The effigy of a black man, a son of Southern soil and descendant of slaves, now stands over the nation’s Mall among its founding fathers, notorious slave owner in front and the so-called Great Emancipator to his back. Looking out over the placid Tidal Basin with a steely-eyed reserve and chiseled determination, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the first monument on the Mall dedicated to a man of color, has whipped up yet another tempest of protest. Besides the same types who did not and still do not commemorate the life of this influential Civil Rights leader on the third Monday of every January, other dissenters have noted that the veined, confrontational depiction of the Brother Preacher by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin does not evoke the round docility associated with the open-armed love of nonviolence. For them, the image goes against what they see as King’s true legacy, while others see the statute as an appropriate stance of well-grounded, stony defiance and pride.
Following the recent four-day occupation of an empty bank building at 75 River Street in Santa Cruz and the attempted occupation of an empty warehouse in Seattle, the controversial tactic of attempting to seize and hold vacant private property has been taken up as a new front of a sprawling social movement. These actions move beyond protesting the enclosure of public space and stifling of free speech; they aim to expand the scope of critique to the role that private property plays in our current crisis. This change in scope has not been lost on the landlords. “I’m definitely not in agreement with this group taking over private property,” a local property owner told the Mercury News.
Someday my daughter will ask me how I met her father, and I will tell her about when we occupied the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz. At the end of the summer of 2009, a group of college students, graduate students, and staff set about planning a campus building occupation. News of the next school year’s drastic budget cuts had come to the surface, leaving many of us out of jobs and in debt. On top of that, entire departments were being defunded, while class sizes, tuition, and administrator salaries were being increased. The word “crisis” started to echo among us.