Archive | January, 2012

A Foreign Fight?

SANTIAGO, CHILE —The early excitement and enthusiasm that infused the marches that day had deteriorated into violence and confusion as police clashed with protesters throughout the city. As I walked home to my apartment, I saw flaming barricades glowing in the streets. Groups of people hurried back to their homes, a napkin or lemon pressed against their noses to subdue the choking effects of the tear gas drifting through the air. The ground was littered with discarded, crescent-shaped yellow peels.

There was a knock at the door. When I opened it, I saw a group of about five young Chileans clad in the gray pants and blue sweater uniform of colegio students. They explained to me that their professor had told them to come stay at our apartment for the night since it was too dangerous to make the trip home in such an unpredictable environment. I let them into the apartment, and a few minutes later my roommate came through the door followed by another small group of students. Many were coughing violently and taking long, labored gasps of air.

We set about distributing water and lemon slices dappled with salt. One of my roommate’s friends helped me prepare a large bowl of mashed up avocado, which we handed out with slices of toast and as much pasta as we could boil. Someone had wheeled our television into the living room to put on the news, which broadcast aerial images of the still smoldering streets of Santiago.

The students, scattered across the couches, chairs and floor, were whispering excitedly to each other. They let out large groans and sharp catcalls at any reference to the government or police response. They frequently broke out into nervous giggles, enthralled by the unlikelihood of their current situation. Occasionally, they tore their eyes away from the television screen to throw a quick, curious glance in my direction. I’m sure they were wondering about what I was doing here and what my involvement was in their own, very personal fight. It’s something that I’ve been trying to figure out for myself since these protests began.

It seems like everyone these days is, to some extent, supporting the push for education reform. Large protests lumber down Alameda, students march back and forth across intersections waving homemade flags and asking for donations and, up until a couple of weeks ago, the sound of the cacerolazos could be heard at least a few times a week. From street-level to the top floors of apartment complexes, their tinny echoes would ring well into the night. The movement has gained broad popular support and widespread attention, even making its way into international headlines.

Any foreigner living or traveling through Chile is well aware of this seething political issue that has torn at the fabric of Chilean civil society for months. But for those of us who are living and working abroad here in Chile, who have built strong personal connections and who support education reform, the desire to show solidarity with the student-led movement raises a complex set of questions.

To what extent can or should a foreigner, living in another country on a temporary basis become involved in a domestic or national political issue? Does that person have a moral obligation to support the cause if they think it is just? Is strong, sustained involvement worth the risk of deportation?

To be honest, although I had kept an eye on the issue as it developed, I had not seriously considered my own position until the nationwide two-day strikes on Aug. 24 and 25. As I was leaving my apartment to go to work on the first day of the protests, my roommate casually suggested that I stay home and go on strike with her. At the time, I chuckled at the idea. But as I rode the uncharacteristically empty metro during morning rush hour, I found myself lingering on her proposal. Why not join the strikes? I believed in the student cause, and of course I wanted to support my friend, and all the other Chileans I had met who argued so passionately for reform.

As the day wore on, the idea became more and more plausible, especially as I witnessed students confronting police trucks firing water cannons and spewing tear gas along Alameda. I briefly felt the thrill of civil disobedience, at least by proximity, as I ducked behind vacated newsstands to avoid getting sprayed by the arcing jets of filthy water spewing from the tops of roving police vehicles. Why not get off the sidelines and invest something more than curiosity in this most important of issues?

On the other hand, the idea of calling my boss and telling her I would be going on strike seemed preposterous. Worse, I was afraid that my impulse to help was really just an excuse to jump on the bandwagon of a fashionable social movement. After all, education reform is a major issue in the United States as well, but I had never so much as signed a petition in support of any initiative to improve the system. How much of my interest was based on the cool, cosmopolitan idea of joining a social movement in a foreign country? These concerns weighed on me to the point of paralysis, and in the end I decided to continue working.

But with the early momentum and enthusiasm that drove the protests beginning to stall, and the real work at the negotiating table just getting set to begin, it is now more important than ever that the students and their allies muster every last scrap of support in order to achieve their objectives. At this point in the process, the participation of foreigners both inside and outside of the country could play an important role in drawing more international attention to the issue, putting increased pressure on the government to craft a legitimate response, and sustaining the level of urgency that has driven this latest push for education reform in Chile.

At the end of that long, strange night back in July, I came into the living room one last time to say goodnight to our unexpected guests. It was well past midnight, but they were still wide-awake, laying across the pillows and blankets we had set on the floor in a small pow-wow-like circle, as they talked animatedly about the day’s events. They paused their group reverie for a moment to blurt out a brief “thank you” before turning back to more important matters. Although I was standing outside their circle I felt, at least for one night, like I was a part of something exciting, essential and absolutely worth fighting for.

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Occupy: What Now?

The action at Liberty Plaza, New York, began on September 17th 2011. Inspired by the indignados of Spain and the brave Egyptian souls of Tahrir Square and others in the Middle East, the Occupy movement in the U.S.A. is not yet 4 months old. In that brief period of time we have traversed incredible territory and achieved almost unbelievable success. Political conversation in the U.S. has been transformed, the majority of the U.S. electorate now say they support the changes Occupy is calling for, and cities throughout the nation are home to nightly General Assemblies and long-term encampments – at least in those cities without over-zealous mayors or police departments.

I have been involved in my local Occupy Santa Fe movement since our first day of action, outside Bank of America, on October 1st. I was struck then by the hope and inspiration that lit up the 60 or so faces of the people around me, and the almost constant sound of honking horns as passing drivers enthusiastically signaled their support. Since then we have held further rallies, organized marches, mic checks, workshops, teach-ins, and begun political campaigns. We have gathered for General Assembly three times a week, we have launched countless Working Groups, and we maintained a physical occupation almost consistently for three months.

However, the Occupy movement is not without its struggles. The energetic honeymoon period of those first few weeks, when revolution and transformation was on everyone’s lips and appeared eminently possible, even inevitable, is over, and we are now dealing with the stark reality of all that we must confront and all that we must transform.

We have attempted to bridge the gap between the highest aspirations and values of the movement and the reality of the culture in which we live. We have not always succeeded.

The harmony of the early actions and meetings has given way to division and arguments over tactics, strategy, process, and identity. General Assemblies have at times become fractious, and on one occasion even violent, and have led some of the founders of the local movement to walk away in despair at ever creating a better world. The structure and process of General Assembly and Working Groups have attracted criticism, complaint, obstruction and sabotage. Activists have turned on one another, and it sometimes seems as though we spend more energy fending off personal attacks and responding to spurious gossip than we do working for change.

Santa Fe had one of the longest-running camps in the U.S.A., which inspired community support and opprobrium in roughly equal measure. Though the camp attempted to model itself on that of Liberty Plaza, with zero tolerance of drugs, alcohol and inebriation, the reality was a series of disturbing alcohol-fueled episodes, occasional outbreaks of violence, theft, and discord. Camp was the source of much disagreement in General Assembly, with those wishing to withdraw support pointing to the dysfunction of the camp, while others focused on historical oppression of those marginalized by our society – the homeless and the victims of alcoholism and addiction – and their right to our support. In the end, just as the City of Santa Fe started to make noises about closing down the camp, the General Assembly of Santa Fe took action and withdrew funding and logistical support. An incredibly difficult and painful decision for many to take, it was ultimately supported by consensus, including some of those who had been campers.

What is happening? Why has this movement, that began with the vibrant fall colors reflecting the depth of our belief and hope, so quickly lost its luster? What has happened to the promise of Occupy?

