If the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were alive, he surely would feel honored that the United States on Sunday is dedicating a stone memorial to him on the Mall. But King would likely have been equally gratified by new, living monuments to his legacy about a mile away.
Is there any doubt that King would be marching today with the demonstrators in the Occupy Wall Street movement, urging liberal reforms of the U.S. economy? That he’d be supporting the protesters who have erected camps in two squares in downtown Washington, as well as in New York and other cities?
Although King achieved fame by leading the fight against racial segregation, he also was deeply committed to economic justice. He was killed while helping striking sanitation workers in Memphis win a livable wage.
“If we had the privilege of him being here, I know he would be with us,” said Matt Crosby, 25, one of the activists who have pitched tents at McPherson Square amid K Street’s corporate lobbyists.
“Some people say this is a continuation of [King’s] Poor People’s Campaign,” said Kevin Zeese, 55, an organizer of the camp at Freedom Plaza, just southeast of the White House.
Of course, the new movement is only in its infancy. It must overcome significant obstacles before it can dream of achieving the success King had with the civil rights effort.
I saw the scale of the challenge in visits last week to two very different sorts of places downtown. One was the two protest encampments themselves. The other was a rowhouse in Adams Morgan that houses Jubilee Jobs, a nonprofit group that helps the unemployed find work, usually at minimum wage.
What I saw, in simple terms, is that most of the people doing the demonstrating right now are not the ones who are suffering most acutely from the country’s economic troubles.
The protesters are mostly college-educated idealists from the middle or upper-middle class. Some homeless people have joined them, but most of the people there seemed to come from a relatively comfortable background.
“I’m definitely upper-middle class,” said Mike Isaacson, 23, a graduate student in economics at Howard University. “I’m fed up with corporations being able to dictate public policy.”
The protesters have energy, passion and ideas (albeit still fuzzy) about how to improve conditions for folks at the bottom. But the people seeking work at Jubilee Jobs, who actually are at the bottom, can’t afford time for politics because they’re too preoccupied trying to survive from day to day.
Only a minority of the job seekers have high school degrees. Many have lost their homes and live with relatives or friends.
They’re desperate for a position that pays $8.25 an hour, even part time, just to help cover rent and groceries. They worry each day about where to find $5 or $6 for bus fare.
“There’s a deep discouragement,” said Terry Flood, executive director of Jubilee Jobs. “If you’re 40 years old and you’re unemployed, it’s hard to dream again.”
Mario Alcantara, 58, who’s been seeking work for 21 / 2 years after losing his job as a doorman, was surprised when I asked him if he ever considered participating in protests.
“I never got involved in anything like that. Maybe I’ve been too busy trying to make the dollar every day,” he said.
No such disconnect hobbled the anti-segregation protests that King used to organize. The core demonstrators were African Americans suffering directly and personally from discrimination.
Today’s anti-Wall Street campaign isn’t going to last long or have much impact unless it can attract both foot soldiers and commanders from a broader social base.
To their credit, the demonstrators are aware of the challenge and have discussed it in the loosely organized “general assemblies” where they plan strategy. They are considering handing out fliers at Metro stations in poorer neighborhoods and urging people to come hear their ideas.
“Our job is absolutely to reach out to everyone affected by this rapacious system,” said Ashley Sanders, 29.
If the activists in the parks can find a way to connect with the poor in the job-placement hall, then they could build a movement that would honor Dr. King as much as the new statue on hallowed ground between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials.
When a lightning storm was threatening on Thursday, the pro-tax, anti-corporate protesters at Freedom Plaza moved their evening assembly to the food court of the nearby Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.