Thursday, December 8, 2011

The People United: Not Just a Meaningless Chant

When police raided OccupySF’s camp at Justin Hermann Plaza on Tuesday night, they used the well-rehearsed line that “the park had become a health and safety hazard.” Reporters made much of the fact that it would take “a long time” for Public Works to repair the damage to this beautiful park, notwithstanding that just six weeks ago, the San Francisco Chronicle’s Urban Design Critic, John King, wrote “Whatever you think of the politics, and whatever happens in the days to come, give Occupy San Francisco credit for this: It has activated a park that sat dormant for 10 years.”

The businesses that complained about the camp literally have their heads up their whatevers, because I work right next door and can tell you that no one comes down to this edge of downtown to shop. People come through on their way to the baseball stadium or to the ferry or Fisherman's Wharf, or they work here. They're not going to stay away because of 100 or 200 people camped out in an unused bocce ball court nearby. And then there's the fact that thousands of people have come to the Saturday demonstrations organized by OccupySF and they all want to get lunch before or dinner, drinks or coffee after, or they happen to see some street art they like in the plaza, and then there are the hundreds and hundreds of cops eating lunch in the sandwich places - my coworker says they are in the place he goes for lunch every day. So I am positive that the net result on most businesses in the area has been positive or neutral, just as the survey done by a businessman in the neighborhood of Occupy Oakland found was the case there.

And as we could have told them, the 1:00 am raid on the camp, done with the violence and shock tactics that have characterized these pre-dawn attacks around the country, has already resulted in much more disruption and cost, not to mention bad PR for the City, than the camp ever did. A noon rally spontaneously moved into Market Street, where it remained for hours, blocking the F line streetcar and #14 bus, which originate there. I stayed at the rally for about half an hour and then went to Justin Hermann to get a tamale for lunch. I talked to Alicia, originally from Cuernavaca, living in Berkeley for ten years, who started her lunch cart there two months ago, just at the same time that OccupySF came to the plaza. She said that Occupy had not been good for her business, because “They would always ask for free food, and I couldn’t say no, because they were hungry.” But she said she supported the camp and was sorry to see it go. “They are doing it for all of us,” she said.

About 20 cops on horseback were guarding the closed park. There was a mobile command center – something I never saw before, like a huge trailer, and at least twenty cars and as many motorcycles parked in front of my office. Two lines of riot cops that I could see, and I’m sure many more that I couldn’t, lurked a block away from the demonstration, waiting for orders to charge. I guess they waited all day, then followed the march that left in the late afternoon.

I missed the march because I had to work, but went back to the Plaza for the GA at 6:00. By the time I got there, hundreds of riot cops had amassed, helicopters were buzzing overhead and television crews were hauling their gear into the plaza. I saw Buff, a member of my new affinity-group-in-formation. Great, I would have someone to hang with. Someone said the cops had given a dispersal order, although no one in the plaza heard it. David got on the bullhorn and told people it seemed like maybe the cops were getting ready to give a dispersal order, and people who couldn’t be arrested might want to move to the perimeter, while those who could risk arrest should move in and link arms so we looked unified. Buff called his wife, Cindy, to tell her he was probably getting arrested, and decided to go to the bathroom one more time. Seconds after he left, the cops moved in and surrounded those of us still in the plaza, just about 75 of the 300 or so people there. I looked around and didn’t see anyone I knew very well, so I sat down with some young people and introduced myself. One of them said she had never been arrested before, and hadn’t imagined she would be doing it now. I asked how she felt about that. She said, “I’m trying to avoid making decisions out of fear, so I feel good about it.”

We started out linking arms in two tight rows, behind one small symbolic tent that had been put up in the middle of the bocce ball courts. Every ten minutes or so, the cops would close in about five feet, and we would move the tent a little closer to us. After a while, we stopped linking arms and started milling about. Two guys were grabbed from outside the perimeter and dragged inside the police lines; no one seemed to know what their “crime” was. One, a white guy, was okay, but the other, who was Black, was lying twisted face down in the dirt, his hands cuffed behind him with metal cuffs. The cops wouldn’t let anyone get close enough to him to ask if he was okay, or what he needed. We said it seemed like he needed an ambulance – we couldn’t even tell if he was conscious. They said they had called one. They put plastic cuffs on the white guy and left him sitting by himself. He said he was thirsty. I found a bottle of water someone had left lying around and carefully poured water into his mouth. A few minutes later, they brought another guy in handcuffs to sit by the white guy and then a woman.

