Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Occupy Oakland Strike(s) Up Several Conversations

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 streets.”

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 head.

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.  

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