Friday, October 28th, 2011

The Livestream Ended: How I Got Off My Computer And Onto The Street At Occupy Oakland

When I heard the “We Are the 99%” slogan, I worried. I am movement-skittish. I don't like being spoken for. Anytime I hear the language of political clichés, whether about “workers” or “job creators,” my ears shut down. I know those vocabularies, and I don't agree with the worldviews that produce them.

So I didn't go to Occupy Oakland during the two weeks it was a camp in the Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. My partner, who doesn't share my qualms, went frequently. He would come home and tell me about what he'd seen: the media center powered by an electricity-generating bicycle, the daycare center, the full-time kitchen, which fed all the members of the camp, many of them homeless. He told me about the library and the tiny “community garden” of potted plants. He told me how interesting it was to watch this small impromptu community struggle, not only with the police and with the city, but also, because it refused to shut anyone out, with the problems that characterize Oakland itself: mental illness, health and environmental issues, poverty, racial tension, need.

I listened with enormous interest, but I still didn't go. At the risk of making this too much about me, I need to make my beliefs and reasons clear, such as they are (and were):

• I do not believe the police are evil.
• I do not believe in utopian societies.
• I distrust extremists of whatever stripe.
• I believe inflammatory rhetoric shuts down rational thought.
• I was (and remain) afraid of nighttime Oakland—the desperate Oakland that Occupy Oakland insisted on caring for and actually living with.
• I am lazy, prone to migraines, and unwilling to be cold, wet, uncomfortable and in constant danger of arrest.

In short, I'm a moderate: small, fearful, skeptical, selfish, with privilege aplenty. I have health care through the university, where I'm both a student and a teacher. I'm half-Hispanic, but I scan as white. I'm a not atypical Bay Area type: liberal, taxpaying, cautious, law-abiding (maybe to a fault), trying to hang onto the things I have. I have an iPhone, for heaven's sake.

I am, moreover, a liberal with a lifelong habit of opting out of the political conversation—and out of most kinds of activism—because I find its language dishonest, combative and unjust. I understand perfectly that our politics proceed according to a kind of barter system where each side continually overstates its convictions. I understand that the nation is a behemoth, and that to shift it, however minimally, requires the kind of herculean effort that very few people can muster. No wonder there's so little moderation among the grass-roots organizers on right and left alike; it takes an unhealthy obsession to even want to participate in a system that can't and won't hear you unless you scream.

That said, not being (for example) an anarchist myself, I can't in good conscience profess a commitment to anarchist principles in hopes that the country will shift slightly to the left. It's not how I'm built, and I hardly think I'm unique.

So I was fascinated by Occupy Oakland, but my interest was—I frankly admit this—more anthropological than political. Out of respect for the people whose commitments were real, I stayed away and wondered privately, maybe even smugly, when the movement that was trying so idealistically to remain democratic and leaderless would have to regulate itself and generate a leadership, a security force, a justice system—all the accoutrements a society needs in order to function.

But I listened, and I read about it, and I followed the relevant Twitter hashtags. I remained a spectator, which is more or less how I've felt and behaved my entire life.

Then the camp was disbanded. People in the camp knew this was coming and took care, the night before, to remove the wooden pallets they'd set up as walkways to protect the grass from being trampled. They removed the stove that had been donated by a union. The police came and tore down the camp at 4 a.m. A bigger crowd assembled that afternoon at 4 p.m. in front of the public library and began to march through Oakland.

I watched the ABC livestream and kept up on Twitter as the crowd got bigger and bigger. People downtown started joining. The crowd headed for Snow Park, the site where a second camp had started.

Now, I had seen Snow Park by accident the day before—I parked nearby without realizing it, and as I walked to my destination, I started seeing chalk outlines on the sidewalk. They were outlines of shadows: shadows of meters, trash cans, bicycles, all traced in blue chalk.

It was as if someone had decided to make all the city's objects into sundials for a very specific time of day. A bored and creative protester, I realized, when I looked up from the sidewalk and saw a cardboard sign that said “Welcome to Occupy” in front of the pretty green park dotted with tall oaks and a few tents. That would be the last day of the occupation; the next day, the chalk outlines were still there, frozen in time, but the tents and bicycles were gone. It's hard to imagine anything more ephemeral than a chalk outline of a shadow, so it's strange when such a thing outlasts a social experiment that included people and food and tents and signs.

This is as good a metaphor as any for the reality Occupy Oakland represents, at least to my mind: shadows that persist even without their originals. And, to a lesser extent, words at odds with their meanings.

Behold, for example, what Snow Park looked like during the “occupation”:

and from the other side:

This is what it looked like after the police “evacuation”:

The “evacuated” park is packed with bodies, the “occupied” park is idyllically empty save a well-tended camp of some ten to 15 tents, and this all makes a kind of sense in our embattled country where corporations are people, special people who have the same rights as we do but none of the responsibilities. (Immortal people who won't be troublesome and go to public parks; clean uncomplicated people without hands to cuff or eyes to teargas or bodies to arrest and jail.) They're people, moreover, whose right to bribe politicians is protected as “free speech." Without getting dramatically Orwellian, it's reasonable to say that our words have lost some of the concreteness that made them useful.

Anyway, the protesters left Snow Park and marched through the streets, turning unexpectedly (or as unexpectedly as a huge crowd can), confusing police, who were trying to split the crowd and start arrests. Then it came: hundreds of police officers, comprised of 15-17 different agencies including Palo Alto and San Leandro, in riot gear. I watched on the ABC livestream and read on Twitter as the police charged the crowd with “unlawful assembly” and warned that they had five minutes to disperse before they'd release a chemical agent. I watched as the crowd refused to move. I watched as the police pulled on their riot masks.

And then the ABC livefeed went dead.

My Twitter feed went crazy with reports of tear gas.

I refreshed the livefeed frantically. “This broadcast has ended,” it said.

ABC claimed that it ran out of fuel (see the caption under the image), so those watching quickly switched over to the CBS livestream. Then this happened:

To clarify: the Tweet on the right, offering CBS as an alternative, came seconds before the row of Tweets on the left. When the ABC livefeed went down, everyone watching switched.

Then the CBS feed turned into a picture of the Capitol.

