a weblog by Schuyler D. Erle

Wed, 26 Oct 2011

[07:26] What I Saw Tonight at Occupy Oakland

Occupy Oakland

I just spent three-plus hours watching a standoff between a phalanx of riot police, and a sizable group of citizens, at the entrance to Frank Ogawa Square at 14th and Broadway in Oakland, CA. I'm back at home, and tired out, but, before I go crash, I wanted to set down a few thoughts which might not fit into 140 characters, while I ponder the little pile of rubber bullets on my kitchen table.

I didn't get there until the crowd had already been tear-gassed at least a couple times. No, I had been idling in my comfortable apartment in San Francisco, poking at Twitter and thinking about going to bed early, until I found myself watching a live video feed of the public demonstration following the eviction of the Occupy Oakland encampment from Frank Ogawa Square. A video shot and streamed live over the Internet from someone's cell phone. I watched this live cell phone video stream, from the comfort of my own home, for about 45 minutes straight. Pause and let that sink in for a moment.

Finally, I just couldn't take it any more, and I had to go down to downtown Oakland to see for myself. I took some photos with my mobile while I was down there, and posted a bunch of tweets.

And I saw something tonight that impressed me greatly. I saw several hundred ordinary people get repeatedly assaulted with concussion grenades and tear gas, and shot at with rubber bullets, and then return, again and again, like nothing had happened.

I saw a lot of anger directed at the police firing the bullets and grenades, which was a shame, because the police aren't actually the reason these people are in the streets. Most police officers are decent, reasonable people, whose worst excess is taking orders from a power structure that no longer prioritizes the welfare of the citizens, whom they, the cops, have sworn to protect. Now these citizens, the ones who have lately been getting screwed out of the chances they thought they had for decent jobs and decent housing and decent education, these same citizens are in the streets, and they are angry, and a bit of that anger overflows, and becomes a glass bottle tossed over the police barricade, and then, suddenly, the street is full of screaming, and people running, and billowing clouds of tear gas.

Through those gas clouds, I saw men and women and more, fleeing and choking and coughing. I saw teenagers and I saw people who could've been in their seventies. I saw the able-bodied and I saw people with canes and in wheelchairs. I saw human beings of every identifiable race and color. I watched them scatter in the face of overwhelming and disproportionate police violence, and I watched them converge again on the police line, as soon as the gas had dissipated. Who on Earth would do such a thing? And why?

Well, these people are just your basic fellow Americans.* They come from innumerable backgrounds and have diverse creeds, but they all want the same thing: They want a country, and a world, in which each and every individual has a fair chance to lead a dignified life. They want everyone to have a fair shot at a decent job, a decent home, a decent education, decent health care, and the means to provide for their kin. With not one person excepted. That's the main difference between us and the Tea Partiers, I think -- we exclude no one.

And that used to be what the American Dream was all about, right? You could be anyone from anywhere, but, if you were willing to work hard, then you too could improve your lot in life. Well, not any more. And the people I saw tonight, these decent, well-meaning Americans, they know it, they are acutely aware of this fact now, and they are bloody well pissed off about it. And they're right to be pissed off. What's a little tear gas, in face of crushing debt, burdensome college loans, medical bills that can't be paid, foreclosure, a declining standard of living, and not much hope for the future otherwise?

Tonight, Oakland, you have a right to be proud of your citizens. And America, yes, and Planet Earth: You have a right to be proud of the people of Oakland. They stood up for you tonight, for all of you. For the idea that you -- and everyone else -- all have a right to lead a decent, dignified life, free of poverty and hunger and debt.

This is going to get a lot worse before it gets better, I fear. But, from what I saw tonight, it will most certainly get better, in the end. Meanwhile, the world is watching.

(* if you are not American, please excuse the rhetorical device.)

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