I have no idea what precipitated the latest of many standoffs between Occupy Oakland and the Oakland police, this clash being of the May Day variety. All I saw was a cop chasing and eventually tackling a man in one of the crosswalks on 14th and Broadway, Occupy Oakland’s home base since the movement’s inception. From there, it was like a firecracker had gone off, or a bell signaling the start of the prize fight everyone had been anticipating. The Black Bloc sprang into action, armed with their bandanas and homemade metal shields. “Here we go,” “showtime,” they could be heard exhorting themselves as they marched towards the commotion. This was familiar territory for them, and they were prepared. The cops sprang into action too. They were also prepared.
Unlike the Black Bloc, whose instinct was to propel forward at the first sign of danger, mine was to propel back. I admit it was the first time I had felt a palpable sense of respect for the Black Bloc – the ones willing to put their bodies on the line for the cause. Of course, this kind of courage does not in itself warrant praise. As noted controversially by Bill Maher many years ago, terrorists who fly planes into buildings have courage. Soldiers who occupy foreign lands have courage. Cops who break up peaceful demonstrations have courage. So I guess it depends which side you’re on when deciding who to designate as “courageous” and who to designate as a “hooligan.” But for me, in that place, the designation of courageous belonged to the Black Bloc – those taking part in a peaceful, constitutionally protected protest, ready to defend that right, whose instinct was, again, to spring forward into danger as I sprang back.
At times, I would even find myself entertaining the notion that these Black Bloc folks were the real freedom fighters, as opposed to people like me, whose main contribution is sitting in front of a computer and writing. I quickly corrected myself. As much as any movement for social justice needs people willing to get arrested, injured, or even killed, it also needs people to explain why the cause is worthy of that type of sacrifice – to articulate to those on the outside looking in why the movement deserves their support even if they live in seeming comfort, to see the forest for the trees and to chart a path forward. If the typical Black Bloc participant lacks the ability to adequately explain what, exactly, is wrong with our socio-economic system beyond their own immediate angst and misfortune, I lack the disposition to confront it in the flesh, and it occurred to me that this was one of the main messages of Occupy – that we are ALL needed. For either faction to denigrate or consider themselves superior or more valuable than the other is misguided, as we are at our best when we learn from and listen to each other. Perhaps one day I’ll get arrested, and perhaps one day the Black Bloc will understand what “be the change” really means. When that happens, Occupy will truly be a force to be reckoned with.
It wasn’t long before the cops had made their presence fully felt – storming the plaza with flash-bang grenades and orders for anyone not in uniform to vacate the area, declaring it an unlawful assembly for reasons unknown. They might as well have been declaring “this is a police state.” That’s certainly what it felt like to me and I’m sure most of the other civilians there – a physical and mental police state.
I milled about, witnessing the transpirings from afar. I witnessed some ugliness. People yelling useless invectives at cops. Graffiti of the wildly creative “kill pigs” variety – idiotic, if only for the reason that the ones who would be cleaning it up were the ones we were all there to represent. I posted up on a bench while I finished off the tasty chicken and bean dish that had been served for free, assuming I was safe. I was keeping my distance, and wasn’t causing any trouble. I heard a rallying cry coming from the epicenter of the action, which I had at first taken to be the occupiers, but on further examination realized it was the cops. They were breaking into separate formations now, slowly expanding outward in an effort to clear the area, and as they did, they chanted this curious single-syllable chant, which sounded something like “Hoot! Hoot! Hoot!” I guess you could say it was their mantra – their method of keeping as fearless and focused as possible on the task at hand. For some reason, at that moment, the thought arose in me that this would be an ideal time for an earthquake – a stern but potentially unifying reminder that none are exempt from the mercy of nature, that all our feet touch the same pavement, and despite what might be suggested by all the bulletproof vests, riot helmets and plexiglass shields, none of us are REALLY in control.