To sum up: the only two mainstream media live-feeds switched off at precisely the same instant—the minute before fifteen police departments working together engulfed a peaceful group of protesters in tear gas.

That crucial minute, when the media (whether by accident or in compliance with police orders) enabled the police to tear-gas peaceful American citizens untelevised, shares something with the time of day recorded by those chalk shadows on the sidewalk. It's an ephemeral moment, but it lasted much, much longer than a minute should. It's a shadow whose original has disappeared, and it's all the more significant for that.

Given our image-saturated society, it's hard to explain how the absence of an image can be more dramatic, a bigger scandal, than the hundreds of disturbing videos of citizens being attacked by police. We're used to thinking of surveillance as the enemy. Big Brother abides, and I can testify that there's something undeniably eerie about the news helicopters hovering over my neighborhood. But for those helicopters hanging in our sky for hours and hours, waiting for a story, to disappear precisely when the story breaks—that's a different kind of sinister, a different kind of wrong.

Police brutality is, on the other hand, overly familiar. It's a phrase we know too well; part of what should shock us about it is the easy way it rolls off the tongue. But we're used to shock by now; “shock and awe” is in our national lexicon and we're no longer either shocked or awed by it. People observe, sagely, in comment threads across the Internet, that yes, sometimes the police use excess force, but this is what happens when people don't obey police orders (however unlawful those orders might be). Honestly, what did they expect?

Those people tend not to know Oakland's history with the police, or the police's history with Oakland, they've probably never experienced anything remotely like police brutality themselves, and they also tend to let a winking cynicism about how the world works disguise their resignation and passivity. (I should know—I'm not too far from being one of them.)

Underpinning those fatalistic, head-shaking comments is a faith that the world works more or less the way it's supposed to. Don't do anything wrong and the police won't bother you. Vote and you'll be represented. Do your job and you'll be able to live in relative comfort. And if you want to change things, go through the proper channels. Start a petition! Write to your representative! If something really important happens, the news will surely cover it.

The rightness or wrongness of that sentiment varies wildly depending on what you look like and where you live. That's an incredibly unoriginal observation, but it's not the sort of thing you really understand until someone decides you look the wrong way. I, for example, am extremely unlikely to ever be accused of loitering, no matter how long I stand outside a certain building. The fact that I can stand in a public place for as long as I like and someone else can't means that I have more freedom than an equally deserving fellow American citizen. I have never had to fight for my right to stand in a public park, for example, or in a public square.

It is no coincidence, in other words, that the people who started Occupy Oakland in a public plaza know what it's like to have to fight for rights the rest of us don't spend much time thinking about. Nor is it a coincidence that they're comfortable facing down a police force whose willingness to use force is legendary. The people who started this are extreme; you have to be extreme and dedicated to be willing to risk your personal safety, your record and your sanity to organize a functioning mini-society right in front of City Hall.

My admiration for the grit and energy and idealism of those people doesn't change the fact that I, personally, am not extreme. So what do I, a citizen watching this encounter between a city and its police from the sidelines, do with what's happening in my community? What can I do? Can I participate? If so, how? How do I make my objections known?

The kind of person I am defaults to the ordinary channels. In the long-term, for instance, I can vote against someone in an upcoming election, or participate in an effort to recall someone. Not that this will change any of what's basically wrong, since the immortal corporation-people will always be able to outbuy (and therefore outspeak, and therefore outvote) me, you and everyone we know.

But in the short-term, I can write (again) to my representative. Or phone. Which, I realize, is about as effective as sending a message in a bottle.

Here's the thing: technology tilts the political machine so that only that which is public matters. Letters, phone calls, once the instruments of an engaged citizenry, used to function as public documents. That's not true anymore; the letter is quiet, nostalgic, quaint, difficult to reproduce or witness. Phone calls are unrecorded. A letter or phone call from a voter is like the tree falling in the forest: the question of whether or not it makes a sound is purely academic.

In fact, a letter or phone call to my representative is exactly the opposite of the chalk shadows on the sidewalk: it's an original that never even had a shadow, let alone an aftermath, or an effect.

But surely, the moderate within me insists, that same technology can save us. Email! Online petitions! The trouble is, the skeptic counters, that emails are incredibly easy to fake, and online petitions are ignored because they're so easy to generate and so difficult to verify. The electronic age has not helped voters. The ordinary channels are sort of like local channels on TV: they're still around, but nobody's really watching.

Except for those of us who are watching, and then the ABC live-feed goes dead.

At the moment when I understood that the police were pulling on their gas masks and I couldn't see what was happening, I got what was already obvious to so many: if I wanted to see the reality of Occupy Oakland, teargas, flash bangs and all, I couldn't rely on the ordinary channels. They weren't working. They'd run out of gas. I needed to go to Occupy Oakland. With all my reservations, resistance, reluctance, and inertia.

So I went.

The General Assembly took place at Oscar Grant Plaza (née Frank Ogawa). I was one of the 3,000 people spilling out of the Plaza. (The green spaces had been fenced by police.) The people I spoke with were warm, yet also distressed, strained. One woman said she'd voiced her concerns to two police officers at a coffee shop earlier that day. They told her she should go speak to the Chief of Police. When she asked that they stop joking, they said they meant it: the Chief of Police was giving a press conference across the street. They asked her, in all seriousness, to speak to him. So she crossed the street, found the press conference, and spoke to him.

As the crowd got bigger, the organizers made sure to keep aisles clear so that people could move back and forth. I watched as the fences the police had erected around the green space came down. Too quickly, at first. There was a chance people could get hurt. The crowd booed the group that took them down too violently. Dozens of people came forward to make sure it came down safely, then stacked the fences into a neat, organized pile:

Then the proposal was announced. I held my breath; this would determine whether I could sign onto this thing, whether this was the way for me, personally, to try to make my city and my country a better place. Amplified by the human microphone, the proposal called for a student walkout, and for people to refuse to go to work. The endeavor was framed as a “liberation.” It included the phrase “shut down the city” and an ultimatum to banks and corporations that unless they remained closed that day, they would be marched on.

Well, I thought, feeling my heart sink, there it is: a proposal I could get behind, couched in language I can't accept. Much as I admire the courage and idealism in evidence here, this isn't a place where my perspective would be welcome. And that's okay—I'll go back to my colorless middle ground. (There are worse tragedies than not having one's moderation adequately represented.)

