Photograph by Steven Higgs
Journalist and author Bill Moyers predicted in 2008 that deteriorating conditions in America could lead to a new era of civil disobedience. Three years later, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has swept the globe, he noted that President Obama calls Wall Street bankers "fat cats" while taking millions in campaign contributions from them.
The two-month anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement took me back to the summer of 2008, when I had an opportunity to ask author Bill Moyers about civil disobedience in 21st century America. Bloomington was abuzz at the time with an emerging direct-action movement against the greedy, antidemocratic forces driving the I-69/NAFTA Highway through Southwest Indiana. But the PBS journalist wasn't optimistic that "a great rolling movement of civil disobedience," as he described the 1960s, was imminent.
"At this moment, I can't say that civil disobedience has a promising future," he said after a book reading at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in Manhattan. "... But you never know when a tipping point is coming." Among the "deteriorating" forces that the winner of more than 30 Emmys and three George Polk Awards said could tip the balance were infrastructure, mortgages, home foreclosures and stagnant wages.
Over the last two months an escalating chorus of voices from all strata of American society have designated the Occupy movement's resonance as proof that the tipping point Moyers spoke of has been reached. So, I wondered if he in fact agreed with those of us who believe Americans have finally awakened from their self-destructive torpor of the past 30-plus years.
I, of course, have not had a second chance to ask him another question. But after reading the transcript of a speech he gave on Nov. 2, 2011, at the 40th anniversary celebration of Ralph Nader's Public Citizen, I'm confident in saying I think he agrees. The piece was titled, "People Are Occupying Wall Street Because Wall Street Has Occupied the Country."
At Barnes & Noble in 2008, Moyers worried that the soon-to-be Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama perhaps didn't understand the movement he was caught up it. "I'm not even sure Obama knows what's happening to him," he told an overflow bookstore crowd. "He is riding some updraft of a feeling in the country that's ready for some radical change, some important change in this country."
"I'm not even sure Obama knows what's happening to him. He is riding some updraft of a feeling in the country that's ready for some radical change, some important change in this country." - Bill Moyers, 2008
Back then, Moyers suggested the future rested with the citizenry, not with Obama and the corrupt political system he has spent a career exposing.
"It could carry on beyond Obama," he told me, "whether he wins or loses, if in fact people suddenly begin to put the dots together ... and connect all of these forces, which are not the immutable, invisible hand of Adam Smith working, or the hands of the people who pull the levers. They're the power brokers, the people who give the money."
Three years later, Moyers confirmed at the Public Citizen gathering that the president is in the dark. "Barack Obama criticizes bankers as 'fat cats,' then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person," he said. "That's now the norm, and they get away with it."
The president has raised more money from banks, hedge funds and private equity managers than any Republican candidate, including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Moyers continued. "Inch by inch, he has conceded ground to them while espousing populist rhetoric that his very actions betray."
Today, he said, the balance has tipped. "No wonder so many Americans have felt that sense of political impotence that the historian Lawrence Goodwyn described as 'the mass resignation' of people who believe in the 'dogma of democracy' on a superficial public level but whose hearts no longer burn with the conviction that they are part of the deal," he said. "Against such odds, discouragement comes easily."
Vigilance on the part of those who connect the dots, in the face of such discouragement, is what produces change in America, Moyers reminded. "If the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on these tables, on Election Day, women would still be turned away from the voting booths, and workers would still be committing a crime if they organized."
Moyers on Democracy, the 2008 book the author read from that summer afternoon in downtown Manhattan, touched on another force that radical social change movements must confront - the police state. The book is a collection of speeches Moyers has delivered on democracy. One was a 1998 talk he gave at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs titled "Happy Warrior," in which he discussed the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.
"We were reminded of the twisted depths of official segregation just this spring, when, after decades of court battles, Mississippi was ordered to open the secret files of the State Sovereignty Commission," he said.
"If the generations before us had given up, slaves would still be waiting on these tables, on Election Day, women would still be turned away from the voting booths, and workers would still be committing a crime if they organized." - Bill Moyers, 2011
Sovereignty commissions were taxpayer-funded government bodies that were "lavished with almost unlimited police and investigative powers," Moyers said. While Mississippi's was the worst, they were common in Southern states and were charged with upholding segregation.
"I have read some of those Sovereignty Commission files," he said. "And I understand how a longtime activist in Jackson could recently tell a reporter: 'These files betray the absolute paranoia and craziness of the government in those times. This was a police state.'"
As the world has witnessed in the first 60 days of the first honest social movement in the age of Homeland Security, the 1 percent have done more over the past three decades than just steal the people's resources, poison their environment and co-opt their democracy. They have built a 21st century police state to protect them from the masses.
The steady stream of cops in riot gear herding, teargasing and assaulting peaceful, unarmed citizens - women, seniors and military vets foremost among them - is just prelude. As one formerly high-placed law enforcement official recently lamented to me, today's police are no longer peace officers, they are "paramilitary" operatives. They are trained for war.
And as my source put it, they are "champing at the bit" to put that training to work, and the economic elite they defend will not hesitate to deploy them. "They won't just turn over the keys," he said.
Obama might still be clueless, but the words he spoke at the Oct. 16, 2011, dedication of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial are as applicable to those in the Occupy movement as they were of civil rights activists he alluded to.
"There are the multitudes of men and women whose names never appear in the history books - those who marched and those who sang, those who sat in and those who stood firm, those who organized and those who mobilized - all those men and women who, through countless acts of quiet heroism, helped bring about changes few thought were even possible."
Moyers cast the Occupy movement in another historical light when he spoke to Public Citizen celebration.
"Take heart from the past, and don't ever count the people out." - Bill Moyers, 2011
"Take heart from the past, and don't ever count the people out," he said. "During the last quarter of the 19th century, the industrial revolution created extraordinary wealth at the top and excruciating misery at the bottom. Embattled citizens rose up."
Progressive Kansas journalist William Allen White, he said, wrote that into their hearts "had come a sense that their civilization needed recasting, that their government had fallen into the hands of self-seekers, that a new relation should be established between the haves and have-nots."
Remember, Moyers told Public Citizen, democracy is not a top-down affair.
"It begins at the bottom, when flesh-and-blood human beings fight to rekindle the patriot's dream," he said.
Steven Higgs can be reached at .