Friday, October 28, 2011

The Movement and the Moment, Part IV – Movement Envy

I’m a jumble of mixed emotions watching the events at Occupy Oakland and SF unfold.

First of all, I’m not there.  A few weeks ago, I was dropping by regularly at both camps, but when all the drama came down, I was 150 miles away in beautiful Fort Bragg on a long-scheduled two-week writing retreat.  Which, BTW, has been wonderful.

My fellow writer, with whom I’m sharing this lovely retreat courtesy of some generous friends who lent us their place here, is much younger and works for a labor organization.  Her roommate was one of the people who was dragged off to Santa Rita andheld in solitary confinement on $10,000 bail the other day.  Her friends were up all night Monday waiting for the raid in Oakland, and again on Wednesday at OccupySF.  For her, the mixed feelings are about guilt that she isn’t there sharing the work and the risk.

For me, it’s pure jealousy.  Not, of course, of the people who got shot in the head with teargas canisters or the ones who spent a day or three in jail.  But of the people who got to feel that incredible power and solidarity of the actions themselves, especially what I heard and saw of Wednesday night’s march in Oakland, the vigil for the wounded activist, Scott Olson, the 3,000-person general assembly (though the report on the OO website says 1,607 people voted)  Of hearing that the planned raid on Occupy SF was called off because of the massive outpouring of support by new and seasoned activists.  Of the energy and joy that comes from having such unity of purpose, and of knowing that YOU DID IT.  Even though if I were there, a part of me would still be whispering, “They did it, not me.”

I can’t help it – I have Movement Envy.  It was supposed to be us, who got that rush of seeing everything you’ve worked for come true and then some.  I’ve worked for thirty years for this, and I didn’t get it.  Some people who started their organizing just a few short years ago, not because they were not committed but because they were not even born when I started my activist life, were the ones who lit the spark that caught.  It’s not because they were better at it than we were, which is not to take away from their genius – but trust me, we had genius too.  It’s because their timing happened to be good.

Now some of my friends will say that all the fruitless work we’ve been doing for years has laid the groundwork for this.  There are small ways that is obviously true.  The forms of direct democracy that are prevalent in the Occupy movement – facilitation and consensus and hand signals and not having identifiable (and arrestable) leaders – come out of the various anarchist and anarchofeminist movements of the seventies and eighties.  People would not now be talking about affinity groups and spokescouncils if we had not used those forms in the antinuclear movement, and we would not have used them then if the Spanish anarchists – a tragically doomed movement itself – had not developed them.

But in the larger sense, I don’t think it is really true that all the work we did has any direct relationship to the success of Occupy Wall Street and its progeny.  This movement – or these movements, hard to know which is accurate yet – grew out of the material conditions of their time, here and around the globe.  People used forms that they had learned from older movements, but if those forms had not been there, they would have used others, and if there were no models they wanted to copy, they would have invented their own.  The form didn’t create the movement; the moment did.

Two years ago, I asked, “What do you do when it’s not your moment?”  I ask that again, but with very different meaning.  What do you do when the potentially revolutionary moment comes and it’s not yours?

This movement is not about those of us who have been doing labor organizing, queer liberation, feminist, anti-militarist, international solidarity, even anti-capitalist or anarchist organizing for years.  That’s what’s driving some organizers crazy.  They have spent years crafting careful and creative and sometimes quite effective campaigns to stop foreclosures, to tax the rich, to hold banks accountable, to oppose social service cuts, to cut military spending, to defend labor – it’s all great, it’s all still important, but this movement is neither a product nor an extension of those campaigns.  This is a parallel movement, with a different class base, a very different trajectory, and a different style.  (If you doubt that, you might want to check out this blog about some conflicts that have arisen in DC, between the “Stop The Machine” protest and the Occupy DC encampment, or this one about tensions between "organizers and organized" at OWS.)  The people who have been studying and researching and planning and writing and speaking about these issues are going to be infuriated a lot of the time because people are going to be talking about their issues who know a lot less and have put in a lot less sweat and soul than they have on them.  I empathize.  I’ve been there.

I’m also highly ambivalent about the general strike that Occupy Oakland has called for Wednesday.  I don’t believe they can pull off anything like a general strike.  3,000 is a lot of people to come to a protest and meeting, but the adult population of Oakland is 300,000.  Maybe that 1% (hey – you are now the 1%! but in truth, not all of the people who attended the GA the other night were from Oakland) can actually mobilize sufficiently in a couple days to multiply itself by 20 or 30 – I’m not going to say they can’t.  What they’ve been able to do so far is pretty amazing.  You can’t achieve big if you don’t dream big.

Calling for a general strike on such short notice seems to me to trivialize the cost to most workers of taking a day off from work, when you have no union to protect you, which the vast majority of private sector workers do not.  (In 2008, the private sector unionization rate for San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose was 12.1%, which is a lot higher than I would have guessed; I know almost no one who is in a private sector union.)  I also feel like people without significant roots in the labor movement thinking they can organize a general strike in a few days is kind of disrespectful toward the people who have been organizing labor for years, and haven’t been able to do that.

Now there is no way I can stay home from work Wednesday, having just been on vacation for two weeks.  I also don’t work in Oakland, but that’s kind of a cop-out.  My coworkers can’t do it either – they need the days off for when there's no school.  We have better benefits than nearly everyone, and that means we get two days’ bereavement leave when a parent or child dies.  But they wouldn’t do it if they could, even if they knew about it.  Most of them, the five hundred or so people who work at the law firm where I word process, have never been to a protest.  The didn’t strike when the amount they have to pay for their health benefits went up by 30%.  They didn’t strike when 20% of our coworkers were laid off.  The first political action they take is not going to be giving up a precious vacation day for something that, if it is important to them at all, is important for philosophical reasons.  And less privileged workers don’t get vacation days at all.  If they don’t go to work on Wednesday, they won’t get paid, which they cannot afford, or they could even get fired, which they definitely cannot afford.

A strike is not individual workers deciding to take a day off.  A strike is a collective action based on some collective ability to insulate individuals from the consequences.  This very audacious and well-intentioned and creative movement just doesn’t have that capacity yet.  If they can get the transit workers on board – and I think their contract probably forbids it, so it’s a very tall order – so the buses and trains don’t run, then private sector workers who’ve never seen a union organizer will have a way to say that they couldn’t get to work.  Without that, what you’re asking for is, at best, a boycott.

The Great American Boycott in 2006 was organized over several weeks, and at the time they called it, they had already had half a million people march for immigration rights in Los Angeles.  And honestly, that was no general strike either.  200,000 marched in SF, but they came from all over the Bay Area.  Business was scarcely interrupted except in heavily Latino industries.

I don’t want to be a professional nay-sayer.  (You might say, well you’re doing an awfully good job of what you say you don’t want to do.)  Remember, this piece is about Movement Envy.  My experience of movements that are (maybe) very different from this one might be limiting my view of what’s possible.  So OO and OSF and ODC and OCD, go ahead and reach for those stars.  But at the same time keep in mind that many of us are still stuck down here on earth.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Excellent Piece on Occupying and Organizing

I'm not blogging this week or next, because I'm on a two week writing sprint to finish revising my second mystery.  But before I left, I had started collecting some thoughts on the relationship between organizing and movement building, how they can inform each other, and how they differ.  And just now I ran across this article by Rinku Sen from ColorLines that basically says a lot of what I wanted to say.  So I'm off the hook!

Here's a teaser, followed by the link to the full article.

Occupying, Organizing and the Movements That Demand Both

by Rinku Sen

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Abortion is back, but only on television

I was behind on my television watching – all those marches and blockading Wells Fargo (pictured here, my four and a half hours wedged into a revolving door) got in the way – so I just saw the episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” where Cristina has the abortion.  The whole way through, I was waiting for Owen to talk her out of it, or for her to suddenly realize, oh, I’m not too focused on my career to be a mother, I have always wanted a baby, Meredith’s right, let’s stay home and raise our kids together while our husbands save lives.  I expected her to get called in to help on some emergency surgery on a child, and see the mom stroking the baby’s head and burst into tears, maybe even go running out of the room in a very un-Cristina-like way.

Of course they kept us in suspense for the whole show; last five minutes, she’s there on the table with Owen standing next to her and the doctor says, “I have to ask you one more time, are you sure you want to do this.”  I thought, okay, this is it, she’s going to shake her head.  I had a tomato in my hand, all ready to throw at the screen (and a cloth ready to wipe it off).  She nodded.  The doctor said, “All right, let’s get started.”  The vacuum aspirator whirred to life along with the closing music and voiceover.

This was not the first television abortion I’ve seen recently.  In the penultimate season, Becky had one on “Friday Night Lights.”  That was even more surprising, because she was a teenager in Texas.  And she didn’t die or slide into depression.  She didn’t regret it.  She even got her boyfriend back.  Tami (the principal, who told her to talk to her mother and sent her to an options counselor) got fired over it, but that seemed pretty true to life and she got her old job as a guidance counselor back.

Is it possible that abortion is no longer “television’s most persistent taboo,” as Kate Aurthur wrote in 2004?  Aurthur was talking about a show I never watched, “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” a Canadian teen drama where a character also had an abortion and did not regret it.  But “Degrassi” was a cable show, and Viacom, which owns the channel that shows it in the U.S., opted not to air the episode until three years later.  She referenced all the episodes where a strong, feminist character walks out of the clinic in the nick of time with her fetus intact – Andrea on “Beverly Hills 90210,” Miranda on “Sex in the City,” some others I never saw but I could add Susannah on “Thirtysomething.”

