'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A Brief Report on Occupy Sacramento 

UPDATE 5 (12:07 PM Pacific Time): The livestream shows only one person left in the park, a man in a wheelchair who, according to Kay, was also arrested last Saturday. Several officers have made contact with him, and he is now being wheeled away.

UPDATE 4 (12:05 AM Pacific Time): Livestream is back with arrests ongoing involving as many as 70 officers. 3 of the original 9 people remain in the park according to a Kay report on Facebook moments ago.

UPDATE 3 (11:48 PM Pacific Time): For updates, check out the Occupy Sacramento Facebook page. According to Christina Kay at 11:40 PM: 31 police vehicles, 2 csi, 2 paddy wagons. 9 occupiers. A more recent comment by Kay at 11:47 PM states that there are 50+ officers, with arrests imminent.

UPDATE 2 (11:35 PM Pacific Time): Eight people remain in the park after the Sacramento Police Department broadcasts an order to disperse at 11:24 PM. Police in formation with batons at 10th and J Streets. A second order to disperse was issued moments ago, and the livestream has gone dark.

UPDATE 1 (11:17 PM Pacific Time): The Sacramento City Council has denied a request that the participants in Occupy Sacramento be allowed to camp overnight in Cesar Chavez Park because of fears that the homeless would have to be permitted to do so as well. Up to 54 people have remained in the park past the 10:00 PM curfew, and the police are reportedly preparing to make arrests. For livestream video, go here.

INITIAL POST: Over the last week or so, I have periodically visited Occupy Sacramento in Cesar Chavez Park. About a week and a half ago, on Saturday evening, I participated in a march from the park to nearby Midtown. My young son insisted that we do so, and we did. Upon making its way through the downtown restaurant district along J Street, the march reached 20th and J Streets, the center of the monthly Second Saturday art event for which Midtown is known. As you might have guessed, Midtown has numerous art galleries and has been a countercultural center of Sacramento for decades.

The marchers were both combative and festive, especially upon arriving at 20th and J Streets, where they joined a line of conga musicians and danced in the street. The police presence was, by and large, low key, with the marchers chanting, the police are the 99%. As elsewhere, there is a conscious effort to communicate that Occupy Sacramento is not inherently in conflict with the police. While one can argue with this in terms of historical precedent, the organizers are displaying an impressive pragmatic awareness of the fact that a violent confrontation with the police, no matter how slight, would probably curtail, if not destroy, the movement's potential for growth here. The march was unpermitted, and required marchers to walk along the sidewalk and obey traffic signals. March monitors made sure that there was no pretext for the police to act as they even insisted that marchers make a path for pedestrians to pass on the sidewalk.

Clearly, such fidelity to the letter of the local traffic laws is in marked contrast to the recent leftist emphasis upon Whose Streets? Our Streets! But the importance of challenging the power of the state when it comes to private property and control of streets and sidewalks gave way to more important objectives. First, the primary objective of Occupy Sacramento is to force the city to allow the participants to camp in Cesar Chavez Park without restriction. There have been 58 arrests the park since the occupation began on October 6th, and any arrests during the course of protests separate from this effort could detract from it. After all, the park is, in a sense, the nerve center of the movement, the place were the participants deliberate, conduct teach ins and forums, organize protests and even post information to the Internet through wireless communication. Second, the protests, such as this one, take place after a consensus process of deliberation, hence, it can reasonably be assumed that the participants consciously decided that this march was not the time and place for confrontation, and that should be respected.

I have visited the park several times, sometimes to merely observe and other times to talk with the people that I encounter there. I have seen a racially diverse group of people, perhaps more so than has been reported elsewhere, but this makes sense, as Sacramento has been known for being one of the least segregated cities in the US, although I don't recall a significant Latino presence (by contrast, African Americans are prominent). It is, not surprisingly, impossible to attribute a clear ideological perspective to the people there, although there is a strong left presence, with both anarchists and Marxists well represented. Overall, one gets the impression of people overwhelmed by socioeconomic forces beyond their control, forces that they struggle to identify, much less effectively confront. But, paradoxically, it is this confusion that gives Occupy Sacramento, and possibly the entire Occupy Together movement its strength. In the absence of easily identified enemies, beyond amorphous condemnations of the banks, Wall Street and money in politics, they are tentatively moving towards an indictment of the cash-nexus itself.

