Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What If They Gave a F*** The Police March and No Police Came?

Photo by Dave Id

 As soon as I walked into work on Monday, everyone wanted to talk to me about Saturday’s events in Oakland, since I’m their only real link to the protesters. One woman told me about her father, a militant longshoreman. Another commented that Occupy Oakland seems more organized and less fringy than San Francisco. A guy had been upset by a report that the people committing “violence” – throwing things at the police, etc. – were members of Occupy and not “outside agitators.” I was embarrassed to admit that I was nowhere near most of the excitement.

It’s hard being expected to provide all the answers, when I have mostly questions myself.

The weekend was meant to be a “Move-In Day and Rise-Up Festival.” We were going to take over a huge unused public building, turn it into a multipurpose community space – social center, meeting hall, art workshop, theater, sleeping space upstairs. The big Oakland Commune in the sky, brought down to earth.

Only a handful of people were supposed to know which building we were heading for, but it was an open secret that it was the Kaiser Convention Center near Lake Merritt. My friend observed that since the police were not following the march, they must believe they knew where we were going. A woman heard us and confidently assured us that they did not know. She said, “We might walk by a few places before we get to it.”

I got excited, thinking we might actually get into the planned site. Sadly, she was wrong. A lot of planning went into the weekend but the tactical plan for getting into the building was, apparently, pretty simple: A big march followed by a sound truck and trucks full of furniture and equipment, marching defiantly up to the empty conference center. A row of people with homemade shields painted with peace signs and gas masks or bandanas covering their faces amassed in front, presumably planning to engage the cops while less visible (but still bandana-clad) people (mostly men, natch) cut the fencing around the building and broke the locks. (The Glitter Bloc, young feminists and queers, with a few of us oldsters and some kids in strollers, had been told we would be at the front of the march, but the shield people kept going around us – one of many examples of perhaps trying too hard to please everyone.) There were at least two backup sites selected, but we never got to either of them. Instead we got tear gas, smoke bombs, rubber bullets, people badly injured and as many as 400 arrested.

more photos by Dave Id
So whose fault was it? The police and whoever is calling their shots – be it Mayor Jean Quan, City Administrator Deanna Santana, Police Chief Howard Jordan (that’s the one person we know it’s not), the federal monitor (because the Oakland Police Department is under federal supervision for past bad behavior), or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.

The police were there in massive numbers, girded in armor and armed to the teeth. They were in no way threatened by a row of people with homemade shields (we’re talking about 15 people, max) or a few guys with bolt cutters. Most of the people on that march had no interest in getting arrested. If the police had made it clear that they were prepared to make a mass arrest, most people would have backed off. They did not need to shoot gas and concussion grenades at kids in strollers, notwithstanding that bringing babies in strollers on that particular action might not have been the smartest idea ever.

Or how is this for a thought: they could have let us have the out-of-the-way, six-years-abandoned building. I actually bet they would let us take it and keep it Saturday, or maybe even for the weekend, let us have our workshops and film showings on Sunday, then when most of us had gone back to work or school on Monday, they would move in and clear out everyone who was left. Yes, there were people on the march who wanted a confrontation with the cops, but the city didn’t have to provide one. They could have let the young men spend their energy moving all that heavy furniture and prying open the windows to air out the moldy conference center.

That’s more or less what the San Francisco police did on January 20, and it worked to their advantage. It’s not because the SFPD is nicer. They brutalize and kill people all the time. They just don’t do it to protesters in front of television cameras – or to the camera people themselves – any more. That’s not because they believe in freedom of speech or assembly; it’s because they paid heavily to settle lawsuits in the eighties and nineties.

J20 march in SF -- photo by Luke Hauser
We had as many people out in San Francisco on J20 as were on the march in Oakland on Saturday. But when I came to work last Monday, no one was talking about that. It was like it hadn’t happened. Occupy Oakland is national news again -- not because of the action, which would have been great if we had gotten to do it but we didn’t, but because of the reaction. As I was writing this in a taqueria, I overheard two white guys at the next table talking about what had happened. They were not that positive about the action – they’re opposed to property damage, and one of them was there for a while on Saturday and had some negative interactions with some of the militants, but they support the Occupy idea and they emphatically agreed that the police caused the violence. A young woman studying Consciousness and Culture joined our conversation and spoke passionately in defense of the demonstrators, even though she said she wouldn’t participate herself.

