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At the risk of being presumptuous, I have some advice for the protesters who were kicked out of New York’s Zuccotti Park this week. It is based on a lesson I learned during the one night of my life when I literally lived up to the old Maoist revolutionary dictum: Serve the people.
This moment of selflessness on my part, it must be admitted, was accidental, the result of a chance encounter that took place as I walked home from work on a summer’s night in Washington, DC, and crossed paths with two young men who were in the process of removing a large quantity of fried chicken from a fast-food restaurant.
This was about 20 years ago, and I’m still not sure whether these guys were robbing the place or just closing up. But I saw them exiting the darkened eatery in a hurry, balancing several large buckets of chicken against their chests. They saw me too, and when the eyes of one of the men met mine, he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
“Hey, man,” he said. “Want some chicken?”
It was past midnight and I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since I started my shift at 4pm. I relieved the man of one of his buckets and headed home, happily gobbling a couple of pieces of chicken before it occurred to me that I had a problem. I was living by myself in a studio apartment back then, and I realised that if that bucket made it into my nearly empty refrigerator, I would be eating fried chicken for weeks.
I resolved to part ways with the bucket. My first thought was to give the chicken to a homeless person. But homeless people, like police officers, are never around when you need them, and I walked several blocks in vain before I reached an area with bars and clubs – and a solution. I spotted an acquaintance emerging from one of the nightspots, and I sprung into action.
“Hey, man,” I said. “Want some chicken?”
He was agreeable and so were his friends, and the friends of his friends. I’m sure that many readers of the FT are well acquainted with the pleasures of philanthropy, but for a young man of modest means the reception that I received as I served cold chicken to night-clubbers on a hot night was overwhelming.
Before I knew it, I had a legion of chicken-eating followers and was swimming in a sea of what a French revolutionary might have called fraternité. A female acolyte even passed me her phone number and we later went out on a date (this would be a better column if more had happened, but we confine ourselves to the facts here at the FT).
The experience left me with an appreciation – which has only grown over the years – for the power of small kindnesses. I know for a fact that the provision of fried chicken to a stranger creates the potential for connection and communication.
I would argue that one of the great tactical flaws of the Occupy Wall Street movement has been its failure to go beyond expressing frustration and to find ways, however symbolic, to serve the actual people living and working around its encampments.
Remember: One of the key explanations given by officials for the crackdown on protesters in New York and other cities was that they had become a nuisance. Manhattan residents complained that drummers in Zuccotti Park were making too much noise, while business owners said the protesters were scaring away customers and leaving a mess.
Concerns of this sort have to be addressed. For a political movement to succeed, it must not only be tolerated, it must be loved. Being a good neighbour is crucial – and even some of the most radical groups in US history have given it their shot. Members of the Black Panther Party not only paraded around with guns during the late 1960s, they served free breakfasts to poor children so they would be ready for school.
I’m not suggesting the Occupy Wall Street protesters get into the catering business – or look to liberate more fried chicken. But I do think they need to be helpful to the people around them and to avoid tactics – such as interfering with traffic or subway travel – that make life harder for “99 per cent” as well as for the “1 per cent”.
The hazards now facing anti-Wall Street activists were summarised by a historical contemporary of Mao Zedong named Joe E Lewis. An American nightclub comedian, Lewis knew about suffering; at one point in his career, his throat was cut open by vengeful Chicago mobsters. But he also understood the perils of poorly conceived protest. “Show me a friend in need,” Lewis used to say, “and I’ll show you a pest.”