RALEIGH — A guy a few feet behind me said "My daddy says they're just a bunch of n-----s showing their a---s." That was 1969 as a crowd hurried down a flight of stairs to see a civil rights demonstration in front of New Hanover High School. That day had been a long time coming.
This week as "Occupy Wall Street" events swelled in number, I have heard so many less coarse, but equally dismissive efforts to insult the messengers to obscure the message. That is an old saw. Just like, outside agitators and communists were behind the civil rights movement, flower children, dopers and draft dodgers opposed the Vietnam War and the women's movement was just a bra burning tantrum by those who really wanted to be men.
Recently, too many dismissed the tea party as just angry people fueled and fooled by right-wing rhetoric.
Now the folks who have taken voice to the streets are labeled the "Entitled Class" and portrayed as union-driven, easily influenced malingerers who either don't know what they want or just want other people's hard-earned money.
If we can be convinced to write them off as different, scary or just a blip, it seems to be collective permission to ignore them. That too has been tried before.
Social movements always seem to arrive a bit late. It takes time for a tolerant people who live in the status quo to have had enough and be fed up enough to find others. But once that group erupts before the public eye, expect that change is coming.
One photograph this week was of a woman holding a poster that read: "You know things are messed up when librarians start marching." Remember, she chose a career of learned silence and is paid to whisper.
People are talking and walking because bailouts have come to the very big, foreclosure to so many others. The CEO of a failing bank gets a severance package of millions while the law says that if we are dismissed for cause at our work we are barred from unemployment benefits. In this economy the average CEO pay is over 400 times more than the average worker. In 1990 the spread was around 100. Wall Street proudly speaks of bonuses while demonstrators are arrested while crying greed. Bailed-out bank leaders, who raise fees and declare their rights to make a profit only prove the distance between their lives and that of most depositors.
That thought is as out-of-touch as the high school assessment of events that changed my town forever.
The CEO of a European multinational corporation once told me the difference in his job and that of his American counterpart came down to pay. He said his company could afford to pay him vast sums and would likely be willing to, but he simply could not afford to receive it. He said the pressure in his community would be unbearable if he made so much more than the folks he worked with.
Capitalism must reward ideas, effort, risk, innovation and success and do so handsomely lest folks not dream and give it their all. Largely the constraints upon excess have been cultural and successful when those limits are born of the whole community, not just "as compared to other CEOs."
We celebrate success and tolerate wide differences in income and lifestyle until we feel stuck at a point where education, will and work will not be enough for our children to reach their dreams. It is a bad day when a community begins to think of the rich as just lucky and the poor as somehow deserving of their plight. It is still easy to see that rules are working mighty well for some, and to imagine that the law, by and large, allows the preservation of wealth across generations.
We should learn from our collective experience that there is something worth hearing when this many people want our attention. We dismiss and deride them at our peril.
Harry Payne is senior counsel for policy and law at the N.C. Justice Center. He is a former state legislator, state labor commissioner and chairman of the Employment Security Commission