Monthly Archives: September 2012

A homeless man named Dwayne: Occupy, one year later

Just three hours ago, I had no intention of writing a blog post about the meaning of Occupy one year later. It certainly doesn’t mean that I don’t empathize with the movement; in fact, I was involved with local activities and even took my ‘Critical Media’ students to a sit-in with protesters so that they could gain insight that wasn’t filtered by the corporate media. But, it has been an exhausting week. Driving home after treating myself to a much-needed massage, I was daydreaming of an evening filled with pop culture magazines, chocolate and a relaxing bath.

And then I met a man named Dwayne.

Right at the intersection, before I got whisked off into the highway with other tired, irritated drivers making their way home during the height of rush hour, I was stopped at a red light for about three minutes. When I turned my head, I saw him at the intersection. He was holding a sign, with an orange vest on and I immediately felt a mixture of empathy and guilt. Empathy because of his situation, and guilt because I was in no position to help at the moment, trapped in my car in the middle of a highway, with no money of my own to give.

And then, he smiled at me, and pointed to my long dangling earrings that were made of seeds from Brazil, tinged in a vibrant shade of orange (when I do fall colors, I do fall colors). He gave me a thumbs-up, and I felt a rush of disbelief overcome me. Here was this man, clearly struggling, trying to remain visible to a stream of people in moving vehicles, many of whom were probably pretending that he was not there, noticing something about me and wanting to make a connection. I was immediately grateful.

I rolled down the window, and we talked, for two short minutes. His name was Dwayne, and he had been homeless for the last six months. He was looking for work, he told me, but not having a driver’s license made it difficult to get to job interviews. He then acknowledged that “everyone’s struggling, so no one is really able to give me much money” and that this month in particular had been the hardest for him. He asked me for my name, and I told him, in the midst of honking cars that indicated the light had turned from red to green. When I was forced to drive away, he shouted ‘God Bless’ and blew me a kiss.

I thought of Dwayne the entire drive home, while standing in the checkout line at Food Lion, and as I sat on my futon at home, reflecting on our conversation and his comments about shared struggle. And it was then that I suddenly felt inspired to write about Occupy.

An Occupy Wall Street campaign demonstrator stands in Zuccotti Park, near Wall Street in New York (photo courtesy of Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When Occupy Wall Street erupted last September, it was one of the most exciting protest movements my generation had witnessed since the WTO protests in 1999. Building momentum from both the Arab Spring and the public frustration over the debt ceiling crisis in the summer of 2011, at the heart of the seemingly disparate movement were two main points of critique: that the distribution of wealth and opportunity in our culture was inequitable, and that the media system, controlled mainly by the ‘big six’ corporations, contributed to that status quo.

And not surprisingly, the media lived up to its reputation as an institution that never disappoints in its marginalization of activist causes. Media watchdog groups like Free Press and Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting published stories on how Occupy was denigrated as a ‘hippie movement’ that didn’t have any idea what they wanted. Instead of interviewing the people who were involved in the movement, the media chose to rely on a stream of ‘experts’ and scholars to speak on behalf of the protesters, who were labeled in different media outlets as ‘crackheads’ (Bill O’Reilly for Fox, 10/14/11), ‘boring’ (Bill Keller, former executive editor for the New York Times, 10/14/11), ‘indignant indolents’ (Charles Krauthammer, The Washington Post, 10/17/11) and ‘Milquetoast Radicals’ (David Brooks, The New York Times, 10/11/11).

And in a way, it makes sense. Mainstream news organizations are often reticent to report favorably on anti-corporate movements because they are themselves, owned by corporations. It creates a conflict of interest. Take Erin Burnett, a CNN reporter who was lambasted for her derogatory remarks towards the protesters. Guess where she worked before her tenure at CNN? Goldman Sachs and Citigroup—the same financial companies that profited from the bailouts the Occupiers were protesting!

To be fair, the media did start to portray the movement more evenly, as public opinion revealed a majority who were sympathetic to the Occupy cause. Even then though, the political media’s attempts to frame politics in a bipartisan manner often resulted in Occupy being labeled as a counterweight to the Tea Party, which conflicted with the anti-establishment message of a movement that freely critiqued Obama as much as it did the banks.

