Monday, November 21, 2011

General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

Crazy busy lately.
Last Wednesday evening we drove over to Oakland with some friends to witness and participate in an Occupy Oakland General Assembly. This was held at the Frank Ogawa Plaza where just a couple of days before the police had cleared out the encampment and arrested about 30 peaceful protesters, including our friend Jeremy (he blogs about his experiences if you'd like to read a first-hand account).

Jeremy has been very involved with the movement for about a month, so we waited and went at a time when he knew it would be peaceful and safe for the kids. We walked a few blocks over to the Plaza in front of the Oakland City Center and discovered small groups of people already there, but no crowds at first.
The park itself used to have grass, but all of the grass was bulldozed off after police broke up the encampment and the dirt had been heavily watered and irrigated to turn the park into a mudbath to discourage people from sitting or camping again. People came anyway and eventually gathered in the small concrete amphitheater in front of city hall. When there were several hundred people accumulated they began the meeting.
It was an interesting exercise in very direct democracy; the group had several leaders come forward who are organizing different parts of the movement, and they made many announcements about where marches are happening, how to learn methods for peaceful resistance, forming task forces for things like publications and community liasons. It's plain that many people involved have experience with dealing with organizing, and crowds, and legal issues.

There was no PA system, so the crowd used the 'human microphone' method: the speaker would say a phrase, pause, and the crowd would repeat the phrase to amplify the words. It worked surprisingly well, and it had a sort of calming and unifying effect on the crowd, as well as acting as a way of controlling rowdy, disruptive elements. There were homeless people, there were people with mental issues and drug dealers there, as is usual in downtown Oakland. Downtown Oakland has a high number of homeless people (many of them are veterans having a hard time). There are many people of color who live in the neighborhood and view it as their turf. But overall there was an atmosphere of friendly tolerance among the people in the crowd. Several people who probably normally get treated with fear or wary avoidance were allowed to speak to the crowd and given an opportunity to say their piece. People were respectful and listened and repeated their words just as they did for other speakers. It was a touching example of respect for all the kinds of people who were there.

I admit I was surprised at how peaceful and respectful the entire assembly was; there are a lot of well-educated people involved in organizing various groups within this movement, at least in the Oakland movement. Which is saying something, considering how rough Oakland can be. There was a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and economic levels present in this crowd, which was fitting when you consider the variety and and number of different kinds of people who make up this amorphous 99%.
This was direct democracy in action: every person there got to listen to the proposals and then vote on whether to do it or modify it. There was a vote on a statement to be released to the media; through voting they decided to reword it to be less incendiary and after rewording, the people there approved it with a 90% majority vote. They approved on a date to march, and various other things to remain in solidarity with the other Occupy cities. There seems to be increasingly more communication between the movements of the various cities than earlier, and coordinating 'wintrerizing' the movement so it can continue through the cold months in other ways than camping.
The Oakland people are not going to be camping again at the Plaza location, at least not for awhile. The only person still encamped there is 20 feet up in a tree, and Zachary Running Wolf has no plans to come down any time soon. We spoke to him and wished him well; he's become a sort of symbol and mascot for the Occupy Oakland people. He's a long time protester, experienced with tree-sitting and many past protest movements. I guess the police just didn't want to bother trying to drag him down out of the tree; the police nearby were studiously ignoring him as well as everyone else.
There was another camp over at Snow Park, but that has also been cleared out by police in just the last day or so. But one of the interesting things is that the movement seems to be going ground-less; not exactly underground but into the ether, with the help of modern cell phones and internet technology. We'll see what happens. Winter is quickly becoming an issue, especially on the East Coast, so people are looking for ways to take it all indoors and keep momentum going through various internet media. It's become clear that internet and cell phone communication between protesters and organizers is vital to organizing. It's also pretty clear that city and government forces are coordinating between cities to clear out camps and protesters at the same times. This may be partly to prevent groups of protesters from migrating between areas in support, as the Oakland protesters did for San Francisco that same night we were there; many had gone across the Bay to San Francisco to help support the San Francisco movement, which was being raided by the police there about the same time we were holding the General Assembly meeting. This migration of support explained the relatively few number of people present in Oakland, though with several hundred people there it was still enough for a quorum.