I believe that the transformation we are trying to bring about is huge and that the problems we are facing are an inevitable result of the size and nature of the task.

Occupy is trying to bring our community together, to reconcile, to welcome all voices, and to work together toward common values. But participatory, consensus-based, grassroots democracy is not easy, and we are not practiced in it. Rather we are conditioned to give away our power to others or to scapegoat.

We live in a culture that has forced us all to turn away and suppress our natural inclinations toward compassion, relationship, and respect. It is a culture so violent and oppressive that we have grown to believe it is natural to make war on those we disagree with. It is a culture so greedy that we don’t hesitate to exploit the riches and beauty of the earth for our own comfort and pleasure. It is a culture so individualistic and selfish that we barely blink at the vast inequalities in material wealth that surround every one of us. It is a culture so riven by fear and dominated by power that true social justice for all is a dream that seems all but impossible to achieve. And, most importantly, it is a culture that has become enslaved to the impersonal systemic forces of economics that, at some level, exploit us all.

To transform such a culture requires that we transform ourselves and our political and social processes. And transformation is, at best, disorienting, and at times destructive in its process of upheaval and change. Having grown up in this culture, so far from what our hearts know is possible and continue to long for, we all carry within us internalized anger, fear and distrust. In relation to the dominant culture and the established power elites, those emotions are not misplaced. On the contrary, they are both understandable and rightly placed.

We come to Occupy carrying all of this cultural baggage with us. No wonder then that the growth of this movement is challenging and fractious. No wonder that common ground is hard to find when the dominant culture has so divided us.

But Occupy’s struggles are necessary and beneficial. The disagreements and challenges we face are the “grist for the mill,” the vehicles by which we learn, the opportunities to take another step in our growth as a movement and society.

In order to support that transformation, we must come to see these moments for what they are – opportunities to grow and learn. And we must find a place of equanimity and gratitude within ourselves in the face of each learning experience, both towards the situation itself and to the people who are challenging us. We only start to go astray when we perceive what is happening as the problem, and we start casting about for the people who are to blame, the forms and procedures that are wrong. Instead, we must all examine ourselves and our own capacities to rise out of the dominant culture of violence and oppression.

This is not to bring a Pollyanna perspective. When we disagree with someone, we must tell them; when we see the flaw in a strategy or tactic, we must say so; when a step in consensus decision-making has been missed, we must name that; and when personal agendas trample over process and consensus, we must not stand by silently in progressive, liberal apathy.

This is a call to invest in the integrity of our actions and the moral focus of the movement. Gandhi’s teaching is now so oft-repeated that it has become a cliché, but right now the necessity to “be the change we want to see in the world,” is paramount. That is true for each individual activist and for the Occupy movement as a whole. We are not there yet, I am not there yet, but this aspiration must be our guiding star, for under that light we will occupy the moral high-ground and catalyze a societal transformation that will be so much more than cosmetic change.

Occupy is about evolution and transformation, not revolution. We will not replace existing leaders with new leaders or attempt to fix what is broken in the existing power structures; instead we must bring forth a new story. The root of this new story is love — love for ourselves, love for each other, love for our planet, and a deep and profound love and longing for justice.

That love is backed by a fierce commitment to seeing this through. I know that because I feel it in my own heart and I see it in the eyes of all the beautiful, brave souls alongside whom I am so proud to work. And it is that quality of love that I believe must guide our interactions with each other as we find our way through the storms of challenge and the disorienting dilemmas of these early days of our transformation. In that love and commitment rests the hope that Occupy will become truly worthy of the 99%.

- Thomas Jaggers

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Joy and Misery in the Valley

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Ryan Rice’s blog.

“I began revolution with 82 men. If I had to do it again, I’d do it with 10 or 15 and absolute faith. It does not matter how small you are if you have faith and plan of action.” –Fidel Castro

Los Angeles, CA–Occupy Los Angeles began with 50 people in Pershing Square. There are now nearly 50,000 “likes” on the Facebook page, yet it was Castro’s scenario that occupied Bertha Herrera’s backyard in Van Nuys in early January. Fifteen people with absolute faith that knew a part of changing the world was to be found in a two-bedroom house in the valley.

Bertha had been a resident of this cozy slice of home for over thirty-one years. She was blindsided by trouble when she was denied her workers’ compensation and found herself with no alternative except a second mortgage. The cold and indifferent bank floored Bertha with an illegal notice to evict after mishandling her payments.

There will be ten million more cases like Bertha’s this year. According to the Center for Responsible Lending, Latinos make up the majority of loans delinquent or in foreclosure in California. When examining completed foreclosures, African-American and Latino rates in Los Angeles County are double those of whites. The report, titled Lost Ground 2011, states, “Minority borrowers were disproportionately targeted for mortgage products that were inherently more difficult to sustain, which has resulted in higher foreclosure and serious delinquency rates in communities of color.”

It is clear that Bertha’s situation is far from unique. City, state, and federal government programs have failed to offer real relief, characteristically choosing giveaways to banks and empty rhetoric. The L.A. City Council extended protections for renters but ignored homeowners. Bertha paid an advocate $1,500 but was left unrepresented in court and handed a default judgment. The state legislature failed to pass SB 1137, which would have prevented this robbery. Had those in Sacramento truly cared about struggling Americans, they certainly would have passed this bill to require servicers to make contact with borrowers before initiating foreclosure action.

This brings us to D.C. and the shortcomings of federal foreclosure protections. A total of $29.9 billion has been set aside from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) to go towards the Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Of the 1.2 million California homes foreclosed upon in the last three years, only ten percent have seen that funding and help. What is abundantly obvious is that our elected officials care more about the banks’ bottom lines than homes for their “constituents”. It was with this realization that Bertha Herrera reached out to Occupy Los Angeles for help.

This writing was partially complete when the sheriffs cut the dead bolt and cleared Bertha’s house room by room. I was feeling a child-like euphoria over occupying a foreclosed home. The movement was transitioning from the symbolic to the real. We all agreed that housing was a human right as we sat cross-legged in our respective tents at Occupy LA, funky protest music thumping from the South Steps. Now we were doing something about it beyond raising awareness on the issue and “changing the national dialogue”. If occupying City Hall had been boot camp, this was our first mission.

The Joy was written before the police came with their guns, before the realtor measured for remodeling, and before the carpenters scurried in the darkness to board up the home.

The Joy

It was Day 97 of Occupy Los Angeles and Day 111 for Occupy Wall Street. For Bertha in Van Nuys, this was day one of her occupation. Her nephew watched us make signs, erect tents, and talk into the night as her patio became a microcosm of Solidarity Park. We were experts at occupying by now. Tents materialized out of thin air and were arranged in a community-oriented circle. A smoking zone was designated for a far corner of the yard as cell phones and cameras occupied the charging station. We were livestreaming the action, tweeting for pizza, and grinning.

Sitting on her back porch as crickets chirped, I noticed a marked absence of noise at this special occupation. In the silence, I was struck by the differences and similarities between occupying public space as a statement versus a foreclosed ninety-niner’s home as a measurable act. I knew I was part of a revolution when I was at Solidarity Park. The drums, the mic-checks, the sirens, and the honking horns told me so. But this quiet suburb, in all its normalcy, was also now a focal point to this movement.

The goals of a public occupation are attacked as oftentimes oblique. This critique has incessantly confused me. I simply want all the things dismantled. I want health care for all, an end to war, fair and just fiscal policy, free education, immigrant rights, and an end to foreclosures. By the way, I also want to abolish capitalism and radically redefine how we live and what our values are. How does one pragmatically go about this? The raw truth is that I want to take down every facet of the oppressive power structures… and that’s daunting. How does one raze the structures of subjugation?