I was getting ready to leave when they announced that the crowd would break down into groups of twenty people to discuss the proposal, which would be put up to a vote. A 90% consensus was required for anything to go forward. My plans to leave were thwarted by the spectacle of 3,000 strangers neatly subdividing themselves into groups of twenty, sitting in circles in front of city hall, and sharing their ideas about how a civic action should be conducted.

Feeling like an interloper at this point, I was back in my anthropological mode, and planned to just sit back, listen, and learn what I could. But as people in my group spoke—a schoolteacher, a lawyer, a very young woman who might have been an undergraduate—it emerged that I wasn't the only one with reservations. This wasn't the group of hardline visionaries I expected; like me, they had questions. And, just like that, I found myself voicing the concerns I'd assumed my group was too radical to hear with any interest.

I explained that I found the language alienating rather than inclusive, combative rather than nonviolent. That the messaging of the 99% was powerful because it was so broad, and resisted breaking people down into familiar factions. That it was counterproductive to label citizens protesting an effort to “shut down the city” when we are the city. I argued, afraid that this eager coalition would collapse when it tried to grow because the 99% it claimed to represent would find the rhetoric needlessly aggressive. (As I would have, if I hadn't come.) Having seen how much people's sympathy for the police attack on protesters waxed or waned as a function of how they perceived protester nonviolence, I worried that hostile language would lose the public relations war, which is, and remains, Occupy Oakland's second front.

A fellow group member crystallized what I was trying to say by suggesting a prepositional change: rather than strike “on” or “against” Oakland, why not strike “for” Oakland?

My partner disagreed: the greatest danger, he argued, was losing momentum. With the camps gone, he felt there was less danger in extreme language than there was in letting all this civic energy disappear into apathy once again. Whatever was tried would be a learning experience, and would help improve the next effort. Another person in our group felt that the aggressive language was actually essential to the movement's success. Another worried about people who needed to go to work or might lose their jobs. Another worried about hurting small businesses.

Never in my life did I imagine I'd be sitting with a group of adults seriously debating policy as if our decision made a difference.

One representative from each group was invited to come up and address the General Assembly if they needed to express any concerns. One representative after another detailed their group's support for the proposal as well as their worries—from the timing of the strike to conflicts with other movements to concerns over student safety to the inclusion of the 99% who do in fact work for corporations and should be included, not alienated. My group chose me. I was nearly last in line, by which time the organizers asked us not to repeat any concerns that had already been voiced. And so I found myself standing in front of 3,000 people, saying out loud every word I'd planned to take home with me, tight-lipped and disappointed, resigned to watching silently from the sidelines. And every one of those words was repeated by the hundreds of people that make up the human microphone, while some people booed and most cheered.

And that's how I—a mealy-mouthed moderate visiting Occupy Oakland reluctantly, and for the very first time—was not only welcomed but spoke, was listened to, and was heard. I'll note here that the proposal passed, unamended, and the planning committees are open to anyone who wishes to be involved. The debate continues, and you can participate as much as you want to. After three decades as an American citizen and years of leaving messages for my representative, only last night, speaking into the human microphone, did I feel for the first time that my political participation could matter.

The best answer I can muster for the question of what an engaged citizen tired of being a spectator can do is this: try the ordinary channels and try being one of the 99%. It is not perfect. Nothing is. But there is room for more than your vote or your money: there is room for you, your body and your brain. It offers something our political system (increasingly peopled as it is by disembodied, bodiless, shadowless “corporate” persons) doesn't. It's this: talk into the human microphone, and your voice doesn't disappear. It's amplified. Talk, and you stand a chance of leaving, not a mark—nothing quite so permanent—but a chalk outline of a shadow that shows that you, too, were once here.

Last night Oakland Mayor Jean Quan released this video statement expressing how "deeply saddened" she was "by the outcome on Tuesday." A Take Back the Plaza event is scheduled for 6 p.m. tomorrow, and the General Strike & Mass Day of Action will happen Wednesday, Nov. 2.

Related: The Night Occupy Los Angeles Tore Itself In Two
Why Should We Demonstrate? A Conversation
Occupy Boston: The Glory And Imperfection Of Democracy
What Does The Bonus Army Tell Us About Occupy Wall Street?
Martin Luther King Jr.’s Lessons For Occupy D.C.
Why the Tea Party Hates Occupy Wall Street

Lili Loofbourow is a writer living in Oakland. She blogs as Millicent over here.

87 Comments / Post A Comment

jfruh (#713)

Admittedly I'm (a) a dude (but not a very macho one) and (b) someone who lived there almost 10 years ago (but that's 10 years of declining crime rates nationwide), but are people really sketched out by nighttime Oakland downtown and/or on the west/north shores of Lake Merritt, which is where all the action is here? It seemed pretty non-sketchy to me when I lived there in the late '90s/early '00s, before moving to Baltimore, which, lemmie tell ya, THAT'S some sketchy right there.

jackterrier (#168,009)

@jfruh Uptown has an established bar and live music strip now. Stork Club, Uptown, Fox Theater and a gang of watering holes. Plus Art Murmur once a month which gets wild. Its not that sketchy IMHO.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@jfruh As a woman who does live in Oakland, and has for more than a decade, I'm going to defend her for that. To be a woman, physically small, constantly observed, alone in the dark? I think it's expected to be afraid under those circumstances. So I don't think you're being fair.

thebestjasmine (#168,033)

@jfruh I'm a woman, and I live in Oakland now, and I'm not actively frightened by nighttime Oakland in those parts of town (the specific downtown areas) but I am cautious because those areas are pretty dead at night. I've been much more afraid for my safety in places in San Francisco, but those areas of Oakland can be very dark and quiet after say, 7 pm, and dark and quiet can feel very ominous.

iantenna (#5,160)

the lake and downtown are where people get mugged because it is where people walk rather than bike or drive. it's really a block by block thing, rather than a neighborhood thing. as in, does this block have working street lights and a open bar on it? obviously west and deep east oakland are the "sketchy" parts of oakland where murders happen but a mugger wouldn't do very good business at the corner of bancroft and 73rd.

