Recently I flew home from Africa on a huge aircraft. I was returning from a volunteer stint in Somaliland, one of the world's poorest countries, and my route took me through Dubai where I boarded an Emirates Airbus 380. A veritable place going to another place (as Bea Lily famously said of the Queen Mary), it has two full decks, the lower dedicated to economy class while the upper is reserved for business and first class passengers.
A few hours into the flight while I was visiting with the cabin crew in the galley I said I'd love to see how the other half live. "Come with me," a crew member said. Then she led me upstairs to the business class lounge. As luck would have it, the seat belt sign lit up just as I arrived so I was instructed to sit down and buckle up. Thus it was that I traveled for two hours in the lap of luxury, sipping champagne and eating tea sandwiches while talking to two passengers who spent the entire thirteen hours in high-powered heaven.
It was an enlightening experience. One of the men I spoke to was a New York investment banker in his mid-thirties. He had flown first class to New Delhi for the weekend to attend a sports event -- which he missed due to a traffic jam -- with a client. The other man, a Brit employed by Shell Oil Company in Dubai, was on his way (business class) to New York City for a few days to celebrate a colleague's birthday at several big bashes.
I had just left a country where many people live in corrugated lean-tos with rag roofs and don't expect to live much beyond fifty. It is a place where women and children die at astounding rates for lack of basic health care, where most of the population is unemployed and hungry, and where drought has rendered the land virtually useless.
The dichotomy between the world's wealth and poverty could not have been more stark or disturbing.
Around the time I got back to the States the Occupy Wall Street, or OWS, movement was in full swing. I watched with growing interest as more and more people became involved with a movement spreading across the country and around the world at lightening speed. At first I couldn't quite see the point of such a seemingly unorganized effort which appeared leaderless and lacking an agenda or set of demands upon which new public policy might be based. But gradually I've come to understand what it's really about and why it is so powerful and important.
Friends of mine, Lee and Byron Stookey, who participated in OWS in Manhattan helped make things clear to me. "If the movement lasts," they said, "it will not stay leaderless. But for now they are a model of basic democracy. No outside hand guides what they do. The media ask whether Occupy Wall Street is a liberal version of the Tea Party. It is not, because the Tea Party was created and is sustained by powerful moneyed interests. OWS was created and is sustained by people. The media also ask, sometimes derisively, "What do these people want?' The question misunderstands," they continued. "They'll get to specific goals. But at this stage the movement is laying groundwork. Things are badly wrong in this country. Our government isn't ours anymore, nor is it guided by the common good. Priorities, laws and regulations are largely controlled by corporate interests, aided by a complicit Congress and others. Left to itself the government won't change that. So the impetus has to come from us."
People from all socio-economic strata, educational and cultural backgrounds, and geographic regions are beginning to understand that. They realize, paraphrasing Marshall McLuhan's 1960s sound bite "the medium is the message," that in our own time the movement is the message.
Things aren't as bleak for us as they are for people living in countries as poor and developmentally challenged as Somaliland. Nevertheless, OWS is not unconnected to their plight. The movement is about restoring true democracy before it's too late. It's about ending income inequality, corporate influence, media bias, environmental degradation, and, ironically, police brutality. It's about ordinary people reclaiming their voice and their vision in "the land of opportunity." It's about ending fiscal and moral corruption. It's about becoming the ones we've been waiting for.
Every time I see a news clip or read a tweet about OWS, I think about that. I also think about the two men and their missions on that airplane with whom I sipped champagne. I reflect on the fact that every day airplanes similar to the one I was on make long journeys with their business and first class cabins virtually full while people in places like Somaliland wonder where their next meal will come from and if their underweight children will survive. I think about children in my own country who go to bed hungry at night and sleepless parents sick with worry about foreclosures and firings.
It's enough to make me occupy Wall Street, first class cabins and Congress -- which I understand is the next venue. I have to say, it couldn't happen to a more deserving crowd.