Tuesday, November 15, 2011

In the Face of Repression - Notes from OccupyOakland Nov 15th

by Miki Kashtan

Early morning on Monday, November 14th, the Oakland Police once again evacuated the OccupyOakland camp. That was the day I was planning to attend the facilitation committee meeting. Being unsure about whether or not a meeting would take place, and knowing how long it would be before I could attend a meeting again, I decide to take a chance and go.

The plaza is barricaded on all sides, with only employees being allowed to enter. Some restaurants are openly displaying their menus in an empty plaza full of sanitation workers. Who would be buying food when no one can enter, I wonder. Later I see police allowing some people - I imagine only those looking “respectable” - to walk into the plaza to order food out. Something ironic about closing off the entire plaza when one of the reasons for evacuating it was to support local businesses. I ask the policeman how he feels about the whole thing. He shrugs his shoulders and says he’s just doing his job, doesn’t have an opinion. I offer my reflection that it’s tough to be there and do what he does. He says that being a cop is tough, period.

At the 14th and Broadway intersection, which has become identified with the movement, a small crowd has gathered. More police are standing in a line behind the barricades, some of them in riot gear, others more loosely guarding the place. Their faces are generally blank, except when no one is standing in front of them and they talk with each other, rather casually. What is it like on the inside to be each person I see? This question haunts me always, especially on a day like today, when I look at people, the police, and imagine them to be doing things that are difficult for at least some of them to do.

A man who identifies himself as a vet, probably from the Vietnam era, is talking with immense passion to one of the officers. He says something about how he can see that the officer is also a vet, and that he knows that deep in his heart he doesn’t want to be working to protect the 1%. The officer appears heroic in his efforts to remain blank while staring directly at the vet behind massive sunglasses. The media is interviewing a man, maybe in his 50s, who is well dressed and holds a sign saying “Re-occupy Oakland ASAP”. On the other side something about why can’t the city and police be more imaginative. The media ask everyone, apparently, if they believe the movement should be responsible for the cost of removing the camp. A woman walks by screaming at the top of her lungs, occupying some other reality. Someone gives her five dollars, and she quiets down temporarily.

I watch in disbelief as so many workers are cleaning up the plaza. Is anyone really thinking that the occupiers won’t come back? I wonder, again and again, what leads people to keep trying to repress movements, when the evidence is so overwhelming that repression, especially of nonviolent movements, tends to strengthen them. Is it a gesture to assure businesses that the city is doing all it can to support them? I wouldn’t want to be Jean Quan these days.

A woman who’s been with the Occupation since the beginning is arguing with a visitor from Eugene, OR who’s been an activist since the 60s. I listen to them quietly, finding myself on both sides of their argument. She is talking about making sure that the brutal reality of life of the marginalized remains in public display. He’s talking about how attracting homeless people and addicts is preventing the movement from attracting others, and points vaguely at the buildings behind him, the places where people work. He talks about how afraid people are to take a day off from work to attend a strike. She talks about how amazing it is that some people have had food for all this time and are finding themselves again. He talks about how organizing and offering services are not the same. She talks about having a public space to have meetings and organize. He talks about making the movement accessible to all people.

Does the movement have enough resources to keep organizing and provide services at the same time? Can the movement appeal to the many who are still uninvolved, barely aware of what’s happening, while the activities that expose the structural conditions continue? Can the occupiers truly figure out how to handle the intense divisions within the movement while standing up to persistent repression? The woman talks about how the very people who are advocating property destruction, which she opposes, are also the people who help out at the camp, set up services, feed the poor. In the evening I find out that the interfaith people who refused to leave the plaza and got arrested while singing spiritual songs got thanked by unexpected people, healing some of the rift between the “diversity of tactics” contingent and the “strict commitment to nonviolence” contingent.

I think about the ongoing conversation I’m part of about whether it’s even possible to be nonviolent in our culture, where so much ongoing violence is done in our name all the time, whether we know it or not, choose it or not. I want to believe there is still room to make the choice not to add more violence by inflicting it personally. I see how any bit of violence, even minimal property destruction, makes it so much easier to justify the repression. More and more people direct increasing amounts of anger at the occupation. They say it’s destroying the fledgling efforts to revive Oakland’s downtown and maintain local businesses. That Oakland is a city of the 99%, including the local business owners.

