NEW YORK — January 15, 2012. The 99 percent have a long struggle ahead of them to Occupy 2012, to Occupy Everything in the name of peace and justice, but on the evening of January 15, Martin Luther King’s birthday, they took the first step.
At 7 p.m. on January 15, candles were lit in countries throughout the world in an act of solidarity with Dr. King’s values and with the people who share them. In New York it was a bitterly cold night with sub-freezing temperatures, yet 500 people gathered on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The crowd was mostly Occupy Wall Street protesters and their allies, many of whom had walked there from Liberty Square in lower Manhattan — a 9 mile journey. After the candles were lit the crowd began a 10 block walk along Broadway, marching past Columbia University and making their way to Riverside Church. The streets were empty because of the cold but the participants walked slowly — singing and holding candles.
As the walkers arrived at the church they were welcomed in by ushers and helped to seats in the beautiful vaulted main assembly hall. The huge room was warmly lit and filled with people. Many were Occupiers. The program made King and the Occupiers their focal point acknowledging that he would have fully supported their goals: ending war and creating social and economic justice. They are the embodiment of his ideas today.
There was music and a number of speeches, mercifully short. Unfortunately, most of the speeches appeared to lack passion. The wars went largely unmentioned and this observer thought it might have been better to play a recording of the speech MLK made there exactly a year before he died — when he condemned the role of the U.S. in the Viet Nam War and urged the U.S. government to end the war. About three quarters of the way through the program an Occupier stood up and said “Mic-check.” Since loudspeakers are not allowed at the camp site the people there developed a method of communication that would allow everyone to hear what a speaker is saying. The person wishing to communicate with the crowd shouts “mic-check”, people repeat the phrase and then the person wishing to convey their thoughts to the crowd speaks in short sentences which are then repeated by the entire crowd so that everyone can hear what is being said. It is slow but effective. The Occupier in the church then began speaking about what he learned from King and the crowd repeated word for word. Another then stood and expressed his love for King and told about how he learned non-violence from him. Then another spoke of learning to use passive resistance to change society. And another discussed what King meant to her and how she learned to be a decent human being emulating the values King espoused. All this was communicated using the mic-check technique. In effect the Occupiers hijacked the program and brought their passions to the forefront. They brought their OCCUPY banner to the front of the room and placed it on the dais. To their credit, the program organizers did not interrupt them, and instead said, “Mic-check. We love you all.”
The event ended with the church choir singing some very lively gospel music and young people dancing in the aisles.
The thousands in the church learned about King and about who the Occupiers are and what they want. There would have little doubt that King, had he lived to celebrate his 83 birthday, would have been pleased to see his values carried on with strength, intelligence, courage and great enthusiasm.