My personal favorite was “Party of Five,” where Julia miscarried just minutes before she’s supposed to leave for the clinic.  I was volunteering on a women’s health hotline at that time, and I groaned, imagining all the girls sitting around waiting for their miscarriage instead of scheduling their abortions.  Of course, I’m not a soap opera watcher, or my favorite would certainly be Erica’s reversed abortion on “All My Children.”  And people said “The X Files” was creepy.

“Is abortion no longer too taboo for TV?” wrote Entertainment Weekly's JenniferArmstrong after yet another character on ABC Family’s “The Secret Life of an American Teenager” decided not to have the abortion.  It does seem like the fear of backlash that kept the networks from portraying abortion as a legitimate option for 30+ years has waned.  Observers have noted that the “Friday Night Lights” and “Grey’s Anatomy” episodes have drawn little fire from the right-wing.

So does the fact that the floodgates are now open mean that the political climate has shifted?  Yes, but not in the way we might think.

The networks have not exactly been silent on the abortion issue since Bea Arthur’s “Maude” took the plunge in 1972.  CBS did choose to air an implicitly anti-abortion ad during the 2010 Super Bowl, over the profuse objections of pro-choice activists.  Cop shows have done numerous shows dealing with clinic bombings.  Some have been pretty good, others ranged from stupid to offensive – often it turns out that the bombing was not politically motivated but was some desperate father’s way of preventing his wife or girlfriend from having an abortion – but all have been “balanced,” offering ample opportunity for the anti-choice people to expound.
One of the best, not surprisingly, was on “Cagney & Lacey” in 1985.  The episode challenged assumptions by having Mary Beth Lacey, who was Catholic and pregnant with her third child, talk about having had an abortion at 19 (in Puerto Rico, since it was still illegal in New York).  “Carol Altieri, CBS vice president for program practices, said her department took ‘special care’ to ‘flesh things out so that all points of view were prominent.’ Much of the right-to-life viewpoint is posed by actress Fionnula Flanagan, guest-starring as a pro-life activist,” reported the LA Times.  Even so, the producers were so worried about backlash that they enlisted feminist organizations to help in a preemptive publicity campaign.

Ten years later, even a show like that would have been unthinkable on major network television.
In the aftermath of the “Cagney & Lacey” episode, Chicago Tribune columnist Stephen Chapman complained, “his week, officers Christine Cagney and Mary Beth Lacey let down their audience by enlisting in the campaign to preserve abortion rights.  The episode, revolving around the bombing of an abortion clinic, could have done justice to the opposing partisans and to the demands of television entertainment. Instead, it offered shrill propaganda….”

After a 2009 episode of “Law & Order” based on the murder of Dr. George Tiller in Wichita, the National Right to Life Committee’s website boasted, “In the end [the killer] is found guilty of the murder; but over the course of the episode a host of the arguments and issues surrounding abortion are covered in a manner unusually sympathetic to the pro-life cause... virtually every pro-life argument you knew you would never hear on a network program is a part of ‘Dignity’ [the episode’s title].

The fact is that by now the anti-choice battle has been nearly won.  When “Maude” aired its controversial episode in 1972, abortion was legal in New York but not in most of the rest of the country; Roe v. Wade was about to be decided.  In 2010 Gallup published a piece entitled, “The New Normal on Abortion: Americans More "Pro-Life.”  For two years in a row, they reported, more respondents considered themselves “pro-life” than “pro-choice,” after decades of the reverse.

But it’s not only, and not most importantly, in matters of public opinion that the anti-choice movement is secure.  88% of U.S. counties have no abortion provider, and a whopping 97% of non-metropolitan areas.  More than two-thirds of states do not allow public funding to be used for abortion, and the rising cost and economic crisis puts it out of reach for most women who need it.  Frivolous lawsuits and even criminal prosecutions set up byanti-abortion activists discourage new doctors from becoming abortion providers.  Most states have parental notification laws for women or girls under 18, and many require parental consent (in some states, parents must be notified but do not need to consent - it's unclear, however, how many girls are able to access abortion over their parents' objections).  Some states, including Texas, require the woman to see the fetal heartbeat on a sonogram before getting an abortion.

The anti-choice movement doesn't need to worry that teenagers who see "Friday Night Lights" will decide to end their pregnancies.  If Becky were a real teenager in a small Texas town like Dillon, it's far more likely she would end up getting a sonogram at a fake abortion clinic (a clinic run by an anti-abortion group masquerading as an abortion provider) than that she would have actually gotten the abortion so easily.