I know what the woman is saying. Removing the occupation would only remove the issues from public awareness without solving them. It would just be business as usual again, which has allowed massive and growing numbers of people to suffer daily indignities, poverty, lack of access to resources, and marginalization. In the absence of making it impossible for business as usual to continue, what would otherwise provide the energy for making change? The OccupyWallSt organizers have worked diligently on maintaining relationships with the local businesses. I won’t stop believing there’s a way for things to work for everyone. Maybe the woman and the man can yet hear each other. I point them in this direction by reflecting back to both what I hear from each of them, how they fundamentally want the same thing. Before I leave, I ask them to do the same with each other before responding. They like the idea.

As I arrive home, I am struck by how absent the occupation is in my neighborhood, by how many people’s lives are, still, wholly unaffected. Meanwhile, for some people, something different is happening that is changing their lives. They have seen themselves and others create something that was thought impossible only weeks ago. At least for a while there’s no going back. The man, earlier, even while telling the woman repeatedly that their efforts won’t work, admits to being impressed and surprised that they pulled off the general strike. There is some magic happening, something I don’t understand, something I want to support.

Just down the street from my home I watch a woman I don’t know enter her car, an SUV, and drive off, innocent of knowledge that she is doing the next thing with her uninterrupted daily life while dozens were arrested and hundreds are marching to regain access to the plaza. She and they live in entirely different realities. Later I hear that the occupiers are back at the plaza, and are holding a general assembly with many hundreds of people. I remember my conversation from the morning with a UC Berkeley professor who is worried about more repression on campus. I watch a video showing the police attack the demonstrators on campus a week ago. He is afraid of more. I remind him, and myself, how numbers can reduce the possibility of violence. I ask him to invite the faculty to issue a call to the public to come and protect the students. I think again of the anonymous woman in her SUV. What can any of the occupiers do, what kinds of decisions or actions can they take that will reach her? Can she be woken up to imagine a different world, without rich and poor? What would it take for the occupations to become an unstoppable mass movement?

While writing I get news of the eviction taking place in NY. The repression continues. I watch the live streaming in disbelief. No amount of engaging peacefully with residents and local businesses has protected the people. My heart is both breaking and oddly excited. As I am winding down writing this piece, I am watching the live stream and reading the OccupyWallSt site. I am not surprised to learn that civil disobedience is now being planned. Something comforting, in the midst of the shock about the police, in knowing that this movement is allowing more and more people to realize that “we cannot fix our crises isolated from one another.” A group of people are marching, belying the stereotype of the movement being unemployed white people in their 20s. For this moment, in this action, people are walking together. Young and old, black and white, they are chanting, in part, “we say no to the new Jim Crow.” Separation, the very foundation of what makes our current system possible, is being challenged, and the future, for this moment, feels open again in the midst of the difficulty. In the words, once again, of the anonymous writer of the site: “you can’t evict an idea whose time has come.”


  1. Oakland peacebuilder/vipassana practitioner Pancho Ramos Stierle was one of those arrested in Monday morning's raid. He was meditating in public while Occupying his obviously non-Western-European self.

    I've known Pancho since Power to the People, San Francisco, September '09. The east bay RC community has been supporting him in developing an RC system for the intentional community (and ultimately the surrounding neighborhood) in the Fruitvale part of East Oakland where he lives. He and one or two others in that community went on to study with Dominic Barter in Champaign-Urbana... was it just last month?!? He was on the staff at Michael Nagler's Metta Center until Michael retired to Petaluma.

    My friend Creekwater was arrested, too, but Creekwater has "proper" ID, so he was released about 18 hours later. For Pancho, getting arrested has a much more drastic impact on his life.

    When Alex was shot and killed Thursday, the point was driven home in me that the war of love is not without its casualties. But Pancho! This makes it deeply personal for me.

    The link below is to a petition asking Barbara Lee to intervene on his behalf with the immigration authorities. If you're willing, Miki, would you forward some version of this story and petition link to your contacts?


    For all I know, you might know Pancho, too, and be experiencing the same loss to your geo-political community as I'm experiencing to my vocational community.