Jonathan Wall releases his statement on how a sports bar in Raleigh kicked him out for no reason.

Now, celebrating its one-year anniversary, Occupy finds itself again denigrated by a media establishment that never really understood it. FAIR published a story on the different news outlets that proclaimed the Occupy Movement to be a failure and a fad. While there is some truth to the claim that Occupy was not able to create legislative and regulative change in the banking system (more likely due to the barriers in our political climate than any real issues within the movement itself), it succeeded in other important ways. Most notably, it helped to change the national conversation on wealth and inequality, creating the Twitter meme of #occupy and spurring occupy movements across the country that responded to local needs and issues. One local example I can personally cite was the ‘Occupy Downtown Sports Bars’ in Raleigh which was organized after a black Harvard graduate student got kicked out of a downtown bar for no apparent reason.

My students attend a local Occupy sit-in.

And since when do protests have to achieve everything they hope to accomplish in a span of one year? If the Occupy movement hoped to deliver a marked critique of inequality, and call for a government that represents the needs of citizens instead of the big banks or corporations, then I would argue that they did a pretty decent job in 12 short months. They centered this question of economic inequality in national discourse for the first time since the 1960s, were involved in movements to protect citizens from evictions and foreclosures, pressured President Obama to ease the loan burden, if marginally, to current recipients and focused the attention on police brutality towards marginalized communities. They bravely critiqued the corporatization of society, including that of the mainstream media, and encouraged people to become active citizens by seeking out alternative sources of information and media. As an instructor of cultural and media criticism always trying to instill the importance of societal and political engagement, I couldn’t have asked for better inspiration for my students.

So yes, one year later, a man named Dwayne is still homeless, and many people, as he himself so compassionately put it, are struggling. But that doesn’t mean that this revolution has failed. It has started a conversation about shifting the national paradigm to one of connection, to an inclusive society, to one that focuses on the needs of the people, to the 99%. It was about creating a world that works for everyone, including the 1%, who are also implicated in our society’s loss of community and intimacy.

Occupy reinforced my belief that the worst crimes committed are the ones that happen when we don’t ask questions. After decades of apathy that helped to create our current economic and cultural crisis, we can no longer stand to look the other way. So here I am writing at 2 a.m., wishing that I could forget about Dwayne and lose myself in the mindless world of celebrity magazines, but knowing that I can’t, because the conversation must go on.

8 Comments

Filed under Media & Culture

The Dalai Lama – can we get any more inspirational?

When I am feeling discouraged about the world – whether it’s just having a blah day, hearing a sad story from a refugee client, learning that a student can’t watch a movie with a rape scene because it would bring her own sexual assault too close to home, turning on the TV only to be assaulted with hateful campaigning during the election season, or just freaking out about my life as a young professional trying to make my way in this post-recession world, I look to the Dalai Lama for guidance.  I wanted to share two of my favorite quotes by him, and I hope this brings a smile to your lunch hour 🙂

“At the end of the talk someone from the audience asked the Dalai Lama “Why didn’t you fight back against the Chinese?”

The Dalai Lama looked down, swung his feet just a bit, then looked back up at us and said with a gentle smile, “Well, war is obsolete, you know.”

Then, after a few moments, his face grave, he said, “Of course the mind can rationalize fighting back… but the heart, the heart would never understand.  Then you would be divided in yourself, the heart and the mind, and the war would be inside you.”

Amazing. Here’s another one of my faves, one that I keep in my daily consciousness, one that encourages me when I have a student who asks me what’s the point of fighting for a better world when the world is already so screwed up, when we’re all so disconnected, when the 1% controls everything.  So many people expect change to happen overnight, and underestimate the value of their individual actions.

“Each of us has been born into this world, and each of us has been provided with a way to help others. A kind attitude of concern for those in our respective field of activity will affect them, even if it is just ten people, bringing them more comfort and less strife. If each of them, in turn, treats their associates in a similar way, then even though the effect will be gradual, it will in time be transformative. This is how we can change the world.”