No wonder there hasn’t been a big outcry over Cristina’s or Becky’s abortions.  Television characters can get abortions now, but most real women cannot.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Understanding Movements: Extraordinary Times versus the Rest of the Time

A friend who has been very involved in Occupy SF put on his Facebook status the other day that this movement has changed everything he thought about movement building. I suspect a lot of activists, especially younger ones, are feeling that way.

I’m not.

This 99% movement is amazing. It’s glorious. It’s so time for it. But it’s not The Movement. I hate to say it, but it’s not going to last.

I keep hearing people say it’s been 30 years since there was a movement this big. I don’t know where they’re getting that thirty year figure from, or if it’s just that the people who are saying it really mean 1968-72 and don’t want to admit that that was forty years ago. But in fact, there was a movement that was this huge and this amazing that started just about thirty years ago the antinuclear movement. In the summer of 1980, hundreds were arrested at dozens of actions that temporarily shut down nuclear power plants all over the country. Thirty years ago next year, a million people took to the streets of New York to demand a freeze on nuclear weapons. Between March of 1982 and June of 1983, we had over 3,000 arrests at the Lawrence Livermore National Labs, where nuclear weapons are – sadly still -- developed. Many of the people arrested in those nonviolent protests spent two weeks or even thirty days in Santa Rita jail. We were The Movement then. Almost no one even remembers it.

Courtesy CISPES

 In the mid-eighties we had another huge movement. It was called The Pledge of Resistance; I mentioned it in my last blog. Over 100,000 people signed pledges to do civil disobedience in opposition to U.S. aggression in Latin America, and thousands actually did it. In one week in 1985 there were 1,000 arrests across the country in hundreds of local actions.

Remember 2003? Millions of people around this country marched, as part of an international movement, to stop the Iraq war before it started. When that failed, tens of thousands took part in nonviolent direct action. Over 1,600 were arrested in San Francisco alone in the first three days. That was just eight years ago.

1999-2000 was the year of the “anti-globalization” (what I prefer to call global anticapitalist) convergences. It was the year of the Letter-Number-Code-Name actions: N30, A16, D2K (November 30, 1999 was the day 15,000 people, more or less, shut down the World Trade Organization summit in Seattle; April 16 was the day 5,000 or so protested the International Monetary Fund/World Bank meetings in DC; Democratic Convention 2000 brought thousands to Los Angeles for heavily policed marches, concerts and the occasional sit-in.

Where are the people who created those movements? Some were students or youth organizers who have gone on to be the community organizers of today, working for nonprofits or unions on small-scale grassroots campaigns. Some burned out and went to graduate school, or became depoliticized. Some were among those who became inspired by Obama’s promise of hope and change, and some of those have since become disillusioned and depoliticized, while others have become radicalized and maybe are among those sitting in in parks across the nation. Some of us were long-time radicals then, and we’re still doing what we were doing before that – helping to fan the flames of whatever spark seems most promising. Today, it’s the 99% movement.

This movement has many things in common with all of those. It’s mobilized thousands of new activists and brought some people who haven’t been active in a while back into the streets. It’s organized on the principles of nonhierarchical direct democracy, which the media find infuriating and incomprehensible and people with jobs and busy lives find frustrating because it takes so long to make decisions. Like most, if not all, leaderless movements in this country, it does in fact have self-appointed and unacknowledged leaders and they tend to be white men. It’s plagued with racism and sexism which mostly stay bubbling under the surface, denied even by women, people of color and queer folks. It’s starting to have some divisions around issues like how confrontational to be with the police, whether it’s claiming to speak for people it doesn’t represent, and whether it’s hogging media coverage that rightly belong to other movements who can’t get any.

These are the tensions that tend to fragment and ultimately destroy movements. I certainly hope that this one will prove the exception, but it’s hard to imagine. For one thing, it’s about to be winter. There’s a reason that it was Arab Spring.

It would have been great if it had begun in June; that would have given it four months before it started to snow in New York and Chicago and pour endlessly in San Francisco. In fact, that was meant to happen, according to a very informative article on the organizing history of this spontaneous movement.

“Throughout April and May, members of A99 were organizing and debating possible future actions. They decided that Flag Day, June 14th, would be an appropriate time to launch actions. …

“On June 1st, this Anonymous call to action was published to AmpedStatus:

Acts of Resistance: What Are You Going To Do To Rebel Against Economic Tyranny?

On June 13th, it was announced that as part this day of action a group of people will occupy Liberty Park, a strategic public space closest to Wall Street and the New York Federal Reserve building. This Anonymous statement was released:

Activists to Occupy Financial District’s Liberty Park Until Demands Are Met – Operation Empire State Rebellion Begins

With only 16 people showing up at Liberty Park, and only four prepared to occupy it, this part of the day’s actions were considered by some to be a disappointing failure. Though this intense form of civil disobedience didn’t gain enough support at that time, the many other actions happening throughout the day were very successful.”

