags and clothes covered by sheets of blue plastic and baskets of donated fruit and vegetables and large containers of fresh water and juice, you begin to feel the vibrations of that 'primal scream'.

At the very heart of this movement is a deep sense of betrayal of all we thought it meant to be American and live in a democratic state.

Let me be clear: There is anger present. It bubbles just under the surface of the sometimes carnival atmosphere.

The anger is directed in all sorts of places - some of it misplaced. There are people there who are concerned about how the environment is being compromised in this financial crisis and others who are angry that technology is increasingly only available to the very rich who can afford it.

The anger is, nevertheless, very real and very present.

Which is why the NYPD hovers around the perimeter of Zuccotti Park, keeping vigilant watch so that peace will prevail.

All that being said, I need to make this very clear: No one is protesting capitalism, per se.

No one is protesting luxury.

No one is protesting technology.

Indeed, most of the protesters, young and old, are clearly well dressed, well educated people - young and old - who walk around with their cell phones, iPads and MacBook Air or PC Notebooks.

They are protesting the loss of their sense of dignity.

They are protesting the loss of their sense of liberty.

They are protesting the debt schemes that got us into this financial crisis because it feels like a form of slavery. 

What they are protesting is this: GREED.

Greed that is so consuming that it dulls the senses to the real cost of doing business.

Greed that blinds the eye to the suffering which "acquisition and mergers" can cause to employees who become "collateral damage" in the dirty war of doing business.

Greed that deafens the ear to the cries of misery and puts profits before people.

According to the C.I.A.’s own ranking of countries by income inequality, the United States is more unequal a society than either Tunisia or Egypt.

Three factoids underscore that inequality:
+ The 400 wealthiest Americans have a greater combined net worth than the bottom 150 million Americans.
+ The top 1 percent of Americans possess more wealth than the entire bottom 90 percent.
+ In the Bush expansion from 2002 to 2007, 65 percent of economic gains went to the richest 1 percent. 
As NY Times journalist, Catherine Rampell, noted a few days ago, in 1981, the average salary in the securities industry in New York City was twice the average in other private sector jobs. At last count, in 2010, it was 5.5 times as much. (In case you want to gnash your teeth, the average is now $361,330.)

I spoke with several people in Zuccotti Park yesterday.

I intentionally wore my clerical collar so my purpose in being there would be easily identifiable - hoping the best of my intentions would show but prepared to be told that, as clergy, I was part of the problem if I was not part of the solution.

One of the people I spoke with was a young man who called himself Damian. He said he was 23 and had just finished a four year stint in the Army.

He looked sad and forelorn, sitting there  at the entrance to Zuccotti Park.  I put a dollar into his plastic container and asked him why he was there.

At first, he gave me a line about why he needed to get back home to his family in Chicago, but his story was so full of holes (and beans) that I actually had to call him out on it, right there in front of God and everybody.

That's when I got him to smile.

"Are you a pastor," he asked, looking at my clergy collar.

"I am," I said.

"You're not like any pastor I ever met," he said

"And, you're not like any GI I ever met."

I had several conversations with him throughout the day. Each time, a little more of his story would come tumbling out.

Turns out, he did an 18 month tour of duty in Afghanistan. He can't forget what he saw. He can't forget what he did. He is fairly paralyzed by PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and depression.

I asked him, flat out, if he was going to use the money he collected on alcohol and drugs. "Umm....," he said, ".....maybe not tonight but I won't lie. Maybe tomorrow. Probably before the week is out."

He looked away and then looked back at me and said, "Sometimes, you know, when there's no hope.  When I feel so goddamn alone my bones ache and I feel like an old man. When I feel like I'm going to go right over the edge and fall into a deep, dark hole again and not be able to get myself out this time, it just helps to check out for a while."

He turned his face toward the row of fast food carts that lined the street and, when he looked back, a tear rolled down his cheek. I found myself weeping with him. And then, he put down his sign and put his arms around me and hugged me as he wept in my arms.

"You know," he said, "I think one of the things I have in common with these OWS folks is that we all just want to be listened to. We all just want to be heard. We are all just doing what we can do to get people in this country to WAKE UP and see what greed is doing to us.  It's killing us. You know?"

"Yes," I said softly. "That's why I'm here today."

"Then," he said, "you have to promise me, pastor. Please tell the story of what's going on here. From your pulpit.

Let those good Christian people know that, if Jesus were here today, he would be turning over some tables on Wall Street and the Stock Exchange here in the Apple, and he'd be turning over the tables where the brass sit at the Pentagon and all the politicians in Congress in DC."

"Tell them, please. Promise me," he said.

I did. And, I'm doing just that. Right now.

Another man I spoke with also asked me to use the pulpit to tell the story of OWS.  Indeed, it was a condition of his talking with me at all. 

Elizabeth Kaeton and Elisabeth Jacobs
He held a picture of his two children, a boy and a girl. He said he had lost his home to foreclosure after he lost his job as a music teacher more than 18 months ago.

He also worked part time as a Paramedic/EMT but that position has also been eliminated. He continues to volunteer, "just so I won't lose my mind completely".

He then told me that he had heard a recent interview with Warren Buffet on CNBC who said, "I could end the deficit in 5 minutes. You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of the GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election."

I laughed sarcastically but he said, "You know, this really isn't as complex a problem as people make it out to be. We just do that so we don't have to do anything. There really is a simple solution to most any supposed "complex" problem. You just have to understand what's causing the problem before you attempt to find a solution. The problem is GREED. Once you know that, an effective, simple solution becomes possible."

"And," he said, "that's why I'm here. That's why I come here. I want to be listened to. I want this to be heard. So, you'll make sure this gets preached, right? You'll promise me that you tell those good Christian followers that Jesus wants and needs leaders? Please promise me you'll do that?"

Promise kept, my friend.

Here's the thing - the thought that kept me up most of last night as I kept hearing the primal scream under all the words and the sea of faces and the sound of drums.

I get it.

Corporate greed needs to be challenged and corporations need to be taxed and regulated. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. needs to be reduced. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy need to be repealed. Student loans need to be forgiven. Banks that were bailed out by the taxpayers shouldn’t keep on screwing their customers over. And the USSC ruling that decreed that corporations are persons and can thus buy off our politicians and get them to do their bidding needs to be rescinded.

As difficult as it is, that's the easy part to listen to and hear. I agree with all of those things I heard people say. It has deep resonance with my American heritage as well as my understanding of the teachings of Jesus.

But, that's just a return to the status quo in this country. Even if we did all those things, our blindness would continue, allowing us to blithely maintain our obliviousness to the unjust global status quo where 5% of the world’s population (the U.S.) consumes nearly 1/3 of the world’s natural resources and disproportionally spews out more trash and pollution than the other nations do.

It would mean returning to a situation where the U.S. gives only a meager 1/10th of 1% of our GDP to humanitarian aid to other countries. We could cut hunger in Africa in half in 15 years if we were to tax every American 1 penny per day. But we don’t and apparently aren’t about to. No one is protesting or occupying on behalf of the many millions of people in the world who are actually being screwed over the most.

What are we going to do about THAT? About THEM?

In between talking with folks and walking around Wall Street to consider what I heard and saw, I stopped into Trinity Church for some quiet time with Jesus. 

It was a beautiful Autumn day, and, at one point, I got something cold to drink and sat outside in one of the lovely courtyards on the side of Trinity Church.

There is this interesting sculpture there - made of iron - which looks at the root system of a tree that has been cut down from under the ground.

I watched as tourists from around the country and all over the world posed for goofy pictures, mugging silly grins from within the branches.

I couldn't find any information about the piece, although I confess that I didn't try too hard. I really wanted to return to hang out with the folks in Zuccotti Park.

I suspect the sculpture was designed to be a symbol of hope - a message about the fact that, even in the face of disaster and hardship, our spiritual roots run deep beneath the surface.

