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Occupy Oakland: A Report From The Front Lines

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Corley 14

Caren Corley, a former Seattle-ite, is now living in Oakland. She writes this great piece on her experience on the front lines with the Occupy Oakland protestors.

Before I left home to answer the call for a General Strike in Oakland on November 2, 2011, I read an article in the paper claiming that today’s action would harm local small businesses. I’m not sure why that accusation would get any press attention in the face of the fact that more people, small businesses, individuals, and families, have been hurt by the political and economic practices in the last 30 years than could ever be hurt by the Occupy movement. Get real! And with that indignation, I headed out of my house. I was excited and unsure what to expect. There could be continued violent police action. There could be overwhelming numbers of people who answered the call of the General Strike clogging the streets of the entire downtown core. There could be only a straggling few desultory full-time activists bemoaning the lethargy of the movement. I’ve seen them all at one time or another. What I found was something in the middle, something wholly encouraging. I am overjoyed that people are moving their accounts to credit unions. I am thrilled that people are waking up, as it seems, to the parasitic relationship between big business (corporations which control money and media, conveniently enough) and the U.S. government.

The atmosphere in downtown Oakland was enthusiastic, hopeful, and sometimes giddy in a way I haven’t seen since Obama was elected president. Among the thousands of people who appeared to be from all walks of life converging downtown, there were drum circles and dance rings, often associated with liberal, progressive or leftist gatherings, there was also a marching band playing pop songs. There was a flash mob. There was a constant, well organized, schedule of speakers and entertainers in the amphitheater of Ogawa Plaza. The plaza itself was renamed Oscar Grant Plaza to remind us of the consequences of a government isolated ideologically from its people. For those of you who don’t remember, Oscar Grant was the unarmed young man who was shot and killed by a police officer who insisted he thought he (the officer) was reaching for his tazer, and who was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Invoking Oscar Grant reminds us of the hundreds of years of injustice, exploitation, and discrimination—layers of race, class, and gender—experienced disproportionately by certain people in our country. There are lots of facts about this case that are shocking to most, heartbreaking to many, and inexcusable in the eyes of the law. Oscar Grant’s name serves as a touchstone for outrage and determination in the face of seemingly unassailable giants of corporate greed.

Let’s face it, occupation is tedious work. It lacks the glamour of a blood sport, the excitement of a car chase, and the tears of a Hollywood ending. It is sitting. It is sitting and talking. It is continuing to sit and talk for days and weeks. It is waiting to be acknowledged. It is the hardest work of social change I have ever seen. It requires more patience than I am capable of. I am most surprised to see people with notoriously short spans of attention—people raised on Youtube, Google, PS one through three, and every other instrument of instant gratification invented—sitting, standing, marching, playing music, patient, peaceful. It made me proud.

The one word that seems to best describe the movement I participated in today is civil. I am troubled by that word. It is loaded with all kinds of post-colonial baggage. However, civil also reflects ideals that transcend our imperial heritage. Civil, being the humane treatment of others for the benefit of all, is an ideal that permeated all the signs I saw today. “Fix Are Skoolz.” was the most poignant that I failed to get a photo of. Education, healthcare, and gainful employment were the call of the day. And the banks, specifically Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Chase, and Citi Bank are held responsible for diminishing our quality of life measured in these ways. While I saw people climbing onto the monolithic lighted signs, and people pounding on windows that seemed almost ready to break, I witnessed no overt acts of violence. What little vandalism I saw came in the form of stickers, and the irreverent subversion of the banks’ own advertising: window film, rearranged like magnetic words on a refrigerator. And that vandalism was restricted to the banks.

The Occupy movement teaches me this: a great number of Americans understand and appreciate that the fundamental health and well-being of our nation depends on our treatment of the poorest, the disenfranchised, the exploited, and the least able to care for themselves, many of whom do not view themselves as such. Every one of the people at this protest was a great patriot. Every one of the people I saw today wants a country they can be proud of, a country that lives up to its promises made in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights: a government by the people, of the people, for the people. That was the promise passed down to us from our flawed forefathers, and it is a promise we demand be kept. No matter what evil and violence has been perpetrated in the name of Civilization, the ideals of civility win when we remain committed to nonviolence.

Today’s civil action may seem pointless to some who don’t see an end in sight or significant change imminent. Look at the signs that say “The Beginning is Nigh” and please remember the words of Margaret Meade, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Caren Corley, Oakland, CA. Nov. 2, 2011

Caren’s Photos from Occupy Oakland:

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