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.