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More than a thousand writers declare: ‘Yes, we are the 99%!’

October 20, 2011

Naomi Wolf will lay down the law, even to cops.

Naomi Wolf may be the most high-profile writer to be arrested so far, but more than a thousand have declared their support for the Occupy Wall Street protests.

I have to admit I was thrilled when Wolf was arrested — never has something I learned in high school English played out with such force in the national news. I’m speaking, of course, of that most American of traditions, civil disobedience.

Reading accounts of Wolf’s arrest the other day, I was much amused by reader comments that accused her of intentionally goading police into arresting her just so she could get national media coverage. To which my response was: Duh!

Visit the Miami Book Fair International website to see the gaudy author list (Roseanne Cash! Jeffrey Eugenides! Nicole Kraus! Michael Ondaajte! Hundreds more! Literally!). This year’s fair runs Nov. 13-20. More details to come. Watch this space!

Obviously a lot of people were absent from school the day the English teacher discussed Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, a classic essay of American literature that inspired Gandhi in the campaign for Indian independence and Martin Luther King Jr. in the Civil Rights movement.

Thoreau, I hope you remember, failed to pay his one-dollar poll tax, for which he was arrested and jailed. The way this was taught to me — by a very upright matronly ninth-grade English teacher — Thoreau very deliberately broke the law with the express purpose of drawing attention to government polices he considered unjust, such as the war on Mexico and slavery.

As further evidence that Thoreau meant his incarceration as a publicity stunt, he was famously angry when an aunt paid the tax in his behalf and he was released after a single night of imprisonment.

When Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Thoreau in jail that evening, he supposedly said, “Henry, why are you here?” To which Thoreau replied, “Ralph, why are you not?” This has the ring of an apocryphal story to me, like Washington and the cherry tree, but, oh God, do I want it to be true.

I can only imagine Wolf, in the half hour she spent behind bars the other night, interrogating like-minded liberal writer friends: “Salman Rushdie, why are you not here? Naomi Klein, why are you not here? Jennifer Egan, Michael Cunningham, Alice Walker, Noam Chomsky, Donna Tartt, Jonathan Lethem, Ursula Le Guinn — where are you? Why are you not here?”

These writers, and some 1,200 others, including Margaret Atwood, Neil Gaiman, and Ann Patchett, may not have put themselves in danger of arrest, but they have declared unity with the Occupy Wall Street protest, according to the Guardian.

They’ve all signed a petition circulated by author Jeff Sharlet and journalist Kiera Feldman after Rushdie announced his support of the protests via Twitter. You can view the petition and the names of the writers at Occupywriters.com. You can also find new writings by Francine Prose, Lemony Snickett, and others.

Alice Walker , for example, contributed a pair of poems, one inspired by writer and academic Cornel West, recently arrested at a Washington, D.C., protest (though it received less press than Wolf’s arrest). The other, titled The World We Want Is Us, reads in part: “Yes, we are the 99% / all of us / refusing to forget / each other / no matter, in our hunger, what crumbs / are dropped by / the 1%.”

After all this, it turns out that Naomi Wolf never intended to get herself arrested in the first place, which is very inconvenient, given my enthusiasm for civil disobedience (thank you, George Wythe High School!). Instead Wolf was detained while defending protestors from police abuse of power, as she says in this statement on her Facebook page.

“I was arrested for disorderly conduct although my conduct was peaceful respectful law-abiding and orderly. I was arrested for not backing down when a police officer told me contrary to what I knew about the law and the permit process that a private entity owned the sidewalk. He was mistaken and I was correct. I behaved entirely lawfully and my arrest was unlawful.”

Wolf, it seems, has made herself an expert on permitting, and the way that cities — New York, in  particular — have used the permitting process to curtail freedom of expression, a subject she writes about in her book, Give Me Liberty: A Handbook For American Revolutionaries.

Okay, Naomi, good on you. That sounds important, too — though I gotta say, it’s not as sexy as getting yourself arrested on purpose to protest injustice.

Nonetheless, you stood up to the police. You spoke truth to power! I’m sure Thoreau and Gandhi and MLK and Mrs. Mayo, my high school English teacher, would be proud.

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