The occupations have not yet met with severe repression. Yes, people have been pepper sprayed, yes, 700+ were arrested, but that’s not the type of repression that kills movements.

I mentioned the antinuclear movement. In June of 1982, 1200 people were arrested for blocking the entrances to Lawrence Livermore Labs in Livermore, California. They refused to give names and held jail solidarity until a deal was reached, which took a couple of days. Everyone was released in 2-3 days, after pleading guilty to jaywalking and being sentenced to time served. One year later, about the same number of people were arrested doing the same type of action. There had been numerous smaller actions during the year, and many of those activists had been sentenced to 30 days if they would not accept lengthy probation periods. But we believed that the large number at the June action, like the previous year’s, would make it impossible for the system to handle us for such a long time.

The men's tent, Santa Rita 1983 from my friend Luke Hauser's website
The two judges in that district took a hard line toward us. They wanted to quash the movement, which had not only organized actions at Livermore but had also disrupted tests of the MX missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, and was aligned with other huge mobilizations in other parts of the country, like the nuclear weapons production site at Rocky Flats, Colorado. They insisted that we all accept two years’ probation or 45 days in jail. We sat in a makeshift prison camp composed of circus tents for nearly two weeks, and when a deal was finally struck, we all had to serve another four days in jail or pay a fine of $250. People lost jobs, missed kids’ birthdays, got kicked out of apartments because they couldn’t pay the rent. But we had had a great time together and gotten huge press. Daniel Ellsberg, who was among the arrestees, had debated the issue with District Attorney on ABC’s Nightline. When we got out, we said triumphantly that we would not be deterred, we were just getting started.

That was the last really big action at the Labs, which continue to develop weapons systems to this day. People had all kinds of reasons for not wanting to do civil disobedience again. Some felt that we had exhausted the utility of the tactic and needed to move into community organizing. Some felt we needed a legal strategy or to pressure policymakers. Some felt the whole nuclear issue was too liberal, and wanted to focus on opposing U.S. intervention in Central America or apartheid in South Africa. Some thought we should be working on the economic war in Oakland.

But people were also afraid. Most couldn’t risk being in jail another two weeks, or even longer. And for all the great reasons and ideas people had about what they were going to do instead, that would be more effective than symbolic actions, most of them didn’t follow through. Some did. Western States Legal Foundation was formed by a group who wanted to pursue a legal and policy strategy, and they are one of the leading antinuclear policy groups in the world today. TriValley Cares, which formed to do outreach and organizing in the Livermore area, won the right to place an antinuclear exhibit in the visitor’s center at the Lab. They continue to organize, activate and educate to this day. Many of us took the skills we had learned in the Livermore Action Group into the Pledge of Resistance and later movements. But the fact is that the huge antinuclear direct action movement in California was crushed and the weapons continue to be developed and tested at Livermore.

I don’t say that’s going to happen to the 99% movement, but logic says it’s more likely than not. The media are going to lose interest, unless the tactics of the protests or the repression they face escalate. And if the tactics escalate, the repression is sure to follow. Capital and the government it controls are not going to just sit by and say, “Oh, well if people really want us to pay more, we will.” They will ignore the movement for a while, but if it seems like it’s picking up steam and not petering out, they’re going to move to crush it, and they’re probably going to succeed. Some of the activists will move to another level, and the rest will melt into the woodwork again, hopefully to come out another day.

And when that happens, the things people have learned about movement building during the times of less activity, when we’re sitting in rooms of a dozen people, calling 20,000 people to come out and getting 16, are going to be important. Those are what keep the tiny sparks alive so one of them can catch and ignite the flame.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

This Day In History: Martial Law in the Castro

I had my phone on silent last night so I missed the text telling me about the midnight raid (actually, it was about 10:50 pm) on the Occupy SF camp. Otherwise, I would have been very tempted to rush over there, as the occupiers were requesting that supporters do, but I’m actually not sorry I got a little more sleep. I dropped by on my way to work with a donation to help replace the tents, food and equipment the cops stole (they call it “confiscated”). Even the usually less-than-enthusiastic-about-protest San Francisco Chronicle seemed chagrined by the level of force deployed by the San Francisco Police to get rid of some theoretically illegal camping equipment that had been coexisting with downtown business for nearly a week.

These great photos are from Patrick Clifton's album.

It put me in mind of another infamous SFPD action, 22 years ago today. On October 6, 1989, ACT UP/San Francisco, the San Francisco chapter of the AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power, held a demonstration that started at the San Francisco Federal Building on Golden Gate.