As it turns out, we start at Bertha’s two bedroom house in Van Nuys. Among the multitude of issues, the foreclosure scam has risen to the top as a primary weapon of the one percent. Our marches and rallies are uplifting and empowering, but what do they do, really? If we’re lucky, a frightened security guard locks the doors as we wail and scream;

Bank of America!

Bad for America!

I sometimes question just what a march accomplishes, other than hindering business for a few dozen annoyed ninety-niners. It doesn’t stop the robo-signing on the twentieth floor, the derivative deals on the ninth floor, the slashing of thirty thousand jobs on the forty-second floor, or the decadent million-dollar bonuses in the board rooms.

Foreclosures, however, can deliver guerrilla victories and win the ‘hearts and minds’ of America. This fight offers that same inspiring message of defiance and People Power. It gives the same opportunity for pitching tents, communal living, and battle with the Vampire Squid. What foreclosures do so uniquely is cause real economic harm to the banks that manipulate capitalism to seize and control. They have spun a wonderfully clever web of public losses and private gains that is now, finally, being exposed.

Occupying a home in danger of foreclosure has a palpable goal, a digestible morsel of triumph. The protest encampment was filled with dreamers, drunkards, and die-hard policy wonks. So it is with Bertha’s home. But now there is a resolute tightening of the jaw on all these activists. Now we’re seeing a grandmother’s home in danger of being stolen from her and sold to the highest bidder. And we’re seeing this elusive idea of resistance spread to a woman who has instructed her two adorable dogs to treat these unwashed and penniless occupiers as family. We’re witnessing someone stand up and say, “NO!” I feel honored to shrug off my pack and call this house my home, too.

The Misery

“Wow. What the fuck happened today?” I asked to no one in particular as I finished a cigarette on the decrepit back stairwell of the “Occupartment”. It was midnight, and I was at a loss for words. Our collective has a painfully clear view of the skyscrapers and banks that make up the Los Angeles skyline. As I exhaled the smoke, I wondered just how much resistance it was going to take to have those behemoths rendered obsolete and seized by the people.

The day began with a conspicuous locksmith’s truck across the street. Bertha had just made me a cup of coffee and we were tip-toeing around the house as occupiers lay sprawled on the floor, the couch, and the yard in the back. I had just finished talking with public radio about foreclosures, general strikes, and the future of the occupy movement. Bertha and I were both nervous that the police would show up. This action had been hastily thrown together and we had not had a chance to discuss the diversity of tactics open to us.

Did she want us to chain ourselves to the fridge?! Blockade the doors?

Or did she want us to pack up and exit, providing court support and raising neighborhood awareness instead?

Before we could form any kind of plan, sheriffs began banging on the door, threatening arrests to anyone inside. Having no instructions from the distraught homeowner, I decided to just sit and put the onus to act on the police officers. They cracked the door and came in with guns drawn. We met them with defiance and our cameras. Once they saw the tents and the camera-phones, they holstered their weapons with an awkward acknowledgment that made clear they knew about the occupy movement. The sheriffs still cuffed all three of the men in the house, prodding and pushing the women out the door as well as they struggled to regain their alpha status in the home.

I was cuffed and as the deputy walked me into the driveway, I could feel his whole body shaking with adrenaline. We were all oddly calm though, resolved to spend more time in jail for… whatever they felt like smearing us with. As only a protester can, I was absentmindedly comparing the weight and feel of these metal cuffs to the cutting plastic zip-ties I’d previously been detained in. This occupation was over before it really began, and I was talking with another cuffed comrade about the lost opportunity.

I had plans to turn the palm tree in front into a totem pole devoted to social justice!

I couldn’t wait to meet the neighbors and hold block party teach-ins as we radicalized the street!

I was ready to set up Occupy Lemonade Stands and neighborhood day care and, and, and…!

But then I saw Bertha. She was being forcibly removed from her home. A bank with zero claim to the house was ordering the police to evict this grandmother of five. They gamed the system to seize yet another property. Disgustingly, a Coldwell Banker real estate agent was on hand to take measurements for remodeling. This was really happening. Our bold new front in the Class War was being squashed. Bertha was now without a home.

The sheriffs eventually calmed themselves down and released us, allowing us to get our occupy gear as we gathered, groggy and tense on the front lawn. We comforted Bertha and held an impromptu assembly to decide what to do. The nearest Coldwell Banker branch was just a short ride away, so it was settled that picketing the real estate company’s role in selling stolen homes would be a solid action in response to the eviction.

The action was a success, with a police presence symbolically guarding the bank, drivers honking and waving, and occupiers marching with a tent and signage. We got some of our spirit back, shouting chants at the employees and the police. It was a kind of therapy for the failure at Bertha’s, a medicine to restore our indignation. The valley hadn’t seen much occupy action so far, and it was a welcome boost to see the bank manager flustered and worried by our presence.

We reconvened at Bertha’s home, where occupiers had helped her draft a letter that they were now distributing throughout the neighborhood. The letter was a cry for help that acknowledged the occupy movement had answered her plea. Behind each door was a friendly face, supportive of Bertha and of the foreclosure work occupiers were doing. It turned out I would not have to wait long to find other foreclosed homes to occupy. Six – SIX – in the neighborhood were facing foreclosure in the near future.

As the sun set, we vowed that the day was not yet over. A political debate was going on, so about half of us went to fill out comment cards to demand what each candidate was going to do about the foreclosure crisis. I stayed behind and witnessed one of the saddest moments to date of this movement. Under the cover of darkness, eight LAPD officers showed up to “keep the peace” as a construction crew came in to board up the house. Bertha’s nephew pleaded in Spanish to the workers, asking them in their native tongue if they had a grandmother, if they had a heart. We stared in disbelief as the front door’s Christmas wreath and “Jesus Loves You” sign were covered by plywood.

Thankfully, Bertha had not stayed around to witness the travesty. But as I stood there, I was granted a healthy dose of perspective. Here I was, traumatized and enraged that we had been evicted from Solidarity Park after a mere sixty days. The Fascist Fence continues to separate me from the public space I used to live in and love. It makes me cringe in anger that the thugs dared to lock up our home. I tear up every so often when I look beyond the fence at that hollow expanse.

This movement is so much bigger than a park. We must desperately defend Bertha and the millions of families that see that same thing happen to their homes! We all knew Occupy LA was a fleeting and temporary beauty, sure to be shut down by the elites and the pigs they order around. However, this is a home of thirty-one years. It isn’t a provocative display of the First Amendment, its a place to be warm, to hang pictures on the fridge, and place inspirational quotes by the coat rack.

To see the home boarded up meant the property values of every house on the street instantly fell by the thousands. To see those plywood sheets nailed across her windows was proof that the corporations and the puppets they control do not give a shit about us. Another American was joining the ranks of the wretched refuse and capitalism marched on. I was miserable. We were all miserable over the blatant pillaging the morally bankrupt oligarchy is doing to the 99%.

Everything For Everyone, And Nothing For Ourselves

The spirited occupiers in Solidarity Park roundly rejected a facade of city support in late 2011. In a series of closed-door ‘negotiations’, City Hall and the Mayor awkwardly offered a small building space, too few beds for the houseless, and an undetermined corner of farming land somewhere (eventually). Instead, we audaciously crafted a response that we felt best supported the ninety-niners in Los Angeles. We didn’t need to be placated with 100 beds when Angelenos need 18,000. It is in this vein that the occupy movement will take the power from the oligarchs.

