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.”