By Vivien Freund
San Francisco State Journalism Student
As night falls, the mood shifts ominously. A helicopter circles overhead, bearing witness to the scene that unfolds below where the crowd, propelled forward by the beat of the drums and the rhythm of the brass band, prepares to raise the stakes.
In their thousands, they surround the park while police officers who line the perimeter wait, batons at their sides.
Undeterred, the protesters tear down fences, swarm onto the field and erect tents in an act of defiance. Across the street, loudspeakers blast hip hop into the night and a jubilant crowd dances next to the “No Loitering” signs.
This is Occupy Oakland, a leaderless, resistance movement whose members defy categorization. Protesters cite a variety of reasons for participating, while the resonant message of the broader Occupy movement is that the 99 percent will “no longer tolerate the greed and corruption of the 1 percent,” according to the Occupy Wall Street website.
Occupy Oakland Nov. 19
“I participate in Occupy because I am the 99 percent,” says Michelle Nicol, 28, an SF State student and a single mother who lives on welfare. “Occupy brings attention to the horrible conditions we live in.”
“Oakland gets no funding,” adds Nicol. “Schools have no money, streets are unsafe and there are liquor stores on every corner. There’s violence outside, domestic violence inside. How can a teacher deal with 30 students who have seen their neighbors gunned down? The idea of hope is limited.”
Some Occupy protesters denounce the big banks whose profits have been soaring, while millions of Americans face poverty and homelessness due to bank foreclosures.
“The banking system is breaking the economy,” says protester Ruby Smith, 59. “Taxpayers bailed out the banks, now their profits are soaring while they suck the middle class dry like vampires.”
“Banks were bailed out but the money didn’t circulate,” says protester Rita Archibald, 63. “Banks won’t give loans, people can’t get work. Deregulation contributed to the collapse of the economy but nobody has been prosecuted.”
Other protesters cite a variety of grievances:
“It costs so much to run for office, politicians have been bought and sold before they’ve even taken the oath,” says Jane Kennedy, 73, a retired school teacher.
“There are so many aspects,” says protester Marina Petri, 82. “They won’t raise taxes on the wealthy, people can’t get health care, college grads can’t get jobs.”
Marina Petri at Occupy Oakland
“It starts here,” says protester Mark Stanton. “People need to voice general anger, there are so many grievances. But in phase two we need to get more directed, and we may need a leader, a Martin Luther King as a lightning rod.”
Occupy Oakland is one of the latest uprisings in a movement that is ricocheting around the globe. Discontent that is fueling the Arab Spring, European Summer and American Fall can be traced to a common cause, according to an article published recently by Juan Cole, history professor at the University of Michigan.
“Whether in Egypt or the United States, young rebels are reacting to a single stunning worldwide development: the extreme concentration of wealth in a few hands thanks to neoliberal policies of deregulation and union busting,” writes Cole
Egypt and Tunisia were among countries pressured by the U.S. in the 1990s to privatize their public sectors, which allowed staggering levels of corruption among ruling autocrats aided by banks, while those at the bottom suffered, according to Cole.
“It was no happenstance that the young man who immolated himself and so sparked the Tunisian rebellion was a hard-pressed vegetable peddler,” writes Cole.
The Tunisian revolution inspired uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Spain, according to Cole. Activists at Adbusters in Vancouver, B.C. were in turn inspired by Egyptian revolutionaries when they called for a rally on Wall Street in New York City on Sept. 17, 2011 and so started the Occupy movement, said Cole.
And as the global movement grows, solidarity extends across borders. While facing levels of brutality not yet seen in the U.S., Egyptian activists wrote to Occupy Oakland protesters: “… Resist fiercely when you are under attack. …We are all watching one another now, and from Cairo we want to say that we are in solidarity with you, and we love you all for what you are doing.”
Occupy Oakland Egypt Solidarity March
In the U.S., the Occupy movement has been hard for many to pin down.
“It’s all encompassing,” says SF State student Will Nelson. “Everyone can participate even if all they know is that they hate banks and their homes have been taken away.”
“But for me it’s above all an environmental movement,” adds Nelson. “We’re destroying ecosystems for profit. We don’t even understand them yet. Every day 200 species become extinct.”
While Occupy has not yet issued specific demands, Nelson describes his long-term goals as “protection of the environment for future generations and equity for people worldwide,” adding “We have a racist, exploitative system that’s been perpetuated for centuries. I’m interested in revolution, in systemic change.”