The above Zapatista slogan, “Para todos todo, para nosotros nada,” has been emblazoned across each of our hearts. However, there is a fascinating muddling between us and the “everyone” we’re helping. In the radio interview that morning, I was questioned about the existence and role of the homeless within Occupy Los Angeles. I answered simply, “You’re talking to a homeless person.”

This is the dichotomy inherent to the movement. I am fighting for a person who was denied health care coverage, drained of her life savings, and kicked out of her home. The fact is, I have no health insurance, am penniless, and houseless. Under most assumptions, a Latina grandmother living in the suburbs would have nothing in common with a young white man floating around the urban sprawl of downtown Los Angeles. This is what class war is, though. The erosion of the middle class and the oppression we’re all facing is blurring the line between occupiers as activists and victims.

So is the Occupy Movement the megaphone or are we the ones needing amplification? Under the umbrella of Money in Politics, we are oftentimes both. An individual’s struggle may be over foreclosures, but it could just as easily be over skyrocketing tuition, a relative lost to the Drug War, a friend killed in wars for profit, or a vaporized retirement plan. Omar Barghouti, a human and Palestinian rights advocate, said connecting the issues “is not a nicety, it is a necessity”. The absurdity of profits over people as standard operating procedure is deplorable. If we are going to stop any one injustice, we must come together to stop them all.

I’m reminded of a few quotes from the inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said:

“Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle. And so we must straighten our backs and work for our freedom. A man can’t ride you unless your back is bent.”

And, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

The point is that we the ninety-niners are facing an existential threat and if we hope to not just survive but thrive, it means occupying every home, boycotting every exploitative corporation, and re-learning to lean on our communities. Like occupiers across the globe, we must take charge of our lives and be incessantly indignant at the oppressions we each face.

Despite being unable to prevent the erection of some fences and boards, the fight is just beginning. One day soon these foreclosures are going to stop and we’ll finally acknowledge housing as a human right. This is because there is no stopping Bertha, my fellow occupiers, or this global movement. We’ve taken the Wall Street bull by the horns and there’s no going back. If anyone falters in their resolve for breaking these heinous chains, they can just look to someone like Bertha Herrera. She thanked us, saying, “I wouldn’t have been able to get through this without you (all). I know I’m not alone in the fight, and that gives me the strength to fight for others who are going through the same troubles.” Let’s give her what she and the rest of the ninety-niners deserve. Each day will continue to be filled with both joy and misery. Yet each day is worth it as we continue to see victories where before there were none.

- Ryan Rice -

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On Conflict and Consensus

Editor’s note: This article was originally published on thisiswhyioccupy.tumblr.com as a two-part post. Part 1 – not included in this story – gives a detailed outline of the consensus process. For readers unfamiliar with consensus process, you can see the author’s explanation here.

Consensus is a process. I laid it out as best I could – tried to make it bite-sized and accessible.

At the heart of consensus is discussion.

Communally we develop the proposal. Ask questions to make sure we understand it, but also to make sure the proposer hasn’t missed any opportunities or details – not to question the motives of the proposer, but to help the proposal be better.

We express our concerns so as to take any opportunities for oppression and place them out in the open for everyone to see and address. To move forward together.

Our greatest asset – as a movement, as a community – is the individual experiences, feelings, and knowledge that each person brings to the collective.

The ability of a group to reach consensus on anything is dependent on the group having some level of shared goals, visions, and principles that bring it together. It doesn’t have to be explicitly stated or documented, but at least on an individual level, we have to acknowledge what brought us here, and assume that some part of that brought everyone else here too.

… in a nutshell …

In its broadest sense, Occupy Wall Street seeks social and economic justice – an end to the systems of oppression that consolidate wealth in the hands of the extreme few at the expense of everyone else. Obviously there is so much more. But if you want my sound byte of what OWS stands for, there you go.

Occupy Wall Street wants to liberate space – both physical and ideological. Without public space in the hands of the people, the community, can a public sphere truly exist? And ideological space, taken up for generations by the moneyed few, utilizing violence and systematized pillars of oppression to hold power over women, people of color, and gender queer (to name a few), is being opened up for those voices to be raised – by taking their rightful place in this discussion,we shape a more inclusive and just society.

… morality …

To be perfectly honest, yes, our system of consensus can be abused. The way it is currently set up, we can only accept a block at face value, as the blocker explains it. Regardless of how well that block is explained, whether it is along explicit moral, ethical or safety lines, or someone only having a few words to say why they can’t let the proposal pass, the block stands.

As a community, we can take their explanation, try to understand it, and try to empathize with their position, their feelings, their experience and offer an amendment that might be found agreeable to both the blocker and the proposer so that as a community we can move forward toward consensus.

What we cannot do – what we must not do – is question the block itself.

And this brings me to my first block.

I’ve regularly been attending General Assemblies since October 17th. When not on a Facilitation team, I have rarely spoken to the Assembly. I tend to think that if I give it enough time, someone else will say what I’m thinking. Often I’m right, sometimes not.

This is what we call, “Step Up, Step Back.” If those of us with male, white-skin privilege step back, opening up the space for those who have traditionally not been encouraged to take it, someone will have the opportunity to step up and say pretty much exactly what we would have said.

There have been proposals I haven’t agreed with, or don’t particularly like, so I down-twinkle them in the temperature check. If I really don’t like it, and it moves to modified consensus, I’ll vote no.

There was a proposal a few days ago requesting the GA to ask two members of the Housing Working Group step down from leadership and coordination roles. I have serious concerns with recent decisions and actions of the individuals in question and supported the concept of this request, but the individuals were not present during this proposal or the discussion surrounding it. I think it’s extremely problematic to essentially put people on trial in absentia.

I stood aside. I had serious concerns with the proposal, but defaulted to the community to make the ultimate decision.

… the proposal …

A proposal that has been bounced around and discussed amongst individuals for a while now, possibly in part instigated by people’s reading of CT Butler’s “On Conflict & Consensus,” is that the community should be able to evaluate the validity of a block and decide if it meets certain criteria. For the record, I have never read CT Butler. I’ve heard him speak some, but have not read his book. Also for the record, I don’t really care what he has to say on this topic. OWS is like nothing anyone has ever seen before, and previously held notions or ideas have to adapt to OWS, not the other way around.

The blocking proposal has gone through various forms, and has come before the GA at least twice. I happened to be on the Facilitation Team both times and therefore couldn’t participate in the conversation. This past Sunday, it came up again, and I was finally able to add my voice to the conversation.

In its current form, the proposal wanted to empower the community to call a point of process on a block if any member of the General Assembly felt that the block was not meeting the criteria of an ethical, moral, or safety concern. The Facilitator would then take a straw poll to see if the community considered the block to meet those criteria. If 75% of the Assembly were in agreement that the block is valid, then it would stand. If not, it would be collectively removed.

… concerns …

I have many concerns with this proposal and the direct and implied effects it would have on the movement as a whole and the individuals that make it up.

I expressed my concerns during that point of the process and being that the proposer or the subsequent friendly amendments did not alleviate them, I chose to block the proposal. I tried to articulate my concerns as best I could, both during that stack and again when I explained my block.

I’ve thought about it extensively in the days since and had conversations with people who were not in attendance, in preparation for when this proposal eventually comes up for consideration at a future General Assembly.

… blocked …

I blocked this proposal because it so antithetical to everything this movement stands for, in my eyes.

Occupy Wall Street, as a movement, is about addressing root causes. We seek to create social and economic justice.

This is not a charity and this is not about bandaging symptoms. If we can address symptoms, and alleviate suffering along the way – as a byproduct of our work – that is great, but our focus has to be deeper – our path must be laid out and must be long-term.

Taking a temperature check on the validity of blocks is not a means to build more meaningful consensus.

