Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Civil Disobedience - The Best Sort Of Boston Crime

Let's forget about bank robbers and murderers for a while, and consider instead another great tradition of Bay State crime - civil disobedience. Our own Henry David Thoreau, native of Concord and the illustrious author of Walden, wrote an essay by that name in 1849. He argued "that individuals should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that they have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice." He practiced what he preached. He was a tax evader with a difference, refusing to pay poll taxes for six years running not because he needed to buy a second Lamborghini - but because he did not support either the imperialistic war in Mexico or the U.S. government's tolerance of slavery. He was also a squatter of no mean commitment, living off in the woods by himself in a tiny house for which he hadn't even gotten a mortgage. No bank would love him today, that's for sure.

I saw something of Thoreau's spirit in Boston this Monday, as I dutifully came into town to fix one of my own legal lapses. My driver's license had expired several weeks ago, you see, and I needed to renew it. On my way to the Motor Vehicle Registry in Chinatown, I swung by the intersection of Summer Street and Atlantic Avenue. Here a kind of shanty town had been erected - a latterday Hooverville almost - by the demonstrators of Occupy Boston. They had pitched their sorry tents in the shadow of the spotless and towering Federal Reserve building, and it was here that they began their siege on corporate greed. Like so many other Americans, they were fed up with a sociopathic financial system that flourishes in direct proportion to the number of human lives it stunts. They were tired of being downsized, outsourced and overworked as stockbrokers and investment bankers and C-level executives line their pockets with the would-be pay packets of the never-to-be-hired and the freshly laid-off. They were angry that not only were the moral crimes of the corporations perfectly legal, but also that the laws that shielded tham had been bought with cash, the product of legislators which themselves had been purchased like so much shiny new merchandise. (And, yes, Scott Brown, I'm thinking of Gigolos of The Body Politic just like you.)

These supposed disturbers of the peace, many them unemployed or in debt, outed themselves as representatives of the 99 percent of American society that has not prospered in our modern era, in which the top one percent get all the wealth. I heard no commotion and saw no violence. In fact, their counterparts in New York City - the Occupy Wall Streeters - did not even resist the police who arrested them, but merely reminded them that they were fighting for the rights of the police themselves to retain their own pensions as much as for any other cause. If these people are criminals, they are truly my kind of criminal.

I felt tempted to join them. Or, if not that, to walk amongst them, poke my face into their tents, shake their hands and volunteer to sign every petition they had available. But I did not. It was a moment of moral hesitation that I regret. It reminded me of the time I was in Rome, and I was walking up toward St. Peter's with the intention of visiting the Vatican, of seeing the Sistine Chapel. Beggars lined the street like it was their own little Via Dolorosa. Some - most even - you could disregard. Except for one. There was a kid in his early twenties who seemed to be holding his hands up for a hand-out - until I saw that he had no hands at all. I tried not to look at him. All I had in my wallet was a twenty euro note, and I was pathetically unwilling to give him that. As I passed, he held up the stumps of his wrists to his face in despair. I don't care if he had a nice warm room in some halfway house somewhere, and was just trying to play me. Being a young guy with no hands has to be a hard row to hoe no matter how cynically you respond to it. When I finally broke that twenty euro note, I hurried back to give the kid some cash - but he was gone. The Vatican guard had chased him away. Anything not to disturb the tourists with any pleas for Christian charity.

That's how I feel sometimes about America. Rich patriots revel in the flag and the dollar and their own meritocratic magnificence, but when it comes to the idea every American should have an equal chance - well, let us just say that these grandees do not respond in the spirit of democracy, much less that of Christian charity - and yet they claim to be such fervent God-lovers too, at least some of them. The Vatican guard of the American state wants to chase away the disadvantaged and the unlucky so that its more fortunate citizens can luxuriate in the chapel of the wealthy, for they are the only ones that matter - the only ones who have "earned it".

Me, I'm not as good a person as the folks of Occupy Boston and Occupy Wall Street. My instinct is to counter economic violence with actual violence - or at least to fantasize about it. (Thus my indulgence in this "crime blog".) But the resistance against the gilded sociopaths of the Wealth-Industrial Complex may not stay non-violent forever.

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