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.”

1 comment:

  1. The right wing is trying very hard to paint the picture that occupy wall street is coming to an end, but this video proves that occupy wall street is not going anywhere: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe-6Yf8cOFo
    The success of the movement, is and always will be it's unpredictable-ness