This proposal is designed to deal with individuals who make our process more difficult than some feel it needs to be. It is in effect putting a bandage on people’s discomfort and frustration. It is not dealing with, acknowledging, or seeking to remedy the root causes that might result in someone feeling the need to obstruct our process in the only definitive and powerful way we have – the block.

Consensus is about discussion, debate, dissent, concessions, questioning, all with the intent of resolving conflict.

This proposal is a cop-out.

This proposal adds process in place of building community. We need to put in the time and hard work to get to know each other, as people, in order to build this community. It will, and should be, hard, slow work.

But, it will be worth it.

… prefigurative …

As a movement, we must be prefigurative. It is our obligation to embody the ideals and values of the world we seek to create. The ends do not justify the means. We cannot build a new world on the groundwork of an ugly movement.

We can only hope to drown out the negative voices with the even louder voices of positivity. Attempting to silence the voices we find disagreeable is re-creating the systems of oppression we are trying to topple.

Because this is a movement of incredibly diverse people with different backgrounds, upbringings and experiences, we need to acknowledge that different people have different communication styles and unconventional articulation abilities, or prior access to education. But that doesn’t mean their input is less valid.

I think we’ve seen quite often that – while I love this community passionately – it’s not always a safe space. I would like to have faith that in some cases, when someone blocks, they do have a moral or ethical concern, but perhaps they don’t feel safe expressing those concerns, for fear of being a dissenting voice, or facing hostility from the other members of the Assembly.

At some point, we need to trust that people come here to act in good faith.

Obviously not everyone does, and I’m not talking about provocateurs or infiltrators, but people who traditionally haven’t been given the space to have their voice heard and perhaps are acting out now that that space has been provided.

But that doesn’t seem like a good reason to me to add in additional punitive process.

In the absence of community agreement and shared values, which I am conflicted about documenting this early in the life of this movement –this occupation – this proposal feels exclusionary to me.

I’m not quite sure we’re ready to say definitively what our community values are, or our shared ideals, or goals. The Safer Spaces Community Agreement for Spokes Council is a good start for our code of conduct, but I don’t think that’s exactly the same as defining what our values are.

Occupy Wall Street has only been around for four months and our scope is huge. There has to be room for dissent and disagreement and discussion within our movement. We need to be inclusive, not codify punitive measures of exclusion.

There are individuals in this movement who have been labeled disruptors or agitators. People who recently have taken the position of blocking just about any proposal asking for funds that do not address the basic needs of the homeless Occupier population – food, housing, and Metrocards, for example. There is an argument that can be made that these blocks are made along ethical lines – that this occupation has people dependent on it, and we have an obligation to care for them; with funds depleting we must focus on their needs.

You don’t have to agree with this line of thinking, but agreement is not the issue.

… misdirection …

This proposal is clearly a way to target individuals and not the issues at hand. Already we see adverse reactions to certain individuals, regardless of the content. Either their presentations, or they themselves, are enough to make people tune out before they even begin speaking.

Taking a temperature check to evaluate a block feels punitive, and I’m not sure we have a right as community to address the concerns of specific individuals as it pertains to a block.

We should not debate the validity of anyone’s individual concerns. Rather, we can decide communally, having heard the blockers’ concerns and the stand asides’ concerns, that we still want this proposal to move forward. We can do that. We have a process for it – modified consensus.

But what we should not have is a system in place to validate or nullify someone’s moral, ethical, or safety concerns, however effectively they are communicated.

I’d rather have modified consensus at the expense of consensus than consensus at the expense of an individual.

… unfriendly …

A friendly amendment was suggested – and accepted by the proposer – to put in place a one-week trial period to see how this whole process would play out. When I restated my concerns to explain my block the proposer reminded me of the amendment to see if I would be willing to delay my block a week. To allow this trial period to happen so as a community we can evaluate it based on practice.

My response was, “I do not feel comfortable putting a trial period on what I feel is immoral.” I stand by that.

This proposal is ugly. I don’t blame the people who wrote it or the people who support it. I understand why they want this failsafe in place. It would be convenient. It would make things easy. But the more embedded I get with OWS, the more I learn about the history of radical and revolutionary movements and organizations, the more I truly believe this should not be easy.

If it were easy, it would have been done already.

If it were easy, we’d be living in a more just world.

If it were easy we would have toppled the pillars of oppression that uphold the empire.

We have to be willing to put in the hard work – to live better now – to create a better world as we go.

I’m willing to put in the work. I’m willing to struggle. I’m willing to be frustrated and angry and exhausted.

I’m willing because I am looking forward to the eventual victories of our collective struggle.

This – this very difficult struggle – is why I occupy.

 

- Brett Goldberg (@PoweredByCats on Twitter)

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New York is Oakland, Oakland is New York

Last night was the most amazing night of my life…

The day started like any other. We woke in the truck in Brooklyn to find Julie outside her apartment. She let us take some quick showers and gave us a cup of coffee while we chatted about anything from what we do for a living to the movement–small talk, really, but nice small talk. After that, we put in our time at Milk & Roses to knock out some work as fast as possible to get down to the protest a little earlier. Unfortunately, I had a good amount of work to sift through, so we didn’t make it down to Liberty Park until about 6pm.

As has become our tradition, Joe and I walked around the park to check out any new additions to the grounds. One small table was set up near where we entered the park. They were passing out food separate from the people’s kitchen. It was the second time I’d seen them, so I was curious. When I asked who they were and what they were up to, they said they were from the shelter (they lived there, not worked there) and they were serving food to anyone at the park. They’d made it, donated it, and served it, and they were living in the shelter, themselves! Incredible!

Joe and I hung out for a while with nothing much happening. David Peel was back leading sing-a-longs, so I hung around that circle and sang and filmed for a while. I found Joe after that, having gotten separated at some point, and he was busy grubbing on dinner. I wandered off while he ate his food and we became separated again for an hour or so, until I spotted him on the south end of the park talking to a couple people–an old Italian woman and a younger friend or relative of hers. I didn’t get their names.

After talking with those folks for 45 minutes or so, my feet were anxious to move, so I told Joe I was going to go get a couple slices of pizza since I’d missed the dinner servings in the kitchen. We said our goodbyes and Joe and I headed down to Pronto Pizza, where they overcharged me for three slices of pizza, a soda, and a beer.

After dinner we wandered back to Liberty Park, a mere block away, not expecting much to happen for the night. The crowd was relatively small compared to other nights, and it was generally quiet. A small march in solidarity for Oakland passed by once, but it was tiny, so I figured it was just a marginal march, but when they came back around the park with slightly more people, I decided to join in. I grabbed Joe and we jumped into the march.

We circled the park one more time, gathering a larger crowd, then headed off down Church past the 9/11 Memorial. We paused in front of it for a moment to gather together, chanting, “New York is Oakland! Oakland is New York!” and chants of every other sort, like “Hey hey! Ho ho! Police brutality has got to go!”

From there we made our way to city hall, trying to take the streets at every opportunity. A block down, a fireman opened a fire hydrant and yelled out, “If you stand here, you’re going to get wet! I’ve gotta open it!” “Bullshit!” I yelled at him, sticking a camera out at him.

By the time we made it to City Hall, we’d become quite a large group of people. Hundreds, if not a thousand. We circled City Hall slowly two or three times, gathering together in a close-knit group to make it harder for police to drag one of us out of the crowd. On the second trip around City Hall, people started spilling into the streets, and the cops quickly took out their clubs and threw a guy to the ground, jumping on him like a swarm of jackals, beating him, throwing their elbows and knees at everyone, pushing us all back with wild looks in their eyes as we tried to drag the person being arrested to safety and the group. That guy didn’t make it and was hauled off. A few steps beyond that, I saw three or four police officers, including a detective in a plain suit violently pushing and throwing a young girl and two young guys toward the sidewalk. The girl wasn’t taking any shit, swinging at the police officers with her fists, but they didn’t arrest her, they just violently shoved them onto the sidewalk with their clubs.

