By Annette Hinkle
Next Monday, the country will observe Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — the only federal holiday dedicated to an African American. While MLK Day serves to honor Dr. King for his impact on the civil rights movement and the plight of the underclass in America, this year, the holiday resonates in ways that it perhaps hasn’t before.
With Occupy Wall Street demonstrations taking front and center in large cities and small towns across America, this MLK Day provides an opportunity to consider King’s legacy in relation to a new movement by the people. That’s exactly what Rev. Dr. Katrina D. Foster will do this Saturday at Canio’s Books in Sag Harbor when she leads a discussion entitled “The Other America: Dr. Martin Luther King’s Legacy in the Occupy Moment.”
Since July 2010, Dr. Foster has served both Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton and St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Amagansett. She came to the East End from the South Bronx and Fordham Evangelical Lutheran Church where she served some 16 years and was a community leader active in many issues related to social justice. With Occupy Wall Street, she sees a continuation of many movements that came before.
As illustrated by the leadership of the 20th century’s most famous activists — Dr. King and Mahatma Gandhi — Dr. Foster believes nonviolence is the key to any successful movement. She adds that the notion of incarnation — joining with others in a concerted effort to call attention to inequality and thereby bringing about change — is also a crucial part of the equation.
“Our bodies have to be with other bodies and they have to occupy spaces to bring attention to injustices,” explains Dr. Foster, who looks back at King’s work and the efforts of African-Americans to focus the attention of the nation on discrimination. “With the bus boycotts, the lack of bodies on the bus brought on change. On the bridge in Selma — those bodies were beaten so brutally that we could see an incarnation of injustice and its evidence on the very bodies of people who survived. That incarnation of evidence of injustice stopped people and caused them to question, ‘Is something wrong?”
While many onlookers may feel Occupy Wall Street lacks the focus of the civil rights movement because it does not have a single identifiable leader or message, Dr. Foster sees the new protesters as building on the efforts of all those who came before — including Dr. King.
“This has not been a leaderless movement, but one filled overwhelmingly with leaders,” she says. “They don’t have a clear agenda — a PowerPoint agenda —but I think the audience has been expanding. The movement is on the shoulders’ of King and Gandhi, the gay rights movement, the feminist movement, the people who followed Jesus. We all stand on each others’ shoulders.”
And as evidenced in the work of Dr. King, Dr. Foster finds that no single social issue exists in a vacuum — but rather one naturally ties into the next.
“King came into the bus boycott, which was then about interstate travel. Then it moved into civil rights and voter rights,” she explains. “Nowadays, none of these injustices is in isolation. They’re all conjoined.”
“You can’t talk about poverty apart from inadequate education and inadequate healthcare,” she says. “Right wingers talk about the breakdown of family. Yes, there is a breakdown of family — because we can no longer afford to have a parent at home to take care of the children. Everyone is hustling to make ends meet. The laziest people I have met are the rich. The most industrious are the poor who have two or more jobs. They’re working more than full time and still living below the poverty level.”
Dr. Foster notes that economic inequality, which is at the heart of the Occupy Wall Street movement, was ultimately a major focus of earlier movements as well, and has historically proven fatal for leaders.
“In his movement, King talked about issues of economy, civil rights, Vietnam, but once he set sites on economic injustices that’s when he was killed,” says Dr. Foster. “Every leader who did that was killed. Jesus was killed after he occupied the temple and chased out the money changers. Gandhi had an economic component, Malcolm X had an economic component. When leaders start to point out problems of economic disparity, they put themselves in danger of being killed.”
“It’s like cutting off the drug dealer,” she adds. “Think of Wall Street as a drug dealer and the Occupiers are trying to get the corner back.”
But with Occupy Wall Street, which lacks a single leader, who could the target be this time? Dr. Foster believes it is all of us. And while the movement may still seem unfocused in its messaging, she feels it is already having a strong impact on society.
“I think there are a couple things the movement is doing which are profound, but not well understood,” says Dr. Foster. “That is changing the questions we ask – which is more important than the answers in many ways.”
And when it comes to questions, Dr. Foster sees many being raised by the movement.
“Why, since Reagan was in office, has our tax system become so drastic that the earning powers of the lower and middle class have remained flat while the top one percent has blown through the roof?” she asks. “Why are we willing to go into debt for war and rebuilding other countries when we’re unwilling to go into debt to rebuild our own? Why do we refuse to allow rich people to be called upon to contribute to the welfare of the country that made them rich? Why are we scapegoating the poor and our true social heroes, like firefighters and teachers, who never once gamed the system, put out a bad mortgage, or did credit default swaps?”
“We used to value our neighbors and invest in each other,” adds Dr. Foster. “We no longer do that.”
Occupy the Hamptons — the East End’s version of Occupy Wall Street — takes place at Incarnation Lutheran Church in Bridgehampton where Occupiers protest every Sunday at 3 p.m. In this local version of the movement, Dr. Foster sees the fear of the many who are just getting by in this summer paradise that caters to the few.
“Everyone in the middle and even high middle is terrified of going down,” she says. “The Hamptons is uniquely situated where outside perception is it’s all rich, which is simply not true.”
“Those who are one paycheck away from disaster is real out here,” adds Dr. Foster. “At the food pantries, the number of people coming in is growing exponentially. If people could get food without facing public humiliation, so many more food would be going to the pantries. The super rich never have to think of grocery budgets or cable bills. Getting new tires for the car is a non-event, not a disaster.”
Ultimately, Dr. Foster feels much of the anger fueling Occupy movements can be traced to the federal government, which she says is failing to provide a much needed security net for the society it is charged to serve.
“The reality is, government has a function to do what we can’t on our own,” says Dr. Foster. “The only organization big enough to tackle healthcare in a nation that is sick and whose infrastructure is falling apart is the federal government. It’s the only one who has that unique checkbook. It’s not like a family check book and shouldn’t be. The government is not my family, so get out the shovels, be bold and daring, and get on with it.”
Rev. Dr. Katrina Foster’s discussion on “The Other America: Dr. Martin Luther King´s Legacy in the Occupy Movement,” begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday, January 14, 2012 at Canio’s Books (290 Main Street, Sag Harbor). Excerpts from Dr. King´s speeches will be part of the program.
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