Posted by: Bill Tracy | October 20, 2011

Dignity and Witness and Occupy


Find out what it means to me

-Sung by Aretha Franklin

The worst crime you can commit in a prison is disrespect. You will be tolerated as a murderer, robber, rapist, pedophile, even a robber baron. Everybody in prison is guilty of some crime. But, do something that disrespects another inmate, that can get you killed. After you’ve lost everything, the one human thing you try to hold onto is respect, the basic dignity of your humanity. I think holding onto respect is what I saw last Saturday when I visited the Occupy Philadelphia encampment. Sensing that government and corporations are taking away everything, in effect disrespecting them, many people are finding in their humanity enough courage to resist. They’ve tent-citied City Hall and are saying, This is our land, who do you think you are?


Attitude matters.

Chris Hedges got it right in a recent Truthdig column. He wrote: “This rebellion creates a real community instead of a managed or virtual one. It affirms our dignity. It permits us to become free and independent human beings.” Yes, it affirms dignity. While reading Hedges I can hear George Bailey ranting at Henry Potter, the richest man in Beford Falls in It’s a Wonderful Life. “Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about… they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?” How long do they have to sleep in tents outside City Hall?

The richest people in this country today, unlike 1947 when that movie was made, own 90 percent of everything there is to own. That’s all the money, all the equity in corporations, all the houses and property and most of anything else that’s not nailed down. Said another way, the richest one percent of individuals in this country own more than the poorest 90 percent. That’s the truth of Capitalism as it’s committed in these United States in 2011. There are 400 individual people in this country who have a combined “net worth” greater than the poorest 150 million here. I’m sure their sociopathy is all that allows them to sleep at night. All this while U.S. corporations sit atop $2 trillion in cash they don’t know what to do with and tens of thousands of people who want to work have no jobs. The student loan scam is reaching Madoff proportions as debt now exceeds $1 trillion and a whole generation is slowly becoming enslaved. I think it’s disrespectful that a young person spends four college years preparing for a meaningful spot in the marketplace, is willing to repay the $30,000 or so in student loans and can get no better job than mopping a greasy floor in a donut shop for poverty wages.

I went to Occupy last Saturday to learn what’s going on. My basic questions:

  1. What do these people want? Who are they? Where have they suddenly come from?
  2. Why now? What prompted this?
  3. What will come of it? Can it last? When it ends, will it have mattered?

Symptoms are in the signs.

I don’t think I have answers to my questions yet, but I have some ideas. Between talking with people at the encampment and reading so called news coverage and commentaries, a fuzzy pictures begins to emerge. Admittedly this picture is framed by strong opinions I’ve previously stated in my own posts:

  • The U.S. government is corrupt beyond any hope of redemption. Rather than a government of the people, it is a government of the corporations. KBR has more influence in Washington, DC than any ordinary 100 million U.S. citizens.
  • We are brutalizing our young people instead of nurturing them. If they are not gunned down on the streets, if their lives don’t sink in the drug culture and prison institutionalization, they are enslaved for life with loans to pay for education.
  • We are the most violent nation in the history of the world, and this violence is deeply rooted in a culture of fear and ignorance. The economic cost of this violence is bankrupting us as we soldier over the world showing our self-righteousness and what we think is our might.
  • The United States has devolved into corporatocracy where humans are valued solely for their ability to produce and/or consume. If you don’t produce or consume, you have no worth. That’s total disrespect of the human being. Read the Catholic Worker Aims & Means for clarification.

Looking up....

When I asked one young woman about her best hope for an outcome of this movement, she impressed me most by sitting quietly and thinking about her response for a good 30 seconds. The long pause was respectful in itself. She said she wanted to see people taken care of. Her experiences suggest that the interests of business and government are more important than the welfare of people. She said she has student loans and little hope of any job beyond minimum wage. She said health care should be a basic human right instead of a business. She said she once had to go to an emergency medical facility and in spite of having medical insurance, it cost her $750 because there was only one doctor there, and he did not participate in the insurance coverage she had. “It’s just not fair,” she concluded. She wants a country where people are treated fairly, where people take care of one another, and she doesn’t see that now in this country.


Sometimes the faces tell it all.

A young man about to graduate from college wants to go on to a Ph.D. in philosophy. He wants to use philosophy as an underlying support for teaching a better way to build a society where people are not manipulated by media and the marketing establishment. After nearly $100,000 for the undergraduate degree, he wonders how he can fund this dream – and make enough to pay off student loans. He said he sometimes thinks about dropping out of the whole system, but “I feel like I’ve already been sucked in,” he said. Like sixties hippies he and friends have talked about going to a different country and living off the land in a sustaining community. Given the constraints of globalization, he sees no way to make that happen; again he’s trapped.

