This post was originally published on September 28, 2011 on the Huffington Post.
There comes a time in every generation when its members must choose between the path in front of them and a path that juts out towards another destination. We are now seeing this choice play out on Wall Street and the streets of Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and dozens of other cities.
Most Americans have yet to even hear of these demonstrations, thanks to a virtual news blackout in mainstream media outlets. To those of us who do hear about them, these gatherings may appear to be a lunatic fringe, barely worthy of note, let alone interest or support.
I would like to suggest another point of view.
Spotting the Danger
What we are seeing in Occupy Wall Street and related events around the country is our youth, at least some small segment of it, telling us that everything is not alright. They are telling us that our social fabric is stretched to a dangerous point of fraying.
If you were an analyst working in the Department of Homeland Security, you would be worrying about this right now. You would be concerned about this country’s high income disparity and unemployment figures (especially among the youth), about the public’s record-low regard for government, and you would be making connections not just to the Arab Spring, but more alarmingly, to the riots that happened in London this summer.
If you were working in the Department of Homeland Security, many of us — even here on the Huffington Post — would have to acknowledge a side of us that shared your obsession with social stability. For we, the home owners, the job holders, the tax payers of this country, we know that while there is much that is wrong with our system of government and within our economy, deep down, we are more deeply worried over the prospect of wholesale social disorder.
And for this reason, we may just be willing to look the other way as police departments crack down a little faster and a little harder on demonstrations like those that are happening on Wall Street, as they interrogate social change leaders and search for patterns of conspiracy in our communities.
The problem with all this is that it takes us in precisely the wrong direction. Wrong, not just in the moral sense that it betrays the fundamental principles of our democracy, but wrong in the strategic sense that it actually increases the likelihood of longer-term, violent social disorder.
New York, London and Cairo
New York City is not Cairo, of course. It actually is a large city, teeming with unemployed youth, just as Cairo was last spring, but it is also a large city, teeming with unemployed youth in a developed country with well-established channels for democratic discourse.
Just like London.
New York City is more like London than it is like Cairo on many dimensions, and that is why it is so important to remember that it was London that burned this summer. While things are still very much in flux in Egypt, the images of those brave Egyptian youth gathered in Tahrir Square is what shines so brightly for many of us as a symbol of peaceful, democratic change.
Could it be that it is not the presence of young protestors on the streets that represents the scariest prospects for social disruption, but instead their absence?
The true threat is not peaceful demonstration and democratic expression — no matter how big they might actually get. No, the real threat to social stability are the nameless faces, emerging suddenly and without warning in the night, angry at the world and lashing out indiscriminately in mobs of violence.
Unlike established social change leaders or the young people now gathering on Wall Street, the potential rioters of our future are not people who can even be identified today by the Department of Homeland Security. That is because these individuals don’t even know within themselves that they are the ones who might, under the wrong conditions, set out one night with gasoline canister and lighter in hand.
Those were the people who burned the city of London. They were a very different category of young people than those who gathered so bravely in Tahrir Square just a few months earlier and those who know gather on Wall Street.
The mindset of the London rioters was the mindset of the vandal. While there may be many reasons for their anger and frustration, they cloak their actions in the veil of night and the cover of lawlessness. In contrast, the young people of Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street operate in the full light of day, under the watchful eye of the law, and with the goal of protecting democracy.
Not the Enemy
So, to members of our Department of Homeland Security and to police officers in cities across this country, I say that these young people now gathering for peaceful demonstrations in our communities are not your enemy.
They may seem misguided, unruly and disrespectful at times. You may not like their attitudes or the way they look. But these young people are responding to very real problems in our communities. Like many of your neighbors, friends and loved ones, they have lost faith in our political system, and so they are doing it in the only way they believe will actually work. These young people — like you — have friends, neighbors, and loved ones who are really hurting right now because of the economy. This is their way of trying to help — to help us all.
These brave young people are not your enemy. Intimidating them, enclosing them in fences of orange tape, and physically harming them — these are all dangerous strategies; not because it might make their numbers grow — but because it could do just the opposite. It just might succeed in forcing them pack up and go home, in a heart-breaking silence that would spread subtly and insidiously across this great land.
The Real Risk
If that happens, if these young people are cowed into submission, or worse, simply ignored by the rest of us in society, then their courage will have been in vain. This promising catalyst that might have helped us all to find the courage to take our own stand, to give voice to our frustrations and work to protect this great country from further excesses of Wall Street — all of this will have been wasted.
More chillingly, these young people’s role as a kind of societal ‘smoke detector’ will also have been lost, just as surely as going through our own home to systematically remove the batteries from the smoke detectors in our bedrooms, kitchens and basements, in the optimistic assumption that a fire could never actually happen in our home.
These young people deserve our attention and our respect. They need our help in turning their idealism into actual solutions to move our country out of its current state of decline. If we choose to leave them hanging, if we choose to abandon them, then we are the ones deciding to move cities like New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and scores of other communities across this country off the path to Cairo, and dangerously onto the path to London.