Meanwhile more and more people had been showing up to support the camp, having gotten text alerts and phone calls from friends. They linked arms in a giant circle outside of the two police lines. I saw Buff, linking arms with my friend Sasha, just back from putting up a giant banner (pictured) over the Rainbow Tunnel, between San Francisco and Marin. Now obviously, the police could have beaten their way out, they could have used tear gas or pepper spray to disperse the crowd, or they could have just arrested everyone, but they obviously didn’t want to do any of those things. They had hoped that most people would leave and they would be able to arrest a few die-hards, like they had done in the morning (70 people were arrested then), and that would be that.

Half an hour later, there was a row of five arrestees sitting on the curb, and the injured guy was still lying face down in the dirt; the ambulance had not shown up. We started yelling to the media that there was an injured guy being denied medical care, Cat talked about it on the bullhorn, and eventually they let an RN from the crowd go and talk to the guy. She seemed to think he would be okay. Then the paramedics came and worked on him for a while before they took him away on a stretcher.

David announced that the police had offered a deal, and those of us inside the lines should gather around so we could meet about it. They wanted us to accept an “admonishment,” basically a warning to stay away from the park, and we would be able to leave without being arrested. We discussed it at length, even though no one really wanted to accept. We agreed that people who wanted to accept the admonishments – people who hadn’t planned to get arrested and maybe had reasons why it would be a bad idea – should be allowed to do so, including the five people who had already been arrested, and the rest of us would continue with our GA and exercise our First Amendment rights to assemble in a public park. The cops said that the five arrestees could only be released if we all took the deal. At first it seemed like we might have an issue, because a couple of those folks really wanted to take it, and most of us really didn’t, but after further discussion, they all said they were willing to go with whatever the group agreed. We made our announcement to the folks outside and asked the police to back up and let anyone who wanted to participate in the GA do so together.

Eric Mar, a San Francisco Supervisor who is supposed to be a leftist, got on the bullhorn from outside and thanked the police chief and captain for being so nice and being willing to negotiate. Many people booed. I heard a commotion and saw people surging toward the police line on the other side of the park. I went to see what had happened. About six cops were huddled around of a figure I couldn’t really make out but I saw two shoes sticking out from under the tangle of police legs. They were basically sitting on this guy, one on his neck, one on his stomach, two on his legs.

“Can he breathe?” I asked one of the cops standing nearby. He nodded, and mouthed, “He can breathe.”

“How do you know?” I asked. He shrugged.

“What did he do anyway?” I asked. He didn’t know.

Marcus, in the trademark bright green hat that identifies legal observers, came over and asked the lieutenant, “What are you charging him with?” The lieutenant said that the guy had thrown something, which turned out to be a tent, over their heads and it hit an officer in the head. I swear, his lips twitched as he said it. The guy I had talked to looked at me and said, “See?” Okay, I thought, can you say "Ill-Thought-Out"?

I heard a cheer and turned around. The cops were marching out, single file, row by row. Seems they had decided to accept our counterproposal after all. Marcus and I watched in amazement as someone took the cuffs off the guy they had been sitting on and sent him on his way with a pat on the shoulder. I literally never saw anything like it here. In Palestine, that kind of thing would happen a lot, the army would grab someone at a demonstration, the community would confront them and negotiate and eventually they would release the person. But here, I always thought once you’re in cuffs, you’re going into the system. The poor guy who got taken away in the ambulance may be the only one still facing charges from last night.

One of my least favorite chants has always been “The People United Will Never Be Defeated.” It seems like a total lie. In 1983, a comedian named Fran Peavey did a routine at one of our talent shows during the two-week jail-a-thon in Santa Rita, and said she had come up with a chant for the eighties: The People United Will Sometimes Win and Sometimes Lose. “The problem,” another friend recently suggested, “is that the people never are united.”

Last night, I felt like I believed it for the first time: if we are united, we cannot be defeated.

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