I screamed everything I could in those cops’ faces when they arrested that guy moments before. “Shame! Shame!” “The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!” and every foul thing I could think of. I was literally nose to nose screaming in their face. When they pushed me with their clubs, I linked arms with the people around me and yelled as forcefully as I could, “Don’t you fucking touch me! Don’t you touch me!”

We made our way a few blocks away from there and by then we were riled. We were peacefully marching in solidarity against the police brutality in Oakland and here the police were beating the hell out of people and arresting them for stepping into the street. In most cities, under normal circumstances that constitutes a whistle blow and a dirty look from a traffic cop, or at worst, a ticket. Now that we were riled up, we were absolutely determined to take the streets, and we did, but we were quickly pushed back onto the sidewalk. But now, whenever they pushed us onto the sidewalk, people would run ahead of the cops and take the street again, then we’d all rush forward and we’d completely control the street, stopping traffic and chanting. It was incredible!

Another man was thrown down and beaten by at least six or seven policemen, and even more formed a circular wall around the arrest to keep us from seeing what they were doing and to keep us from trying to drag the victim away from them. The guy next to me took a club to the gut, but we all held our ground and surrounded the cops, yelling in their faces exactly what we thought of them, who they work for–anything we could think of to shame them into seeing what they are doing is wrong, but many people also, such as myself, were so disgusted and sickened by what we saw, anger took over and we very aggressively yelled in their faces, nose to nose. I’m talking centimeters away. As long as you don’t touch them, you’re good. But if you even accidentally bump them, they’ll call it assault and beat you down.

After we had to give up and let the man be arrested, we turned to continue the march, but the police had blocked off the intersection with one of their plastic orange net barricades. People plowed through over and under it. They couldn’t stop us. Once we burst through, we grabbed it and won a tug of war match with the police. I somehow ended up at the front of it, leading the way through the streets, screaming and chanting with the crowd, holding the police netting above our heads and peace and victory signs above our heads, pumping our fists, smiling and in love with life and our brief grasping of freedom. I could feel it in my hands and heart as real as the police netting. Cabbies and truckers were honking in solidarity with us, slapping us five out their car windows as we walked by. Traffic was completely shut down. Every time I passed a cab with open windows in the back, I ducked my head in and thanked the passengers for their patience.

By then, the police were largely helpless. A way up the street, there was a bottleneck in the middle of the street between to cabs. People were spilling all around them, but the people who tried to go between the cabs were suddenly met by a singular cop out of nowhere. All the other cops were somewhere else, trying to set up another block and ambush for us, but this guy was suddenly right there. “Ah, we’ve got a fucking hero over here!” I yelled. The cop started violently pushing and punching at the protesters who came his way. We yelled, “Go around! Go around!” and kept marching. I don’t know what became of that.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were marching toward Washington Square Park. We held and controlled the streets from City Hall to Washington Square Park and back to Liberty Park. The police were absolutely ineffective and helpless. They couldn’t control us. We chanted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” changing it up now and then with “city” and “world”, rather than streets.

Everywhere you looked people were cheering, chanting, skipping, jumping, announcing updates from other Occupancies. Someone yelled out, “Oakland just took back the park!” and we all cheered and chanted as loud as we could.

We wandered through the village and everyone came out of the bars and restaurants in awe of us. Some joined in. People leaned out their windows to watch what was happening. I blew kisses at everyone I saw and yelled to them, “We’re making history! Join us!” Then we all chanted, “Join us! Join us!”

We wound our way through the streets in many directions to keep the police guessing as to where we were going. I hadn’t seen the mounted police since city hall, where we chanted, “Get that pig off that horse!” but the motorcycles were suddenly everywhere–the same motorcycles that have been used to run us over in the past. The police would head us off at each intersection and form a wall with their bikes, but we’d just run around them. Some people ran and tried to leap over them, but they were quickly snared by police and beaten to the ground.

Joe told me the guy who tried to talk us into getting arrested at Washington Square sidestepped one motorcycle that tried to run him over, only to have another come up on the other side of him trying to do the same thing. He then kicked down a police bike, knocking over several more, and the cops spilled over him in a massive horde and beat the hell out of him.

On the way to Washington Square, one guy in the march a few people in front of me suddenly started pissing on a car parked next to him and he almost got his ass kicked by fellow protesters for doing something so stupid and foul. We took care of him instantly and reigned in any violence that might have erupted from it.

In trying to evade the cops with their cars, vans, and motorcycles, we ran down one street and dragged wooden police barricades into the road to block their path. As soon as people saw what was happening, everyone started grabbing anything they could to do the same–garbage cans, many garbage bags, more barricades–anything we could find. Then we would run forward and always stay ahead of the police. They couldn’t do a damn thing.

At one point, I got a charlie horse in both of my calf muscles at the same time. I thought, “Ah hell; not now!” I just kept moving forward the best I could and was able to jog it off, thank god.

That Sgt. who’d made national news for chewing out the NYPD at Times Square marched with us, too, as did another man in uniform.

After controlling the major streets in downtown NYC, like Broadway, we decided to head back to Liberty Park and seize our victory before something unfortunate happened, or before police figured out a way to break us up. We marched back toward Liberty Park chanting, jumping, hugging strangers… Oh! and we WERE able to drag one victim out of the police’s clutches, to which we all cheered massively.

As we made our way back to Liberty Park, we dominated the streets, linked arms, slowed down, seizing our power, and sang “Solidarity Forever”.

We entered Liberty Park arm in arm in solidarity and everyone met us with cheers, applause, and noise of all kinds. It was an incredible night! The march was followed by a few speeches of love and devotion to the people. I was exhausted and drenched with sweat. I gave absolutely everything I had in me to that march. We wanted to show Oakland serious solidarity for their dedication and we did just that. We made history, and Oakland took back the park!

We are the 99%! We are too big too fail!

-Dylan Hock

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Occupy Oakland: Jan. 4 Night Raid & March on Courthouse

On Wednesday night, Jan. 4, 2012, #occupyoakland’s site at Oscar Grant Plaza was raided with little to no warning by armed, angry, & non-peaceful Oakland police officers. An estimated 14 occupiers were arrested with out any charges.

Minutes after the surprise raid, the occupiers held an emergency GA which led to a group of 50 – 100 people marching in the streets on their way to the local police station where the arrestees were being detained. Once there, we were met with a line of agitated “peace officers” who shouted at us to “get the fuck away from them.” Some were slamming their batons on the ground in a failed attempt to intimidate the growing crowd of protesters who began giving the “pigs” a piece of their mind.

After finding the entrance, a group of about 5 of us let ourselves in to attempt to have a reasonable conversation to gather information about those who were arrested earlier in the evening. Pratibha Gautam, an attorney and member of “The Fresh Juice Party,” offered her legal knowledge and engaged the clerk in a civilized manner. I began to film with my cell phone & within seconds a disembodied male voice firmly requested that we shut the door. As I began to walk over to shut the door, 15-20 armed police officers filled the space and instantly demanded that we pick one person to speak to the gang of officers and the other four of us were given a 10 second warning to leave the building or stay the night with our fellow occupiers in a jail cell for “trespassing.”

Gautam was chosen to speak to the officers while the rest of us waited outside the glass doors. Unfortunately the OPD was uncooperative and did not give her any useful information, but rather a lie designed to send us to an empty building in search of our abducted comrades.