A 40-year-old “blue collar” worker in dire straits said he simply can’t find a job. He wants to work. “Where have the jobs gone?” he asked. He said he’s been surviving on food stamps and the kindness of family and strangers. I was struck by the caring in his face. There is real concern among these folks not just for themselves but for all the people of this country. They simply want the “level playing field” politicians and business people bandy about with such toothy disingenuousness.

Idea Wall

Having a say, mightier than the sword.

An “Idea Wall” was posted in Philadelphia where anyone could have their say with a black ink marker on a side of plywood. Much of it is visible in pictures at:

Here are a few items written on that wall:

  • Get corporations out of government
  • Take care of our own people USA
  • Government regulation of GREED
  • Economic human rights for everyone
  • Bring home the troops. Worry about our own country.
  • End war, live simply, care for the Earth, share its wealth with all.
  • Money is NOT happiness
  • We are all human and bleed the same. Treat everyone equal. Bring our troops home.
  • Help our kids and end world hunger.
  • Stop bailing out the rich.
  • Love and respect everyone in our new democracy.
  • No Gods, no Masters.
  • End racist war against immigrants.
  • Corporate owners, not slave owners. Pay the workers.
  • Love each other
  • Help clean up neighborhoods
  • We need to post a list of issues to communicate to the general public so they know what we are fighting for.

The fundamental unit of society showed up to be counted.

My first question was what do these people want? Turns out that’s irrelevant linear thinking. The question is the answer – these people are here, they are in the face of government and power. You don’t need stated “goals” when your action is one of Witness. I see this movement very much in terms of Witness. As Chris Hedges said, “All it can do is ask us to use our bodies and voices, often at personal risk, to fight back.”

The concept of witness seems either taken for granted or not well understood. Simply, it suggests that a person will not do what is wrong if other people are around to see it – either you know what you are doing is wrong or the judgment of others has the power to convince you it is wrong. The best example I’ve seen is the climax of the movie Witness, set on an Amish farm. A corrupt police official is killing people to prevent his crimes from being known, and the last one he has to kill is a good cop who is resisting him. As he points a shotgun at the good cop a group of Amish men from surrounding farms come on the scene. They see what he is about to do, and he feels their judgment. The good cop asks is he’s going to kill them all. Finally, he accepts the judgment of the Witness and gives up.


It's not just about them.

I see the power of the Occupy movement as Witness. The government and the corporations and the outrageously rich know their policies and practices are wrong. As large groups of people stand up and tell them what they are doing is wrong, they must pause and at least reconsider. Some will be moved to an examination of conscience and perhaps better, more humane behavior. Obviously, this strategy doesn’t have the immediate gratification of a SEAL Team strike or a missile fired from an overhead drone, but it does respect humanity. Therein lies its strength. Witness and non-violent resistance have achieved things far more positive than all the wars and oppressions of history.

One young man I talked with on Saturday kept referencing Gandhi. Without killing or disrespecting a single person Gandhi extracted his country from brutal British tyranny and oppression. Nelson Mandela, without killing or disrespecting a single person (although he was sorely tempted by violence) freed his country from European oppression and its legal racism – and went on to forgive those who had sinned against him. Martin Luther King, without killing or disrespecting a single person, freed this country from the evils of institutional racism. Ironically, last Sunday a memorial to him was dedicated in Washington, DC, and intellectual Cornel West was arrested on the steps of the Supreme Court for pointing out that the government of this country is disrespecting the people. While he clearly broke the law, the government was too embarrassed to file criminal charges so they let him go. That’s the power of Witness and a demand for R-E-S-P-E-C-T.


More than just young people have something to say.

My old hero, Ammon Hennacy, always said “Force is the weapon of the weak.” I think the powerful in the country are going to find themselves overmatched by disrespecting this Occupy Movement and the ordinary citizens of this country.



Veterans of all ages are coming out.



In the name of Justice, a woman in a wheelchair.



It's about more than money.





  1. Great piece, Bill. The figures alone tell a story, but you’ve put flesh on those bones. This one is going to run and run. I have the feeling that a giant has awoken…

  2. I am thrilled to read a report from someone who is fair and clear and who actually went there and talked to the people. I share their concerns. Government no longer serves the people but is serving corporate interests. I think the participants took a great first step, as you say, to witness and declare a situation unsupportable and withdraw their silent assent. Thanks, Bill, for another great article of photojournalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: