Recently someone very close to me, an educated, liberal sympathetic soul who lives in the Bay Area asked me why I support the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, specifically the Occupy Oakland (OO) folks. This person noted that OO is making no specific demands and are causing damage to public property – the person also cited the estimate they read in the paper that it will cost $60.000 to reseed the grass area in Frank Ogowa Plaza once OO is gone (to which my initial response is, dude, me and my friends could do that for like $55,000 dollars less than whoever gave that estimate!). This person is a good person, someone who reads the paper, a few of them actually, and is thoughtful. Nonetheless he could not decipher the importance of OO/OWS. This is my response to his inquiry.
I am an amateur political junky, have been for many years with varying degrees of intensity. I read papars, magazines, watch the pundits on cable, talk with folks, argue. I feel it is my obligation to be somewhat informed and for the last few years I have watched this country spiral into something that started to scare the hell out of me.
I watched as an arrogant and insular Bush Administration squandered the post-9/11 sympathy of the world by invading two countries like a reckless cowboy. I watched as Afghanis and Iraqis and American soldiers died day after day, month after month, and then year after year as we all grew numb to the notion of it all. I watched as deregulation fueled the growing economic inequality in this country, the inequality initiated by Reagan’s economic policies and further exacerbated by Bush Sr., Clinton, and George W. I watched as the 2010 mid-term elections produced a radical right surge that precipitated some of the most regressive laws in Wisconsin, Ohio, Maine, Arizona, etc. I watched as the Koch brothers and their astroturf organizations such Americans for Prosperity duped and then fomented the rage of low income, ignorant, racist, white people into Tea Party actions that supported politicians who voted for policies that would severely injure those very same people. I watched as Tea Partiers talked about “taking back our country” as though some crime had been committed because the majority of the US population elected a black president. I watched as the markets crashed and the disgusting greed and criminal behavior of Wall Street was exposed. I watched as the Obama administration made no arrests, made no indictments against those who had clearly violated the law. I watched as the Robert’s court in Citizen United insanely ruled that corporations have the right to free speech.
Then I watched the mom-and-pop stores in my neighborhood close their doors after 20, 30, 40, 50 years of being in business, because of the economic crash and those criminal banks refusal to give credit to small businesses despite the government bailouts. I watched the foreclosure signs go up in my neighborhood, on my street, and I watched my neighbors solemnly pack their U-Hauls and drive away in shame. I watched as my own property value plummeted, as I got a note from the County Assessor telling me my house was worth a fraction of what it was assessed at only five years ago. I watched as my colleagues working for federal and state agencies had their pay cut, their staff decimated, their hours cut and then were asked to work more for that lower pay. And then I watched as the 2012 Presidential campaign emerged as the most insane, ironic, are-you-fucking-kidding-me farce since Joseph McCarthy was hurling accusations of un-American Activity.
And what did I do about all this? Nothing. Not one god damn thing. Oh sure, I made my political contributions, money I mean. I bitched at the water cooler, I wrote a tirade or three, a letter or five, I ranted to family and friends, but to what affect? None to little, I would guess. I felt powerless, impotent. And in the past couple of years I started to feel a little hopeless, my usual stalwart optimism began to fade. I, for the first time ever, thought of living abroad. I have studied enough history to be scared by what has happened in this country the last few years, yet nothing I did or said had any material impact on the insane political discourse. Nothing I did or said made the Koch brothers go away or stop buying politicians. Nothing I said or did made Congress enact stricter regulations on Wall Street, or act at all! Nothing I said or did inspired anyone to act, to get up off their asses and march in the streets or demand social justice. Nope. Not one god damn thing did I make happen.
