Marine Lance Cpl. Scott Olsen, blood flowing down the side of his head, is now the face of the #occupy movement. Olsen, a veteran of two tours in Iraq, was severely injured, apparently hit in the head with a tear-gas canister when the Oakland, CA police department used the gas to clear out the #occupyoakland encampment. “We are all Scott Olsen” declares the #occupywallstreet Web site.
“We are all Scott Olsen” is a reference to the famous Facebook group, “We are all Khalid Said” that was dedicated to a young Egyptian man who died, beaten to death, after having been arrested by the Egyptian police. This Facebook group brought attention to his death and helped lead up to the Jan. 25th Egyptian revolution.
We definitely need to condemn police brutality against peacefully protesting demonstrators in the U.S.; there are reports of escalating force used by police in Denver, Colo. this weekend. Faith leaders are uniting to condemn violence by police in a petition from the group Faithful America. The petition says, “As people of faith, we condemn all violence and repression targeting the Occupy Wall Street movement. In communities across America, occupiers are providing a peaceful witness against corporate greed and economic injustice. We call on local authorities to respect their freedom of expression.”
We must not lose sight of the fact, as the Faithful America petition highlights, that there is an original violence that created the #occupy protests in the United States; this is the “corporate greed and economic injustice” of Wall Street. This is not the murderous regime of Hosni Mubarak, certainly. But it is violence nonetheless.
In the United States what we are up against is “institutionalized violence,” as Mary Potter Engel and I describe it in Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theologies from the Underside . Institutionalized violence is the violence of systems that create and sustain economic and social injustice on a wide scale. What we are struggling against in the U.S. is the deliberate creation, especially over the last thirty years, of an economic system that is squeezing out the middle and lower classes, the 99%, and creating a small group of megarich, the 1 percent.
This kind of violence may be systemic, but that does not mean it does not have physically violent effects. This violence is the child who goes to bed hungry, and becomes more and more malnourished as child hunger is rising dramatically in our nation. This violence is the 45, 000 Americans who now die annually from lack of health insurance. This is the strangling of the body, soul and spirit of the young who live in increasingly violent and decaying urban areas where gun violence is an every-day reality, as in Chicago.
First you need to know the faces of institutionalized economic violence in the U.S., the pinched face of the hungry child, the uninsured parent choosing paying the rent over taking their sick child to the doctor, and the anguish of whole communities riddled with bullets.
Then you also need charts. In the three decades before the beginning of the Great Recession, Congressional Budget Office data shows “Among the poorest fifth of households, income grew 18 percent. For the next three quintiles, it grew just shy of 40 percent. For the richest fifth, it grew 65 percent. And for the top percentile, it grew by a whopping 275 percent, which means it nearly tripled. Bottom line: Income inequality exists.”
It is these decades of dramatically increasing income inequality that are the institutionalized violence that gave rise to the #occupywallstreet movement.
The #occupy demonstrations have by and large been nonviolent. They are deliberately, even exhaustingly inclusive with the decision-making by the general assembly process adopted throughout the country. Rita Nakashima Brock, who has been at the #occupyoakland demonstrations several times, observes, “The 99% Movement I have been seeing in Oakland has that bedrock of good will, determination, and complexity.”
There is shouting and pushing and shoving by demonstrators, certainly. But that is a response to police interference in their constitutionally guaranteed rights to free speech and peaceful assembly.
But even as we decry policy brutality against the #occupy protestors, we must not lose sight of the original, institutionalized violence of the drastic increase in income inequality that is why, as Eugene Robinson writes, “Occupy Wall Street struck a nerve.” What has been happening in the last thirty years is “Republican-style redistribution — stealing from the poor to give to the rich.”
You know, “stealing from the poor to give to the rich” isn’t good for the rich either. Jesus asks us to consider not only the effects of drastic income inequality on the 99 percent, but also what it does to the 1percent to create such inequality. “What does it profit you,” he asked, “if you gain the whole world and lose your soul?” (Mark 8:36)
That is the heart of institutionalized violence, the drive to ‘gain the whole world’ at the expense of everybody else. It is a profound corruption at the heart of our nation and it will not be easy to disassemble its long-term structures, but it must be done.
I do not put my trust in the 1 percent to come up with the solutions. I believe all of those who are demonstrating around the country at the #occupy encampments are getting us on the right track, and causing us to ask the right questions.
Are we really going to put up with more of the institutionalized violence of income inequality, or will we exercise the power we have as the 99 percent and find another way?