“This is what democracy looks like” is almost as good a slogan as “we are the 99%.” Those slogans represent the gist of the movement, and the way it should be organized. Some of us older supporters have spent quite a bit of time at the General Assemblies at Occupy Oakland.
I have raised funds for Occupy Oakland-I have photographed it, I have donated to it and written about it. I have been obsessed with the movement that I hope is bringing fresh recruits to our decades-long struggle for social justice. During those decades, I became as much a victim of our system as a fighter against it, but that has made me clearer about the fight we are in.
For a minute I thought that not only had the recruits arrived but that maybe it was time for me to lay down my gear and watch the fight be carried on from afar.
By the way, I’m sorry if my language is too warlike. I do apologize for that because I am a proud pacifist, a birthright Quaker (insider’s term) and a person who believes that sometimes maybe we should just sing kumbaya. But now I realize that we are in the fight of our lives and we can never lay down our gear.
I was part of the momentous, awe-inspiring moments last week when we marched over the highway to the port with thousands of our closest friends. After I began to think it was time to head home, I heard someone say, “Here comes the second wave.” I turned and saw them and I couldn’t believe my eyes-thousands of people flowing onto the overpass and down into the waiting crowd. They kept arriving for the next hour and even straggled in as I wound my way home.
I could have cried many times that day and I did do a lot of oohing and ahhing. Oakland’s visage from the area around the port represented the height of urban power-the cranes and bridges in the distance, the huge trucks and empty cars waiting for their bounty, and the train tracks curling around it all in the sunset. Added to the view of raw industrial strength was the site of human beings climbing, singing, dancing and waving signs and occupying every inch of those industrial metal “sculptures.”
A little group was playing “De Colores” on the top of the overpass just as the sun went down while a mom danced with her little boy. I returned home so elated, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Some friends arrived later; and as we talked about the day, the calls started coming in of the disturbing incidents unfolding downtown.
You all know the rest of that story. Even Keith Olberman, who interviewed our own Sean Maher of the Oakland Trib, insisted on showing footage of the fires burning and the police advancing behind a veil of tear gas. And it wasn’t some little coterie of overwrought youth who had gotten a little too energetic after a great day. Later I saw video of the Whole Foods that afternoon while the marauders attacked the very protestors who had been marching and working for a new kind of world.
So, this is what democracy looks like? That’s hard to gauge from where we stand now. After attending the City Council meeting where over 100 people spoke, most in support of OO, the CC listened patiently and responded with their own concerns about costs to the city and the potential loss of business in a town with 17% unemployment.
Most of my friends are leftists while some are liberal. [If you don’t know the difference, that’s not surprising given our willfully ignorant media, but it’s a subject for another day.] I have found a split among the folks I know who support the Occupy movement in different ways, but it’s not the split the local press has promoted.
The split I have noted seems to be between those who have a broad left overview and see the movement as a chance to change the whole thrust of politics in this country on the national stage; and those of us who are more involved in governing at the local level. We would like to see the bigger picture if we could turn away from the smaller screen on an Oakland that is brimming with broken windows, trash, and tear gas.
We, who have helped to craft budgets designed to leave something for senior centers, safe passage programs for children, and façade improvements for our small businesses, would like to see some of the funds that have been poured into port-a-potties and police overtime flow into these line items instead.
As a person who has long been a small business advocate and a leftist, I don’t believe that collateral damage is any more acceptable to a firm that supports local designers and promotes our downtown than it is to civilians caught in the crossfire in one of America’s real occupations [the term, occupation, has always bothered me for that reason].
Here’s the other thing, the movement will not survive if it is based on camping out. Yes, weather really will have an effect, and so will the diminishment of supplies and supporters, not because of their lack of belief but because they must move on with their lives.
So that means it’s time to move onto the next stage and begin to look for more allies, like the labor folks, the anti-eviction forces, and the creative groups who put up galleries, murals, spoken-word events, art murmurs, and organic farming movements in our great little town.
At one time I thought that the next stage was to use the example of Amsterdam in the 60’s and 70’s and begin squatting in empty buildings. But after Wednesday night, I’m not sure the movement can handle the destructive element in its midst, and I don’t want to see fires, no, not even little ones, in the streets.I have another concern. For those too young to remember earlier periods of student and worker movements, I am here to tell you that this is a time which may also result in our most liberal leaders- in our universities, our cities, and even our country- being thrown out and replaced by reactionary leaders.
The reaction to incidents of violence or even the appearance of lack of order was joined with the disgust over unruly police forces to produce a climate designed to replace them with “strong men.”
Make no mistake about it-these forces are waiting in the wings to remove the gutsy, hardworking Quan with their top-down managers who will immediately crack down on youth and workers alike.
Since this is a truly organic uprising, a real upwelling of anger and hope, I not only don’t have the answers; I don’t have to answer these questions as I may already be irrelevant to the process.
But, since I believe that local government represents our best chance to show what democracy really looks like, I will assert that we all have the right and the duty to participate and to consider all the elements of our community when we make decisions.
That means being pragmatic as well as visionary, reformist as well as revolutionary, and optimistic as well as skeptical.