by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - November 21, 2011) Of all the images I've seen of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations all over the United States, probably the most gripping is that of a young man with a dollar bill taped across his mouth. I saw it first in The New York Times online edition and then shortly afterward on the cover of The Economist. I showed the image to my students -- none of whom are protesters -- and they knew immediately that it expressed the spirit of the Occupy demonstrations. What did it mean? I asked. "That money talks more loudly than words," one student said. Another added, "You gotta put your money where your mouth is." Clichés don't die easily.
I saw that compelling image and thought of Herman Melville's cry of frustration as a writer cheated by the marketplace. "Dollars damn me," he said, and I knew what he meant, too, as an American writer in a land that rewarded merchants and not artists such as himself.
I also thought of the day that Abbie Hoffman, the founder of the Yippies, went to the visitors' gallery at the New York Stock Exchange in 1967 and threw dollar bills to the floor, then watched the traders scramble for them as fast as they could. No one needed to have that image translated into plain English, or Spanish, or Russian. In every language the meaning was nearly the same. The stockbrokers got it right away and almost immediately closed the gallery to visitors; it hasn't reopened in the past four-and-a-half decades. Yes, money talks, or rather it "swears," as Bob Dylan sings in "It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding").
Of course, many of the images of the demonstrators in New York, Boston, Chicago, Austin, and Oakland don't need explanation either, nor the pictures of the police in Denver with automatic weapons pointed at protesters and looking as murderous as the police in China, Syria, or Greece.
I really do abhor violence and I hope that it doesn't explode at any of the Occupy demonstrations, but it does seem to me that it's only a matter of time before the police somewhere, sometime, shoot and kill a protester. In Oakland, the police almost did kill a man. In fact, they only wounded Scott Olson, an ex-marine and veteran of the War in Iraq who now belongs to Iraq Veterans Against the War. His bloodied face, plastered across the front pages of newspapers, was a stark reminder of police power that's bound to be exercised now that the power of the dollar is threatened, and now, too, that bankers and their allies in city governments feel their power waning.
Yes, my dears, America is a democracy. Yes, it's a free country. But it also has a long, nearly unbroken history of bloody, bloody violence directed toward protesters, strikers, and resisters. Long, long ago, I learned from Professor George Rude, the British historian of the French Revolution and the power of the crowd in history, not to believe what newspapers, historians, and politicians habitually say about violence. Indeed, I had fallen for the Big Lie that it was "the people" in the streets who were the violent ones, and that the police were law-abiding. Professor Rude changed my thinking back there in the 1960s, when African Americans were rioting in cities across the country and police and national guardsmen were shooting them.
"If you want to know who's violent, look at which side the casualties are on and notice who's causing the casualties," Rude said. "From the French Revolution to the modern day, the casualties are almost always on the side of the workers, the strikers, and the marchers in the streets. They're not the ones who are violent. The police and the militia have the guns. They're the killers and the murderers. They have blood on their hands."
There's one final image I want to mention. In it, a bearded, smiling young man holds up a sign that reads, "I love humanity. Let's figure this shit out together!" Those words express the utopian spirit and the blunt language of the Occupy demonstrators everywhere. The utopian spirit often seems to die, but it always comes back, often when one least expects it, and it invigorates crowds. The Occupy demonstrators might not be able to change banks, bankers, banking, and the dollars that damn them, but they have already changed themselves in radical ways, and staked themselves to the old, old cause of humanism and grass roots democracy.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin teaches in the communication studies department at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine and The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)