Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Scattered Thoughts on the Occupy Movement.

I seem to fall somewhere between the two main trains of thoughts I see up on facebook walls, peppering my twitter feed, dominating the opinion pages and otherwise publicly being declared. There are those saying the movement is a time waste and naïve – often based on economics, lack of political tactics, haphazard strategy, etc. And the other side is so refreshed by the sight of action that their perspectives are unapologetically bold in their support. Which isn’t to say there aren’t more nuanced perspectives out there – only that they aren’t the ones I seem to be encountering daily.

When the protests began I hoped the novelty would wear off soon and substance would come. The procedural running of meetings to achieve consensus complete with hand motions for a point of order, voting agreement or disapproval etc. reminded me of my first high school congress tournament with my Speech and Debate team – I could see the objective of rules to regulate the conversation but I found the dialog utterly disconnected from reality. So we all agree – now what? Consensus in general assemblies meant little in terms of future actions, just as the results meant little in my high school debates.

Later watching the police brutally attack protesters in New York with punches to the face, unprovoked pepper spray and kettling tactics it was surreal. The UC fee hikes had introduced me to those tactics and I must confess I am rather scared of pepper spray and batons as my encounters with them have not been pleasant. I’m sure activist friends who were with me when I was at such protests can attest – I’m a coward. I want to be close enough to the action to get the photos but I’m pretty useless when things are chaotic. I’m short enough to get lost in the shuffle and when I can’t see what’s happening I get worried. Regardless of my own dislike of chaotic situations, I went out to San Francisco again to see what the local movement looked like – did it have the same vibe as what I was observing remotely from video clips, photos and live streams from Wall Street?

I was disappointed. If you had told me the entire San Francisco contingent in those early days was simply the kids from the Haight who’d relocated I’d believe you. Several of the people I spoke to at the event had come out from Florida to go to the Blue Grass Festival and decided to stay on. This wasn’t a movement dominated by local San Franciscans asking to be heard. There were a handful out there – but it wasn’t a majority, and the loudest voices definitely weren’t locals (in the discussions I had.) I admit, I’ve gone out of state for a few days of GOTV work in proceeding elections, but there’s something different to me about being invited by campaign organizers to remind people their voices matter and physically occupying a space while claiming to represent the people in that space. The difference between co-opting versus supporting matters to me, especially in the early phases of a movement.

Other things also frustrated me. When there are only a few dozen people and you’ve made a rule through consensus I expect you to respect it. Seeing a man packing a bowl and getting high under the sign that set the rules No Drugs, No Alcohol, and No Smoking annoyed me. I have no problem with an 18 year old who’s legally allowed to serve in the military having a beer. I don’t think our government’s drug policy is logical at all and if you want to protest that – have at it! (I personally have chosen to respect it – and didn’t drink till 22, but my perspective doesn’t need to dictate your actions) But what frustrated me was that those in camp reached consensus that the camp would be drug and alcohol free, and yet some of those people who participated in making the rule didn’t respect it. This wasn’t a rule imposed by a higher power years before your birth, it was your community with your participation. If you’re going to do civil disobedience to change a law but can’t respect your own rules, why bother? If you’re going to ignore rules regardless of who makes them, why should the rules matter to you?

At Occupy San Jose I found much more to respect. It was a smaller delegation but rather than people asking me where to find a good cup of coffee and asking for directions – there was debate on whether the city ordinances should be respected as the protest was meant to target a national issue, however the ordinances would affect the action plan. The debate was much more nuanced and action oriented when I went – precedent of past protests was discussed as well as the cost in both public perception and use of time. It felt more concrete in how they were establishing their role, which to me is essential for being relevant. If you don’t have a concrete aim to be achieved – when will the fight be over? Are you planning on camping out forever?

When I made my way to Occupy Oakland I found it was like Occupy San Jose in the community being predominantly local, but as it was much larger it also had greater diversity. By diversity I’m refereeing to socio-economic status, racial representation, gender expression, orientation of couples holding hands etc- there was a much wider segment of society being represented. Like in San Francisco there were the occasional joints and drinks being served – but like San Jose they were being very methodical about running their General Assembly, and due to the size were breaking into groups of 20 for both discussions and voting to get an accurate headcount and make sure concerns were aired.

