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!