J from Oakland (#168,085)

@jfruh I live in this neighborhood now – about 5 blocks from the plaza. I was mugged about a week ago walking home around 8pm; this is not the first time it's happened. I'm a 27 year old woman – I probably don't look that intimidating. But, I don't agree with your characterization of the area. Though, I'm not planning to move away anytime soon.

Alyssa@twitter (#168,358)

@jfruh @iantenna is correct.

In 2008 I was beaten (scars on my face still) and hospitalized in a botched mugging outside my apartment at 17th and Lakeshore, right across from the luxury apartments on the lake. Like J from Oakland, I was 27, female at the time.

This time last year, a coworker's mother was walking Lake Merritt at lunchtime when she was punched in the back of the head and mugged.

It happens, is what I'm trying to say.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

Best thing I've read about Occupy Oakland so far. Thank you.

Limaceous (#2,392)

@dntsqzthchrmn Yes. This was excellent.

jackterrier (#168,009)

This mirrored my experience with Occupy Oakland: from uneasy observer/supporter through social media to enthusiastic Human Mic Man Wednesday night.
A really great piece. Thanks!

mrmcd (#9,309)

"a winking cynicism about how the world works disguise their resignation and passivity."

I think this just might be the ananlogy I'd been seeking for so many things.

laurel (#4,035)

"it takes an unhealthy obsession to even want to participate in a system that can't and won't hear you unless you scream… not being (for example) an anarchist myself, I can't in good conscience profess a commitment to anarchist principles in hopes that the country will shift slightly to the left."

Oh my, that's very good. All of this was.

Slapdash (#174)

Same thought here – got off the twitter, and went down to see for myself. Passive observer at first, then an enthusiastic wrangler of votes. Loved the "96.3% in favor" decision. The masses may have been unwashed, but they were very *very* articulate, and (unlike banks) very attuned to collateral damage, and the avoidance of it. Go humans.

Werner Hedgehog (#11,170)

There is a word that is conspicuously absent from much of the coverage/discussion about OWS, and that word is "solidarity".

An outsider, distrustful of the positions and slogans of the "wild-eyed left", might think the term implies lockstep devotion to a cause, but I think that the Author here has experienced the more harmonious definition: a strengthening of social ties through shared goals and struggle.

The dedicated activists (the thoughtful ones, at least) aren't necessarily asking the rest of us to join them in their encampments and face down the police, but to show our solidarity. Even if this only means not tut-tutting over what we see on the nightly news but attempting to understand it and how it affects all of us.

Non-Anonymous (#19,293)

If I can quibble, that CBS picture is the Capitol, not the White House. But aside from that, I found a lot to agree with here.

Carrie Frye (#9,863)

@Non-Anonymous Not at all a quibble, corrected now — thank you!

stuffisthings (#1,352)

Very good stuff. I'm still curious why this whole movement took so long to materialize, though. We should be at, like, our 17th Brumaire by now at least.

Though I'm also very stoked at the military/veteran involvement, too, so maybe I should be looking to Potemkin rather than Marx for my historical analogies?

deepomega (#1,720)

@stuffisthings Generally speaking, looking to Marx for your historical analogies is a good way to doom your cause.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@deepomega By "analogies" I really meant "jokes," but yeah, this is true!

deepomega (#1,720)

@stuffisthings Marx jokes? Something something Harpo.

Wow. This is a really beautifully written piece about the transformative power of participation. I came here because someone pointed out that one of my photos was used and then couldn't leave because the honesty and clarity of your writing made me read the whole thing. Thanks for writing this!

Lili L. (#6,216)

@jankyhellface@twitter Thanks for posting the photo!!

deepomega (#1,720)

This was wonderful.

barnhouse (#1,326)

@deepomega Transformational, even. Awesome work.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Very fine, honest writing and smart. Good luck not getting co-opted or having your point overlooked.

J.M. (#168,025)

Lili – from the start, this piece felt uncannily familiar, articulating as it did my own similar perspective (albeit more eloquently than I could) … and then as it went on, just like in your piece, virtual engagement started to mesh into actual engagement, as I realized I was part of your breakout group that night. I think I was the first guy to express my "pro but with reservations" stance in our subgroup-of-10. I was really glad we had your eloquent and unwavering voice as our speaker that night. I hope the nonviolent outreach lexicon we advocated for wins out, over the usual anarcho-machismo rhetoric. The choice of language will make much of the difference, I think.

Lili L. (#6,216)

@J.M. Oh my gosh–J.M., yes, we were in the same group. Thanks for being there, and here. I'm stunned.

kateschatz@twitter (#169,118)

@J.M. @millicent OMG! I WAS IN THE GROUP TOO! I'm Kate…I think I was to J.M.'s left, and expressed my various concerns, too. I was just forwarded this piece, and saw it on Twitter, and had the same reaction as J.M…."Wait…this is exactly how I felt too…wasn't that woman's name Lili?" And then I got to the end, where you get up and address the crowd…I was really impressed and, even though I don't know you, proud. I totally chickened out when people suggested I might do it, and was really glad and in awe when you stepped up. This is really, really well written, and SO expresses much of what I feel about this movement! Yay Lili! Will you be there tomorrow?

Lili L. (#6,216)

@J.M. @kateshatz@twitter I love that our group of strangers has reconvened online. I will be there tomorrow–I'll be holding a dark blue sign with white lettering. I hope to see you both.

kateschatz@twitter (#169,118)

@J.M. @millicent I LOVE THE INTERNET! See you tomorrow—IRL, or online :)

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

This article was fantastic. As a fellow moderate who also turns a jaundiced eye on extremism and public demonstrations, I've been trying to articulate a lot of what this writer put so well myself.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@DoctorDisaster I'm also really glad to see people with views that are well to the left of the Democratic Party (but which would be considered, if anything, center-right in most other countries) properly identifying themselves as "moderate."

Tara@twitter (#168,072)

@DoctorDisaster How is participating in democracy "extremism"? You see what happens when you believe what your politicians tell you instead of thinking for yourself. This country was not made great by people who sat on the fence. Who are your heros people — were they trouble makers? I know mine were–MLK, Malcomb X, Mother Jones, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela. People please research how this country was made–not by those on the fence. "Where governments fear the people–there is Liberty, where people fear the government there is Tyranny" I think that was Jefferson. Whoever it was they were right.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

@Tara@twitter I never said that? The conjunction "and" is used to list two different things.