Occupiers yelled messages of love & solidarity to the prisoners with a loud and clear collective “OCCUPY!”

-Fresh Juice Party

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First Night in Liberty Plaza

When I arrived at Liberty Plaza last night, a little lost, trying to find my way around the Occupy Wall Street camp, the first thing I did was find the line for dinner. I was hungry. I had worked 13 hours that day, and needed to eat. I had heard that brilliant local chefs have volunteered to cook these fantastic meals for the protesters at the communal kitchen, so I lined up behind a guy who looked almost exactly like me: lost, a backback loaded up, a peaceful, accepting look on his face. And as we turned the corner, edging forward, we got our paper plates loaded with rice and lentils, soup bowls loaded up with a brilliant spicy stew, bread pudding, and apple sauce. All donated by supporters.

Our supporters.

Eating, sitting on a curb in the park, I got to talking with the guy next to me; “Its my first night here. Where do you throw trash?” “You sleeping here?” “Yes,” I said, admitting I hadn’t brought a sleeping bag, not knowing how things were.

“Welcome brother.” A handshake. We kept eating. Everyone’s eyes said the same thing, “welcome brother,” not in a creepy cultish way but in that way people who have gathered together to change things say it with their eyes. Walking around the camp, my next step was to see if they had at least a pillow for me to use; at a distribution center for donated clothes and blankets, they handed me a fleece, rolled it up, and said, “This could make a good pillow, don’t you think?” It did, and it would.

I walked around, I joined in the people’s assembly discussions about representation; I browsed in the provisional library, set up in plastic bins–in which The Beat Reader and Noam Chomsky were marked as REFERENCE. Reference indeed–next to Whitman, as well. In a spontaneously gathered group on the steps, I sang Bob Dylan in a crowd with a famous singer who showed up to help out; more folk music flowed from his guitar. Everybody, it seems, had a guitar.

I found a shining granite bench to sleep on; I was getting tired, and almost all the ground-space was taken up by people camped in tents or under tarps. The wind was blowing. It was getting colder, but I needed sleep; so I set up my “pillow,” put on an extra layer under my jacket, put my gloves on, put my hood up, and curled up on the bench.

Nearly asleep, back turned on the “path” between other sleepers and protesters, I suddenly felt a blanket being placed over me. I looked up, gave a thumbs up and thanks, and she said, “Keep warm dude.” That thick donated blanket would keep me warm through the windy, 45 degree night. I’d awake in the morning to donated bagels, a cup of coffee, friendly directions to the subway, so I could get to work on time.

My night at the protest glows in my memory, sustains me; we were all cooperating; we were all, remarkably. generously supported by each other, and by all the unseen anonymous supporters who gave us food, blankets, books, time. A thousand strings of support seemed to stretch out from every moment I occupied the park. I think of my fellow protesters down there tonight, as it gets colder–as “family night” goes forward (kids are invited tonight to the camp).

As the sign says: no protest, this occupation is an affirmation of all that we can do for each other, an affirmation of the way things can be. You see somebody sleeping without a blanket; you find them one. You put it on them. You keep them warm. That’s how you occupy privatized public space, take it back.

When I return to do another night there, I’ll bring books, food, and some pillows for the next person who needs one.

- Spurgeon Thompson

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A Visit to OWS on Christmas Eve

NEW YORK – The one time I visited the occupation in the park, I also wandered down to the exchange and was struck by its pillars crumbling. On Christmas Eve day I visited 60 Wall for the first time. It was absolutely freezing. A woman with a baby was standing on a nearby corner, asking for change. I was taking something to the potluck I read about online. I knew that was happening, so I told her about it and we started talking. It turned out she was homeless, just stopped in to shelter in the Occupy atrium, and hadn’t eaten for three days. She pointed me to the door of the lobby that wasn’t broken.

I wandered in and stood around for just a minute before a young guy sitting pretty far away, all bundled and hooded for the cold snap, spoke up with “Happy New Year’s Eve,” flashing a huge grin. He was hanging out with a guy playing guitar and a bunch of people listening, typing, blowing on their hands. I walked over and when the song ended, started talking to the guy still smiling. Maybe you know him? A super sweet kid named Frankie. He’s just 21 and joined the occupy movement when he was sitting at home watching the march over the Brooklyn Bridge on the news. He said he nudged his little brother, said “Watch this,” then ran out of the house to join.

Frankie and I talked for a while in the atrium. I ended up giving him the food I brought and he took it over to where people were gathering. We hung out for a few hours, first looking up numbers for shelters (and WIC and other assistance) for the woman outside, then we went for a walk so he could show me other OWS sites. We went to SIS–Shipping, Inventory, and Storage. I was a little self-conscious about blundering through OWS admin work or whatever, but it being Christmas Eve and Frankie being so warm and winning, it felt like a minor worry. We met some other people just walking around and then made it to SIS where he introduced me to Nick and Nick. I ended up hanging out with them a little, hearing their stories of getting to New York. One of the Nicks was a Marine vet who’d been passing through on his bicycle and decided to stay. Really nice guys. There was a lot of talk about family and Christmas and a little talk about the frustrations they had with the OWS protocols — mostly telling stories about big personalities that broke rules / caused problems.

After they closed SIS, they took me for pbr at Charlie’s Place, I think it was called. It was a short walk, but very, very good to get out of the cold again. At 60 Wall St. earlier, Frankie and I had taken turns closing the doors on either side of the atrium because the cops kept propping them open. Fucking annoying. I was exhausted at the end of a few hours and can’t even imagine how people who are also staying in shelters, like Frankie,  feel — but even with all of the short, antagonistic bickering I saw, one still peeled off to join for the beer; and one of the Nick’s offered food to another right after a confrontation. The coolest thing was hearing each of them talk, warmed up by beer, about still being deeply committed to the whole, no matter how stupid the problems. I really can’t wait to see these people again.

-Amanda Gill-

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This Little Light of Mine

MUSKEGON, MI – When the banks were bailed out a few years ago, I fucking lost it. Call me hot-headed, but I made up a series of three signs with slogans I don’t even remember— all slapped up in red paint— and hammered them into my front lawn. I lived in a shitty old house at the edge of the northern wealthy section of town, but it was the shitty old house my grandfather had died in and nearly all my friends and family had lived in at one time or another. For those reasons the house embodied many fond memories; it was the kind of place you always wanted to live in until you do.

Anyway, watching the government give up billions and trillions of taxpayer dollars to the very people who had screwed us in the first place, I fucking lost it. I lost my faith in dissent, in people, in the solidarity of mass protest … What could I do? I was just some guy with three wimpy signs in his yard— and it rained constantly, drooping the cardboard until you could no longer read my short stab at the government, blindly swiping at big business, mega-banks and the auto industry. And there were the airlines and a morbidly obese defense budget slaughtering people all over the world in the name of democracy and commerce to boot, too, but that was old hat by then— it’d been done for so long people didn’t know any different. It seemed like no one cared enough to scream and shout anymore. A dissenting voice to the Great Bail-Outs of the 21st century was nowhere to be found.

“We’re behind enemy lines, man!” I’d tell my wife. “Jesus… no one gives a shit! If this doesn’t get people in the streets, what the fuck will?” She’d shrug and we’d eat dinner with the kids. “Eat your fucking rice,” we’d say. “Good fucking beans.”

“SHIT, MOM!” my oldest son would yell. “THE GODDAMN BANKS ARE STEALING MY FUTURE! ASSHOLES!”

“No b-word at the dinner table,” my wife and I would scold him. “You know how we hate that fucking word.”