I felt it a call to rediscover or uncover the roots of our faith and belief systems which hold us together. A primal message about the ways in which we are all interconnected in an often undetectable mesh of life and hope and promise.

I think, in its essence, the Occupy Wall Street Movement is asking us not to return to organizing the effort to return to the establishment of an upwardly mobile middle class. Rather, I think this movement is asking us to step back a few paces, and reconsider our roots to rediscover our goals, our priorities and our commitments - as individuals, as communities of faith, and as a nation which is part of a world of nations and tribes of individual people.

Late in the afternoon, one of our daughters joined me at Zuccotti Park so she could take me out to a celebratory dinner in Battery Park to celebrate the 25th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood. She is a very successful woman whose work takes her into conversations with very wealthy people.

She told me of one man who made a substantial contribution to the cause she represents. His daily commute is about an hour and a half - one way - which causes him to leave his beautiful home in the suburbs before his children get up in the morning, and return home to his castle long after they have gone to bed.

He told her that, when he reads a bedtime story to his children on Sunday night, they say to him, "Goodnight, Daddy. See you next Saturday."

"Isn't that so sad?," she said. "Is that really a way to live?" my daughter asked.

"Well," I said, "it's certainly one way. The way he has chosen. Does it make it right? Does it make it good? I don't know," I said, "You tell me."

Beyond the banners and signs and the hoopla and the marches and the drums, these are the questions this movement is asking us to consider.

Al Gore is quite correct. This is a primal scream of democracy.

I think it's also a primal scream of our lives of faith.

The question is: Will we listen?


Burl said...

I've been going down to Occupy with some regularity, too, and agree that the betrayal of the dignity of the citizen that began in 1981 with Reagan is at the root of all the identified concerns/demands of OWS. It is both inspiring and overwhelming. It's naming is what we have all been waiting for, and now, the national debate is reframed so that the conversation can be about real things, the people, not ideology or deficits. In fact the deficit is one of decency fostered by a neo-con(federate) ideology, not a financial one.

I believe the sculpture is of the root ball of the tree that fell on 9/11 blocking/protecting St. Paul's Chapel.


Brother David said...

Madre, about the root sculpture, although it is not an exact replica, that is based on the root of the tree from the churchyard at St Paul's Chapel that lost its life when the Twin Towers fell and in doing so shielded the chapel from destruction.

I am really surprised that there was not an apparent plaque or something explaining what it was. I thought that it was a well-known story as well.

Anonymous said...

RE this part:

I asked him, flat out, if he was going to use the money he collected on alcohol and drugs. "Umm....," he said, ".....maybe not tonight but I won't lie. Maybe tomorrow. Probably before the week is out."

He looked away and then looked back at me and said, "Sometimes, you know, when there's no hope. When I feel so goddamn alone my bones ache and I feel like an old man. When I feel like I'm going to go right over the edge and fall into a deep, dark hole again and not be able to get myself out this time, it just helps to check out for a while."

First of all, the whole story of this man makes me want to just cry. I'm sitting at my desk, still at work right now, trying NOT to cry.

But it also reminds me of something Joe told me, and even my mother agreed with me: if one gives cash to a homeless man or woman, and he or she uses that cash for drink or drugs, that may be the only "happy moment" they have in an otherwise very unhappy life.

Given that Joe was homeless himself many years back, and had to dumpster dive behind McDonald's if he wanted to eat most days, I suppose he'd know what he was talking about.

He wound up hitchhiking from Florida to Arizona to get to his mother's house, so he could get off the street and start over. He had no money for bus or whatever. This was a risky thing to do - his uncle Mark had been murdered some years previous while hitchhiking cross country.


Just my two cents.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Burl - Thanks for your ministry at Wall Street. They - and we - need your energy and support.

I did find the story of the tree. It's message is even stronger now.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Brother David - Thanks. I did get the story. There was no plaque or anything which identified it. Trust me. I looked for something that identified it. Nada. And, nothing in the church, either.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Tracie. This young man really touched my heart. I don't think he's an addict. I think he uses drugs as self-medication. I hope he gets home to Chicago. I find myself praying for him several times a day.

