Who will finally end congressional gridlock? Who would lead us out of the economic collapse brought on by Wall Street greed? Who would end the bloodshed of two wars and bring our soldiers home? Who make real change possible and protect and defend the rights and well-being of ordinary Americans?
We, the People!
Even after We bailed them out, the rich of Wall Street and Big Oil continued to show record profits – profits that allowed them to give their CEOs exorbitant bonuses that continue to this day. After the bailout money was received, demand for yachts skyrocketed, as did the demand for all types of luxury goods.
Meanwhile, back on Main Street, USA, no one could find work and foreclosures became a common occurrence. Almost overnight a tent city sprouted up in Sacramento, California. I’m sure there are others.
These sentiments are being fully embodied by the Occupy Wall Street Movement.
I use the word “embodied” quite deliberately because that is what I see as I make my way down to Occupy Oakland – bodies. There, at Oscar Grant Plaza (as it is unofficially called, after the young man who was killed by BART police) in the heart of downtown Oakland, are bodies of all shapes and sizes, bodies of all colors and shades of the human rainbow. Bodies young and old, unemployed, middle-class, poor, marginalized, educated, illiterate, well-dressed, and barely dressed. They are all people who are willing to put their bodies on the line as a living testament to what is happening in urban cities and rural towns across America and the world. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer and no one seems to be able to change that – until now. The Occupy Wall Street Movement is the living embodiment of the change that they wish to see in the world.
I am a member of the First Unitarian Church of Oakland, which is at 14th and Castro, just three blocks from Occupy Oakland. Arriving at the corner of 14th and Broadway, I cautiously made my way into the camp. As one of the 99% who had grown frustrated with Wall Street greed, I think I expected to see angry protesters screaming and yelling and demanding justice. I thought it would be chaotic and teeming with unbridled and seething resentment. But it wasn’t. The first thing that struck me was how quiet and peaceful it was. Was this a hippie hangout like some right-wingers were declaring? I looked around and saw a man in a business suit talking to a young person. Another person was staffing an information table. I didn’t hear the strains of Kumbaya anywhere in the vicinity. No, it definitely was not a hippie hangout.
As I walked around and saw the industrious nature of the plaza I realized that this was community democracy in action. There was an almost palpable feeling of hope in the air. People were smiling! Folks were helping each other and taking care of the plaza.
Many people were gathered in small groups and I could hear them speaking and taking turns sharing their thoughts. Lots of people were on laptops working together on media, press releases, and messaging. Others were sorting clothing, cooking food, or helping to set up the lending library. I heard the swoosh of a broom and turned around to see a man in a work vest busily sweeping up the streets surrounding the encampment.
Emboldened, I made my way across the plaza, zig-zagging around the sea of tents staking claims for justice, and took pictures of the Information tent, the kid zone, and people working. It was all so interesting, but what fascinated me most were the homemade signs. People were scrawling on cardboard, poster board, construction paper, and even sheets. There were notes written in chalk on the cement, on whiteboards, and on people’s shirts.
“The people have awakened and we’re not going back to sleep,” said one sign. It seemed representative of the overall ethos of the movement.
In the days and weeks to follow more sophisticated signage would find its way to the plaza but in the beginning there were just the homemade signs, individual declarations of determination, awareness, solidarity, and hope.
Several days later I walked over to the Speak Out Now tent and spoke with long-time organizer Michael Noonan who told me that the homemade signs were an indication of the grassroots nature of the movement. He also thinks that this movement is different than the ones he’s been to and organized over the past decade.
“At first I saw a lot of young people who are revolted by what is being presented to them as their future,” he said. “That was the core of who was here to begin with. But now it’s just a cross-section of everyone. I’ve met bus drivers, teachers; I met a guy who works at a lab at UC Berkeley. I’ve met people who work at Children’s Hospital and the people who work in the government buildings around the plaza. So it’s really everyone,” he said with a smile.
He passed out some more leaflets and when he was done he added, “It’s really different than practically everything that I’ve been to or organized in the last decade or so. You have everybody coming. It really has that feeling of a mass movement. You can see it in the creativity that people have brought to cooking and camping and their signs. All the humor and art that’s coming out. This is what we’re gonna build a movement on.”
I tell him that Sean Hannity of Fox News says we’re un-American. No surprise there.
“Which America is he talking about,” he asks, shaking his head. “The America of the segregation laws or the America of the civil rights movement? I don’t accept that there is just one America.” No, I thought. There’s the America of the yacht-buying 1% and then there’s the rest of us.
We pause as the amplified voice of a young woman reaches our ears. She lets everyone know that the General Assembly is about to begin and that afterward they’ll break off into small planning groups.
Michael looks at me. “This is not the ‘fringes.’ It has a real possibility to go beyond a symbolic protest movement to become a new political force in this country.”
Perhaps that’s why the excitement and hope is so high. People can sense that something amazing is happening here and that they are actively in the process of creating it.
Even after police in riot gear tear-gassed the crowds (including a woman in a wheelchair and Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen, sending him and many others to the hospital) the mood the next day was still one of determination and solidarity. Now the whole world was watching Occupy Oakland. A shrine was set up in the Plaza for Scott Olsen who is just now out of critical condition. Among the candles and pictures someone had placed a spiral bound notebook so that people could let Scott know that we were thinking of him.
I came down the day after the police raid and saw the devastation at Oscar Grant Plaza. I realized that I was standing where the kitchen had been just the day before. A little further down there was only one lone tent where before there had been a hundred. But several people were putting another one up together. I was so happy to see that. They were already rebuilding. I saw a sign with a list of supplies that were needed and another one asking for books to replace the ones that had been destroyed by the Oakland police. The camp was resurrecting.
As I walked through the plaza, someone gave me a handout that was being dispersed throughout the community. It was entitled a Solidarity Letter from Cairo.
“To all those in the United States currently occupying parks, squares and other spaces, your comrades in Cairo are watching you in solidarity…In our own occupations of Tahrir, we encountered people entering the Square every day in tears because it was the first time they had walked through those streets and spaces without being harassed by police; it is not just the ideas that are important, these spaces are fundamental to the possibility of a new world. We are all watching one another now, and from Cairo we want to say that we are in solidarity with you, and we love you all for what you are doing.”
It was amazing to read this and to feel connected to those who had the courage to rise up in Egypt. We were not alone.
I don’t know whether the movement will grow and take root like theirs did. No one knows for sure. But I do know the amazing feeling of solidarity we felt when the Iraq and Afghanistan War Veterans spoke and when Michael Moore came to address the crowd. And I do know that when organizers hastily called for a General Strike on November 2nd, just a week after the police raid, over 5,000 bodies made their way to the city to take part. Some estimates were as high as 14,000.
Many members from our church marched under the Standing on the Side of Love banner(the social justice message of Unitarian Universalism) that morning in the first large march. Later on an even larger body of people marched down 14th Street past the church. I couldn’t believe my eyes as wave after wave of people passed by.
Earlier that afternoon I had read these words by Frederick Douglas:
“Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”
I looked again at the 99% marching by with hope and determination written all over their faces, as visceral as any sign they held in their hands and it was clear that we had reached our limit and were no longer willing to quietly submit.
Written by Linda Hodges.