I will, however, point out that "participating in democracy" is a frankly ridiculous euphemism for a public demonstration. Voting, contacting your representatives, and volunteering for campaigns are participation; people only demonstrate when they feel that democracy has failed them. Thus we get tea party protests of a newly elected president, code pink protests of the majority-supported Afghanistan invasion, or civil rights protests of Jim Crow laws in the south. You demonstrate against what you perceive as democratic tyranny, by the majority or special interests or whatever. You demonstrate when you feel that participation isn't enough.

laripley@twitter (#22,654)

@DoctorDisaster I wish you would think a little more seriously about your definitions and not mock the idea that "democracy" could mean something other than being tied to an extremely specific historical and sociopolitical set of institutions.

Defining democracy differently from "participating in the currently existing structures created for us to (feel like we) have a voice" doesn't necessarily come from ignorance and is not ridiculous.

For many people, at different historical moments (as well as in different theories of politics) Democracy doesn't only mean participating in electoral politics. Direct democracy actually is a pretty good word for what is described here, and in terms of having a voice in policy, could be reasonably argued to include public demonstrations, since those can be far more direct and clear statements by the people than lobbying a representative or going through some other filter.

democracy, meaning 'rule by the people' could well include all the things you list, if those groups are indeed 'the people.' The methods by which the people might rule are far more varied than you seem to think. I really don't think it's semantic quibbling to say that people speaking out in the streets are acting because electoral politics have failed them, and that that can be a kind of democracy.

DoctorDisaster (#1,970)

I didn't mean to give the impression that I think democracy is limited to our current institutions. "Participation in democracy" does, however, seem to require engaging with the institution as it exists. I don't think it's unreasonable to point out that participation in our system and protest against it aren't the same thing.

"Direct democracy" = "protesting in the streets" is also pretty ridiculous, though. If you'll permit me to Google that for you

David Roth (#4,429)

Inertia and distance and self-consciousness are all a motherfucker, and all that — plus 100,000 deadlines, but mostly that — has kept me from taking the (express) down to Wall Street. This is as good an advertisement for that, or for the very idea of engagement of any kind, as I've read in a long time. So yeah: really good stuff, and thanks for it.

SeanP (#4,058)

Thanks, I really enjoyed this.

Let's! Go! Oakland!

(clap! clap! clapclapclap!)

It wasn't just the ABC feed that went down. I had streams from livestream, ustream and one other (can't remember its source). They ALL went down. Simultaneously.
2 seconds ago · Like

thebestjasmine (#168,033)

This was so great to read. I'm an Oakland resident too, who shares a lot of the same feelings about Occupy Oakland and hasn't gone down there, thanks for this.

brobof@twitter (#168,043)

Bravo! Solidarity from the UK. Our media just make it up:
Beware: big media is part of the 1% whether you like it or no. Peaceful Civil Disobedience is the only way forward IMHO.
Freedom: "I won't"

stuffisthings (#1,352)

As inspiring as the Occupy movement is, I have to say I'm a little saddened that we have completely given up on the ability of our existing parties and institutions to achieve the kind of society we want.

For illustration of what I mean, I invite you to read this, then have a look at this — and they are considered wishy-washy centrists! Le sigh.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

So, "I believe inflammatory rhetoric shuts down rational thought." But, "…where corporations are people…whose right to bribe politicians is protected as 'free speech.'" Whoa! That sounds a bit, um, inflammatory…according to defenders of the status quo.

Inflammatory is to some extent in the mind of the hearer or reader. Yes, there are people (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) who obviously aim to manipulate by arousing fear and hatred. However, some people who strike you or me as "extremists" may speak from more extreme experiences of poverty, injustice, and degradation than we've suffered or witnessed; as you noted, for example, many people in Oakland are all too familiar with police brutality. So although I try to speak carefully myself, I also try to be patient with people who seem to speak authentically even when their language is uncomfortably unnuanced. I also tend to agree with Martin Luther King's opinion that, where entrenched, systemic injustice is concerned, "The question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be."

I appreciate your post, and as an intermittent participant in Occupy Durham and Occupy Raleigh (North Carolina), I stand with you and the rest of Occupy Oakland.

Lili L. (#6,216)

@Ralph Haygood Touché. You're right, of course: all this is so much a matter of degree and perception, and it is inflammatory to call entirely legal campaign donations "bribery". I'm duly chastened.

True, too, that it's much easier to be moderate when one's experience has been, well, moderate. It's an intractable problem: the fact that we can never know the real source of our theoretical convictions (how much is "nature," how much "nurture," for lack of a better analogy) means that we fall all too easily into the trap of seeing our truth as the only truth. Or, in my case, our "middle" as the true middle. I have no doubt many would disagree with my characterization of myself as a moderate, and you're not the only one to express some discomfort with my use of the word "extreme" for those who live further to my left. And my usage *is* problematic: "moderate" carries with it connotations of both weakness and good sense, while "extreme" suggests irrationality, passion. I intend none of those connotations, but they're undeniably there, wrapped up in the words, loading them up with judgmental baggage. (FWIW, I groped around for a different vocabulary and hit a wall. As imprecise as "moderate" and "extreme" are for what I'd like to be able to say, they were the best bad tools I had ready to hand.)

You said this so well: "although I try to speak carefully myself, I also try to be patient with people who seem to speak authentically even when their language is uncomfortably unnuanced." I try for this too. But patience with (and real respect for) a position different from your own is one thing–and something we can all do on an individual basis. Finding a way to bring those different positions together so that they represent something broad enough to justify the 99% slogan is so much thornier. What surprised me about that General Assembly was its real willingness to try.

Carl Larson@twitter (#168,062)

Nice article. I saw the chalk outline shadows of decades of police violence all over Oakland when I was at the protest on Tuesday.

Vids of Oakland's tuesday teargassing, interview with Navy vet Joshua Shepherd on why he marched, and a vid of protesters averting vehicular arson outside the Oakland Tribune building:

I love this column, thanks for posting. You articulated so well something that I think a lot of us are struggling with. And your experience of being heard, isn't that what it's all about? Imagine a politics of listening to what other people have to say, and taking the time to share our own ideas.