The day I came to Occupy Oakland was right after the camp had been forcefully disbanded by police, and after the tear gassing and pepper spraying of protesters who tried to return – so there was a much greater awareness of the cost of attendance and the possibility of force, even though the police were not present that evening.

However despite mostly agreeing with where protesters attitudes were coming from, still I found myself irked later in the evening when Mayor Quan came to address the assembly. When it came to being angry at her, I understand that. When it came to being physically assaulted by police I understand the anger. But far too many complained that she wasn’t listening, and when she came angry individuals ran towards her shouting she was not welcome. To me it meant the chance for a dialog was never made possible. If angry people run at me shouting, I’d leave – and I can’t blame Mayor Quan for doing as much.

Don’t get me wrong here, it was stupid of the city to use such violent tactics to clear the camp. It was even stupider to use tear gas in the name of public safety to clear a crowd that was mostly milling about (to be fair there were some trouble makers). That being said on the protesters side it was stupid to not stop other protesters from throwing paint canisters on police. They don’t know if you’re throwing water, paint or gasoline that you plan to follow with a match – so obviously they’re going to be more likely to use force when it seems like elements of the group are willing to fight. It was also stupid of protesters to not take advantage of the moment to engage with mayor and actually talk it out. Even if the protesters disagreed with everything she might have said, to let her talk would have made them the grown ups, the responsible ones. Undue force and irrationality would be pegged squarely on the city; but if a Mayor can’t walk into a public square without being verbally harassed with people chasing her – she’s got much more ground for future force.

That being said the evening ended on a much more peaceful note – live music being played, a community celebrating their presence, dancing, and I don’t recall the last time I felt so comfortable in a space. A man told me about his fears for his daughter who at age 5 had already seen several homicides in their neighborhood. I met young people who cheerfully invited me into their group. A woman made soup to hand out in cups – so when I stayed several hours longer than expected I was not hungry. I’ve been to a fair number of political spaces – but the common thread amongst most conventions and networking events is I’m miserable. I love the people I meet working phone banks, walking precincts etc – but political spaces always make me feel marginalized, so to see a movement so open armed is also a positive sign.

However as I see it the inability for the movement to self manage itself is the biggest hurdle to getting full support- because I’m not the only one that agrees that the problem of economic injustice is huge, that the government is being corrupted with money, that lobbyists exert too much control, that those in the financial industry who crashed the economy should be better regulated etc… a lot of the things being said in any of these three cities general assemblies I and many others agree with. And I like a lot of the people I’ve met. But if we’re talking about the principle of an idea not the implementation such agreement becomes meaningless to the larger issue.

The reality is we’re several weeks in and most of the general assemblies that I’ve been to are still working out group norms, talking about procedurals, and trying to figure out what the group stands for. To be fair – society hasn’t had a lot of these conversations in a long time, and it will take time to bring the discussion around, but I’m getting stir crazy. I want to see the movement DO something more than organize the tents and camp. At first I was impressed by having trash, compost and recycling separated and by having the first aid tents. But it’s been too long for that to feel good. It feels like the frustration I had with the congress tournaments in High School or the UN re-enactments at conferences, great dialog, what does it mean?

Last year I thought the Rally to Restore Sanity was an awesome way to bring together moderate Americans and those with a sense of humor to say the political machine was broken – but that was a feel good action that didn’t actually change anything but the media dialog. The dialog change was needed but it didn’t change any policies or the behavior of politicians. It made people aware that things had gotten too heated – but it wasn’t until Congresswoman Giffords was shot that the point was truly absorbed and the media coverage changed. My fear is that OccupyWallStreet could be something in those lines- a press event raising awareness for a serious issue that that despite it’s good intent needs a tragedy to make it’s point. The topic has been successfully raised (statistically we can prove this), the microphone (human or otherwise) is ready, but the elephant in the room is the lingering question, “Now what?”

I’ll be going to Oakland tomorrow to see what happens in the strike. Maybe my thoughts will change then… I’ll let you know.

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