What I learned at Occupy Seattle

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The Occupy movement in the United States  has been the subject of lavish praise and the most severe criticism, yet it’s everywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, as I weeble-wobbled to my yoga class near Westlake,  Seattle, I inadvertently walked right through what a few moments later be billed as one of the most iconic movements in the Occupy movement.   Just a few minutes after I walked past a small group of people huddled in the middle the Pike and 5th intersection and surrounded by bike cops,  a priest, an 84-year old woman and  a pregnant teen would be famously pepper sprayed by the Seattle Police.   Images would be seen around the world.   In the meantime, I was curled up in my first child’s pose of my practice in the warmth and comfort of my slightly upscale yoga studio.

Sure, I flung around opinions about the movement in little sound bytes and plagiarized mainstream-medial catchphrases, but I really hadn’t done too much homework on it.  So last weekend, I decided to do some real homework.   I went down to the Occupy camp at Seattle Central Community College and, encouraged  and accompanied by  Nick,  to talk to people and take some pics.

The camp was surprisingly well organized and clean.   No noxious smells or obvious grime reported in other cities.  No druggies or used condoms.  The tent city boasted a makeshift library and activity center with an organized itinerary of community activities.    As we walked through, we noticed a small group of around 20-30 people circling up.   A man was explaining a plan to march to an abandoned house and then “occupy”  the space.  As they set off down the street, yelling “Get out of your tents and onto the streets,” we decided to walk in their general direction and learn more.

Contrary to what many cities reported, the Occupy Seattle participants looked like a group of ordinary, concerned citizens…not drug addicts, hoodlams, and drifters portrayed as participants in other cities.   Some of them carried homemade signs, others professionally printed signs.   They went through a number of different chants,  “______, we don’t need em’! all we want is! total freedom,”  “whose streets? OUR STREETS!”    “We! Are! The 99%”  “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”   “Revolution has to come!  Everything for Everyone!” Sometimes, they just chatted among themselves.

The march collected people as it went along, and only a few blocks in,  a Seattle Police car started tailing a hundred feet or so away from the marchers, headlights on,  effectively preventing the marchers from getting run over, whatever else their purpose.  The group erupted into a chant of “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Police Brutality’s Gotta Go!” and occasionally an individual lobbed an insult at the police car.  (“Hey!  You’re a tool!”)   The tensions, just a few days after the famous Westlake confrontation, were understandable.   But whatever SPD’s reasons for tailing the protesters, at no time on that day did  I see SPD interfere or do anything but shield the marchers from oncoming traffic, effectively protecting their right to effectively protest.

As we marched, an occasional marcher would stop and lyrically chant bit of history, or policy.  One man explained that the term “skid row” originated from the working classes skidding logs down Yesler Way.    One woman encouraged people to think of the youths (this precipitated a detour to a youth detention center and chanting “Our Passion! For Freedom!  Is stronger than your prison!”  until the youths started pounding on the windows.)

On the road we talked to a retired  older man who lived with family members and wished his food stamps would buy him a pizza and that he could have a cell phone to call his brother, who lived and worked nearby.   One bright, articulate young woman railed against the inability of privileged white men to understand the plight of minorities.  Two older women whispered amongst themselves about what their big-law employers would think about their participation.   A few well dressed young people stood at the outskirts of the march, looking on in approval.

On the road, we  talked to a gorgeous elderly woman who watched the march from an intersection, and in very broken English asked what the ruckus was about.   We tried to explain in a dozen different ways.  Finally, her face lit up and she said “they want make better government?”  We said yes, and she left, looking hopeful.   Another woman came out of her home and told us that after her husband’s death, she discovered that they had had an adjustable-rate mortgage and was stuck with an exorbitant monthly mortgage payment.  A foreclosure soon followed, and she was left  valiantly adjusting to widowhood and raising two grandchildren in transitional housing.

After a long uphill climb, the marchers reached an abandoned, half-built home.  (Presumably, the house had been foreclosed on before construction was complete.)  Some of the younger marchers rushed into the abandoned house, ran up the stairs, and clambered out the windows and  onto the roof,  cheering and chanting.

After the marchers had settled into the property,  some crowding on the sidewalk outside (avoiding the potential crime of trespassing), and some sitting on the eaves and the roof or hanging out the windows,  a lull settled.   Some made spoke about occupying the house and using it as a youth center or homeless shelter.   A young man wrote “OCCUPY IS HERE” on a piece of cardboard,  put it on the old, derelict, long-fallen  for-sale signpost, and secured it outside where it  could be seen from the road.   The police shift changed, with a seamless swap from one patrol car parked half a block away to another.

It got darker and colder, and eventually, we walked away, leaving a group of shushed, cold people huddled in a wooden frame of a house.

I learned a lot from my day tailing the Occupy Seattle movement.  Here were my takeaways:

1) There is nothing more American than the 1st Amendment.   The rights of Americans to assemble & speak freely should be treasured and protected as one of our most important national values.   Having lived in not-as-free countries,  scenes like Occupy Seattle, whatever its flaws, are especially moving to me.

2) Understanding some of the movement participants’ aversion to hierarchy, it’s clear that a lack of strong leadership and a unified message in the movement prevents a clear, strong message from reaching those that need to hear it, and an inability to ensure that all participants demonstrate in a peaceful and respectful manner.   The result of these factors is reduced credibility for the movement.  Contrast with the strong leadership of Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, who was able to encourage the majority to adopt a strong, simple message and embrace peaceful, meaningful, relevant, demonstration and  civil disobedience in the face of circumstances that would have otherwise provoked widespread violence.   Leadership and a message would probably dispel the myth that only “hippies, the chronically unemployed, druggies and anarchists wish for positive change in society and would encourage more people from more strata of society to get on board with producing change.

3) Based on the many economic and social ills affecting people in the U.S. & around the world today,  I am shocked that more people aren’t on board with the Occupy movement.   But then again, see #2, above.

Did I miss anything?  Have you been part of an Occupy movement?

* All photos mine & Nick’s 

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