IDunGetIt (#168,071)

Why is "combative" language necessarily a bad thing? Surely there's room on Planet Earth for verbal combat.

This piece is superb. Words fail me.

I'm less hesitant than the author–I was at the first general assembly of Occupy Boston after it took Dewey Square on Sep 30–but otherwise my experience of it is uncannily similar to the one expressed so eloquently here. That our political lives have become disembodied and abstract explodes undeniably into awareness as soon as one experiences how real an Occupy is.

IDunGetIt (#168,071)

Also: sometimes "extremism" is a response to extreme acts. What's the nuanced, moderate position to take on Jim Crow laws or the Burmese junta or the torture of prisoners?

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@IDunGetIt Hey, not to give credence to people who complain that Occupy doesn't have enough "demands," but those examples don't really support your point. The Civil Rights Movement very carefully planned their direct actions and related litigation in terms of achieving specific goals and overturning specific laws; even the Rosa Parks thing was carefully orchestrated beforehand.

And I think the position you'd find most advocacy groups taking on the second issue is "the Burmese junta should stop torturing prisoners." I imagine that Amnesty International, for example, has a very nuanced, moderate position on this very subject which does not involve the radical overthrow of Burmese society. Just sayin'.

HenryHughes (#168,077)

Of course, we can't be certain, but it seems pretty likely that the video feeds went dark at the behest of those in power who wouldn't want viewers to see a militarized police force in action. I had a related experience during the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.

I had been arrested (inadvertently, honest!) on the second day of the actions, and many hundreds of us spent 15 hours or so on buses while the police figured out how to get us off and fully into their custody. To make a very long story very short, they waited until after the 11 o'clock news teams had left (the parallel to Lili Loofbourow's excellent story here) to take action.

That action was extremely ugly and violent. The details are common as dirt. They involve one of the unwritten parts of the policeperson's job description: render a preliminary judgment and dole out punishment on the spot. There were injuries inflicted, of course. And the police made certain their riot would not be televised.

This is quite shocking, and serve as a reminder why you should be reading this guide: right now if you want to create stronger more effective media to document the events of your world. Don't depend on the mainstream media to do the job for you, become the media. Indymedia 2.0 or somesuch.

LadyAsian (#168,135)

This is lovely but I finally created an account here just to make the comment that it IS important to make those phone calls and send emails to local politicians. Involvement at any level is important; involvement at multiple levels is even better. No, your local politician probably won't hear your individual message or read your email, but tallies are kept of what issues people are bringing up.

Lili L. (#6,216)

@LadyAsian Thank you for saying this.

madge mumblecrust (#11,411)

The beginning of this article felt very familiar, down to having a more engaged/more politically radical partner and your list of beliefs and reasons for not having participated. I struggled with similar feelings during the recent California public university occupations/protests, especially regarding extreme (and alienating) rhetoric, and am still struggling with those feelings now even though I generally support the Occupy movement. I haven't gone down to my local Occupation, and reading about your experience in Oakland was really moving. This is the greatest motivator so far for me to go visit Occupy Sacramento (which mostly looks like the "before" pictures of Snow Park). Thank you for posting this.

jonquils (#168,156)

Chiming in to say YES, THIS and thank you so much for such a lovely and thoughtful post, Lili.

selasphorus (#168,160)

I agree this is great writing. But I still don't understand what all this action is going to result in. Nothing is going to shut down- no one is going to risk losing their jobs in a walkout. The 1% has all the time and money in the world. All they have to do is wait us out. What is 99% expecting to get? Are we going to sit down alongside our politicians and redraft laws? Get the 1% to agree to share? Can someone explain to me what can reasonably be expected to change here?

kdubb@twitter (#168,223)

@selasphorus That's just it. The action's a part of a process of upending the dialogue itself. I, for one, AM going to risk my job and The 1% most certainly not have all the time in the world, let them wait and watch as we grow. And we will grow if we stop being defeated before we begin.

Go to a General Assembly and see real direct democracy in action. It is possible.

I really enjoyed your article. Personaly I am an activist. Maybe because of my life experiences. I am an older woman who is not quite healthy. But I understand I am a part of the 99% and am unable to sit passively by or just read and mentally support the movement. I live in Ohio and I am a part of the Cleveland movement. I can not physically do as much as I would like because of my health. BUT I do all I can. I attend the location on most days and I donate blankets, hot food & beverages. I encourage and thank our occupiers I know how hard their job is. They are out there for all of us and I am grateful to have a society of people strong enough and willing to fight for the rights of myself, my children and grandchildren who will have to endure the burden of what we have allowed our society to become. I ask if you can not physically participate. Since it is for us all, maybe you could donate blankets, food, heating elements ( like the hand held warming paks and foot warmers), what ever you can. Even encouranging words as you past by. A thank you, a horn honk anything you can do to acknowledge your support of the occupation. We will all benifit from the effects of a solid unified movement if we all stick together and do what we can. Don't stop writing your elected officals letters of your discontent. The numbers of mass mailings do help. But please people , Please do something. Don't just observe and hope things work out for the brave warriors who are standing up for us. Help where or how ever you can I am in support of all cities who are involved in the occupation. Thank You

louisedith@twitter (#170,145)

@Vera Lynn Jones@facebook Thanks Vera – your wonderful post inspired me to action. I am unable to physically participate, but I can at least provide supplies to our Occupy Atlanta participants.

Danzig! (#5,318)

Exemplary, incredible article, but I have to say that, if this is indicative of the average center-left mindset in America (and I think it might be!) it bolsters what doubts I have about the Young Left in this country, specifically that they lack the inherent (non-religious) faith that allows conservative social movements to accrue such clout. I think it's a terrible mistake to ascribe the Tea Party's meteoric rise to corporate backing and to write off conventional methods of engagement like letters and phone calls as wasted effort.

Indeed, it was things like incessant phone calls to elected officials that made the Tea Party such a force, especially at the state and local levels (which the Left have apparently ceded). It wasn't the Koch Brothers who paid to get flouride taken out of the water in Florida – it was a lot of batshit, motivated citizens who believed in their own power and showed up to local government meetings that the average person thinks are utterly without point or function.

