HOUSTON, October 14, 2011—Tranquility Park is where the 99-percenters continue to gather as a part of the Occupy Houston protests. Yesterday, a group was gathering for their “Silent March” - their protest - around City Hall during the “Energy Day” event.
Energy Day is a mingling festival for families and companies to “highlight the importance of energy in our daily lives.” This group was there to protest the business interests, including the Consumer Energy Alliance and BP Oil, that support Energy Day.
The group’s plans included marching from Market Square to Hermann Square, the site of City Hall, returning to Tranquility Park to join the occupation and the other protesters dissatisfied with the lack of jobs, or the government, or the spending of U.S. taxpayer money on wars, bailouts, and other things - for an indefinite period of time.
Gathered was an eclectic group of people with diverse backgrounds and I was there to hear their voices, excited to get their thoughts and to learn exactly what they were protesting on this beautiful day.
This splinter group is organized enough to have a uniform. All were dressed in white T-shirts, red bandanas or a dollar bill covering their mouths. Why? The group’s protest invitation says that “99% of the people don’t have a voice in this country, and white is the opposite of black, the color of oil.”
My initial opinion was that a silent protest was symbolic poetry at its best: that people who know what they are protesting, but choose to do so silently, are powerful.
But aside from the photo op, without a voice the protest was futile. Perhaps I was wrong, so I went in for a closer look, approaching participants to find out what was at the heart of their protest.
Only they were silent.
One woman, when asked if she would like to answer some brief questions, said she didn’t know what to say.
I approached an older man, who waved his hand away as if I was a door-to-door salesman trying to pitch him a stain remover. There was a group of young adults, late teens, perhaps high school or college-aged. Protest is born of the young. They must have had an articulated goal.
“So why are you here?” I asked.
“To give a voice to majority of people…that wealth is spread out.”
“So how do you feel? Are you excited about this march or too angry to feel anything else?”
“Not really, neither of those, I feel it will be an accomplishment.”
However, what that accomplishment may be is still undetermined.
Wealth is spread out? They were protesting oil companies, not the government which is in control of such things, but I appreciated their passion.
So while not a bad response for a very young group, it was still not specific enough for my satisfaction.
There was another group, of three middle-aged peers.
“What specifically do you want to accomplish today and what are you protesting exactly?” I asked. “I know everyone is protesting oil, but what specifically do you want to see changed in our society and economy with regards to oil?”
And they just stared, blankly. I was shocked; they must know. They have a “uniform,” they are about to march, and this group of adults can’t tell me exactly how they feel or specifically why they are marching?
Another young man said he was “marching against the man.” Some others simply wanted to demonstrate that they were angry.
I have to admit, I was stunned. I expected more solidarity beyond just being angry as a general emotional state of mind; I expected more of a unified message.
I spoke with Aaron, a young man in a white T-Shirt with a dollar bill covering his mouth. After peeling off the bill, he was well spoken and had a clear message.
“I’ve watched helplessly as my representatives in Houston and in Texas have heaped tax breaks and other benefits to local energy companies and subsequently have lobbied on their behalf to have laws and regulations put in place that favors these companies,” Aaron explained.
“On the surface, that might not sound too alarming, but when these laws and regulations affect safety standards of air quality, water quality, subsidence, and habitat quality, at that point it means companies are paying money to compromise the safety of me, my family, and those I care about.
While I vote in every major and minor election, my votes are going nowhere. Why? Because unlike BP, Exxon, and Shell, I don’t have millions of dollars to donate to political candidates who are trying to run for elected office. As long as corporate campaign donations to political candidates and corporate lobbying groups exist, my votes simply don’t matter to politicians who write the laws regarding industrial regulations.”
Aaron’s fellow demonstrators need to take his lead and decide for themselves why they are marching and for what purpose, rather than generalized statements of anger against “the man.”
I was confused why so many didn’t know why they were marching. I didn’t get it: you have a white shirt on with tape over your mouth and you don’t have a clear purpose on why you are doing this? There is plenty of information on the group’s website and Facebook pages to help them articulate their positions.
Aside from Aaron, no one could give me answers, yet you can be sure that their opposition (the oil companies) could articulate their position clearly. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t make a change by marching in silence, nor did women’s rights advance that way. In fact, any major change in policy never happened because of silence.
Then I noticed a man, not in the standard uniform, holding a sign that read,
“Corporatism No, Capitalism Yes.” He was shouting, “Speak up, give your opinion, stop being silenced!” His name is Micah Jackson and he’s with the group The Houston Free Thinkers and supports Audit the Fed whose goal is to promote a first-time audit of the Federal Government.
“We have freedom of speech for a reason,” Micah told me. “They are trying to say it’s unity and that they are one by covering their mouths and marching in silence. I don’t think that’s getting the point out. People don’t hear, people don’t understand it, and it gives the message that they are all upset against oil….the problem isn’t oil, the problem is government corporate solutions that create these situations.
He continued, “An example is a pipeline. When a pipeline company replaces a pipeline, they get 75% of that paid for [in government subsidies] but in a real free-market system any business would have to pay their own way…Marching around with signs against oil isn’t going to accomplish anything. We come out because everyone sees the fire, but we want to talk about solutions.
“If you look for solutions,” Micah said, “it serves a lot more than wearing white and taping your mouth shut. This isn’t going to go anywhere and make us have a better day tomorrow. We all agree there is a fire, but no one is talking about solutions. They just march around angry. When they have their mouths taped and wearing white shirts, then they don’t have a voice and their leaders decide what they are standing for…we have to get to the base of the issue, which is not the oil companies, it’s the FED.”
I later learned that they ‑ the 99% in their white shirts and taped mouths ‑ told Micah and his group that if he wanted to partake in the march but didn’t dress accordingly, then they wouldn’t protect him if “anything” happened. He also said that at one point the leadership told him that they were going to get a bunch of people together later and explain what this was all about.
It reminded me of the politicians who say, “I have the solution, so vote for me and I will reveal that solution.”
I got the uneasy feeling that there was an agenda from whatever leadership may exist in this group of Occupy Houston that wasn’t even clear to their followers.
If I held a rally, I wouldn’t care what someone dressed like as long as they showed up to support it. I wouldn’t discourage them to not show unless they were in “uniform,” or worse yet, encourage them not to speak.
Unless, that is, I was using these people to promote an agenda yet uncovered.
So there I was, in that moment of space, shared by people claiming to be the 99%, and watching so many of them refuse to speak out. I knew they would remain unheard.
Why do they not see that if they aren’t going to get to the base of the issue and talk rationally about solutions, then they will never create change?
This argument of general frustration will not lead to change, as there are no focal points, just anger. This is much like a child who wants food, but won’t say what - ice cream or macaroni and cheese or peanut butter and jelly or soup – but responds to every suggestion with a stamped foot and NO!
Furthermore I didn’t understand beyond poetic symbolism what being silent might accomplish.
As novelist and activist Margaret Atwood put it so eloquently, “A voice is a human gift; it should be cherished and used, to utter fully human speech as possible. Powerlessness and silence go together.”
Carter Lee is the author of, When Jonathan Cried for Me, a professional speaker, and President of Innovative Social Dynamics LLC., and is a professional speaker. To learn more about his book click here. For a personal appearance or speaking engagement click here.
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