Spirits were high in the freezing temperature Monday morning as a group of 70-odd protesters called for economic and social equality in front of the New York City Federal Reserve bank in downtown Manhattan.
The area, located only one block away from Zuccotti Park, where the "Occupy Wall Street" (OWS) movement originated, has already seen the banners and heard the slogans. But the Monday protest – held on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day – was also complete with prayers and hymns. Protesters evoked the spirit of brotherhood and unity, while also evoking the legacy of King, the most revered civil rights activist in the United States.
“Occupy the Dream” (OTD) was born when members of the African-American faith community joined forces with OWS to launch “a new campaign for economic justice inspired by the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., faithful to its philosophical origin,” organizers said in a recent statement. Monday was only the first day of an initiative that is intended to last until the goal is achieved.
The new movement is led by Dr. Benjamin Chavis Jr., a legendary civil rights activist who worked with King, and the Rev. Dr. Jamal Bryant of the Empowerment Temple Church in Baltimore, Md. Many participants in the protest expressed hope that the association of religious leaders with the OWS movement will revive the initiative that started at Zuccotti Park and add to its lobbying power.
As the OWS movement, so vital in the fall, seems to have lost a lot of its steam by January, it is being joined by church leaders from across the country, who draw a comparison between the struggle of the “99 percent” and the civil rights movement. However, OTD's first official protest was not held in front of the New York Stock Exchange, but a federal building, to bring lawmakers’ attention to what protesters claim are huge social and economic inequalities in the country.
The event was small and peaceful – especially compared to the OWS protesters' clashes with police – with several recognizable civil rights activists – Queen Mother Dr. Delois N. Blakely, Norman Siegel, Bishop Mitchell G. Taylor – marching toward the Fed, followed by other participants, and eventually joining with a handful of OWS protesters, and Dr. Chavis.
Not many prominent pastors across the country know about the “Occupy the Dream” movement, but that is about to change, organizers insist.
“It’s ‘Occupy the Dream,’ it’s about Dr. King’s dream, it’s about fighting economic injustice, calling for economic equality,’ ” Chavis told The Christian Post Monday, right before walking off to the rally destination. “We’re paying our respects to the living legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”
The church had a great role in the U.S. civil rights movement, Chavis emphasized in his speech.
“The church has always been at the center of every movement, of every struggle; the movement denounces the barriers that have existed for many, many years,” the economic barriers, he cried through a loud speaker.
“The dream is still alive and still evolving,” said Taylor, evoking King's “I Have a Dream speech.” The minister called for social and economic justice, while protesters in the crowd held banners with slogans like: “This Country is Still Segregated.”
“We’re challenging the economic inequality of the system,” said Norman Siegel, a known civil rights advocate. “The Federal Reserve in 13 cities across America is the symbol of jeopardy.”
“There’s 400 billionaires in America, and hundreds of thousands of homeless people,” he added. “We can do better.”
Racial prejudices that also some say still divide society were mentioned on multiple occasions, with the crowd chanting at some point against unlawful frisks conducted by the police.
With its noble rhetoric and legacy of MLK, the OTD movement still attracted some criticism.
In a recent conversation with CP, the Rev. Lee Peterson, founder and president of The South Central Los Angeles Tea Party and BOND Action, called the movement a “scam.”
“They're trying to use Dr. King's name to collect money for themselves,” Peterson said. “They should be ashamed of themselves.”
The “Occupy” movement is nothing like Dr. King's activism – those that compare the two are liars, he said.
“There's no comparison. Occupy is violent, nasty, dirty and they disrespect other people's property,” Peterson said. “They're trying to force someone to give them something and that wasn't King's dream.”
According to Peterson, organizations like the NAACP and Planned Parenthood are using Dr. King's name in vain to gain money and power, insisting that the Baptist minister and civil rights icon's dream is dead.
During the Monday rally, the protesters chanted quite the opposite.
Meanwhile, the movement is also gaining popular celebrity figures as supporters. One of them is music and fashion mogul Russell Simmons. Simons has described his views on the racial side of the argument in a recent article he co-wrote with MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan, “Occupy the Dream: The Mathematics of Racism,” in which they suggest that “the war on drugs” is the new form of racism in the country, and as long as any form of it still exists, there is still room for fighting social injustice and racial inequality
“This is the face of racism today. It isn't the racist sheriff in Alabama turning hoses and dogs onto protesters, or the all-white development or country club, but the smooth lobbyist and campaign contributor discussing the efficiency of private prison initiatives or the politician too cowardly to act on decriminalizing marijuana for fear of antagonizing a powerful lobby. It's racism, Greedy-Bastards-style,” reads the article, also written in celebration of MLK Day.
Simmons also appeared at Riverside Church in New York Sunday for a spirited vigil complete with performances by Patti Smith, Steve Earl, Stephan Said, and Kozza Olantunji. Riverside Church ministered to protesters in Zuccotti Park and also hosted occupiers when they were eventually evicted from the park, the church's spokesperson told CP.
Sunday, Jan. 22, Riverside Church will host a panel called “Occupy the Mind,” in which Dr. Cornel West, the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, Rabbi Michael Lerner, Richard D. Wolff, James Vrettos and the Rev. Stephen H. Phelps discusses a “progressive moral agenda for the 21st century.”