It frustrates me that people have such woefully short memories, and young liberals are fatally cynical. Corporations and trade groups have always outspent public advocacy groups in terms of lobbying, but the empirical data that we have tends to point toward conclusions that defy common sense – namely, that money doesn't buy surefire legislative victory. It buys access, and there's certainly evidence that it buys tax breaks and subsidies, but in terms of regulation, a galvanized public interest group can match or exceed the clout of business, given the right circumstances (easy example: Nuclear power was set to make a historic comeback before the Fukushima disaster, at which point the millions and millions spent pushing the nuclear power agenda turned to so much mush). The smartest thing corporate America did was let leftists convince themselves that they were totally and hopelessly outmatched. Citizens United changes things, yes, to what extent I have no idea yet, but wringing our hands serves no one.

So yeah, incredible article, but it depresses me.

Lili L. (#6,216)

@Danzig! I agree with much of what you've said here; you're making me think a lot harder about American apathy. While I obviously can't speak to whether my mindset is representative of my generation, I can say that, at least among my friends and colleagues, hope is in fatally short supply. The point you make about "local government meetings that the average person thinks are utterly without point or function" hit home.

I'd offer, though that it isn't quite as simple as a self-perpetuating kind of learned helplessness. Again, speaking only for myself, I have actually seen those avenues repeatedly *not work*. I've seen the University of California Regents reject the Faculty Senate's recommendations out of hand. That kind of disregard for a governing body would have been unthinkable at a California public university, but it makes sense in a model that's moving away from democracy and toward privatization. On a smaller scale, I've watched a neighborhood where flooding is frequent get together and object, via local government meeting, to a plan to redirect the creek's "excess" water flow so that it would pour out in the most flood-prone area. Despite clear evidence favoring the neighbor's case, the company contract prevailed, and the project went through.

I could go on, but the small counterargument I'd like to offer is this: while the Koch Brothers didn't pay to get the fluoride taken out of the water, while it's true that the leftist tendency to ascribe all victories on the right to corporate astroturfing (as opposed to real civic action) is counterproductive and less than accurate, it's also dangerous to suggest that our sense of being outmatched is just a self-perpetuating error in perception. We can tell ourselves that we have the power to effect change, but there needs to be a bit of empirical data to back that up.

Still, you're making the most eloquent and persuasive case I've seen yet for how those ordinary channels could be revitalized. I'm inspired (unfairly, given how much I depressed you.) So thank you.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@millicent Very well said. I know how you feel regarding the stress and disappointment of "playing by the rules", so to speak. I was involved in a bit of campus progressive politics at my uni and it was always a hard struggle against cold, ignorant people. I'm thankful we never had to go up against a business.

I wish it were as simple as admonishing folks to "not let the Randroids win" but we are at a disadvantage. The causes of the right tend to be flush with cash, and they can pay professionals to work on their behalf full-time, professionals who can remain detached from the outcomes of their fights, the causes of the left tend to rely on self-selected activists who are deeply, deeply invested. Being an advocate is hard, draining work, and the few naturals I've met have been absolutely wondrous people. But asking the average person to risk their emotions and work, when they have doubts about their mission, when it could easily go to shit, is asking a lot. People get crushed. So we have that going against us, and I'm far too cynical to suggest that the sweat and passion of an activist is intrinsically more powerful stuff than the money behind a lawyer. If I believed that I'd be starting drum circles out here in the middle of nowhere More often than not, what wins the day is political circumstance – that one factor that pushes a politician into thinking that if they take that position, they risk losing their reelection bid.

I think what I'm really hoping for, since the Republicans have the House and thus OWS won't be pushing any national legislation for at least a year (short of some real-life Capra drama), is a political upheaval come 2012 of the sort that social movements often birth – the anti-war New Left of the 60's and 70's that broke the Dixiecrats' hold on Congress and passed Great Society and civil rights legislation, the Republican Revolution from the "moral majority" who were just barely outwitted by Clinton, and the Tea Party.

If OWS can produce freshman Dems who are unafraid of doing what the 99% believe in doing, I think that's the best possible outcome. But Obama's spent his hope currency and people are tired, of the Democrats and of our system of government. Were it not for the Republicans' utter lack of a suitable presidential candidate we'd be headed for at least 4 years of oblivion.

But OWS is so, so promising, despite all that. It was so insane that seemingly no one was willing to point a finger at the financial markets for the global economic meltdown, and all of a sudden there were thousands of people out in the street, pointing that out, making it unavoidable. I didn't think I'd see something like this in my lifetime. I hope I get more surprises.

Danzig! (#5,318)

@Danzig! Ack, ran out of time! Here's what I was going to add -

More often than not, what wins the day is political circumstance – that one factor that pushes a politician into thinking that if they take that position, they risk losing their reelection bid. That factor can be a lot of things – a natural disaster, an oil spill, a high-profile death or crime. It can be a photograph, or a news report, or it can be someone showing up to a hearing and talking for 5 minutes.

One of my favorite too-real folk tales (of which you've probably heard) is the ratification of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which had passed muster in 35 of the 36 state legislatures needed to make it law. It was down to a single vote, 49 to 50, in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The day of the final vote, a 24-year old, staunchly anti-suffrage member named Harry Burn received a letter from his mother, which read “Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don’t keep them in doubt. I notice some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet… Be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the ‘rat’ in ratification.” When his name was called he voted "aye", despite the red rose he wore showing his opposition the (yellow rose'd) suffragists, and the 19th amendment became part of the constitution.

I try to remind myself of that whenever I get too cynical. I teared up just reading about it. Somehow I think the things we're fighting for are much, much easier to achieve than nation-wide recognition of (most) women in turn-of-the-century America.

That turned out much longer than I thought it would, but it's a story worth telling again I think.

superfabu@twitter (#168,406)

@Danzig! I totally agree with you. I think people need to stop being so pacifist and at least stand up for themselves. The author writes very well but I can tell is one of those people that never questioned anything and is now suddenly shocked and awed at what is happening in this country. WAKE UP IT HAS BEEN HAPPENING FOR YEARS!

I was watching a feed on Ustream when I heard you address the general assembly and I was moved your words. So great to read the powerful story behind them. Thank you!

