I’ve been having a hard time getting my head around the Occupy Asheville movement. After reading many news reports, I’m still bewildered.
I may be classified as a member of the 1 per cent, but I strongly believe that many in the 99 percent are getting the short end of the economic stick.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time fighting against institutional economic discrimination against the 99 percent, perhaps because I resided at the lower end of that 99 percent in my early days. I understand their plight.
I’ve taken on banks, insurance companies, medical practitioners and even food-stamp bureaucrats on behalf of friends and employees in an effort to get them fair and honest treatment.
In December, I visited the Occupy campground on a hallowed little piece of city property. I was surprised to find a mostly orderly array of tents, with little trash. What was very disturbing was the lack of sanitary facilities.
I read all their signs and saw several people in the encampment, but no one engaged me in discussion. Not wanting to intrude, I moved on with no additional knowledge of where they were going with this.
I decided that while I found their protest method disingenuous, I didn’t think these idealistic people should be without toilet facilities, risking their health and that of the general public.
In the spirit of the season, I called an official at City Hall and offered to pay to have a porta-potty placed at the site. I was shocked to find out that this was not legal: No one in the group was willing to sign a permit, which created a liability issue.
Apparently, part of the Occupy philosophy is that they shouldn’t have a leader. They base this on an anarchistic belief that there should be no government structure. Yet when they were having problems with outsiders at their previous camp on Lexington, they called the police. Isn’t that a government structure?
I guess my major problem is that I’m a linear person, and I’ve somehow failed to grasp exactly what they’re trying to accomplish — and what they’re asking sympathetic citizens to do.
There’s a strange analogy in John Gray’s book Men Are From Mars, Women Are from Venus. When a woman presents a problem to a man, he writes, the man instinctively offers solutions. The woman, however, doesn’t want that: She just wants to talk about it.
When the Vietnam War began and the president instituted the draft, many of those who, like me, had answered the call when our government asked us to fight previous wars didn’t understand why the young men of that era objected to going to Vietnam.
There were huge protests led by long-haired people who looked like refugees from Haight-Ashbury and Woodstock. Their appearance and militant actions turned off Middle America, and most (including me) refused to join their protests, even though it turned out that their cause was eminently just: The Vietnam War was one of the stupidest military adventures this country has ever attempted.
It came down to this: Were these protesters more interested in offending mainstream people or bringing the war to an end? If the protesters had worn conventional attire and made their case in a forceful but rational manner, I’m convinced the war would have ended two years sooner.
Take a page from the civil rights movement. Dressed respectfully and behaving peacefully, African-Americans were occupying Woolworth lunch counters many years before most of you guys were born, and they were very successful in ending racial segregation.
The bottom line you’re turning off many of the 99 percenters you wish to help. Besides finding your appearance and your camping on city property unappealing, they see your unconventional efforts as a negative because of the cost to taxpayers and the extraordinary pressure put on law enforcement and city employees.
Here’s some free advice, which you may deem worth exactly what you’re paying for it:
1. Change your tactics. Dress up for your protests and public appearances. This will generate much more attention and shock value.
2. Move out of the camp. I don’t think your idealistic sacrifice is effective and worth the danger and discomfort. There’s nothing to stop you from protesting every day in City/County Plaza or anywhere else.
3. Explain Yourselves. Develop a bill of particulars that spells out what you wish to accomplish.
4. Help local people. Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity or Pisgah Legal Services, aiding the homeless or preventing illegal foreclosures, and make sure your efforts get publicity.
5. Practice smart salesmanship. Dress to win, appear before officials with specific requests and be prepared to defend your position with logic, not rhetoric.
6. Develop allies. If you approached them properly, I’ll bet you could enlist the cooperation and support of the small-business community and the small commercial investors who’ve been totally screwed over by banks that call their loans without reasonable provocation or won’t renew the real estate loans of people with good credit who’ve never missed a payment. This has seriously impacted our job market.
You must decide: Do you want to win or do you just want to talk about it?
— Asheville native Jerry Sternberg, a longtime observer of the local scene, can be reached at email@example.com.