Your Joe is quite a guy. You lucked out. And, so did he.

Matthew said...

Perhaps you will indulge this comment. The most accurate and succinct sign I saw on TV from OWS read simply, "Shit is fucked up and bullshit.". Indeed it is both of those things.

Charlie Sutton said...

As you can imagine, I am conservative politically and economically as well as theologically - but I agree with Burl, that the roots of this mess go back to Reagan. A lot of the de-regulation that went on in the 80's was undoing the laws and regulations that had been made in response to the excesses that had led to the crash of 1929, especially in the financial sector.

I also blame the use of special tax incentives for some of this - for once taxes are used to encourage some activities and discourage others, the large companies will be able to lobby and otherwise get the tax code shaped to benefit them. Part of a similar phenomenon is the use of local tax relief to get factories and stores (usually "big box") to come to an area. The little guy gets squeezed out by such favoritism.

I certainly do not agree with all the solutions proposed by speakers at the various "Occupy X's" but I do agree that we have allowed a very unfair set of circumstances to come into being in our economy.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Charlie. These protesters, unlike the Tea Party Movement, make a lot of sense.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Matthew - I'll let your comment speak for itself. (At least the poster is spelled correctly).


You wrote: "At the very heart of this movement is a deep sense of betrayal of all we thought it meant to be American and live in a democratic state."

For me as a woman of color from a refugee-immigrant background, I came face-to-face with this deep sense of betrayal in the American way of life as a young adult trying to work and have a career in a racist and sexist America. What has happened is that all the folks who thought that they were somehow beyond the reach of that sense of betrayal have now also experienced the betrayal. Because the fact is, the arrogance of the 1% who believe that they have enough money (=power) to do whatever the hell they want to and with everyone else finally reached for one goodie too many, and they are now exposed.

The hope for the future lies in major, revolutionary, fundamental change in our institutions and systems. Settling for incremental change that begs patience of people who have run out of time to care for themselves and their families won't cut it. We will be peaceful, but we're through being polite.

Lord, have mercy on us all, and especially on our children.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

My experience as a child from an immigrant home taught me much the same thing, Lelanda.

We are talking about a revolution. I think we're just seeing the beginnings of it.

MarkBrunson said...

I stand by my - simplistic, I'm told by economists, who are paid to make things complex - view that

Those who profit most from a society should pay the highest tax rate.

Our politicians are, indeed, the problem. They are allowed to profit by their office. Remove that ability - force them to live only on their government paycheck (which should be derived from the median income of their area of representation) while in office, cut off all private funding for election campaigns with stiff mandatory penalties for receiving and giving such private funding, make it illegal to receive any "gifts" from private individuals or corporations while in office, including future gifts offered while in office, require a full audit/accounting from each office on a quarterly basis.

This is hardly all-inclusive, but as long as the politicians can profit by their office, they will sell us to the highest bidder. That has to be stopped, to stop Wall Street.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

MarkB - Politicians are a major source of the problem. Their lust of power is akin to the bankers' and investors' greed.

We really, really need to put regulation back into place. Fast.

Turtle Woman said...

Back in the 80s, I was in career transition, but I happened to have the good fortune to meet a lesbian who was a senior vice president at a major bank in town. Back then, she managed millions of dollars, and she was the most successful self-made lesbian or women I had ever known. This caused me to go into financial services.

The access was based on my actually being in a position to meet a lesbian like this, and to learn directly from her. A kind of mentor, if you will.

Every field in America pays women less... it's a system of total exploitation, so that women will still have to marry and live with men. Where they are owned financially by men. This hasn't really changed percentage wise in the last 40 years, but the church could do wonders by creating the SIN of underpaying women. Men could be sent to hell for this one crime alone, and I'd love to hear some hell fire and brimstone sermons attacking the patriarchs, the male bosses, the male dominated world that is horrifying. It's not just Wall Street, it is Malestreat USA, and there is no escape from it!!