WOW after reading that post all i want to do is add you on Fb… can i?

tomwood (#3,221)

I made the first step beyond watching OWS online, and went to Occupy Austin the other night. The 'human microphone' is a bit tedious, but it was fun to watch the crowd.

opinions galore (#13,766)

Thank you. This is the best, most balanced, thoughtful piece I have read about Occupy.

Anarcissie (#3,748)

This is a terrific article, a terrific story. I've been a part-time activist for many years, and have been carrying stuff to Occupy Wall Street since it started (almost), but while reading this, for the first time I began to believe something might happen, something might change. We inch forward. Thank you so much!

Thank-you Lilli! My sentiments exactly! I wish I knew more people like you. You said just what I've been saying, but better.

Nottaufe07 (#168,392)

Thanks for writing this!

Excellent. Thank you so much.

Ken Katz@facebook (#168,483)

Kudos for your intelligent, beautifully-written, well nuanced commentary. As a young man who came of age during the Vietnam War, I was involved briefly in the civil rights movement on a local level and later in the anti-war movement. When I married, I more or less dropped out to earn a living and raise a family.

Twenty-five years later, I began to focus on very tangible neighborhood issues–recognizing how difficult it to bring about change on even a city-wide scale. I've found that individuals can work within the existing political system to build a consensus and effect positive change given an adequate level of determination and persistence. That process is far easier now than it was back in the late sixties and early seventies thanks to email and all the other social media.

The requisite consensus already exists on the national level on an impressive array of major issues. To cite just one example, some 90% of citizens support raising taxes on those millionaires and billionaires who can most afford to pay more.

I’d hope that the Occupy movement will evolve and begin turning all the anger and distress that exists nationwide into concrete action. To do so successfully, it will have to walk a tightrope–focusing on very specific issues that enjoy broad support while remaining non-violent and while avoiding the kind of extremist rhetoric that alienates people like you (and me).

Thank you for adding your voice to this dialogue and I sincerely hope that you and others of like mind stay actively involved.

gremlint (#168,507)

Lili — Many thanks for a great piece of writing.  I think you're missing a crucial insight, probably because it's never been suggested to you:

                    DEMOCRACY DOES NOT SCALE

The problems of disenfranchisement that you eloquently described are caused by excessive scale.  When a nation grows to 310,000,000 people, it is no longer possible to be governed democratically in any way.  The solution, therefore, is secession.

There are many excellent secessionist writers in this country, and I strongly encourage you to explore their ideas.  You might want to start with Kirkpatrick Sale.  Good luck.

Lili L. (#6,216)

@gremlint It has been suggested to me, and I agree with you that the problem of scale is real. Chile, for example, has a far more engaged and informed citizenry than we do, as well a more nuanced political conversation. That's partly because it only has 17 million people who tend to pay careful attention to local government because they know they can affect it, partly because voting is mandatory.

Despite their small size and high levels of political engagement (or possibly because of it), they're still undergoing massive upheaval with nationwide protests, etc. That's why I don't agree with your solution, but I look forward to reading Kirkpatrick Sale. Thank you for the recommendation.

gremlint (#168,507)

Thanks for responding, Lili.

As you probably know, the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet lasted for 17 brutal years, and it ended only 20 years ago.  I would expect the scars of such social trauma to endure for decades.  As former President Ricardo Lagos put it, "Never again can Chile repeat it … that rupture in Chile's soul."

So I would suggest that Chile is probably a poor example of democracy in today's world, even with their smaller scale.  They're recovering, but they still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, I would also recommend the work of Leopold Kohr:

You will find that the inevitable conclusion is that capitalism is killing us, because capitalism is the system that demands continual growth — leading to excessive scale.

Sally (#168,574)

This was beautifully written. I felt that shift from skepticism to optimism; hopefully someone who is sharing your initial sentiments reads this and decides to experience the movement for themselves.

Loved this.

But if you have any doubt that a democratic and leaderless society can work, attend a Rainbow Gathering!

krist1saba (#168,132)

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Benkai_Debussy (#168,775)

Many people, including the author, seem to misunderstand what "moderate" means in a political sense. I think the problem is that, in language, a "moderate person" implies someone who is calm, thinks things through, and doesn't jump to conclusions. But saying you're moderate politically doesn't mean that at all. It just means that you believe whatever happens to be between what the media/society defines as the "left" and the "right." There isn't a "universal political spectrum," where some views are objectively extreme.

Generally speaking, if your objection to something consists only of the belief that it's "extreme," you should reevaluate it rationally. A great example is Marx. People tend to just say "IT'S NONSENSE BECAUSE STALIN!", when in reality a lot of what he wrote is very accurate. Neither Stalin nor Mao were remotely socialist or communist (which mean completely different things) in the sense Marx described, and it's entirely possible to learn from what he wrote while at the same time knowing he was right about some things (like class conflict) and wrong about others. I'm not a Marxist, but I realize that it's really stupid to think someone is extreme/wrong because it's portrayed that way by the media. You'll find that many actual economists take his work seriously.

The above paragraph went on longer than I planned, but the point is that you shouldn't think things are extreme or wrong unless you have a good reason.

(I loved the article, so don't take this as an insult/attack.)

Lili L. (#6,216)

@Benkai_Debussy Agreed–see my comment to @Ralph Haygood above concerning the problems plaguing "moderate" and "extreme" as descriptors for what we've come (erroneously) to think of as a linear spectrum when a circle is probably a better metaphor for political tendencies.

Thanks for this wonderful post. Probably, after 85 comments, you're not reading every single one any more, but still I'm compelled to say thank you. I'm an ardent OWS supporter. I've not slept in a park, but I have written extensively about the movement on my blog, and spent a lot of time in Zuccotti park till camp was evicted. I'm a fairly normal, moderate person. For example, even after weeks of watching and sharing videos of police violence, I didn't fully understand the extent of it till I myself was beat (albeit briefly) in a skirmish the night of the eviction. Your post is beautifully written, articulate, thoughtful, and most importantly, speaks to the majority who kinda-sorta like the movement and kinda-sorta relate but think they're somehow not a part of it. I teared up at the end, and as I writer, I know that's pretty much one of the best compliments you can give another writer. Good job! Peace.

Just read this over a month after you wrote it. As an Oakland resident who had a very similar experience with this whole thing I can't say how great it is to have someone express it so eloquently. Thank you.

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