I’m sure I’m starting to sound like the world’s most curmudgeonly activist, but there I am at 4 pm yesterday, October 25, standing at the rally at the Oakland library reflecting on how much I hate rallies. My feet hurt and I’m thinking about the Monty Python movie of The Life of Brian where Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount and no one in the back of the crowd can hear him.
“Did he say ‘ Blessed are the cheesemakers? What’s so great about the cheesemakers?”
The only thing I hate worse than rallies is not having rallies. And I’m glad we’re having this one, and glad I’m here, aching feet and all. Because it’s the necessary response to the brutal police attack on #Occupy Oakland. At 4 AM, the police surrounded the camp. According to reports, they ringed the square, fired tear gas canisters and sound bombs into the sleeping crowd, and then arrested over a hundred people, who are being held in custody for two days until their arraignment.
The tents are gone, the free school, library, medic tent, food tents—all trashed, the whole village with it’s straw mulch and pallet walkways, the site which of all I’ve seen most successfully created a mini-society of its own. Gone, in a late-night raid by armed riot cops using chemical weapons against sleeping people.
The crowd tonight is angry, rightfully so. Oakland has a shameful history of police brutality and outright murder, especially against African-Americans. The encampment was named after Oscar Grant, executed by a BART policeman as he lay face-down on the ground. This is not a crowd who believes that the police are our friends—even though they should be. We’re fighting for their pensions, for the schools their kids go to, for their medical care. I hear that Oakland brought in police from many different outlying precincts and neighboring cities for the raid, and then sent them home.
At last the rally becomes a march, and we move out. I lose track of my friends but I feel confident that in a crowd of thousands of Bay Area folks, I’ll find other people I know.
There’s a moment, sometimes, on a march where the united movement of the crowd, the chants, the sense of outrage and power become a flow that carries you along like the current of a great river. Your feet stop hurting, your old bones no longer ache, you become strong and young and feel immortal, part of a great torrent that will sweep away injustice and cleanse the land. I’m carried by the river, and we march and march, down to the jail, over again to Oscar Grant plaza, on and on.
People are angry, some of them so angry they lose all sense of self-preservation, pushing up to the riot cops, practically pressing themselves against their shields, yelling in their faces. I share the anger but I believe it’s the job of old women to inject a measure of calm and common sense into such situations, so I join with a couple of younger men who are attempting to move the crowd on. While I personally would prefer a more disciplined nonviolence that might attempt to de-escalate the police violence and remind them that our issues are indeed theirs, I understand the visceral urge to yell and scream. But do it a few rows back, if you must, out of range of their jabbing batons and snatching arms. The cops start shoving and swinging, and a young woman gets knocked into me so hard that I get pushed down. Luckily a big, strong woman right next to me bellows “Get her up” and hauls me back up onto my feet. Not that I can’t get up on my own—but it’s more of a project than it used to be. And then the march moves on.
I finally Keith Hennessy, the wonderful dancer and performance artist who is also my next-door neighbor. Keith and I take a long, hard look at the riot cops at Oscar Grant plaza. “Where do we want to be?” I ask. “I either like to be right up at the front, where I can maybe influence things, or somewhere with a good escape route.”
“And not six rows back!” Keith agrees.
We go up to the front. The cops are tense, their body language like snarling dogs, ready to attack. We hear them issue a warning over the bullhorn, ordering people to disperse. We decide to go for the escape route—and find Jason with a big snare drum and another friend with a saxophone. Someone asks us to help lead the group down the street, and that seems like a wiser idea to us than staying in the intersection until the riot begins, so we march off down the street, drumming, and the crowd follows.
We march on and on, again. “Where are we going?” someone asks. “I have no idea!” I answer. The march resembles the movement—full of spirit and courage alive in the moment, but without yet a clear destination. Where are we going? We’re making it up as we go along.
Eventually we reach Snow Park, the site of the second Oakland Occupation which was also dismantled early in the morning. We stop there and the group holds a general assembly. I am starting to remember that I am a sixty year old woman with sore feet and asthma, and my instincts are all telling me its time to go. Jason and I leave to go to a report back on our DC actions we’d planned long before the raid.
At home, watching the news, I see the clouds of tear gas. A young veteran has been hit in the head by a police projectile and bears a horrific wound. Tear gas billows around a woman in a wheelchair. Downtown Oakland looks like a war zone.
Why? To prevent people assembling in the public square, meeting, talking, protesting injustice, struggling to invent a different way, going back to the roots of democracy. Is that such a threat?
Jean Quan is the Mayor of Oakland. Her number is 510 238 3141. You know what to do.