The cops kept moving towards me and the others near me who were simply minding our own business in the outskirts. One girl cried while being comforted by her man – crushed by the spectacle and the inevitability of what was to come. As they got within 10 feet, I did what I was supposed to do. I crossed the street, and caught the next BART train home. Getting arrested would have accomplished nothing. As I approached the station, one of the cops surveying the proceedings said something to me. I’m not sure what he said, but it was good-natured. I suspect he suspected I was an innocent bystander, not part of the protest. I know he meant well, but I couldn’t look at him. I kept my head down, and kept walking.
I’ve always had a healthy amount of respect for a good cop, but this respect has always been tempered by my preference for addressing causes before symptoms. Of course it’s not the cop’s responsibility to contemplate the bigger picture as to why his job should even be needed – whether bad seeds just happen to reside and procreate in his community, or whether we all bear some responsibility for it. As far as the cop is concerned, all is right with the world. Violence is simply a given, and it is their job to contain it. In exchange for their commitment, they are given a solid and stable career with which to raise their families. All these pesky protests forcing them to work overtime and Tivo their baseball games will die down soon enough.
Yet at some point, “I’m just doing my job,” or “I’m just trying to feed my family,” is no longer a valid excuse for perpetrating injustice. While the brunt of blame will always belong to the ones giving the orders rather than the ones following them, there comes a time when even the objective of securing your next meal is superficial if it requires losing yourself in the process. When I was a foot soldier for the corporations who have co-opted our collective consciousness, I held my nose daily, but I’m happy to say that I never acted like the all out dweeb they wanted me to just to keep my job. I never asked a customer 3 times if they wanted the extended warranty, I asked them once. When my manager sat me down to tell me his concerns – which I knew were based purely on his own self-preservation – I calmly told him I didn’t believe in the product, and I wasn’t going to sell it the way he wanted me to. I knew it could cost me my job, but it was more important to me to preserve what dignity I could still lay claim to in that environment. Amazingly, I was able to keep my job, until I quit myself – removing the feeding tube I had been led to believe I was dependent on. Today, more and more of us are making this choice – to give living unflinchingly precedent over personal security – confident that doing so will ultimately lead to the best result that we likely hadn’t even envisioned yet, even if it seems woefully ill-advised and suicidal in the short-term. Whether you’re religious, spiritual but not religious, atheist or what have you, this type of faith will be required from all of us if a movement for true systemic change is to take hold.
When I got home, I visited all the corporate sites to get their take on what had happened. They mentioned incidents of glass bottles being thrown, windows being smashed, tear gas being fired, protesters being arrested. It was their version of events – the story told by those who had a deadline to meet, a boss to please, an assumed premise and a rigid boundary for their work to be contained within. Everything that was reported may well have been true, but there was no doubt more to the story. Just like the cop had his family to feed, so did the reporter. Just like the cop wasn’t concerned about ruminating on causes, neither was the reporter. No report questioned whether it was the police presence itself which fanned the flames of conflict. No report asked why there should ever be a vacant building in the middle of SF’s Tenderloin district, and why the police should be out in full force to prevent it from being used as a community center. No report contemplated the real origin of the Tenderloin’s destitution that never goes away, and why it should need a community center in the first place. Of course, one could say these corporate sites should be commended for even covering a protest movement hostile to the very existence of a for-profit truth-telling organization – for what if the truth isn’t profitable?
The causes of all the ills named by the Occupy movement are what will be addressed now and in the future. Protests are important and tie the movement together, but they are only one spoke of the wheel. Cops can break up peaceful demonstrations, and they can evict people out of buildings, but they can’t force people to compromise their values, or participate in a system which doesn’t serve them. They can’t force us to buy products produced with slave labor, and they can’t disallow us from giving freely to each other without expectation of return. These kinds of actions may well be called un-American, as they would disrupt the economy and cause job loss which, according to the story we’ve been told, would be bad. But thankfully, we are all, slowly but surely, beginning to see through this story. As each of us increases our personal and collective awareness, enabling us to remove our personal and collective feeding tube, things like community gardens, worker co-ops, gift economies, transition towns and community clinics will step up to fill the void. Over time, we will build up our resilience, and the corporations and governments we thought we were dependent on will recede into the background. We might still have an ancillary role for them, or we might not. We’re telling our own story now.