I work for an organization that sees the corrupting influence of money in politics as the root problem of innumerable others—clean air, access to healthcare, deregulation, subsidies, taxes, etc. The idea is simple: if Congress is broken, how can we expect it to pass meaningful legislation? Congress must move its dependency from the funders to the people before we can expect it to represent our interests.
But that’s where the simplicity ends. In Republic, Lost, Lawrence Lessig outlines a number of strategies to tackle this problem. Most of them are hail marys. This is not cause for alarm or despair. I’d argue that Lessig’s free flowing pessimism is in fact meant to inspire confidence. Commitment to real reform means being in it for the long haul. I’d follow the cautiously excited pessimist over the wild eyed optimist into the line of blazing, firmly entrenched fire. And I will.
As I do this, I constantly ask myself about the relationship of the root, the problem I spend most of my time on, to the branches, the problems I used to spend most of my time on. I used to volunteer for social justice organizations, spending time at domestic violence shelters and community centers, and I have worked for several organizations that fought for women’s social rights. Nothing matches the ultimate satisfaction felt when helping one woman gain access to housing or find her voice again. Not even marching with Occupiers, signing a Buddy Roemer petition or reading Public Campaign’s daily clips.
Similarly, the outrage that wells up inside me when I read about sexual assault at Occupy protests overwhelms what I feel when I read that Goldman Sachs pays a tiny fraction of what the average American pays in taxes. In response to concerns about how Occupy ensures the safety of protestors, Occupiers insist their community is safe. Occupy Baltimore revised its security statement after being criticized for discouraging police reporting. One media contact wrote in an editorial that the site belittles assault complaints. It’s almost become a joke to reference the movement’s non-messaging, but this dichotomy shows a serious problem. Occupy can rely on spontaneous cooperation for achieving basic survivial: if you need water, write it on the board and someone will probably give it to you. But can the leaderless movement do more than tread water? Can it actually come together to solve a problem that doesn’t have universal alignment?
Occupiers can be rootstrikers. They can strike at the root, the corrupting influence of [Wall Street] money in politics. But I fear their swings will miss or land softly if they don’t see the branches connected to that root. As the sexual assault allegations prove, serious problems arise when people are empowered without caution for the implications that power creates within the community. Rather than risking their goals this way, they should be thinking about how to inspire confidence and grow their numbers by proving their concern for these issues at the branches. The root problem doesn’t negate the other structural failures, but should instead draw attention to [and from] them.