It was late afternoon November 2nd and I had just gotten off work. It was a short shift, five hours waiting tables at a farm-to-table restaurant in Berkeley, CA. I stood on San Pablo Ave. waiting for the 72 bus, passing the time by scraping what I guessed were the sous vide beets from table 301 off my jeans. Since moving to the Bay Area 18 months earlier, I’d been working part-time as a waitress to help supplement my qualitative research upstart.
I sat down on the bench, trying to stretch my feet inside my shoes,
and pondered my nagging sense of guilt over not being able to get the
day off. Or, perhaps more so, that I hadn’t just said screw it,
“Solidarity with the occupiers!” and told my job I wouldn’t come in.
Technically, I was given a pass by the movement for not being there
earlier… “Occupy Oakland recognizes that not all workers,
students and community members will feel able to strike all day long on
November 2, and we welcome any form of participation which they feel is
appropriate,” the resolution calling for the General Strike stated. It
was passed by 1,484 out of 1,607 Oakland Occupiers on October 27th. “We urge them to join us before or after work or during their lunch hours.”
…Still, I felt a sense of disappointment that I wasn’t a bit more punk
rock. As an activist academic, I am fascinated by the implications
direct actions can have for social justice and I was eager to take
advantage of the opportunity to observe it firsthand. But as an
under-employed citizen struggling with student loans and the reality of
the job market, I was also energized to participate.
The bus finally arrived at a little past 4:30 p.m., predictably a few
minutes off schedule, and almost all the seats were taken. I found an
empty one towards the back next to a large black man named Raul who was
staring out the window. He barely glanced my way as he scooted closer to
the glass, his dark clothed frame angled away from the aisle as he
watched the traffic on the street.
As we headed towards Frank Ogawa Plaza, the since on-again/off-again
headquarters of Occupy Oakland and the epicenter of the General Strike,
the bus zipped past about a half dozen people walking down the sidewalk
carrying signs that read “WE ARE THE 99%” and “Take back ALL the
A man in the middle of the bus front yelled to the bus driver over the grumble of the engine, “Are those those protesters?”
He laughed. “They’re the stragglers. We’re several miles from the real protest.”
An older woman wearing a tan security guard uniform sneered at them
and yelled, “Damn assholes!” She was clutching several full, plastic
grocery bags in her lap and a few wisps of her hair had started to stray
from her ponytail. My seatmate muttered under his breath, “They’re just
trying to help you. They’re trying to help all of us.” He shook his
My seatmate muttered under his breath, “They’re just trying to help you. They’re trying to help all of us.” He shook his head.
Raul was headed downtown for the strike as part of Advance the Struggle, a Marxist feminist collective which “seeks
to build a multi-racial, gender-balanced organization of militants who
take horizontalism seriously as a concept for both struggle and
organizational structure.” After introducing ourselves, we
exchanged updates on what we’d heard so far about the strike, how the
protesters had managed to shut down parts of the Oakland port but were
going to try to shut down more later in the evening.
The bus, usually a quiet and keep-to-yourself ride, was abuzz with
conversation between passengers. The energy had shifted and we weren’t
the only ones who had used the break in the traditional solitude to talk
our neighbors. By this time, the security guard at the front was
speaking loudly with another woman who, from what we overheard, was on
her way to the strike. The protester was trying to talk to the woman but
she moved to the opposite side of the bus. “I don’t fucking want to
hear it,” she said as she shifted the bags in her lap.
With occupiers successfully blocking some of the streets, the bus had to
make a detour. Lost in the excitement and conversation of the
passengers, I almost missed my stop. I was getting off before the strike
area in order to meet up with a friend; it was also her first time to
visit the encampment. I said goodbye and good luck to Raul and headed
toward the Plaza, which was flanked by food and drink stations. One cart
offered free tea, another free food. One area was the designated wash
bin and recycle center. It reminded me of the Really Really Free Markets
I had been to on the Lower East Side in New York City a few years ago.
The first Really Really Free Market was an outcome of the
anti-globalization demonstrations during the 2003 Free Trade of the
Americas Agreement summit, held in 2003 in Miami, and the 2004 assembly
of the Group of 8 held on Sea Isle in Georgia. Markets then San
Francisco, Minneapolis and Cincinnati soon followed. The idea behind the
markets, where people gather to give away/recycle/repurpose various
items, was to challenge the capitalist notion that the transfer of
objects necessitates a monetary value as well as highlight how sharing
and re-using strengthens communities.
Participants brought any items they no longer wanted or used, ranging
from clothes, toys, books, random knick-knacks and tools and placed
them around the lawn for others to peruse. Some didn’t bring objects,
but rather donated free haircuts, legal advice or knitting classes. The
events attempt to break the ingrained connection we have that equates
objects and services to their monetary value. Bartering, gift giving and
other traditional economies are valued in those spaces. The playful
nature of the Markets, people dressed in wild colors and unconventional,
homemade styles were indicative of other direct actions: street theatre
events with elaborate puppets, Billionaires for Bush (now Billionaires
for Wealthcare), Radical Cheerleaders, etc. It was a celebration of
difference, of being outside and challenging the norm of the consumptive
middle class. It was part carnival and part community action meeting.
Occupy Oakland seemed much the same way. The whole plaza was flanked
by a seemingly never-ending parade of different groups— unions,
religious groups, veterans. My friend Anne and I weaved through the
crowds and past the medical, spiritual and legal aid tents. The center
space housed the occupiers personal tents, most of which were connected
together with large tarps like mini-neighborhoods. Outside the
inter-faith tent a dozen individuals sat meditating as members of a
teachers union marched just feet behind them. Near the dishwashing
station, we were stopped by a woman with a petition to stop the Post
Office from eliminating Saturday mail delivery.
As we walked towards the main area at 14th and Broadway, a
stage was erected and spoken word artists and rappers were performing.
The east side of the street was a sign “Death to Capitalism.” One
performer talked about the need to embrace and respect everyone as
citizens. “Even,” he said, “Sean Hannity.”
The juxtaposition was a telling example of how progressive movements, as I discussed in the previous column, embrace dissenting and various voices and how this is both potentially revolutionary and problematic.
“It is our right to fight. It is our right to win. We must love and
respect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains,” he said.
The “Death to Capitalism” concept is arguably OWS’ biggest hurdle.
The ubiquitous nature of capitalist ideology (or, more specifically,
neoliberal free market ideology) is going to make creating an
alternative to free market capitalism extremely difficult. As Fredric
Jameson argues, we have surrendered ourselves to the market, i.e. it has
become so naturalized that it is associated with human nature. Thus the
way we understand everything from education to marriage is organized
via the perceived logic of the market.
This condition of postmodernity, in which Americans’ worldview is
dominated by market ideology, is a product of our cultural and political
context and a catalyst for OWS activity. It’s also really hard to
organize a definite opposition to the way people understand and interact
with their world. This is evident as OWS tries to move forward figure
out their goals, demands and processes for change. They are challenging
the pervasiveness of market rhetoric, the way in which we have come to
organize and understand our world in terms of free market capitalism.
Unfortunately, a critique doesn’t offer inherent solutions, which the
protestors and their critics recognize they need. The neoliberal faith
in free market capitalism has become so ingrained that no one really
knows what a good alternative looks like. But as the occupiers move from
the encampments and begin to articulate future actions, they appear to
be moving in the right direction. The ability of OWS to cause some to
turn and talk to their neighbors on a bus evidences the importance, and
potential success, of at least attempting a conversation.
This column also appears in the online edition of Anthropology News, the official newspaper of the American Anthropological Association.