What happened on Saturday could not have been better for Occupy Oakland, which was actually drifting a bit. (The same cannot be said for some of the people who were beaten, arrested, and are now being teargassed in jail.) The two General Assemblies before the move-in failed to make their quorum of 100 people. That didn’t happen this Sunday, despite the fact that 300 potential participants were still in jail. Demonstrations in solidarity with Oakland were held in 13 cities around the country on Sunday night.

There is a lot of testosterone in this movement. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an annoying thing, especially to feminists, but angry young people – mostly men -- doing battle with the Powers That Be on the streets are iconic in any social movement. People that want Occupy to stop having demonstrations and holding public space and concentrate on community organizing or moving individual families back into foreclosed homes or getting people to move their money are absolutely wrong. Occupy is a mass movement because it is public, photogenic, threatening, filled with the iconography of protest.

At the same time, the Occupy/Liberate/Commune folks need to think about how to use that iconography strategically. I think that the militants in Occupy Oakland assume they have more support from the 99% than they do. Several friends of mine have said, “I don’t object to burning flags, but it’s a bad symbol to give the media.” Others have said that they would not have gone to the march if they knew the F*** the Police bloc was organizing it.

I went to the Occupy Oakland website to donate to the bail fund, because lots of people are being held on bogus felonies – “burglary” for running into the (open) YMCA to get out of the tear gas, “felony vandalism” for having a Sharpie in their pockets when they were arrested (for the record, I have a Sharpie in my purse too – it’s for labeling CDs). Here are a few comments from the donate page:

Occupy, you have taken one of the most progressive cities in the country and turned us against you. You have spat in our faces, vandalizing and defecating in my neighborhood at my son’s school after we welcomed you last fall! After Occupy trashed the kids art and smashed the original architects’s model of city hall??? You seriously want money from us??? Go home and p___ in your own backyards!! You seriously want money from us???!!!??? Start washing the grafitti

This post is confirmation that Occupy Oakland is being run by kids. You want to privatize the profits and socialize the losses? Seriously?
How about you all grow up and suffer the consequences of your actions. You done goofed up this time.

Why should any resident of Oakland or anyone else donate to release people who couldn’t care less about us. Last night we the residents of Oakland were taken hostage by selfish and ego driven zealots who no longer represent us. As an Oakland resident and a member of the 99% I most certainly will not donate to bail out people who care nothing about me or the city of Oakland.
Some of those comments might be planted by right-wing elements, some might be from people who never supported the movement in the first place, but it would be a mistake to assume that all of them are.

When you have a real movement, behind every young person with a shield are a dozen or more middle-aged people with banners, money, pens, posters and good will. Without that support, the movement cannot succeed. With it, maybe next time we go for a building, we’ll get it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Rumors of Occupy's Demise Are Greatly Exaggerated

 “Occupy’s Financial District protest falls short,” proclaimed the San Francisco Chronicle headline on Saturday, following a day of creative disruption in the financial district. “Lots of rain. Lots of noise. Few arrests, and smaller crowds than expected…. The thousands of participants organizers had hoped for never materialized, though. And those who did show up did not paralyze business as usual - which sat just fine with many who had worried they might not get to work Friday,” the article continued.

That's my affinity group, Disturbed Occupants, first thing in the morning. Thanks to Mary for great pix.
The tone of the article says more about the media than it does about the protest, which shut down at least five banks for most of the day, including the world headquarters of Wells Fargo, where my cluster of affinity groups camped out from the ungodly hour of six a.m. until early afternoon. By 9:00 a.m., friends of mine who were told by a group of workers that although police were preparing to open a service entrance, most of their colleagues had been released to take the day off. (The ones who were left had to stay around because their manager wasn’t there to give them the all-clear.)

If you read the article carefully, it’s clear that there were more than the “few hundred” protesters it alleged were there. The authors mention disruptive actions at six different buildings as well as three marches of a few hundred people each, and they can’t believe that all the same people were on all of them, especially since the participants in one were referred to as “white-haired” while another was called “mostly young.”

In fact, there were probably about 1,000 people in downtown during the day, but the 5:00 p.m. rally and march was much bigger than I expected. At least 2,000 marched from Justin Hermann Plaza and were met by a big labor march at Montgomery Street, where a stalwart group of about 40 die-hards had been chained to Bank of America since early morning. And this despite driving rain.