Nowhere is this confusion more on display than during the protests of Occupy Sacramento. Last Saturday, there was a march to the State Capital and rally on the north steps to coincide with the October 15th global day of action. Given that it was a Saturday, marchers walked along the sidewalks of a nearly deserted Capital Mall to a deserted state capital. Yet the 200 to 250 participants did so with gusto, and despite what appeared to be garden variety progressive rhetoric at the rally (it was admittedly hard for me to hear a lot of it, because my son was running wildly around the grounds), there was an unmistakeable logic to it all. If the enemy is the dehumanizing power of money, a power that has been rendered more abstract and diffuse, then there was no need for anyone to hear the protesters, to serve as the target for their dissatisfaction. It was enough for them to march down a mall full of office buildings for financial institutions and law firms and conclude with a rally in front of a building known for the acquiescene of its political institutions to the power of capital. One of the more humorous aspects of this march was the fact that my four and half year old son saw the marchers going down the street as we were driving nearby and promptly blurted out We are the 99%! He remembered the chant from the previous march to Midtown.

Beyond this, I'm particularly interested in the day to day activities in the park, the place where the participants interact in assemblies, forums and teach ins. For it is here where the participants seek to make sense of a world gone mad and develop a collective response to it. They struggle to remain respectful of one another during these discussions despite the tremendous variance in their backgrounds and social perspectives. On Sunday, I arrived after a heated discussion about the Citizens United decision between a couple of people, one of whom supported the ruling. A friend of the proponent was critical of the person who argued with him, even though she did not support his stance, because this person, in her view, did so disrepecfully. Of course, one can dismiss this as the elevation of process over substance, but this fails to recognize something that the participants consider more important at this point: the need to create a space where the victims of the existing social order can come together and establish a bond with one another. Otherwise, they will remain isolated and vulnerable.

No doubt, this strikes a leftist ear in an odd, if not jarringly dissonant, fashion. And there is, admittedly, a peril. If one listens carefully, one can hear the echoes of a cyberlibertarian vision, with Wall Street serving as the repository of all of the evils associated with repressive power and privilege. There is, however, only one way for the left to address it, and that is to engage the Occupy Together effort on its own terms. Go the forums, the assemblies, the protests and even the meals and sincerely advocate for anti-authoritarian socialism. Because of the prominent role of anti-authoritarian leftists in organizing this movement, it has already adopted many non-hierarchical practices. Accordingly, now is the time to gently seek to persuade people that these practices prefigure a different way to live. Most importantly, it is essential that we listen as well as speak, because how else are we to learn about the personal and economic distress experienced by so many people? Or, perhaps, more accurately, how else will we understand that those with whom we associate ourselves with politically have an independent, individual agency that must be recognized? Indeed, we must listen before, during and after we speak, because otherwise no one will listen to us because what we say will be irrelvant to them. And, in many instances, it will be best if we just listen and don't say anything at all.

Last year, I read a brief selection by an anarchist in We Are An Image From the Future, a book about the Greek protests of December 2008, released by AK Press. In that piece, the author insightfully observed that the mass protests against the Greek state required anarchists to reevaluate their convictions in light of their experiences, forcing them to accept the fact that people who had been relatively apolitical were now taking the lead and making spontaneous decisions without their assistance. Much the same is now happening with Occupy Together and it is a shocking thing for politically engaged people to accept. And it is happening because of tremendous pain inflicted upon so many Americans in the last 5 or 6 years.

A couple of encounters come to my mind in this regard. Last Wednesday or Thursday, I went over to Occupy Sacramento during my lunch break, and saw a middle aged woman with her two children holding signs on the the southwest corner of the park at 9th and J Streets. The signs were hand made and difficult to read from any distance because much of the lettering was small and sometimes in pencil, but I examined them closely and saw that they insisted upon the need to fund education over finance. I was emotionally overcome by poignancy of the situation, a family so distraught over what was happening that they had to do something, anything, even if it was holding up signs on a street corner that the drivers of passing vehicles could barely read. It was far more effective than any protest I've seen organized by the California Teachers Association.

Today, I had a similar experience. Again, I went over during my lunch break. The number of people there was small, about 25 to 30 people or so. All of a sudden, as I was eating my lunch, a swarthy, middle aged man started yelling, They are taking away our money! They are taking away our rights! They are taking away our dignity! They are going take away our lives! My initial reaction was that he sounded mentally disordered, but as I kept watching and listening, I heard that rare, unmistakable voice of someone who was frightened and angry, so much so that, like the woman and her children, he had to do something, no matter how many people responded to it. He continued to speak in this way, prompting me to think that this is what the ranters during the Glorious Revolution must have sounded like. He walked from the center of the park to the sidewalk along the street, and, upon finishing my lunch, I walked over to him, where he continued to rant as it were, and got his attention. I touched his back with my arm, looked him in the eye, and said, We hear you. I paused as he looked at me, and then said again, We hear you. Always remember that. He thanked me, and I left, chastened by such an intense emotional contact with the desperation that drives people to participate in Occupy Together.

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