ACT UP, in case anyone does not remember or never knew, was another hell-raising movement that started in New York and spread around the country. But contrary to the myth told in the infinitely missable new movie “We Were Here” – which is supposed to be about AIDS in San Francisco but as far as every AIDS activist I know goes should be called “We Weren’t Here” – AIDS activism did not begin with ACT UP, “a group of creative young people from New York.” With all love and respect for our comrades in New York, I believe militant AIDS activism began right here in San Francisco, growing up in tandem with the “San Francisco service model,” affectionately known in some circles as the AIDS service industry. The first AIDS action group was called Citizens for Medical Justice (CMJ); it was an affinity group of about 20 or so people, including my friend Lisa, who did sit-ins at state and federal offices protesting mandatory testing of prisoners, closure of bathhouses, and FDA foot-dragging on approving treatments.

In late 1986, Lyndon LaRouche put an initiative on the California ballot calling for mandatory testing and various repressive measures against people with HIV/AIDS, possibly including quarantine. At the same time the racist group US English put the “English as the Official Language” initiative, known unofficially as “English-Only” on the ballot. While the mainstream Bay Area gay organizations, under chairmanship of Chris Bowman of the Log Cabin Republicans, were focusing myopically on the LaRouche initiative, a bunch of more left-leaning queer folks started a coalition called Stand Together, which worked to defeat both initiatives. As part of that effort, the AIDS Action Pledge was born. Taking its approach from the Pledge of Resistance, which organized thousands around the country to do civil disobedience in response to U.S. aggression against Latin America, AAP collected signatures on a pledge that began, “I pledge to join others in fighting for all our lives and liberties during the AIDS crisis.” Soon after the LaRouche initiative was defeated (English-only, sadly and not surprisingly, was passed), AIDS Action Pledge staged the first protest at the South Bay headquarters of Burroughs Wellcome (now part of GlaxoSmithKline), the manufacturer of the sole AIDS treatment, AZT, demanding that they lower the price of the drug. A few months later, after meeting with members of ACT UP (then only in New York) and other AIDS activists from around the country at the 1987 March on Washington, the AAP changed its name to ACT UP/SF.

Flash forward two years, and ACT UP/SF had probably 70-100 active members in three working groups: Treatment Issues, Local Issues and State and Federal Issues. There were also a women’s caucus, the Bayard Rustin Anti-Racism Collective and the People With Immune System Disorders (PISD) Caucus. Each group had organized a number of very successful actions, educational events, fundraisers and outreach efforts. Friday night, October 6, was to be our biggest street protest – each working group planned an action for somewhere along the route of the march, which was to go from the Federal Building to City Hall to the State Building, calling out the ways that part of the government was failing to stop the dying. It would end at Market and Castro, where Local Issues had planned a grand finale – spraypainting silhouettes on the sidewalk of the Castro to create what they called the “Permanent Quilt,” a subtle dig at the Names Project which many of us felt had gone from a powerful protest to a kind of a feel-good way of beautifying the epidemic.

I can’t remember what my group, State and Fed, had planned at the Federal and State Buildings. I do remember that I was worried the demonstration was not going to be interesting enough to keep people engaged. I was also worried no one would come. When I got near the Federal Building, I was excited because I could see there were a lot of people there already. As I got closer, I saw that half of them were cops. Cops in riot gear. My friend Ken Jones, who was director of the Stop AIDS Project, was sitting on a low wall at the edge of the building, smoking. When I greeted him, he said, “I think every one of us will have our own personal pig.” (I’ve never liked that word, but Ken was from the Vietnam generation – about ten years older than me.)

We did whatever we did at the Federal Building. I have this feeling it might have involved hanging a banner on the doors and a die-in on the plaza. Someone made a speech. We headed out to Van Ness. The energy was high. We chanted and banged on drums. I was happy because my responsibilities were done and I could relax and have fun. As we stepped into the street on Van Ness, the police captain started droning, “Obey all traffic laws.” The light turned red. People were still in the street, crossing slowly toward the State Building. The cops lowered their shields and started swinging at people. One of the organizers, Bill Haskell, turned to argue with them, saying that we were just trying to get across the street. They grabbed him and threw him to the street, kicked him, cuffed him and threw him in a van.

The rest of the march was like that. Any time anyone stepped into the parking lane or took too long crossing the street, they got hit. All the way to the Castro we were hemmed in on the sidewalk, with motorcycles on one side and lines of foot cops on the other. When we got there, some of us decided to sit down in the street, making an old-fashioned blockade. It seemed like the only way to de-escalate without just giving up and going home, which we were not going to do. A few dozen of us sat down and linked arms and chanted. Local Issues started painting the Permanent Quilt.

We were sitting there, waiting to be arrested, and suddenly we saw cops running and swinging batons at people. We, the blockaders, were already surrounded and couldn’t go to help or see what was happening. We heard people screaming, and I saw someone fall. He ended up being taken to the hospital and needing stitches. He, along with a few others who were injured, ended up winning $250,000 in a lawsuit against the City. One blockader, Frank, went limp and accidentally kicked one of the cops. They beat him up and charged him with battery; it eventually turned out he had an outstanding warrant and he would be in jail for several months. I didn’t see the rest because I was arrested, but I heard about it from some of the people who were arrested later, and from incredulous friends when I got out.