Demonstrations targeted at least a dozen different buildings in the Financial District, in addition to a street party that closed down major streets for hours. There was an action at Bechtel targeting war profiteering; at Citicorp’s headquarters, protestors staged a mock foreclosure, piling furniture and moving boxes into the revolving door at the main entrance; clergy and religious leaders marched around banks blowing the horns of Jericho.

A little before 4:00 pm, having declared victory and left Wells Fargo (which promptly boarded up all their doors and windows) and gone to lunch with a friend, I stopped by my office to divest myself of some of the props and supplies I was lugging around. Then I headed downstairs to take part in a protest of a company in that building, which is involved in destroying low income housing at a development in the western part of the city. I was stopped from leaving the building by guards who explained, “I’m sorry ma’am, the doors are chained shut because of the protesters.” I managed to find a way out, but when we started marching around the building, I saw workers huddled inside the doors waiting to leave. That demonstration wouldn’t have disrupted business as usual at all, if it were not for the fear of demonstrations, but for those workers wanting to slip out early on Friday afternoon, it sure did.

It’s true, the actions did not paralyze the city. The focus of the article seemed to be on the absence of the major traffic tie-ups that characterized the day after the Iraq War began in 2003 (though they did not mention that), but that action had a very different focus. Then, our intent was to make sure that everyone in corporate San Francisco felt the impact of a war which was going to have a huge impact on the people of Iraq, and on people in poor urban and rural communities in this country. We wanted to draw attention to the corporations which were profiteering off of war, but we also wanted workers and their bosses alike to have to stop and think, “Why is this happening to me?” and remember who the real victims were. Last Friday’s actions were much more focused. We wanted to put a social cost on the banks which toss homeowners and tenants out of their homes and cause underemployed college graduates to be forever in debt while refusing to pay for the services they use disproportionately. We definitely did that. We also wanted to show that the Occupy movement, which the media have been helping to paint as washed up, is “Unstoppable” as our banner said.

Occupy Oakland’s “General Strike” on November 2 did not actually paralyze Oakland either. But the Chronicle’s report on that day of action did not mention that transit ran, city offices and schools stayed open, newspapers were published and delivered, McDonalds served burgers and fries and Starbucks dished up $5 lattes. Instead, they accepted the rhetoric of the organizers:

“The first general strike called in Oakland since 1946 was largely peaceful. Young activists, middle-class wage earners, students and homeless people mingled good-naturedly as they held rallies and meditation meetings, heard speeches and marched to protest at dozens of downtown businesses and banks.

“An ice cream truck handed out treats with protest slogans, and a flash mob danced to the old disco hit ‘I Will Survive.’”
Certainly there were more people in Oakland in November than in San Francisco last Friday, but that’s not why the media took it more seriously. The General Strike came at the height of Occupy’s Fall of Grace, just a week after the police fired teargas and other projectiles at nonviolent crowds. The reporters acknowledged the general strike was “largely peaceful,” but the reason they covered it so intensively was because they hadn’t expected it to be.  Occupy was the hot new thing, but it was also The Great Unknown. It was big and volatile and scary. When Occupy SF and Oakland were having weekly marches on Saturdays, I noticed that crowd estimates varied not by the actual size, but by how violent the police were going to say we were.

The sad truth is that the goal we were least successful in achieving on Friday was showing that nonviolent direct action can have as big an impact as trashing stuff.  Although media and politicians insist that they would listen to us if only we would commit to pure nonviolence, for a long time now their actions have said the opposite.
Photo courtesy Luke Hauser
In Time magazine’s cover story announcing "The Protester" as Person of the Year, Kurt Andersen wrote:

Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the ‘70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the ‘80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.

And then came the End of History, summed up by Francis Fukuyama's influential 1989 essay declaring that mankind had arrived at the "end point of ... ideological evolution" in globally triumphant “Western liberalism.” The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.)

There were a few exceptions, like the protests that, along with sanctions, helped end apartheid in South Africa in 1994. But …"Massive and effective street protest" was a global oxymoron until — suddenly, shockingly — starting exactly a year ago, it became the defining trope of our times. And the protester once again became a maker of history.

But wait, to whom did the protests seem “ineffectual and irrelevant”? Not the people who were affected by the wrongs we were protesting. Those of us participating only felt that way because the media refused to let anyone know about them. Of course, I was in the antinuclear movement and the protests for sanctions in South Africa, and it’s not like the mainstream media was a big cheerleader for us even then. Protesting Israeli occupation in the U.S.? Please!