  2. the Occupy San Jose folks asked me to teach them nonviolent communication. There is conflict between people who use drugs and alcohol and those who don't, between people who claim to be there to protest and those who they claim are there to party, between those who claim to be cleaning up and those they claim don't, between people who are trying to support order and those they claim don't want order. when I taught my class I saw another divide: between those who are able to sit in a chair and listen to others and those who do not seem able to listen and either talk or run desperately out of the room. The need for services is immense. The need to protest is huge. The need for support is enormous. It's stunning to think this movement is still growing despite all these challenges. Thank you Mikki for your first hand reporting.

    Bob Niederman

  3. The conflicting styles and values both Bob and Miki write about challenge not only the Occupy movement but all humans almost daily. People have attachments to what they identify as their perspectives, expectations, hopes, needs, etc. Throughout life we meet and interact with others with whom we instantly harmonize and others who seem totally at odds with our ways of thinking and doing.

    I once heard a friend read a poetic anecdote of an incident in which he was informally playing music with a small group when a man sat down with a drum and, uninvited, began to play along. The drummer’s playing was not in time as he began making his contribution, but I think my friend sensed his sincerity, and rather than stop and request that he not play, they all silently decided to wait to see if the musicians would come into harmony. The fact that they did was very satisfying.

    Patience, tolerance, understanding, empathy, and generosity can be the healing, harmonizing balm in many circumstances where the challenge of diversity arises. Sometimes its easy, sometimes it appears miraculous, and sometimes it does not occur. Maybe it is just a matter of deciding whether the practice of these virtues is worth the effort. Spontaneous harmony is a gift, and what a pleasure that is. Other times harmony it is worked for and is a real fulfillment.

  4. Miki,

    Reading what you've written - in quotes below - and thinking that you are a person who understands and seeks to live nonviolence, I either don't understand the foundations of nonviolence or NVC or both. Or maybe you would like to reconsider.

    How do you know what is happening with this woman without talking with her. Wouldn't you empathize with her? In a world where everyone matters, doesn't she? I'm trying to understand how holding an attitude toward someone that they need to "wake up" could be anything but insulting.

    I want effective practice that supports sustainable peace and am worried about unexamined assumptions. Yours, mine and ours.

    Will you offer a response to these questions, in service to how we can live nonviolence in thought and deed?

    "Just down the street from my home I watch a woman I don’t know enter her car, an SUV, and drive off, innocent of knowledge that she is doing the next thing with her uninterrupted daily life while dozens were arrested and hundreds are marching to regain access to the plaza. She and they live in entirely different realities....I think again of the anonymous woman in her SUV. What can any of the occupiers do, what kinds of decisions or actions can they take that will reach her? Can she be woken up to imagine a different world, without rich and poor?"

  5. hi sherry,

    i always appreciate it, even when it's uncomfortable, to be invited to see the edges of my practice. your public comment, and an offline comment, show me the limits, in two different directions, of how far i am on the path to completely transcending my assumptions. the other comment was about my reference to violence, as that person suggested that breaking things to prevent harm may not necessarily be referred to as violence.

    i will keep reflecting on these. clearly there is something here i am still integrating. in writing this, and re-reading it, i really thought that i didn't leave out anyone. i didn't see that anyone who wasn't already in agreement with me about these points might indeed be insulting to them.

    that said, i want to also add two small clarifications. one is that i see a huge difference between suggesting that someone "needs to wake up" and suggesting, which is what i believe i did, that "i want her to wake up". granted i am, by definition, limited in my thinking. from where i am, i don't see a way for the transformation i long to see in the world without large numbers of people finding new ways to make sense of the world.

    the second is that i do, actually, have ease in having compassion for her. i don't have any judgment, only a sense of tragedy. i have no difficulty imagining the experience of daily grind that she, too, is likely to be in. i don't in any way see her as the problem. were i to be in conversation with her, i have a high degree of confidence i can make full connection with her.

    the question remains as to whether i can find a way to speak of her, not to her, and frame what i say in a way that conveys my ideas and at the same time are likely to be heard by her as respect. i take this on as a challenge for next time. thank you.

  6. “the second is that i do, actually, have ease in having compassion for her. i don't have any judgment, only a sense of tragedy.”

    Miki, it has been my experience that the more I wake/wise up, understand more fully how the world works, and become a bit less habituated to and bound by the conditioning of my thoughts and feelings, the more responsible I become to live in accord with it. Another outcome, though, is the suffering that stems from witnessing others “not-seeing” and the behaviors that result. This suffering urges one to develope more and more patience, forebearance, and tolerance. Loving learning leads to learning loving.