Rita Nakashima Brock, PhD is Founding Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good (www.faithvoices.org). Her latest book, Saving Paradise, co-authored with Rebecca Parker, was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008.
Wednesday, I hopped on a city bus and headed to Frank Ogawa Plaza at Oakland city hall for a liberation Bible Study led by the Seminary of the Street whose motto is "Meet Us at the Corner of Love and Justice!"
I never made it to the Bible study. Instead, I got pulled into a heated conversation with the legal advisor for Mayor Jean Quan, Dan Siegel, who is a labor rights and sex discrimination attorney of 35 years. A young man showed Siegel a huge dark mottled bullseye-shaped bruise that covered his left midsection, caused by a rubber bullet. Siegel had been at the protests Tuesday night, witnessed the unwarranted police violence against demonstrators, and was tear-gassed himself. He did not defend the city's actions and made it clear his advice had been not to conduct the raid. He urged us to come back every evening and grow the movement.
I think the 99% Movement may wind up being Obama's greatest legacy, partly because he has disappointed so many on issues such as health care, financial reform, and the wars. We are going to have to create change we can believe in.
On election day in 2008, I worked in Oakland at a polling place near downtown. An enormous number of determined, hopeful young people cast their ballots that day. I remember thinking at the time that the Obama campaign had trained an entire generation of idealistic young people into a hard-core, boots-on-the-ground, community-organizing style of activism. Then, he had delivered to them the biggest success of their lives. Whatever happened in his presidency, they were never going to forget how it felt to succeed, and they were going to be a trained, effective generation of activists. They were going to understand how much intense work social change requires. They were going to have enough skills to negotiate complex differences, listen respectfully, and work really, really hard for months and months.
The 99% Movement I have been seeing in Oakland has that bedrock of good will, determination, and complexity. Its processes of consensus, its liturgical style of discussion--the people's mic--that requires the crowd to listen carefully to the speaker and repeat their words out loud so they can be heard, and its surprising patience with process and decision-making make it a different kind of movement that is puzzling to pundits. It has no messianic leader but a lot of good thinkers and leaders, no single issue with a list of demands but a lot of things they want done, and no one lead organization but a vast coalition of groups.
Anger there is, for sure, and it erupted Wednesday around a rush to take down the cyclone fence the police had erected around the site of the occupation. The conflict started near where I was standing. A back and forth physical struggle over the fence lasted a half-hour before it was dismantled and the parts were neatly stacked in piles. But the anger about the fence lacked a hard self-righteousness I've seen often among activists. Instead, the anger of those attacking the fence came from sorrow. The first few to attack the fence said they had been camping since the first day. They felt as if their home and neighborhood had been destroyed--it was a real community when I visited it on its fifth day, complete with a children's play tent, Sukkot Booth, and first aid station. Those opposing taking down the fence didn't want to provoke any more police violence. The argument about the fence at Occupy Oakland on Facebook (which doubled its members between Tuesday night and Thursday morning) did not dissolve into polemical posturing, but remained a debate with a lot of points of view and calls for respect.
Ogawa Plaza was filled last night with so many fierce, determined young people. The younger men are not the kind of males I demonstrated with in my generation who tended to ignore or shove the females aside. And the women exhibit confidence--I saw quite a number of courageous women calling for nonviolence and standing up to angry men. At one point, when I wanted to ask Dan Siegel a question, I was too short to be seen and too far back to be heard, so I asked my question to a tall young white man standing next to me thinking he might ask it. Instead, he pressed politely several times saying "this lady has a good question; let her ask it." And I got my chance.
At first the prohibition on amplified sound at Occupy Wall Street was seen as a handicap that led to the "people's mic" in which people have to speak in short phrases and everyone repeats their words. This ancient liturgical method has forced deeper listening and respect for speakers, and it has created a movement comfortable with complexity and patient with process. Without amplified sound, the 99% Movement has used, instead, the largest most effective microphone ever invented, the internet, and it's an international sound system.
At the end of the General Assembly in Oakland last night, someone announced that a message of support and solidarity had come from organizers in Tahrir Square, who were planning a march for Oakland on Friday. A huge roar of joy and jubilation erupted, then people headed to the BART station to join the protesters in San Francisco, where police were gathered in force to evict the occupation. In response, the Oakland police closed all the nearby BART stations. An Occupy Oakland Facebook post Thursday morning said that the eviction was called off because there were too many protesters--including members of the city Board of Supervisors who sat with the protesters.
As I was leaving downtown Oakland to catch a bus home, I saw an older man in a blue suit and tie, carrying a sign, "I am 65 and retired. I have 4 grandchildren and I'm with the 99%." Whatever happens in this election year, the new generation of activists I've seen in Oakland are my reason for hope, and there's room here for all ages. Together, we must create the changes we believe in.
Photo used by permission of David Bacon, a writer and photojournalist based in Oakland and Berkeley, California. Bacon is the author of Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants.