I am not a political activist. Let’s get that clear from the start. I never have been, I doubt I ever will be. I am a good citizen- I vote in every election, I read enough literature beforehand to make sure that I at least can nominally support the persons for whom I’m voting. I pay my taxes on time, I don’t litter. But I’m lazy, and a homebody- marching is not something I’m going to do at the drop of a hat, or the drop of a political movement.
There are three times in my life I have been involved in protests- not that much, if you consider that I’ve been an adult for somewhere around 10-12 years. I’m averaging one protest every four years or so. Not exactly a record that’s going to inspire the masses.
But last weekend? I marched.
So, ok. What exactly was it that persuaded me to give up one of my precious Sunday afternoons home on my couch? Well, mainly solidarity. I kept seeing these pictures of people in NYC, and hearing the derisiveness of the mainstream media, and it made me angry. Yes, there is much to mock about my generation; about every generation, in fact. But the idea that those who are currently benefiting from the political and economic system would actively go out and belittle those few who are trying to make their voices heard was appalling to me. I have a great deal of respect for a good-faith effort, regardless of who’s making it, and to see these people derided for making an attempt for change galled me.
It also inspired me- I’m unemployed. I’ve been largely unemployed since I graduated in 2009. The only jobs I’ve had have been part-time and low-pay; house-cleaning, as a store clerk, as a model, as a free-lance editor. I send out resume after resume, fill out application after application, and get not so much as a peep in response. I’ve had four interviews in the past two years- two decided to go with a better qualified candidate, one decided not to hire at all (but assured me that if they did, I would be the one- not sure how that’s supposed to make me feel better, but there you go), and one hired me, and then laid me off six months later.
All my life, I’ve played by the rules. I went to high school, went to college. Graduated at 20 with good grades and no debt. Got married with no debt, got the best possible scholarship to obtain a graduate degree, did very well, and then… and then. And then the markets crashed, and everything went belly up. Then we used our own money to help friends on the brink of eviction, because we lived in subsidized student housing. Then I, and five times the usual number of other people, applied for half the usual doctoral candidate spots. Then I was refused entry, receiving letters more than once that said things like “while normally we would happily accept you into our program, due to current fiscal cuts and unprecedented demand, we are placing your application in the waiting list in case of cancellations”. Then I spent two years trying to find a job, first a teaching job, then any job.
I played by the rules. I did what they told me. And the system? Has spectacularly failed me.
This will be with me for the rest of my life. For the rest of the lives of my whole generation. We will buy houses later, we will have children later, if we have them at all. We will start careers later, and advance more slowly. We will have far less savings, and poorer health. We will not be able to retire, possibly ever. The New York Times is correct when it says “Such poor prospects in the early years of a career portend a lifetime of diminished prospects and lower earnings — the very definition of downward mobility.”
I am one of the 99%.
So, I decided to go and march. I knew there would be a rally in Berkeley, but I also knew it wasn’t likely to be as big or as well organized. I had been reading some op eds, especially this one, that talk about how, if the Occupy movements are going to continue gaining credibility, they need to fight the image that they are made up of hippies and iphone-toting students, that in order for Middle America to really get it, they need to see people that look like them getting evicted, arrested. It made a lot of sense to me, and if there’s anything I can do well, it’s look scarily respectable. Especially here (for the Bay Area, I’m practically a conservative). And if I was going to go march in my interview suit, then better to go where there would be more people to see.
I turned up in the city a few minutes late, in my interview dress and jacket, my nice boots and my hat. It was immediately pretty obvious where to go- just follow the stream of people carrying signs! I’m not sure quite what happened, but it seemed like the parade stragglers ended up marching the route the parade had taken as we tried to catch up? It was kind of funny, little clumps of two or three protesters strung out along the streets, hurrying to catch up to the actual parade. Lots of people honked, or took photos.
I had worried that this was it; little knots of people straggling along. But when we hit the actual parade, it was immediately obvious. A whole street packed with a sign-carrying mob, cheering and chanting and waving signs. It was clear there were thousands; I read later that it was supposedly 10,000 at the height. There were children with their faces painted with the flag, old hippies wearing love beads, lots and lots of hipsters, anarchic youths, members of Anonymous in Guy Fawkes masks. Everyone was there, chanting and dancing and carrying signs.
I’ll say here that the police did a really good job, as far as I could see. I’ve heard things about their conduct at the actual Occupy site that are different, but all of the cops I saw were diligently doing their job; namely, keeping marchers out of oncoming traffic, stopping buses before they could plow through the parade, etc. I made a point to thank them as I walked by- I think most cops don’t get enough thanks, and it also forces them to engage with a protester, which I think many of them would avoid, if possible. Most smiled and nodded, some just looked away.
The parade wound through the financial district, down through the shopping area. It was really interesting, seeing all these rich kids with their perfect hair and name brand clothes videoing the protesters on their brand new iphones. Some were clearly uncomfortable, some were amused, some seemed to view it as just another funny youtube clip. Only a few acknowledged the protesters’ chant of “out of the stores, into the streets! out of the stores, into the streets!”
As we marched to Civic Center Plaza, the operator of a street car stuck because of the crowd began ringing his bell in time with the chants. The crowd went wild, the operator gleefully keeping time. After a little while, a girl, maybe about five years old, was handed up to sit by him, and he showed her how to ring the bell, teaching her the rhythm.
The crowd assembled peaceably in front of City Hall for maybe a half hour, or 45 mins, listening to some speakers. They were all very good, in spite of mic difficulties. The crowd utilized the “people’s mic”, shouting out the words of the speaker in waves so that those in the back could still hear. Many good and thoughtful things were said, about the inspiration of the Arab Spring, about the need not for anarchy, but for reconsideration. But I think the best quote, that which has most stuck with me, is as follows:
“They ask us what are our demands. We answer that we do not have demands; rather, we are inviting them to join us in the greatest experiment the world has ever seen.”
I love that. It’s exactly right- the Occupy movement isn’t about one thing; it’s about everything. It’s about healthcare, and free speech, and corporate greed, and the environment, and state’s rights, and international policy, and everything else anyone wants it to be about. It’s not about getting concessions, or holding talks; it’s not about being bought off and sent home, or even reaching a compromise. It’s about questioning the whole system, about seeing all of the myriad problems facing us, and calling attention to the most obvious beginning points for redress. It’s about saying that it’s time to change the way our society operates, to take a real close look at our values system, and see what it’s doing to us.
As the New York Times said– “It is not the job of the protesters to draft legislation. That’s the job of the nation’s leaders, and if they had been doing it all along there might not be a need for these marches and rallies. Because they have not, the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.”
When the speakers were done, the crowd turned and began to march back up Market. We were a massed whole, chants going up. Everything from “whose streets? Our streets!” to the more overtly political “banks got bailed out; we got sold out!”. In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a chanter. I’ve never been one for public displays of much of anything, and chanting “what do we want? Tax the rich!”* while I wore my interview dress seemed a little weird. I do think we should tax the rich, sure, but I think it’s a very simplistic solution. And yes, that is called overthinking, but so it goes.
There was one chant, however, that as we marched up Market street to the sound of cheering crowds, I found myself shouting.
“Show me what democracy looks like! THIS is what democracy looks like!”
Because this is the truth. I believe in our country. There many things America has done that make me cringe, just like any other liberal. I would happily wipe the whole Bush era completely off the record if I could, and so on. But I am also proud to be an American- I am a patriot, just like so many of us are. Liberals have just as much reason and claim to love our country as anyone else, and it hurts me that we’re so often dismissed as haters of this nation. It’s not true. I believe in our Constitution, I love many of the ideals on which this nation was founded. I believe in our ability to figure out when we’re doing it wrong, and turn ourselves around and do it right. We have a multitude of sins, just like everyone else, but our brilliance shows when we use the system to redress wrongs, when the body of the people takes to the streets and cries out against the injustice.
I’ll admit, I’m feeling more than a little cynical at the moment. I’ve yet to see evidence that anyone at the top is interested in actually listening to anything anyone who makes less thank 250k/yr has to say. “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, cause the power of the people don’t stop” made me roll my eyes in hopelessness at the naivete. But you know what? This is democracy in action. Me getting my lazy butt of the couch and into the streets with my brothers and sisters and elders and youngers and colleagues and everyone else, this is participatory revolution.
It needs to be peaceful. It needs to be respectful. And so far it is. But it also needs to keep going, and gain momentum, and get heard in order for anything to happen.
I will be marching again this weekend, and, I suspect, many weekends to come.
THIS is what democracy looks like.
* this chant turned into “What do we want? Eat the rich! When do we eat them? Now!” which, ok, yes, I giggled.