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occupy detroit: faith in the future

November 28, 2011

I went down to St. Aloysius with my friend Dave today to meet with some of the members of the church who were interested in learning more about what the Occupy movement, and Occupy Detroit in particular, is all about; and it was a pretty enlightening experience. It’s been a little over two months since the emergence of the Occupy movement in New York, and taking a broader look at the phenomenon itself, I can see a lot of similarities between it at the Catholic social justice movement, which itself has always focused on things like equality, fairness, and a strong sense of community.

Listening to some of the older parishioners and social activists who were present for this informal gathering, it struck me that today’s younger generation may be subconsciously looking for a sense of community that has been lost over the past few decades, and a return to more community-based activism and creating more community-based (as opposed to purely political) organizations. The cultural trend over the past few decades has been towards extreme individualism and the fetishizing of privatization, as if ‘private’ somehow automatically equals ‘better’ or ‘more efficient.’ This has lead, in my opinion, to a culture of blaming the victim, when the victim (the economically declining 99%) is actually a symptom of a much larger systematic problem.

For example, if you’re underwater on your mortgage or student loan debt, it’s your fault and your problem (you shouldn’t have taken out more than you could afford). If you and your family are getting evicted from your home, it’s your fault and your problem (you should have kept up with the payments). If you’re laid-off and unemployed, it’s your fault and your problem (you should have found a new job already). If you don’t make enough money to pay all your bills and you don’t have any health insurance, it’s your fault and your problem (you should have gone to college to get a better paying job). If you get sick and go bankrupt because of all the medical bills, it’s your fault and your problem (you shouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place, or had a job with a good insurance plan).

Instead of looking around and seeing these people as our neighbors and members of our community (or just fellow human beings) who might need our help, we have a tendency to see them as merely irresponsible and/or lazy strangers who need to ‘man up’ and take responsibility for everything that happens, regardless of whether there’s ‘extenuating circumstances’ or bad luck involved. “It’s your fault and your problem, not mine. Deal with it!” And, sadly, the number of victims has been growing at an increasingly alarming rate, in no small part due to the actions of arguably ‘irresponsible’ people and financial institutions on Wall Street.

Both the Occupy movement and religious-based social justice movements in general, on the other hand, are, at their core, about coming together as a community (which is really what organizing is all about) and trying to make things better for everyone, gathering whatever money, time, and experience we, as individuals, have to offer into a single entity that’s dedicated to fighting things like economic inequality and poverty in our society. For some, like many involved in predominately religious-based social justice movements, this collective fight against inequality is something that’s part of their spiritual calling in life; while for others, like myself, it’s simply the most rational way to combat these social failings (neither of which are mutually exclusive). And regardless of where we each of us may stand on other issues, this is one battle we can all agree is worth fighting.

But exactly how to go about fighting this battle is something the fledgling Occupy movement is still trying to figure out for itself, especially here in Detroit, where a large portion of occupies are relatively young and inexperienced. And I think a lot of us newbie activists can potentially learn a lot from people like we met at St. Aloysius, many of whom spent their earlier years participating in the civil rights movement, and are still active in things like the anti-war movement, the economic justice movement, volunteering at soup kitchens and homeless shelters, etc. More importantly, many in the religious community already have access to resources and social networks in these areas, and linking them together with occupiers could go a long way in furthering the work we’re trying to do to strengthen and rebuild our community.

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