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John Florez: Are 'occupiers' protesters or patriots?

Published: Saturday, Nov. 5 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Protester Alexis Marvel, of Boston, front, holds an American flag and shouts slogans while joining with members of the Occupy Boston movement, students from area colleges, and union workers as they march through downtown Boston, Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2011.

Associated Press

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Think or say what you will, but don't kill the messenger. The civil rights marchers knew things weren't right, as did the Vietnam protesters and demonstrators in the women's movement. And now the Occupy Wall Street protesters know it, too.

What they all have in common is the fight for the values that have always been the bedrock of our nation — fairness and justice. It's about the right to have the opportunity to pursue the American dream: if you work hard and live by the rules, you can look forward to a better life than the previous generation.

Americans' enemy is our short memory and inability to learn from our past mistakes. We tend to do the human thing when our way of life is disrupted: deny, blame or dismiss the demonstrators as troublemakers. By doing so, it lulls us in to believing that nothing has changed, and we can go along as usual.

We forget the civil rights movement was started by African-Americans in the '50s who began to see — thanks to the beginning of television — the two Americas, the haves and have nots. Finally, the resentment and hopelessness over the disparity and injustice among the poor in the inner city erupted in to demonstrations in the major urban cities. Politicians were finally forced to right some of the inequalities.

The Vietnam protestors exposed unjust and failed U.S. foreign polices and the grievous loss of lives of our young people forced to fight. They let Americans see the erosion of the moral high ground by our leaders.

When American women began to speak out on the unequal and unjust treatment in employment, education, courts and finances, to name a few, they were ridiculed. When they protested and marched, they were labeled as radical and disgruntled. Because of those women protesting, Americans could see the denial of their basic rights.

Today, we again see individuals from all walks of life protesting on the streets about the disparity of income between the 1 percent haves and the 99 percent have nots. They are individuals who see the American dream vanishing because of unemployment, home foreclosures, loss of affordable college tuition or loans and health care. Many see that some in the 1 percent did not really "earn" their wealth but more or less gained it by deception, or what feels much like theft, and at the expense and misfortune of the 99 percent that are our neighbors who are hurting and now speaking out.

There are those who are quick to dismiss the Wall Street occupiers as troublemakers, not being organized and not having a clear message. Rather than killing the messenger by finding fault, they should see their grievance as a symptom of our country's erosion of values, caring, fairness, justice and the belief that if you live by the rules and work hard, you can realize the American dream.

Rather than seeing the occupiers as a fringe group of radicals, we may want to view them as individuals who have exposed how the values that built this nation have been corrupted. It was radicals that established the beliefs that helped mold our nation's character; now we call them patriots. They were the ones that exposed the injustices and unfairness they had suffered and said, "Enough is enough," just as the radicals of today.

That's the strength of America. It always has a few dissenters that help us see how, through our complacency and "I've-got-mine" attitude, we have lost the moral duty each of us has as an American to speak out when we see wrong and work to right it.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Senator Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education.

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