Not long ago an acquaintance, the organizer of Top Ten Social, tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was interested in an event he had planned, London Calling. The topic of the event came from the uprising in London, which in turn had inspiration from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Now this country has a political movement of its own. We just don't seem to know what to make of it. It's something I have been struggling with and watching others try to sort out as well. Part of the problem in the Bay Area seems to be who is doing the protesting and the clear goals they appear to lack. Take the recent Thursday night, Oct. 6.
My editors dispatched me to check in on an organizing meeting of what would on Monday become Occupy Oakland. I pictured a group of middle-aged adults and couples with children from all parts of the city -- the so-called 99 percent. Instead, I found myself sitting in an amphitheater sunk into a corner of Mosswood Park with 100 or more people I recognized from just about every protest I had covered in the past two years since the first Oscar Grant march in 2009.
Critics have dubbed them the great unwashed.
The man sitting in front of me, with his arm draped around a young woman's shoulder, had been like a 6-foot stack of provocation, bristling with testosterone and adrenaline during the protest that followed the fatal shooting of Charles Hill by a BART officer in July. Another girl, who kept saying "Like, we need to, like ..." and habitually dragging on her cigarette, told me the destruction that accompanied the January 2009 Oscar Grant protests were necessary -- like the actions by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress that helped bring about the end of Apartheid in South Africa.
But instead of revolution, these young rebels were debating the wording of a news release. Decisions were made by a show of hands. Thumbs up meant approval, thumbs down disapproval and thumbs held to the side meant you wanted to abstain. People would also raise their hands in the air and flutter their fingers as a sign that they agreed with what someone had to say. They had to raise their hands in the air while moving their thumbs in the opposite direction before commenting directly on something being discussed. It made the participants look like air traffic controllers bringing in a 747 to an airfield.
As their faces came into focus, I realized a reporter would not be welcome no matter how much I wanted to check my stereotypes. If there is one thing they hate more than police, it is the media. Our track record, after all, is bad when it comes to social movements. The big papers frowned on the Civil Rights Act, for goodness sake. But I could not move.
For years I have thought about how people jeered at my mother's generation in the late '60s who sounded ridiculous to, and were ridiculed by, their parents' generation. So I wanted to keep an open mind.
It's hard, though, because so few of the people shivering on the stone steps that night had, as far as I could tell, ever fretted over how to send their children to college or even paid a student loan. They never wanted to belong to the masses who clock in every day, work overtime to help pay for their mortgage and a second car, and pay taxes that will help pay for two wars and corporate subsidies. Why should they? They sought the fringes of a society that seems to have less and less to offer the future. They said they wanted to join the growing national movement for economic equality and justice. But they were planning an exercise in direct democracy, exercising their right to assemble.
As daylight began to fade in the park, some 100 people were still were arguing over the news release. A few days later, I overheard one man scold a girl trying to hand out fliers publicizing Occupy Oakland at the Lake Merritt farmers market.
"Occupy Oakland is trying to take over indigenous People's Day," said the man, who was neither American Indian nor indigenous to this continent.
"No we're not," the young woman answered. "We want everyone to be part of Occupy Oakland."
Well, as of Friday, Oakland was still occupied -- or at least Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall was.
Whatever I or anyone else thinks about them as individuals, they set the stage for others -- I'll call them the mainstream section of the 99 percent -- to come out all over the country and make their voices heard.