Still it is true that by the mid-1990s, the tiny media window that had been open to progressives slammed shut. It became an unwritten rule that left-wing protest would only be covered if it could be spun as a crime story. The bigger the crime, the bigger the story.

For the last twenty years, we’ve understood that if you wanted to be covered in the mainstream press, you had to have arrests. The problem for us in San Francisco is that the SFPD and the City figured that too, and it’s become next to impossible to get arrested for civil disobedience in San Francisco.

Hundreds of people risked arrest on Friday, some by locking themselves to buildings, others by blocking streets for hours, but only 23 were arrested. The majority of those arrests were at the Wells Fargo headquarters. We had at least 40 people prepared to be arrested there, but the police only arrested people at the back and side doors, leaving those of us at the large public entrances with “Wells Fargo Bank” signs over them to languish in the rain as long as we chose. Same at a number of Bank of America branches. The police won’t arrest people unless the banks tell them to, and the banks don’t want the bad publicity of mass arrests on their property, especially if the pictures are going to show people being manhandled with their logos prominently visible.

Because people were so spread out during the day, the only way the media could possibly have known how many people were out there was by asking the police, who couldn’t have known either – they only knew about actions that businesses complained about. No one called them about the line-up of poets and musicians performing at various locations around town, or about the Iraq Veterans Against the War reenactments of Search and Destroy operations around town.

There was a small amount of property damage and a minor clash with police late Friday night when activists took over a vacant hotel. (According to the Chronicle, people threw Bibles at the police.) Needless to say, that action, which most of us who participated in the day of action didn’t even know about, got the most coverage. On Saturday night, I was watching the news and suddenly there was a shot of my friends being hauled away from Wells Fargo. The voiceover said, “The Occupy protests are over, now the cleanup begins.” They showed someone sweeping up glass at an auto dealership, and then immediately went back to scenes of bank blockades and street marches. I thought, “Wow, we look so good.”

And I also thought, “I’m not in favor of violence or random property damage, but it did get us two days of coverage.”

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Yvette & Me

A fellow producer on Women’s Magazine whom I’d known through feminist and queer activism for over 25 years died last Sunday.  We were not close, but we had gotten a bit closer over the course of her struggle with lung cancer, which had metastasized to her brain.

Yvette posted this photo on the Individual Initiatives
for Nuclear Disarmament website
It so happened that she died the morning of an event which had been planned in her honor, to raise money for supplements and ayurvedic therapies not covered by her insurance.  It morphed into a lovely memorial, and I usually don’t like memorials.  Singers chose songs that meant something special to Yvette, or that they thought articulated something about her.  Poets had written things specially for her (one particularly nice one about the monster backpack she always carried).

Memorials always make me think about my own life, and whether I’m doing what I want to do in the world and living the way I want.  Especially when the person was relatively close to my age (I’m 52, Yvette was 63), it’s a wake-up call that I might not have as much time as I think to become the person I want to be.

Yvette and I were extremely different.  I’m shy and self-conscious; she was a champion “networker” (my friend Chaya said the first time she heard that word used was in connection with Yvette).  She didn’t work for money much, preferring to live off the grid.  She housesat – if fact she housesat for me the first couple times I went to Palestine.  She ate at the events she went to, or at the food pantries where she volunteered; where she got the little bits of money she spent on food from the Discount Grocer, laundry and the occasional play or movie she couldn’t get comped to, I never knew.  She went to every political or cultural event she could cram into a week, often volunteering in exchange for getting in free.  She volunteered at the Arab Film Festival, the South Asian Film Festival, the Queer Women of Color Film Festival, the Queer Arts Festival, dozens of other festivals I never heard of.  She cared especially about Palestine solidarity, Africa (she spent the nineties traveling through much of Africa, living in ten different countries), and disabled women’s issues.  She went to parties and lectures and discussion groups.  We used to joke that she was like Zelig, turning up everywhere you went.  She would always sit in the very front and as soon as the event was over, if she liked it, she would be introducing herself to the speakers or performers, getting their numbers, recruiting them for events she was working on.

