Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Don't Be Expecting the Poor

The poor won't rise up and swell the ranks of the Occupy Wall Street crowd. Why? Part of the reason is because they are not really all that poor. Yes, when you compare the poor in this country to the rich, they have a lot less. But most of the time they are sheltered and eating, which makes our "poor" very different from the desperate people in say, Tunisia, where the Arab riots began in December 2010 when Mohammed Bouazizi who had spent most of his life trying to make money by selling fruits and veggies refused to pay a bribe to  police.  He failed to produce any "permit". They confiscated his produce cart. He resisted. They beat him up. People have to eat, and when corruption and a general lack of plenty,  interferes with someone's ability to do that, they are going to summon up the energy to fight.

The fact that our poor are not even near destitute is due to our vast social programs. Today I stopped by the Occupy Chapel Hill encampment, and as is my habit I spoke with one of the passersby. She was ambling toward a bench, trying to read the sidewalk drawings, muttering under her breath "as long as they don't get violent." So I sat down with her to find out what she thinks about Occupy Chapel Hill and we talked for a long time. She had been a protester in the sixties, and was very proud of that. She even showed me a bracelet she was wearing reminiscent of that time. She said she has since grown up and learned that kind of protesting won't work. She voted for Obama, and is not sure if she'll do that again. She's a huge believer in capitalism and thinks the reason the OWS people are willing to sleep in tents to protest the injustice they see in the world is "because they are 18". She  knows "for sure" you can't change anything by screaming and fussing in the streets, you have to change things from within. 

Burdened with diabetes, this sweet and intelligent lady has been disabled for six years and  lives in an assisted living center; her net worth less than a dollar today. She opened her purse and showed me a bank receipt from this morning.  She had just been by the bank to take out 49 cents out of the 50 she had on deposit. (She left a penny to keep the account open.) To buy one stamp she had to make that withdrawal. After mailing an important letter, she now has the one penny in the bank, and another 30 cents in her purse. 

But she is not going to join the protest. No way. No how. Not only does she feel strongly that it won't change anything, but she has a place to sleep tonight. She's well enough clothed to deal with the weather, and she is going to keep getting her meals at the facility where she lives. This is all funded, no doubt,  through the largesse of the taxpayers of NC and the US. She'll be getting another check soon. She said the jobs plan may not work and parts of the stimulus were a little silly.  She was glad to get the $200.00 check Obama sent her; spent the money right away. That was supposed to help get the economy going, but in her opinion, most of the people who got that check wasted the money on stuff they did not really need.

She is not resentful that her next government check won't be a lot bigger.  She is glad she lives in the United States of America where people are tolerated when they set up tents in protest. I asked her if she is worried that the people of Occupy Chapel Hill are going to turn violent. She says if they do, it will only continue "if their daddies come and bail them out of jail".

When I told the lady I am a photojournalist for the MIddle Class Power website she sported a huge smile and held out an open hand. She told me I ought to take a picture of the Northface logo on one of the tents. Poor people have nowhere near enough money to buy Northface products, she noted, and therefore, she is pretty sure the person who brought that tent and is camped out at Peace and Justice Plaza on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC, is not living in poverty. 

The woman senses most of the participants are doing pretty well in life. And maybe she is right. And where, then, are the poor? In some cases, they're not joining in to OWS, because they, like this lady, are not living in anything close to a state of desperation. I guess the lesson for the OWS crowd is this: its fine to demand the dismantling of the world as we know it in order to help the poor. But as you are moving on your goal, take a look behind you and see if life's most desperate characters are in such bad straits that they have decided to follow you.

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