While the Occupy grievances are diverse, there seems to be widespread agreement amongst supporters about the underlying cause: corporate power.
The world over, the 1 percent is “getting rid of the last constraints on corporate power,” writes author Naomi Klein in a recently published article. “Unfettered greed has trashed the global economy … and the natural world … The new normal is serial disasters: economic and ecological.”
Campaign finance reform is seen by many protesters as key to reining in corporate power. “If anything is to come of this movement, we need a constitutional amendment to end private financing of campaigns,” says Stanton. “Then we’ll see a fundamental shift in the way legislation is written.”
Glenn Fieldman, Ph.D., SF State professor, would like to see Occupy demand a constitutional amendment to declare that corporations are not people.
“We’re dealing with an entrenched system of power,” says Fieldman. “It feels like it will be there forever. But things can change fast. Nobody imagined communism would fall so fast. They used a general strike in Poland. It’s a powerful tool.”
While anti-globalization protests have until recently not gained much traction in the U.S., activists and indigenous leaders from developing countries have been working for years to draw attention to their plight within the corporate global economy.
In 1999 at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Owens Wiwa paid tribute to his father Ken Saro Wiwa, who was executed by the Nigerian government after protesting the environmental devastation caused by Shell in Ogoniland.
Indian activist Vandana Shiva took the stage and reported on the suicides of thousands of Indian farmers displaced by Monsanto.
Meanwhile, in wealthy countries, these atrocities generated little interest. “We were taking on capitalism during a frenzied economic boom,“ says Klein. “We pointed out that the deregulation came at a price. Corporations were becoming more powerful than governments. But while the good times rolled … it was a tough sell.”
Today it has come full circle.
When protesters gathered Sept. 17 on Wall Street it was to commemorate the 2008 economic meltdown in which millions of Americans lost their jobs and their homes, according to Cole.
In the U.S., the gap between rich and poor has widened to record levels, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Moreover, in 2010, 46.2 million Americans lived in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Twelve years after the “Battle of Seattle”, Occupy is spreading like wildfire across the U.S.
The Occupy movement uses “revolutionary Arab Spring tactics and encourages the use of nonviolence to maximize the safety of all participants,” according to the Occupy Wall Street website.
Decision making at Occupy Oakland is through “direct democracy”. Proposals are worked out in committees and brought to the general assembly for clarifications, amendments and voting.
“I love the way this movement works,” says Nelson. “Decentralized, collective decision making, everyone has a chance to be heard. But marches alone can’t create change. At some point we’ll need to escalate tactics and we may need more hierarchy.”
Some disagreement over tactics is maybe inevitable in a movement that embraces so many.
“If we focus on the right to camp, we waste energy,” says Stanton. “We need to take Occupy to city halls and Capitol Hill. Legislators should see our faces every day and answer for their actions.”
Meanwhile at the Occupy Oakland General Assembly on Nov. 9, a proposal to exercise nonviolence drew heated debate with responses ranging from “Property destruction is not violence” to “These [Black Bloc] tactics make it unsafe for immigrants and others who can’t afford to go to jail. It’s white privilege.”
“As the movement gets bigger, it could get messy,” says Nelson. “There‘ll be splinter groups, violence underground. We need to be careful. If we turn on each other, we take the focus off the CEOs.”
For businesses at “Oscar Grant Plaza,” Occupy Oakland has been a mixed blessing.
“I’m not happy with the campers,” said Moji Ghafouri, owner of Caffe Teatro. “Regular customers don’t want to cross the plaza. They say that protesters harass them. I used to love coming to my café, but now every day is stressful.”
“It’s an awesome movement as long as it stays peaceful,” said Mawiyah Hollins of Tully’s Coffee. “Business slowed for a while but since our window got broken we’ve been getting a lot of publicity. It wasn’t the protesters who broke the window.”
The movement has already been credited by some for shifting the dialogue and contributing to a rare victory for environmental activists over the Keystone XL pipeline.
In the wake of this victory, The Nation correspondent Mark Hertsgaard spoke to the power of public protest at the recent San Francisco Green Festival: “Nixon passed the strongest environmental laws in the world,” said Hertsgaard. “Why? Because of 13 million people in the streets on the first Earth Day. Occupy needs to get bigger and deeper and more diverse and when it does, it will put the fear of God into the political and economic elites.”