The cops declared martial law (seriously, they called it that). According to an article in the Bay Area Reporter written two years ago on the 20th anniversary, “As the police began to arrest those blocking the street, someone knocked over a police motorcycle and the situation quickly escalated.” That was the first I heard of the motorcycle theory, but something had to explain it. The police captain told people to get inside and announced that anyone on the street would be arrested. The Castro Theater and some businesses like Orphan Andy’s diner on 17th opened their doors so refugees could get in. Others locked their doors to keep out the riffraff. People were hurled into the street, beaten and arrested. A woman’s arm was broken when she tried to write down a cop’s badge number. A few people who never had anything to do with the protest, who were just going to dinner or to get a video were busted. It was hardly the first time that had happened – it happened all the time in the eighties, but it was the first time in a long time it had happened in the Castro, and usually it was when we were protesting a high powered event, like the Democratic Convention in 1984, Henry Kissinger’s speech at the Hilton Hotel or a visit from president bush. This was just your basic night in the Castro.

ACT UP finally regrouped and took back the street. In this video, you can hear the cops announcing martial law and then you can hear my friend Deeg giving a speech and leading a march out of the Castro.

We never knew why they did it. We speculated that it was retaliation for an action a few weeks before, when another AIDS action group briefly (and gloriously) disrupted the opening night at the Opera. That action was organized by Stop AIDS Now Or Else, which had some overlapping membership with ACT UP, but most people thought it was ACT UP. Some people thought the motivation for the crackdown was that ACT UP had taken a stand against building a new stadium in downtown San Francisco with taxpayer money, which was favored by Mayor Art Agnos. We did hear later that the local gay beat cop, nicknamed “Pig in a Wig” because of his hairstyle, had gone around to all the businesses that day and told them that “ACT UP was coming into the neighborhood to make trouble,” and that the cops were going to protect them. We never found out, and probably never will, if any of the businesses gave their approval to the crack-down.

The next day, a few of us from ACT UP were invited to meet with the police chief, Frank Jordan, who became mayor two years later, and his new LGBT liaison, Lt. Lea Militello. They hemmed and hawed and said the attack was a mistake.  That night, we held a triumphant march through the Castro. This time, it was the media that nearly outnumbered the marchers, who numbered in the thousands.

A lot of things have happened on October 6 over the years. “The Jazz Singer” (first talkie) opened, Bette Davis died, Milosevic resigned as president of Yugoslavia, Babe Ruth set a record for home runs in a World Series, Louis XVI returned to Paris from Versailles after being confronted by the Parisian women, the 13 Martyrs of Arad were executed after the Hungarian war of independence (who knew?). Maybe in future years October 6 will be known all over the world as the day the U.S. Tahrir Square began in Liberty Park in Washington, D.C. But for me, like many Bay Area activist queers, October 6 will always mean martial law in the Castro.

We Were Also Here!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Five Great Things About the Occupy Movement

As I was walking to lunch the other day, I heard the unmistakable tones of someone droning through a bullhorn.  I assumed it was the picket line at the Hyatt Regency, but as I got nearer, I realized it was coming from the other side of the street, by the Federal Reserve building.

The Fed is, in my opinion, the most underprotested building in San Francisco.  I always try to convince people to demonstrate there, and they inevitably opt for what they think of as more direct corporate enemies, like Bechtel or The Carlyle Group, or government buildings like the Federal Building (boring!), ICE Headquarters or the ultranondescript South of Market office building housing Homeland Security.

People don’t target the Fed because they don’t understand what it does.  I don’t either, but I do know this: its job is to keep American capitalism from collapsing, by manipulating the currency supply and the interest rates.  In fact, this is what the Federal Reserve’s website says its responsibilities are:
  • Conducting the nation's monetary policy by influencing money and credit conditions in the economy in pursuit of full employment and stable prices.
  • Supervising and regulating banks and other important financial institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers.
  • Maintaining the stability of the financial system and containing systemic risk that may arise in financial markets.
In their own words, this whole mess is the Fed’s fault because it didn’t do its job.

Plus it’s across the street from my job, so I always want people to be demonstrating there.  And now they always are.  Hallelujah.

