Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Confessions of a Protesting Middle-Class Freak




By: Alan A. Aja, City University of New York (CUNY)- Brooklyn College.


Let me begin with a confession, one that somewhat removes me from the protest-happy, commie-leaning, college professor stereotype:

I am a meat-eating, car-owning, sports-watching, student-debt owing member of the drowning middle class.

My parents are Cuban-born --- members of the now largely assimilated, fair-skinned, highly educated wave of 1960s refugees who received globs of government aid thanks to the Cold War and now have juridical control of a city in South Florida. I’m happily married---the father of a semi potty-trained 3-year old---and live in a dual-salary home located in a mixed-income, ethnically diverse neighborhood where people rent and own, squat and splurge, and collectively growl when the Mets lose. Needless to say, capitalism has been good to me. I have little reason to complain --- and even less reason to protest.

However, on this sunny Wednesday afternoon in lower Manhattan, I stand ready to march with a sign cut out of a pizza box created in Liberty Square (Zucotti Park). Its remonstrative words are written in purple, the same color as the dread-locked woman’s hair creating her own glittery sign next to me. To her right is a dude in a gray suit, shiny patent-leather shoes, corporate identification-tag and smile on his face that might say, “Happy hour with the petit-bourgeois blows, this is the real thing.” Across the square, a group of women more than double my years stand ready to assemble. Is that my Abuelita? In her Miami nursing home she’s known as the “mas gringo-salsa por favor!” (apple sauce) agitator, but they had no idea that she can seriously protest. Actually, the spitting image is a member of the Code Pink-Raging Grannies entourage, some who were born during the last days of prohibition. From Elliott Ness to Bull Connor to Goldman Sachs, impressive! To their right is a registered nurse who just gave an interview to a journalist, surprised that his interviewee knew why she was there and sounded, well, smart. And not five feet away, is a former student of mine --- bright, motivated and energetic, taking her turn supervising the art station. She arrived at the occupation the night before sleeping bag in tow, weighing the decision to join after several job-leads fell through.

In retrospect, she’s not supposed to be here, and neither should I. This is what a now-blocked Facebook “friend” and his ever-so-clever pals suggested in his “status” last week: that our lazy hippie ass should find a job, or if employed, we subvert democracy by joining the “wackos.” Such a sentiment was shared in more light-hearted terms when an overly-aggressive man in a beige suit walked by Liberty Square, spitting into the crowd and yelling, “You freaks, you disgust me, get a fuckin’ job!” And then there’s the “demographic narrative” visually and vocally insinuated from Fox to CNN: that we’re nothing other than granola-eating, half-naked, squirrel-feeding, hyper-vegan, multi-sexual, brownie-baking, interpretive-dancing, Rasta-loving, trust-fund mooching malcontents with nothing better to do than to pretend to be an anarchist-commies (the last one baffles me too).

Sarcasm aside, I don’t believe that Weber’s “ideal-types” were supposed to be used to make uninformed generalizations about society, leaving little room for variation nor spun into a subjective hyperbole that alienates people and feeds intolerance. Not that I expect journalists to haven taken Sociology 101 (isn’t it required?), but critical-thinking and unfettered-questioning is supposed to be a central tenet of media’s role in a participatory democracy; instead, we are depicted as a group of uninformed, mentally unstable, violent-prone individuals from the margins of society. Meanwhile, the diversity of background, ideology, thought, mind and being that exists among occupiers and supporters alike, from New York to Los Angeles, is virtually ignored. Such a narrative undoubtedly influences the vast, struggling members of the 99%, from the working poor to the middle-class, providing little reason to support thoughtful, brave people who seek horizontal-democratic relationships over unequal power structures, along with independent, progressive politics over the conventional democrat-republican binary.

Put simply: Wall Street executives and their elected-appointed government bedfellows should be held accountable for years of pain and suffering they have caused an overwhelming majority of people domestically and worldwide, is such too much to ask?

Only if you join the freaks!

Nevertheless, I cross the symbolic picket line of a suddenly mal-unionized mainstream singing a co-opted version of “Which Side Are You On?” I protest with purpose, daring to openly question those that can’t see beyond their dogmatic libertarian free market ideologies and the profound homophobic and racial subtext embedded within their movement (read: tea party). How dare I join others to question where the wealth has gone that capitalism purportedly creates by some sort of invisible hand, the one they vehemently defend? Isn’t it the same hand, when left unchecked, which allows for discrimination of people due to their skin shade, sexual orientation, gender, religion, immigrant status, or disability? That hand, guided by the manipulation of law and policy, that has allowed disproportionate inter-generational transfers of wealth (assets), reckless financial transaction and unequal access to institutions we all seek for a decent standard of living? And of course, the hand that can snatch anyone up even on the receiving end of privilege at moment’s notice, the same one that drove up the cost of living to such high levels that even middle class can no longer survive, compromising the ability to feed my, yours or anyone’s beautiful three-year old. Don’t question it, they tell me, sit idly by and wait for its theorized magical corrections.

In essence, for possessing the fear, naivety, stubbornness and inability to wait for the market to fix itself, I admit to freak-hood. For challenging through activism the argument that if one is poor and jobless, underpaid or health-care less, it is due to one’s inabilities to be innovative, productive and self-dependent (read: Herman Cain), I sign the freak manifesto. For the critics who ignore the vast evidence, including the proof written on the faces of frustration of one’s own neighbors, former co-workers and loved ones, that our present collective economic duress is a combined product of unequal power relations, greediness and lack of regulatory oversight.

I get my freak on.

Lastly, to those that prefer to use poor hermeneutic interpretations to justify leaving things “as is” because a higher power wants it, and that the “social contract” is something Jesus would have never supported through a progressive tax base that would ensure libraries, parks, roads, schools, hospitals, clean air, sanitation, parks and other “public goods,” I delve into the freaky. Besides, there’s a recently-found Bible verse from Luke thrown out at the Council of Trent by a bunch of “middle-age” (pun intended) white dudes hoping to sustain their privilege: “Blessed are the freaks, for theirs is….” (ink fades at this point, darn scrolls). Jest aside, my warrant for participation is clear: I march peacefully for economic justice with the raging Abuelita, the woman with the purple-tinted dreads, my unemployed former student, the corporate office guy in the suit, the cop with pepper-spray in hand (he too is of the 99%), and even for you and your beautiful kids.

Even though you don’t think I should be here.



Alan A. Aja is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latino Studies at the City University of New York (CUNY)- Brooklyn College.

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