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Reflections on social justice
First hand report from Occupy Oakland General Assembly 11.9.11, including 5 min audio of some of thiose speakers
I have been derailed for several days after Oakland’s General Strike. Destruction of property during and following Occupy Oakland’s diversely attended and peaceful General Strike last Wednesday, November 2, 2011 left me disappointed and crestfallen. Property destruction was conducted by a few, while the tens of thousands of people disaffected by financial inequities and the repercussions in cutting of public services expressed themselves in peaceful civil disobedience. Photos posted on the San Jose Mercury New site show the flvor of the strike, including a single person using a hammer to smash a Wells Fargo window. Videos show marchers placing themselves between a store and those indicating they intend damage. Some wrestle to suppress attempted property destruction while others urge calm and peace. Another video shows the irate anger of a late night crowd as a downtown window breaks at a store that closed in sympathy of the strike: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/11/09/18698536.php .
I witnessed paramilitary crowd control tactics during a peaceful march on October 25th. We were fired upon by police using something I never knew existed: loud repetitive pops, flashes of light from fire, and lots and lots of smoke. “Oh,” I am told by a UC Berkeley student who volunteers with me in our local middle school, “that was a flash bomb grenade. A friend of mine brought one home from Iraq and set it off. I fell to the ground from the explosion and couldn’t hear anything. It’s intended to disorient.” Then there were the rubber bullets and bird shot I picked up from the street the day after the peaceful crowd I was part of was shot at. We had been told to disperse, but my companion, a fellow parent, found the Bay Area Rapid Transit station entrance closed.
I hear later from a friend who works across the street from Occupy Oakland. While I was acutely attentive to the choice I was making to participate in a march that was being responded to assaultively, my friend’s job site is at the same time getting out of work. Imagine their disorientation and fear when the BART entrance they use was closed just as police are closing in on marchers? Turns out other entrances are open, but a worker emerging from a long day is not prepared to be roving the streets, especially under such volatile circumstances. I am embarrassed and then angry. I struggle to make some sense of how to move forward to redress the violence of investment practices that are resulting in the loss of homes, the reduction of social services, the lack of jobs, and the compromise to human need. My friend is in sympathy but finds the provocative situation a drain.
Another friend Doyle calls to tell me the Oakland’s General Assembly will be voting on some non-violent proposals tonight. We go down to attend. It is dark and the assembly is in progress. A proposal has just passed to support Egyptian solidarity with a letter and rally to happen this Saturday. Vote tallies are announced: 667 for, eight against, and 58 abstentions, making the crowd over 700 strong, with a peripheral non-voting contingent of another one hundred or so. How have they conducted this vote? In the dark? Doyle and I find a seat in the amphitheatre just outside City Hall. There is a mix of ages and ethnicities. Many are holding votive candles in Dixie cups. Others have flashlights or laptops open. The Egyptian solidarity letter, along with a candle in a cup, is being passed along our row. It is past eight o’clock on a week night, but I see more and more people showing up and pressing in to sit down. We listen with focused attention. This is not a frolic. This is not entertainment. This is one community coming together to make change.
Anyone or any group can bring a proposal to the General Assembly gathering. It is read, anyone at the assembly is welcome to ask clarifying questions which are addressed by the proposal writers, and then anyone can offer a pro or con statement. The assembly is coordinated with help of facilitators, one who reminds us during a heated moment, “I am someone’s daughter, I am someone’s sister, I am someone’s nanny.” The next two proposals relate to tactics during protest actions. The first of these two ignites a strong reaction on both sides. What do you mean by inclusive? How do you define violent – isn’t capitalism inherently violent? It becomes a deep discourse on how a social movement struggles. We are practicing and being tested - the facilitators and assembly members alike - in maintaining respect and inclusivity and taking responsibility for thinking critically. I realize this is why so many are out here tonight: we care very deeply about our city and we have an avenue of appeal. The Occupy General Assembly is an action itself, an action of direct democracy that has inclusivity at its core.
It is time to vote. We are encouraged to gather into groups of at least twenty. One of us will coordinate a show of thumbs: up for “yes,” sideways for “abstain,” and down for “no.” Another writes down the tallies and remains standing while we all sit. We all make sure that every thumb is seen and counted. Assembly monitors come around and collect tallies, which are then tabulated. As this process takes place, we strike up conversation with those around us. The amphitheatre is buzzing with discourse. The final vote count is read: our numbers have grown to 819 members. On a chilly night sitting on cold cement. The General Assembly continues as I see some exit briefly to address the group with a clarifying question or a pro or con statement. The second of these two proposals is tabled in favor of re-focusing on the unity of Occupy Oakland. At 9:45 we hear that UC Berkeley students are, as we meet, being struck by police batons as they peacefully assemble. We are urged to call friends and send them to the campus to stand between with the students. As the assembly ends, some coordinate rides to the campus. At 2AM, enough people have arrived at the UC Berkeley campus that the police remove themselves from plaza.