I admit I had to overcome fears about safety. Turned out the fears were more appropriately directed at the police and not at the homeless people or the drug dealers who may have been around. Everyone was polite and friendly to us and the boys. Except the cops. There were police around, standing around the perimeter of the park. They did not smile or make eye contact or acknowledge us at any time, despite Riley saying a tentative hello to a few of them as we walked by within a couple of feet of them. It did not endear them to me and it really made Riley question why they were so mean looking. I had always taught my kids they could go up to a cop if they were in trouble to seek help, but we had to explain that under these circumstances it wouldn't be a good idea. It shook the boys a bit, I think. I felt with solid certainty that if we got mugged or were in trouble right in front of those cops by any kind of assailant, that those cops standing on the perimeter would not have helped us.

People will question why in the world I would take my kids to such an event, but the fact was that Riley really wanted to go; he was enthralled at the whole process and loved feeling like his vote counted, that he had a say in what was decided. He jumped in and helped hand out posters to the crowd. He was interested in the process and it's hard to think of a more direct lesson about trying to create change in your society. He knew on a gut level that his vote was counted and could be the deciding vote. And I have to confess that I have never in all my years of responsibly voting in elections ever felt that way. Casey, predictably, was much more bored with the whole process, but even he was impressed that everyone got a vote, even a little kid like himself, and he paid attention and listened, realizing that his vote would help decide when and where hundreds of people would be marching and what their message would be.

I've heard many people ask and wonder what the heck the whole message of the Occupy Movement is; it seems so amorphous and disorganized. I said much the same myself only a month or so ago. But as my wise friend Greg eloquently said:

"I think it might be asking a lot to expect such a nascent organic movement to enumerate a clear set of goals so soon. I also think it's a mistake to believe the anti-war movement during Vietnam had clear goals--especially at the beginning.

It just takes a while for spontaneous movements like this to move beyond the inarticulate frustration period. Then they develop some coherent goals, and then come up with some policy objectives. The problem is coherent goals and policy objectives are dull hard work, and right now people just want to stand up on their hind legs and howl. And good for them for doing it.

They'll get down to the grunt work later; let's just be glad folks are sounding their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world (I don't think Whitman would object to that)."

It really looks like there are many well educated, intelligent people within the movements who are starting to do that dull hard work. And I'm glad the boys and I have a chance to see it begin, though  it's frightening to see other protest situations turn ugly so close to home and heart and realize there may be a lot more violence coming. And I will be very careful about what I take the boys to, Mom, don't worry.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

self portrait

My friend Michealle mentioned that I'm always hiding behind my camera. True, I said. And I haven't really looked at myself for a long time; too busy, too distracted, too painful to see, what with increasing age and wrinkles and all. So yesterday I had my camera and a moment to spare in the car and I took a few shots in the mirror. Paul always hates these kinds of shots; he says I never smile and I'm always scowling in them, but it's more just my habitual expression, I think. I don't think of this as scowling, but it's certainly not the usual cheese for the camera look people make. Puzzled and rather saddened by the world, maybe.

It's an odd thing, looking at one's own face after taking lots of portraits of others. With other people I always feel an odd sort of tenderness towards their imperfections and there's always something beautiful and interesting or striking about their faces, something unique to be treasured. I have a hard time seeing such things in my own face unless I can step back and treat the person in the picture as if she were a complete stranger. She looks sad, I think. No makeup at all, no real attempt to 'put on a face' for public viewing. Doesn't feel the need to bother to create a front, perhaps. I see my father's face looking back at me, with his eyebrow structure and his sort of semi-scowl. He was a handsome man when he was young and even when he was older and the cancer was eating away at him he was still striking. I always wished I had a strong face like his, but I always felt squishy and unformed, too soft. Too malleable, like a soft clay.

Well, I've decided I don't feel so soft and squishy on the inside anymore, though my outside may have gotten more squishy with increasing age. I keep looking at older ladies and realizing that the ones I admire the most have strong spirits, scarred perhaps by hard things that have happened in their lives, as happens to all of us eventually, but with their sense of humor and whip-smart wit intact. I'd like to be like that, I think. The outside appearance does matter, I find, but I care less as I get older what people think. I have become more outspoken and less willing to gloss past people's unthinking insensitivity towards others. Maybe it's from having kids and trying to teach them right from wrong; it makes you much less patient with badly behaved adults.

Squishy on the outside, tougher on the inside. Still a work in progress.