Occupy: A Tale of Two Cities

With apologies to my snowbound friends in the Northeast and the Midwest, last Saturday I spent a 65 degree, clear day at the San Francisco and Oakland Occupy encampments looking for their purpose.

First,  a comment on the settings. Each has 200 to 300 tents, a majority of scruffy youngish denizens who are there for the experience, a goodly number of the omnipresent homeless, and a sampling of curious tourists. San Francisco’s effort, in a park between the Ferry Building and the financial district, was ringed by police who were there to prevent any incidents which might have impacted the November 7 mayoral election. Mellow and almost exclusively white in the local protest tradition. Oakland was much more interesting, located in front of the City Hall, featuring a media tent, bulletin boards listing upcoming events, numerous handouts of petitions and discussions of governmental abuses, a bicycle repair station, an active meditation group for the Berkeley contingent, and a smattering of African Americans (no Asians or Hispanics.)  The Oaklandites benefit from an incompetent, but sympathetic mayor and inflamatory actions by a police force with a history of abuse – which on Saturday was totally absent, but has to periodically show up to deal with a small band of active anarchists who, the camp’s conventional wisdom would say, have come in from outside along with “unidentifiable, but obviously present” right wing provocateurs to jeopardize their right to peaceful assembly.

Their issues, IMHO in order of legitimacy:

1. Banks. (See my October 13 posting). Both camps are are conveniently located for easy marches to major bank edifices for drum beating and speech giving with advance notice to the local TV stations. A plurality of signs talk about banks in one way or another. In Oakland the community credit unions have an active effort to get people to transfer their meager assets from the Wall Street institutions.

2. The corrupt corporation – politician alliance. Folks understand that GE pays no federal income taxes, and that Google, with their “do no harm” motto parks their assets offshore.  From here the lack of public economic education comes to the fore, as banks, big corporations, and small businesses (except the small ones in downtown Oakland) all are part of the one percent of the exploiters, and various conspiracy theories abound. Public financing of elections is a must after the Citizens United decision opened the floodgates to the Koch brothers and the corporations. (No response to questions about George Soros, the SEIU or the First Amendment.)

3. Debt. An “Aha moment” for me.  The $15 trillion national debt is too abstract – a Bush legacy – but the debt of college students is a big deal, violating the social contract which gives young people the right to upward mobility.  For background, California is broke and has been substantially increasing tuition at state schools, while cutting community colleges.

4. Political prisoners. In fairness, if you live in a 5 X 5 tent 24/7 for a couple of weeks you need something to talk about. Among the persecuted victims are Bradley Manning (the Army private of WikiLeaks fame – actually there is a legitimate question here), Leonard Peltier (an AIM member who killed two FBI agents in 1977) and Mumia Abu-Jamal (who killed a Philadelphia policeman in 1981). Every movement needs martyrs, even if they have to be borrowed.

And the politics:

1. Obama supporters all – now and forever. Bush caused the problems; the Republicans are too powerful and can block all of the good things that he is trying to do. Obama has been a disappointment, not fighting hard enough for what he believes in. The good news is that most of the tent-dwellers don’t vote. There is, however, an active Obama election storefront a block from the Oakland site – somebody in Chicago is paying attention.

2. By design there is no leadership. Maybe they have read Animal Farm. Maybe just nobody has come forward yet to lead the dictatorship of the proletariat.

3. A majority of the political effort seems to be going into the maintenance of the camps and the political conflict with the authorities about their right to be there.  In Oakland there is a hope to split the sympathetic police officers (who are after all part of the 99%) from their corrupt leadership.

4.  They have made some effort at social media – www.occupySF.org, and  www.occupyoakland.org – but I did not see a laptop or i-phone in either camp, outside of the media tent. Maybe buried away in some corner under a sleeping bag. In contrast, on the train platform waiting for BART many of the people living in the real world were on line.

5. The rainy season is coming. Without aligning with the left wing of the establishment of the Democratic Party – similar to what the Tea Party did with the Republicans – they will not elect candidates, even to local offices. Some unions  (the nurses in San Francisco) are trying to deflect the media attention for Occupy to their causes, but the Occupy folks don’t seem to be interested.

Ironically, the Left has tried so hard to vilify the Tea Party that the Occupy folks cannot see the common thread of disgust with the excesses of Wall Street.

Next week I’ll probably try a real Oakland cultural experience – a Raiders game.


This week’s video is a series of clips of Newt Gingrich for those who want to take a second look (or a first) at the guy who gave us the 1994 Contract with America and the Republican foundation for Clinton’s economic success.

bill bowen – 11/11/11