Let’s celebrate the right to assemble with equality

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Oct. 15 was an international day of protest against banks, and Oct. 16 was the day the president dedicated the new Martin Luther King, Jr. statute on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

These two dates and events seem unrelated, but a connection between them might be that they remind us of our right to assemble, to equality — and how religion fits in somewhere in between.

Protests in public spaces remind us that on some level we are all in this together: What ails you may affect me as well.

This is an economic as well as a moral insight, a way of looking at our community as a whole. The 18th century philosopher and economist Adam Smith taught that a good banking system is beneficial to all of us, as borrowers and depositors, workers and investors, home-owners and car-owners, credit-card holders and businesspeople.

But, just as it needs legislative support from the public, it also needs oversight from the public as well.

It’s hypocritical to admire Arab Spring protests while looking down at a rag-tag group of sign-holders at the public Acacia Park or the privately-owned Zuccotti Park in New York City. Either we believe in our Constitutional right to assemble and protest in public, or we believe that protests should be limited to one’s living room or the Internet.

It’s fascinating that the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London asked the police to leave, while letting protesters stay around his domain. He reminds us that religious leaders are in fact public figures who must care about their congregants and the whole community. As beneficiaries of the public largess (as non-profit organizations that collect donations and are exempt from some taxes) they owe the community something in return: perhaps lending their support, ministering to those protesting injustice, feeding the needy, or simply speaking truth to power.

Without diluting the differences between the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the Tea Party, or Occupy Wall Street, all of them illustrate that it’s more effective to get together to vent frustrations and ask for remedies than to remain frustrated alone. Perhaps the media will take notice and spread the word. It’s the power in numbers; it’s the power of a group, whether as consumers or the disenfranchised (see how much unions helped stop child labor and dangerous working conditions in the past 100 years).

Just as all protesters are not alike, neither are all religious leaders or bankers.

Some stand out because of their integrity and the causes they believe in and fight for; some simply don’t care; some copy what sounds good in one place to echo it in another; and still others simply seek the comfort of group affiliation, protesting, praying, or lending money. It’s the last group we should worry about: do they think critically about the community and the consequences of their actions?

Those of us who tried borrowing money from banks, like my dear friend and partner Perry Sanders, who is remodeling downtown’s mining exchange building, have suffered the humiliation of condescending officers whose attitudes weren’t in line with their chosen vocation of lending money to those who can revive a stalled economy.

Was it institutional or personal? Is it ever justified? He finally succeeded in securing funding, but why didn’t banks compete for his business, one of the most successful lawyers in the country, as should be the case in a thriving capitalist system? He is, after all, a “job creator!”

The success of banks depends on the public, the spending, consuming, borrowing public, the public whose representatives ensured the bailout of banks and their current low interest rates. Don’t we live together?

Last week, I wrote about OWLS and the Tea Party. I suggested the Occupy Wall St. crowd adopt the acronym OWLS, and maybe even unite with the Tea Party.

That prompted my editor, Rob Larimer, to remind me of a children’s story he tells his 5-year-old daughters. There might be a lesson in it, somewhere, for all of us.

There once was an owl who loved to drink tea. One day, at home in his hollowed-out oak tree, he decided to make some tea to sip by the window. He readied his teapot and went to his cupboard to fetch a bag of his favorite tea. He took the teapot to the sink and placed it under the faucet. And that’s when something terrible happened. When he turned the faucet knob, no water came out. The owl had no water, and he knew he could not make tea without water.

The owl became very sad. He sat down by the window with his teapot still in his hand and began to cry. Tears streamed down his feathered cheeks. He cried and cried. Then, after a while, he looked down and noticed that his teapot was full of water. His tears had filled the teapot. The owl was very happy, and he made a pot of tea.

The tea was delicious, but a little salty.

Raphael Sassower is professor of philosophy at UCCS and believes in the abundance of our blessings. He can be reached at rsassower@gmail.com Previous articles can be found at sassower.blogspot.com