The people droning through the bullhorn were, it turns out, a very small cadre of the Occupy SF movement.  Inspired by their fellows on Wall Street, an unemployed lawyer called Belle Starr, and a heavily tattooed guy in fatigues, had set up a dozen or so signs, some on the ground, some propped up facing the street, with messages like “Being in Debt Doesn’t Make You Rich,” and “Make the Banks Pay.”  Instead of pushing leaflets at uninterested people like I always do, they had stacks of information sheets sitting on the ground for people to pick up if they wanted.  There was a small stack of DVDs too, featuring video from protests in New York and here.  I took one, and put a small donation in their donation jar.  Belle told me they were going to be there every day, and that there are General Assemblies every day at 6:00 pm in Justin Hermann Plaza.
One day after work, I happened to run into the GA, which inexplicably had moved to the sidewalk in front of the Fed.  There were about 50 people in a circle, surrounded by posters saying things like “We Are the 99% and So Are You” and “People Not Profits.”  Everything that anyone said, the crowd would repeat so that people who were not near the speaker could hear.  I had seen the Wall Street protesters on TV using that method to amplify Michael Moore’s speech to the occupation there, but I have to say, in this case I thought it was a bit of overkill; if people had gathered a little closer in, everyone should have been able to hear.  But it is obvious that they are learning a particular method of organizing from the other groups that are their inspiration, and it’s a unifying cultural phenomenon.

Thursday was a demonstration in the financial district, but I couldn’t go because it was Rosh Hashanah and I was having ten people over for dinner.  A friend of mine went and said there were about 500 people there, mostly students, but that the turnout was better than the organization; there was no plan for what to do once they marched over to Chase.  That’s been true of some of the Uncut actions I’ve been to here as well.  It’s a frequent byproduct of extreme anarchist philosophy that people sometimes resist even the level of leadership that means someone makes sure that there will be banners and signs, a route, and something for people to do once they show up.  Sometimes people take the initiative and the demos are great, but if no one takes responsibility on their own, there may be no mechanism for plugging the holes.

According to the Occupy website, Occupy SF has three loci.  There’s a night camp at Howard and Spear, just south of the building where I work.  I’d noticed that the block between Howard and Mission on Main, across from the Fed, seems to be one where homeless people are able to camp without being disturbed, and I guess that is true on the other side of the Fed as well.  Not sure why, but it sure is picturesque.  The “permanent camp” is at Justin Hermann during the day – I guess they can’t stay there at night or they’d get shooed out or arrested.  In front of the Fed is what they call the Front Line.  They have General Assemblies on Saturdays at 4 pm in Union Square, except when they move them to another time and/or place.  (All this is very subject to change so before you go anywhere, check their site.)

So far I haven’t had time to participate in this nascent local movement, nor will I be able to in the foreseeable future, but I’m really enthusiastic about it.  I ask myself if it’s just because they’re hanging out at my favorite target.  I don’t think so.  Here are the things I love about the Occupy movement:

1. The use of simple cardboard signs.  Even though there were only two people hanging out on the Front Line the two days I walked by, it looked like a bigger deal because of the artful use of signs.  Some were facing the street, some were laid on the ground, so you didn’t need people carry them the way you would if they were picket signs.  Of course it helped that this was the hottest week of the year and there was no wind to speak of.  We’ll see how it works when the weather changes, but I like the look.

2.  They are more focused on longevity than size.  I’ve always been a big believer that the way you build a movement is by doing something consistently and growing little by little.  So often in this country, all the focus is on “How many people did you get?”  We think anything that isn’t huge is nothing, and it’s more important to get 50,000 views on YouTube than to get 50 people to come to an action.  Last week, some friends were talking about the Direct Action to Stop the War shutdown of San Francisco on March 20-23, 2003, and I suggested that one reason the antiwar movement fizzled out in this area was that we had 20,000 people those first few days and very shortly after that we had trouble getting 100 or 200 people at a demonstration.  If you start really small, you have nowhere to go but up.

3.  It is spreading around the country, but each local group seems rooted in the community of people who can make the commitment.  Okay, so I haven’t been able to participate much yet.  That’s okay, because I’m not really the constituency of this movement.  I like it, I identify with its anarchist process and its anticapitalist goals, but I’m not an underemployed 20-something.  The Tahrir Square uprising and its counterparts in North Africa and Europe did not happen because middle-aged people with good jobs suddenly decided to risk everything by camping out in the squares.  They started with the people who could afford to camp out in the square because they had nowhere else to go – young, unemployed people.  And we have plenty of those people here, and this is their movement.  Those of us who have jobs and families and other commitments can participate by feeding them, publicizing their actions through media or social media, talking about them at work, cheering for them when we walk or drive by.

4.  They are not waiting for some organization or famous person to tell them what to do.  They’re not agonizing about where to get funding.  They might not know what they’re doing, but at least they’re doing it.  It’s not some old left groups pretending to have a base they don’t, and it’s not nonprofits deciding who should be invited and who shouldn’t be.  It’s not faux spontaneous.  It’s messier than it would be if ANSWER or EBASE were organizing it, but it’s messy because it really IS spontaneous.

5.  I keep hearing people say “We have to get off our computers and come out into the streets.”  And they are!