Having tentatively decided this was a movement worth giving a shot, I packed up a minimal collection of belongings on my bike and set off for San Francisco’s occupation at Justin Herman Plaza. With a good sleeping bag, some warm clothes, a few books, and random bike gear, I could support myself without a home to come back to and get the full experience of living in a public park amongst other protesters. Surviving wasn’t my main worry though, it was just how I was going to protest having never been an activist (even blithely dismissing activists in the past for their idealism) and not needing the services occupy camps provide to those hit by the great recession. It wasn’t deprivation that lead me to go live in a homeless camp full of protesters and outraged citizens being swept under the rug by politicians claiming to act on their behalf then bowing to the interests of giant corporations, it was mostly (the short answer I give to all those journalists asking “why occupy?”) curiosity.
This curiosity lead me to some intriguing new grounds and I’m confident that when one makes adequate time to develop, refine, and converse about those things that spark our curiosity, the more direct action will follow.
In this case, what lead to the increased curiosity was it’s spontaneous eruption and it’s elusiveness – nobody could quite get their finger on what they are “about” or what they want. The corruption has gone so deep that past protesting tactics just can’t mount a challenge to the gigantic mega-powers serving the few – now we need to stay until we’re heard. Its the novelty of the idea that got me going: bring all the big problems urgently demanding attention into one physical space and not leaving, or occupying. This all makes it an attractive calling, but the pressure of justifying my being there kept rattling around my head since there is no easy way to sum it up, (this pressure is manipulated by the mainstream media ad nauseum) and there is so much time simply occupying public space physically (i.e. standing around). Even since I’ve made close friends (comrades now) and gotten situated as to my role in keeping this beautiful movement moving, this urge to justify the decision to join continues because it’s good conversation – a chance to talk about our most cherished beliefs.
The first night it rained heavily. It was November the fifth of 2011, a day I won’t forget because its Guy Fawkes day (you know, the guy who tried to blow up England’s Parliament building oh so long ago) and thought that would be a fitting day to embark. The first scene I came upon was a General Assembly in occupy SF where they debated the renaming of plaza and making a declaration of non-violence (which, they said, contrasted Oakland’s policy – I took note) amongst a dozen or two activists while the encampment itself was full of drug addicts and street-hardened campers. My first interaction was with a woman poking me with a stick for getting too close to her tent then threatening to fling her shit from her pants at me (honesty I swear). The march a bit later went through the financial district on what felt like a formal tour with designated educational speakers at each stop. Cameras of all kinds were out along with the press and I deliberately avoided their gaze – partially of fearing my friends would see me – but mostly because I wasn’t out their for a photo-op, I was there to change the world or bring in another one. I met some genuinely interesting people in isolation in OccupySF that day, but the conversations couldn’t get passed the narrative of 99% vs. 1% and money in politics and all that. I wanted to be both a camper and an organizer, but here they seemed far too disconnected and I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed.
I slept on concrete in the rain with a flapping tarp the only thing between my sleeping bag and water, and I did get wet. But this did not deter me, as I wrote above, survival and comfort wasn’t an issue for this healthy 25-year-old male: it was what I/we could accomplish out here. I still got much love for San Francisco and OccupySF participating in many of their actions and checking out the General Assembly now and then, but I could not see the change that I wanted to make in the rest of the world/ new world there. A druggy colony on one side and comfortable, quarreling meeting planners on the other made for a discouraging sight. I heard that they had actually improved on these concerns after I left and gave the City’s complaints no credence before it was raided and torn down, but I had still set my destination for Oakland.
The BART ride from Embarcadero to Downtown Oakland is short and almost door-to-door (so to speak) and I arrived just in time for a General Assembly again, only this time it was a shocking scene. At least two hundred people were in the ampitheater packing into the sitting area and pacing around the surrounding walkways and the stage buzzing in pockets of heated debate. Those in stack, or line to speak, were aching to get on stage for a mic-check and what they said would send great sighs of scorn through some groups while others would holler and cheer. Facilitators would scramble to prevent people from jumping stack and rushing to the center stage to get their opinions out to the assembly while trying to avoid the accusation of playing favorites or silencing someone’s voice. The violence issue was being discussed here too, but it was a balanced discussion invoking outrage, the most passionate conviction, and the most eloquent improvised rhetoric I’d ever heard. Obviously I had missed something.
But had I? I read the newspapers and saw how big the General Strike was (70,000 people?!), how frightening the tear gas-rubber bullet battle downtown was, and how cute the window smashing was in online videos; but what I missed, and I suspect most occupy enemies deliberately avoid, was the orderly chaos of the GA. It was and remains a thoroughly energizing experience to participate in a GA. Anyone can speak while everyone else repeats what you say (mic-check!); nobody is represented by anyone else, everyone gives their own announcements, proposals, and ideas for action in the present. It’s a decision-making body that offers a model for what politics can be beyond a system that seeks above all else the generation of wealth regardless of who has it. Dissent is tolerated here and leads to invigorating debate between fellow community members facing in-fighting and outside repression. In Oakland I got the feeling that a radical commune was emerging, not just a homeless camp run and supplied by well-off empathizers, and the GA participation demonstrates the fervent attachment to the fate of Occupy Oakland by both campers and organizers.
Maybe its the rich history of civil resistance in Oakland, or it’s consistent economic troubles around the port, or it’s police violence embedded into the city, or it’s less obvious gentrification than other big cities (across the bay) that moves people to take grand action here. Whatever the reason for the energy of Occupy Oakland, it was producing something very new: a protest that doesn’t go away and a budding community offering an alternative to a broken political system turned unbearable.
My earlier political apathy had sharpened the tools for which to spot a winner capable of avoiding co-option into the same old power structure. And that’s what kept me in Oakland for the next month or so: curiosity drew me in, the radical stubbornness toward any kind of limit on actions by people who just talk kept me there. I view the GA as a space for organizing actions rather than drafting statements of intent or explaining what the whole of Occupy Oakland is. I have absolute respect for diversity of tactics – it is not a cover for advocating “violence.” I get the feeling this aspect of Oakland’s movement is what makes it such a beacon and forcefull name for the real chvange we need these days. All ideas and tactics are welcome – the desire for consensus on all of them is not required.