And then two months ago a small group of young folks, apparently inspired by the actions in Egypt and the Arab Spring, pitched their tents in Zuccoti Park. And then something unimaginable happened. People started pitching tents in cities and small towns across this country and beyond, around the world occupiers took to the streets, town centers, government buildings. In over 90 countries there have been more than 1000 occupy actions. What those kids did in NYC changed the conversation in this country and beyond. Two months ago the Republicans were prattling on about spending cuts and deficit reduction, something every single reputable economist ON BOTH SIDES of the political spectrum agree would be disastrous in our current great recession In state government the newly elected radical Republicans were leading union busting and gross privatization initiatives that would further devastate the middle class in this country. That was the conversation. Now the conversation is the 99%, Wall Street regulation and accountability, income inequality, further exposure of the Koch brothers and the barely imaginable insanity resulting from Citizens United.
And then the OWS folks inspired an unprecedented move, folks moved their money from big-banks to Credit Unions and community banks, over one billion - that’s one billion dollars – was moved within a month. OWS has sparked demonstrations and marches in cities around the world. My city, Oakland, had it’s first general strike since the 1940s, successfully shutting down the fifth largest port in the country. There were more protesters there than any demonstration in the East Bay (including BEREKELEY!) since the Vietnam Era. And I was there. I saw the people in the streets. They were not, I assure you, just a bunch of hippies. They were teachers, kids, cops, firefighters, Marines, construction workers, bank tellers, students, etc. They were the work-a-day people, middle and working -class casualties of the economic crimes committed by Wall Street, and I dare say, our own government’s inaction. And they have helped changed the conversation.
I don’t give a fuck about the reseeding of the grass area in Frank Ogowa Plaza when OO is finally over. That is a trivial matter relative to the crises facing the majority of the folks in this country. That is a trivial matter when one considers the state of things in Oakland. This City is notorious for it’s crime, it’s high murder rate, it’s sex-trafficking, it’s blight. That Mayor Jean Quan makes the reseeding of the Plaza grass an issue at all is blatantly political and manipulative. This City has intractable problems, real problems, that SHOULD pale the impacts of those folks camping in Frank Ogawa Plaza. Mayor Quan authorized hundreds of thousands of (some accounts say over a million) City dollars for the police to brutally evict OO and then fire upon non-violent protesters.
And yes, there have been some anarchists and violent elements at some of the protests, a very small minority. But what does Mayor Quan and the world expect in a City with an impoverished minority population that has been at best ignored and at worst brutalized by the OPD? There is a preexisting rage in this City, a justifiable rage and at times in the OO demonstrations that rage has expressed violently. But this has been the exception, not the rule. And the organizers of OO have stepped in, tried to defuse the tensions, have over and over emphasized non-violence. I have seen this again and again with my own eyes, I have heard it with my own ears.
I have been to OO and Occupy San Francisco several times and have attended three marches, one in San Francisco and two in Oakland. I have wandered the camps, talked to people, made donations, read the literature. I have seen the homeless there, the Haight Street type kids in their grungy clothes playing angry folk songs on beat up guitars. Those kids who have ALWAYS been at the bottom of the 99% but no one seemed to notice or care enough to change that. Now, for the first time, the clarion call is for ALL of the 99% and they feel part of something. They feel seen. They see that their voices can be part of something bigger than their little cohort of bruised and battered friends begging in the streets and then trying to keep warm in the parks on a winter night. I have also seen the other young folks, the educated folk who are working to keep this thing peaceful and enduring. And they, by and large, have been successful despite the aggressive and sometimes ridiculous actions of the local police. So yes, the hippies, the homeless, the radical and idealistic are some of the people spending the nights in tents pitched on hard concrete or wet grass. But are they not part of the 99%? Is it not the system that privileges the very few at the expense of ALL of the other 99% the point of the Occupy Movement?
The way I see it, those young people sleeping in tents in Zuccotti Park, Frank Ogowa Plaza, Justin Herman Plaza and in cities and towns around the world, those people did what you and I could not. Those people successfully and nonviolently (for the most part) changed the discourse in this country and the world. They are doing our dirty work. They are doing what the young people should do and so many times in history have done. They are changing the world and we cannot yet know how that will play out, or what good may come. That is why I support the Occupy Movement, even with the homeless patchouli wearing drum beating hippies. And that is why I will continue to march and donate and support how and when I can short of pitching a tent. I encourage you all to do the same.