This is the caricaturized domestic life of a man who was not censored, who grew up memorizing late-night comedy routines on cable, who rolled and cried with bellyaches on the floor at George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy till his mother came home drunk from the bar and would lay down the most basic of life’s lessons— “Tell the truth,” she’d say. “Your life will be a lot easier.” So, I gave myself permission to express myself however the hell I pleased, like those funny people on cable, as long as I was honest, as long as it was the truth and sincere, and as long as the heart was involved.

A year floundered by and the world continued to stink, spin, and spew on down the line. Sure, there were puppies who found homes, bake sales were held. There’s a different colored ribbon for every f-ing cause under the sun. But anyway, a year went by, and in that time my wife and I purchased our first home.

“Put these fucking boxes in that room, and put those fucking boxes in this room,” we told the kids— even our toddler.

“DAMN IT, MOM! OUR GOD DAMN MORTGAGE IS FUCKED!” our eldest son yelled, storming off for the boxes, which our youngest echoed in tearing off his diaper, bending over and shaking his ass in the air.

Our mortgage was not fucked. It was quite fucking good, actually, but by then the media had crop-dusted so many Aqua Net politicians across the news, proclaiming and analyzing fault with the housing market, that our son began parroting all that b.s. back at us. “VARIABLE INTEREST RATES ARE STEALING OUR JOBS FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!” There was no real need to explain it all to an eight-year-old, but a good mortgage didn’t matter so much in the end anyway, either. He might as well have been right. Two years later, my wife lost one of her jobs, and the jobs we had left started providing less work. “THOSE DOUCHE BAGS ARE RUINING EDUCATION! CHILDREN ARE OUR FUTURE!” My oldest yelled again from behind the boxes, helping his little brother learn how to flip the bird—a prediction we agreed with long before.

By then, the whole country had its legs straight up in the air; my household’s income dropped by 75% soon after.

“This shit is all over the world!” I’d shake my head at my wife.

“Yeah, it’s disgusting,” she’d agree, shaking her head, too.

Then one afternoon, pissing away some time on the computer, avoiding discussions in my online classes and working on a novel that’s been ready for a final edit for months now, I came across the Occupy Wall St. movement.

“Some people are camping out in the middle of New York for a protest,” I told my wife.

“In the fucking city.” “Really?” she said. “What for?”

What for is old news now, but that afternoon I was still in my pajamas, still bleary-eyed and willing down a cup of coffee, waiting for it to shock the monkey back to the steering wheel, when this strange protest— this camping protest that had been going on for a little more than a week by then, with no immediate plans to stop— woke me right up, like I pissed myself ice-fishing or something— a sudden, exciting chill grabbed me and shook me around feverishly. “This shit is interesting!” I said, turning to find an empty room, my wife evidently somewhere else.

I’d been interested in counter-culture movements for years. It was always what I considered my passionate hobby reading— mostly 60’s revolutionary swag. I read a lot of books about (and by) a number of Black Panthers. I read a fair amount on the White Panthers, too, and a whole slew of bio books on different 60’s rock groups. I came across AIM at some point, and the Weather Underground, the Motherfuckers and the Yippies, which all came naturally after my earlier interest in the existential Beats, the Wobblies, the Diggers. My father is a musician and my mother’s a medicine woman; I’m Irish and Eastern Cherokee. My grandpa was a junk man and his brothers were hobos who used to fish for chickens from an old shack along the Flat River— I’m primed for this shit, and my wife knows it. Hell, I didn’t even mention Che Guevara, Martin, Malcolm, and Means…

For three or four days and nights I couldn’t work, I couldn’t sleep. Every few minutes I was back on the computer rummaging around the Internet for more news and developments about the movement. “Holy fuck!” I’d blurt out now and then. After a while, my wife didn’t even respond. I had to come up with something else to get her attention. “Holy fuck!” no longer did it. I combed every social website I could think of looking for Occupy Wall St. news, marveling at how fast it spread, and how far! Hell, it had already reached New Zealand! People were talking! Online, that is; mostly online, and I followed. I made it my personal duty to help the various Occupy pages stay connected, shuffling through the various sites obsessively, doing anything I could to feel part of it, helping to spread the information and solidarity.

And then BAM!— 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge. Watching the footage, my mouth fell open like a rockslide. I shook with a chill that went from my nuts to my chin and all down my spine. An involuntary grin pulled itself up from out of nowhere and put a gleam in my eyes— that wild spark that always makes my wife look at me as if my name is Willis, still pushing Different Strokes after all these years: she sees a scheme in my smile and deflects it with a prudent smirk that makes her squint her eyes slightly.

“Look at this shit!” I told her, pulling her away from her own online classes.

“They arrested 700?” she said, “What the fuck?” ”They kept chanting, ‘THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING! THE WHOLE WORLD IS WATCHING!’ and ‘SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!’ at the police! I have to go!” I told her. “You know me; I’ve talked about this for years! I have to go … It gave me chills just watching it. I have to do this!”

Then I said, “Holy fuck!” again, because I knew that this time I meant it. This time, I saw something I felt instinctually different about. The energy and approach of it all was too high. Liberty Park was constant high noon; it was a line in the sand. Camping out in front of the White House had been something I’d ranted about for years. “I should just take a fucking tent and go set it up right outside that damn place,” I’d say, coming out of the bathroom, tightening my bathrobe, running my hands through my hair, checking for thin spots. “What the fuck have people got to lose?” But camping out to take over Wall St. made even more sense than D.C. You’ve got to show up on the doorstep of power, and OWS had its finger on the bell from the beginning.

But, primed as I was for a more liberal outlook on life, I still gave myself a cushy excuse for inaction. My claim: I didn’t know where to start, how to get involved in a way that makes you feel like you’re making a difference, that you’re not just some asshole pissing away his time when he should be at home, showing the kids how to swear in new and interesting ways so they can really wow their friends on the playground and around the daycare. Those old Andrew Dice Clay rhymes don’t cut it anymore, trust me. Ya, hear? So, recognizing where and how-the-fuck to start can be a catalyst for major change in the way a guy like me lives his life. It can help lend enough direction to spark continuous action— a lifetime of it!

When I saw Occupy Wall St., I knew; I just knew, right from that first sleeping bag unrolled in the name of freedom and democracy— I was Occupy through and through. Suddenly, I had a location and a purpose. I had the interest, the motivation, and I begged, borrowed, and scrounged for the money to get to Liberty Park. The arrow had been released.

Before I left, I called up my cousin and said, “You want to go to New York for a protest?” and he said, “Why, hell yes!” He had to sell a deer rifle to do it. We left two days later, having assembled funds and donations from a handful of kind souls in the local community.

As we drove east on I-80, facing a good twelve hours of driving into the night, I wondered what would be in store for my cousin and I, whether we would be beaten, arrested, or both; whether we would get separated and whether we would be able to find our way back to each other; where we would sleep, use the bathroom and shower … Having gotten a late start, the sun was well above as the wheels spurned us forward. In my head was rock and roll; every movement I’d ever studied; every revolutionary I’d ever had the honor to meet and speak with, learn from; and the last protest I’d been a part of—the sky gray above the land, old WWII bombers circling and roaring in the rain, fake bombs bursting in the mud around me— the lone person who saw fit to call foul on celebrating Brig. Gen. Paul W. Tibbets’ presence at the local air festival in order to raise ticket sales— a festival that has since collapsed.

My sign read, “F the A BOMB!” and “THE A BOMB IS NOT CELEBRITY!” Both sides were printed over large orange mushroom clouds I’d painted days before, and stood out against the darkness like a sudden torch in the metallic gloom.

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-Dylan Hock -

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