It was a talent I both envied and found irritating.  A lot of my friends felt she never gave them the time of day because they weren’t important enough.  I felt that way myself at times.  Yet on a deeper level, I think all that networking left her lonely.  Everyone called her friend – in the last five years, just about everyone I ever told, “I work on Women’s Magazine on KPFA,” would answer “Oh, I’m friends with Yvette.”  She had a steady stream of women – mostly women, the occasional man – visiting her in the hospital and then the nursing home.  Yet when she checked herself into the hospital the first time, thinking she was having a stroke, and got the dreadful news about her diagnosis, I’m pretty sure she was all alone.  It was we at Women’s Magazine, who didn’t know where she’d grown up or how many siblings she had, who rallied around to raise money for her treatment and living expenses, and set up a website for people to help with rides and meals.  And when we said we wanted to do that, she was truly surprised.  On some level, I think she had no idea how much people cared for her.

The last time I saw Yvette, we were talking about the benefit that was coming up.  She wasn’t even sure if she was going to be able to make it but she was very worried that the food wouldn’t be consistent with her all-organic, whole grain no salt or processed sugar diet.  She wanted me to make sure there was plenty of food and that she’d be able to eat it.  (As it turned out, the organizers decided not to have food at all.  I kept thinking that Yvette’s spirit was deeply disappointed in me.)

The biggest difference between Yvette and me, I think, is that I believe she loved every minute of her life.  I like my life but I’m always angst-ridden about what I have to do and whether I’m focusing on the right things, whether I’m doing enough and whether I have the skills to do what’s really valuable.  I have to fight with myself to get myself to focus on writing and radio, and sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it, who even reads or hears this stuff?  I worry that people judge me for spending eight hours a day at a stupid job that doesn’t contribute anything useful to the world, but maybe it’s that I judge myself for making that choice, so I can have material security and health insurance.  Even the activities I’m the most excited about I often approach with some level of dread.  I have recurring fantasies about disappearing from my life, just finding somewhere to hide out for a while.
I never got the sense from Yvette that she had any such doubts, or that she ever got up thinking, “I wish I didn’t have so much to do today.”  I might be wrong, but my impression is that until she got too sick to make it to the events she wanted to go to, she looked forward to every day.  And that, I think, was her true gift.

Monday, January 2, 2012

My Personal Best (and worst) of 2011

Best new things I discovered this year:  
-- Café Vivoli, a great lunch spot in the SF Financial District where you can get Hawaiian bar-b-q (though for obvious reasons, I never do), excellent pasta, or all you can eat pizza and salad for $6.99 after 3.
--Science Friday, great radio show (KQED 88.5 FM Fridays 2:00 pm) where you can learn about everything from the search for extraterrestrials to the habits of woodpeckers to bioremediation
-- I can get all my news from Jon Stewart

Best rediscovery:  making pancakes on weekends

Best new dish I made:  spinach, bean and cheese enchilada casserole

Best political actionReoccupation of Justin Hermann Plaza

Best of Democracy Sometimes (based partly on which sparked the most discussion from you):   Slut Walks and Porn Wars, This Day in History: Martial Law in the Castro

Best movie I saw:  Have to admit, I saw almost no new movies last year.  I think it’s the first year I was in this country when I’d seen not one of the Best Picture Oscar nominees by the time the award was given.  Of the few I did see, Midnight in Paris wins hands down.

Worst thing in the mainstream media (very tough choice):
“Once upon a time, when major news events were chronicled strictly by professionals and printed on paper or transmitted through the air by the few for the masses, protesters were prime makers of history. Back then, when citizen multitudes took to the streets without weapons to declare themselves opposed, it was the very definition of news — vivid, important, often consequential. In the 1960s in America they marched for civil rights and against the Vietnam War; in the '70s, they rose up in Iran and Portugal; in the '80s, they spoke out against nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Europe, against Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, against communist tyranny in Tiananmen Square and Eastern Europe. Protest was the natural continuation of politics by other means.
"And then came the End of History, summed up by Francis Fukuyama's influential 1989 essay declaring that mankind had arrived at the "end point of ... ideological evolution" in globally triumphant "Western liberalism." The two decades beginning in 1991 witnessed the greatest rise in living standards that the world has ever known. Credit was easy, complacency and apathy were rife, and street protests looked like pointless emotional sideshows — obsolete, quaint, the equivalent of cavalry to mid-20th-century war. The rare large demonstrations in the rich world seemed ineffectual and irrelevant. (See the Battle of Seattle, 1999.) “
from Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” cover story  

Best book I read (not necessarily new this year):  
   Nonfiction:  The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander
   Fiction:  Lost City Radio, Daniel Alarcon 

Proudest achievements:  Blogging regularly, and completing two drafts of Murder Under the Fig Tree

Would love to hear what's on your lists!