Amen 🙂

Thousands of monks praying for peace.

2 Comments

Filed under Inspirations

Can Fashion Change the World?

“It’s quite incredible that we might save the world through fashion .” -Vivienne Westwood

In my recent post on New York Fashion week, I focused on the disconnect between the glamor and fantasy of the fashion industry with the exploitation that often hides beneath the glossy surface. I wanted to emphasize in this post, a few key players that are trying to work for more sustainable, ethical practices in the industry.

OK so first of all, what is ethical fashion girlfriends?? While I will no doubt touch on this subject many more times in my future blog posts, I really loved this definition from the ultimate in sustainable fashion information, the Ethical Fashion Forum.

” The meaning of ethical goes beyond doing no harm, representing an approach which strives to take an active role in poverty reduction, sustainable livelihood creation, minimizing and counteracting environmental concerns.”

Artisans at the Nairobi hub with Lisa Barratt, left, Jane Kabura, center, and Jeremy Brown, right, standing behind bags for Stella McCartney, Vivienne Westwood and Sass & Bide. Credit: Chloé Mukai/ITC Ethical Fashion Initiative

Obvi, that’s kind of amazing, but can it be done?  While the coverage of labor issues during fashion week was pretty paltry, The New York Times did run an incredible story on Simone Cipriani, head of the Ethical Fashion Initiative. Cipriani is connecting designers like Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney with Ghanian artisans,  who are working to the fair labor standards of $5 to $11 a day, making luxury items for the couture designers. Besides achieving a living wage, the work also gives many of these women employable skills that can empower them and help raise their families out of poverty.

Sustainability is still not widely understood though, and many associate the word with hippie-trippy, unattractive clothing, and well … Birkenstocks. Perhaps that’s why the awareness created by luxury brands could prove to be influential for changing the consumption patterns of the mainstream.  When Vivienne Westwood of her Ethical Fashion Collective line and Ilaria Venturini Fendi of her Carmina Campus line ask questions at New York Fashion week like ‘Was this made ethically?’ ‘Are the fabrics green?’ and ‘Were the workers treated fairly?’, this can have an incredible impact by encouraging ethical consumption but also proving that being stylish doesn’t come at a cost to others.

Martin Luther King Jr. said 45 years ago that “True revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies.” What exactly is it going to take to shift our values, to create a shared paradigm of ethical labor practices and more sustainable consumption? If it seems to be impossible, consider the resistance towards smoking reform in the mid-century, to the current situation where almost 50% of the U.S. population lives with smoking regulations in all workplaces, restaurants and bars. Yup, change can happen girlfriends, we just need to believe in it!

And a revolution seems to be happening,  and it’s not just within haute couture. Just this month activists staged flash ‘faint-ins’ at fast-fashion retailers H&M and the Gap to protest sweatshop conditions in countries like Cambodia, and workers in Cambodia are in turn striking for better pay. Check out this website, Fashioning Change, a self-described ‘do-gooder’ website that offers cute, eco-friendly alternatives to popular designer name brands. Their ‘Wear This, Not That’ feature is an easy way to compare some of your favorite clothes with more eco-conscious lines that have transparency in their supply chain. What’s more, these lines usually come at a cheaper price-tag then their brand-name comparison! Aaaand, it’s time to go shopping. 🙂

We need to fix the bloated nature of a fashion industry that creates a lot of waste with too many products that end up in landfills on one end, and too little pay for those who labor on the other. Vivienne Westwood, who is using her fashion line to promote environmentalism, has argued that fashion and anti-consumerism don’t necessarily contradict each other if people buy less, and in a more sustainable way. Check out her show from the London Paralympics in late August, where she ends her somewhat haphazard collection with a pointed cry for environmental advocacy, rolling out of a banner that reads “Climate Revolution.” A nod to her punk roots, it had me thinking, “Where is Pussy Riot??”

Have any thoughts on how we can shift our fast consumption to sustainability? Do you have any links to share, or know any peeps who are working on this cause? Please share with me, either in the comments below or via email! 🙂

10 Comments

Filed under Critical Fashion