There are a lot of reasons that protest movements wax and wane. People have short attention spans, or limited time committments. People move, have babies, get new jobs, or have to deal with family tragedies.
Other times, the attitudes of those protesting can lead to reticence. They can make even someone who has donated lots of time and resources feel hesitant to return. Sustained movements like Occupy Oakland have a social component and definite social dynamics, and those dynamics began to turn ugly around the time of the second raid on OG plaza.
My housemate and I were at the plaza for almost every GA and open forum. I wrote letters in the library and went to meetings. We lugged fresh veggies from our garden down to the plaza. My housemate was involved in gardening and the children’s village. In short, we were trying to be actively engaged in the community as we could while still working our day jobs, taking care of our pets, and meeting other obligations.
We didn’t mind the time our involvement took away from other facets of our lives because this was important work, and we were meeting many engaging, warm people who also wanted to make a difference.
Then came the General Strike. When we left the port, it was triumphant. It was a good day, filled with thousands and wide ranging support. But as I pedaled back toward home, I sensed a change in the air. I did not yet know about the actions taking place downtown, but I would soon hear. And see.
I rode to 12th street BART the next morning to head to work and my heart was heavy when I saw not only the damage, but the reaction from all of the folks on their way to work. I knew then that it would be an uphill battle to win back the people’s trust.
And indeed, many folks felt like I did, and were visibly, passionately supportive of mending the damage and coming up with a way to feel comfortable within the movement going forward. This was met with immediate and fierce resistance. As weeks went by and people argued, the folks that remained grew more and more bitter and stagnant, with a few exceptions.
My personal breaking point was a GA I attended after the second raid, when OO was still looking for a new camp. There was a lot of tension about the lot at 19th and telegraph that night, and people from the neighborhood to be affected had shown up to stack the vote. I could understand the annoyance at having outsiders come in, but the level of derision these folks received was off the scale, and very unlikely to win anyone over. Then, after they all left, a few proposals were neatly dealt with, until the last one.
Now, this last proposal shouldn’t have really been a proposal. It was a statement of principles, and was long and flowery. But it was the last proposal of the night. nothing truly important was behind it. At a moment when Occupy was clearly having an identity crisis, perhaps taking a few moments to really think about why we were all there was not a bad thing. As he read, my overwhelming emotion was worry for him, as I could see the folks in the smoking section gearing up for a major takedown. They had already started jeering and booing. I cajoled him in my mind to take the signal and hurry it up, but he went on, oblivious to the social cues around him – which is probably why he had thought it appropriate to bring this proposal here in the first place!
A few who lined up to comment tried to be judicious in their comments, but others seemed to revel in a combination of smugness and self-importance as they dug into him for “wasting their time” when “there was so much important work to be done.” There was one woman who got up to speak who I had disliked from day one – she had a habit of rushing into meetings and discussions halfway through and demanding to be caught up on what she missed so that she could give her two cents – derided him for “wasting our fucking time” and ranting about the work we could have been doing at that very moment on the next port shutdown. Which, yanno, they had had a meeting about at 5pm that day. The man who brought the proposal was clearly shaken, and I will forever remember the image of his friends surrounding him after he pulled the proposal, rubbing his shoulders as he hung his head in dejection. What did you accomplish in tearing him down so violently? Satisfaction? Did he make a good proxy target for all of the real anger you feel inside about the state of the world? (There’s a lot of that misplaced anger floating about, if you look just beneath the surface.)
Is this how a movement is built? By making newcomers and different drummers feel utterly scolded? By playing the “I’m more involved than you” card at every moment? One night, I was sitting in the non-smoking section, with two families with toddlers in my discussion group. A young dude in front of me lit up and was drinking out of a bottle in a paper bag. I approached him cordially and reminded him of the rule, and he basically said that because he camped there, he could do whatever the hell he wanted. I told him that the people had agreed on this rule, and pointed out the kids. He told me to go fuck myself. All of this happened next to a “crowd advocate” who had been joking with the dude a few minutes earlier, and who utterly declined to intervene.
Take these self-important attitudes and lack of respect, mix in some adrenaline and police violence, and soon you have a hardcore group of folks who no longer care about the community they are supposedly fighting for, who feel that any legitimate questioning of their actions is an attack that must be destroyed at all costs.
I had come away from that last GA meeting with one shred of hope – the announcement of a camp at a foreclosed home two blocks away from me. I left the GA and rode home to finally dig the tent out of storage to give to them. I couldn’t abide the folks at the GA anymore, but perhaps these small occupations were where I needed to focus my energy. My housemate and I walked over there and donated our tent and gave some contact info and went out the next morning to go food shopping, including ingredients for a big pot of soup for the occupiers on our list. And as you all know, by the time we got home from the store, the owner had changed her mind. the information that day was spotty, but something went cold in my heart when i heard that she had asked them to leave and they didn’t immediately pack their things and go. It wasn’t about helping folks, it was about them and their camp.
So I stopped getting involved. I focused my energy on the holidays and my friends and family. I shopped locally and basked in the vibrancy and good cheer of all of the Oakland shopowners who are working hard to make this city a unique and proud place.
And I will look to the organizations who have been doing amazing work in Oakland for a long time in order to bring about justice in my city. They came, they tried to get involved, and many of them left feeling bewildered. These were your natural mentors, and you chased many of them away.
Now, you’ve destroyed a children’s art exhibit at City Hall. All of the press and #OO tweets I’ve read have been about the police violence and hating Jean Quan and bringing down the elites, and that’s all well and good. But you need to address this. Because many of those people who swelled your ranks for days and weeks and months see something like that and think, “Occupy has really lost it now.” Because there is absolutely no excuse for such behavior. None. Don’t twist yourself up in knots trying to defend it as the byproduct of a larger day of police violence. Did OPD overreact throughout the day? Certainly. Should they be challenged legally over every act of violence? Most definitely. Did that give you an excuse to destroy art, especially children’s art? Hell no. Is burning a flag ever going to get you the support of the public, no matter what it represents in your head? Absolutely not. It’s the act of fools who have buried themselves so far inside of their movement that they forget that the point is to bring others in. If you continue to alienate everyone, you will be easier to pick off, beat and arrest. The charges will get higher. OPD will know that the whole world has stopped watching and they will get heavier handed – and that is what is already happening. Take a moment, really look at yourselves, and decide what you want to be. Do you want to focus on being a force for positive change in Oakland, or do you want to be a ragtag group of increasingly beat upon rebels who scorn help, support, and most of the community that they are fighting in the name of?