Sympathy from the Devil

Posted on December 21, 2011

4


I owe someone a slice of pizza.

Last night, after the rush and exhilaration of taking the City Hall chambers–shutting down Council President Reid’s attempts to limit each person’s speech to one minute instead of the normal two, and making him eat his words about having police escort us all out–an OG Occupy Oakland member warned me that the media would make a mockery of the night. I disagreed, and put a pizza between us as wager. As soon as I arrived home, I found that he was absolutely right.

Though I’d seen Alan Wang of ABC 7 and Matthai Kruvila of the San Francisco Chronicle sitting in what appeared to be the best seats in the house in the front row of the chamber, they must have fallen into some kind of extra dimensional black hole when it came to accurately note the onslaught of diverse voices that spoke—not only against the Orwellian legislation proposed by de la Fuente and Schaff, but in favor of present, past and future shutdowns.

These included the very voices of labor that media are fond of suggesting are opposed to Occupy Oakland’s actions. And it wasn’t just rank and file members—which the media, international union offices and city hall dismiss regularly in ironic fashion as being unrepresentative of union interests—these were heavy hitters from the establishment administrations of the very locals affected most by the shut down. First among the speakers, and among others labor voices were: Marty Frates, Secretary Treasurer of Teamster’s Local 70; Richard Reed Vice President of ILWU Local 10; Joe Keffer, representative of SEIU Local 1021 and Betty Wilson-Jones, President of the Oakland Education Association.

This was an overwhelming response from organized labor in favor of Occupy Oakland and the kind of actions that the group represents. But Wang’s story barely mentioned it, preferring instead to fashion a narrative out of the momentary and quickly forgotten disruption of Port Director Omar Benjamin’s remarks, claiming that the meeting then “fell apart”. Of course, nothing of the kind occurred—the meeting continued in the same [admittedly raucous] fashion with several more supporters of Occupy Oakland speaking.

Its important to note that this was not only a public referendum on the wisdom of de la Fuente’s Municipal Patriot Act. Every speaker, including union members, clergy and OO supporters  were outraged at the continuing toxic atmosphere created by Mayor Quan and other city creatures’ anti-OO propaganda—an atmosphere in which such proposals thrive with deadly vigor.  Journalists like Wang have been critical to the success of the city’s propaganda campaign against the city. I’ve spoken to Wang before [at the first port shutdown], and he really does believe himself to be a fair minded journalist, a statement that actually makes me feel sorry for him.

Matthai Kruvila’s story was somewhat more detailed and less insulting to frontal brain functions, but it also strangely missed the overwhelming voices of institutional labor  that lined up just a foot or two away from him and repeatedly brought up the potential—and repeatedly denied—role of the port as a money generating engine of growth for a city in dire economic straits. Its an issue that has untapped potential to up-end the Occupy/Port story from one where petulant hippies prevent sympathetic truckers and union members from going to work, to one where a city suffocating in poverty and lack of opportunity is prevented from using its own wealth to crawl up from the hole its leaders buried it in.

Neither journalist mentioned this, though it was a point brought up by one institutional voice after another at the mike. Its been a large part of the rationale detailed in countless speeches and writing about the port shutdown, but its been repeatedly ignored by reporters for reasons no one can fathom.
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I’m not a journalist and I was sitting in the back row, but for me there were two notable narratives of the evening quite different from those chosen by the above-mentioned journalists.

The first flows from the complete loss of control over the meeting by Council President Reed. Reed went from a misguided attempt at limiting comments to one minute, from their normal two, to impotently crying out for the police to escort out the crowd. A police officer behind me shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another, but literally ignored him. It was a microcosm of the potential fate that all such leaders now face as Occupiers across the nation stage one spectacle after another highlighting the manifest power of withholding the “consent” in the “consent of the governed” formula. Reid soon gave up, petulantly sulking in his Captain’s chair as supporters of civil disobedience and freedom of political speech read him the riot act.

Reid really didn’t understand that the limitations he placed would be a product of agreement, and that without that agreement, he could do little but call in state violence to do his political work by other means. This is a graphic illustration of the intersection of Occupy-Government-Police that has characterized the last several months of American politics.

The second narrative involves the so-called progressives on the council, and it includes another aspect of the pizza conversation. As I noticed, and the pizza-winner confirmed, there is something about sitting in dialogue with a counterpart that invites a desire for reciprocal understanding. I think this dynamic is in operation in all facets of human communication, and is understood best by self-made salesmen [of which my father is perhaps the most skilled I've ever met]. When people in opposition meet in an clear-speaking venue, one likely alternative is that they will find common ground, understanding, and yes, sympathy for one another’s viewpoints. This, as I’ve noted countless times is the special ingredient of the Occupy Oakland movement, embodied in a living camp where a dozen kinds of misunderstandings and antagonisms met on equal footing on an hourly basis.

But the dynamic is quite different when one of the parties is vested with a much greater level of power than the other. The difference between meeting on a field of grass and walking up the marble steps to the chamber of power to stand before seated individuals makes this dynamic a dangerous and unfruitful one. Because who couldn’t feel sympathy for Nancy Nadel, as she expressed frustration at not being treated like a progressive friend of the Occupy movement? Nadel is actually a nice person—I met her when I canvassed her house as part of my short-lived census job a couple of years back and she was very personable. Likewise, Brunner seemed pleasant enough.

The reality, however, is that such nice folks are locked hand and foot to a system designed to negate the needs of poor and working class people. It is a system based on servicing the needs of the wealthy and powerful, and its why, if left to the management of the city, issues like the disposition of the port’s wealth will always fall into the same kinds of greedy fingers represented by the unctuous chamber of commerce and huge conglomerates and corporations.

Moreover, nice folks like Brunner are twice-tied, hemmed in by a need to believe in the progressive bonafides of a Democratic establishment that consistently supports ever-more heinous policies and legislation. It was, for example, shocking—there really is no way to put this—to hear Brunner complain that Occupier’s were forgetting their progressive political allies like Barbara Boxer. Boxer, who, just days ago voted in favor of national legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act that allows total suspension of civil liberties and the perpetuation of Guantanamo logic—a blackhole of lawmaking that makes de la Fuente’s proposal look as if it was submitted by a toddler in an over-sized Darth Vader costume.

As much as such liberal politicians want to believe that they’re on “our” side, they’re not. Because the Occupy movement is about halting business as usual politics and institutional frameworks—about leading rank and file from every institution onto a field of grass, taking institutional privileges away, and building something new from the soil beneath their feet.

The most powerful action that people like Brunner can undertake—the only actual meaningful act, as I yelled to Brunner after she brought up Boxer—is to quit their jobs and join the people. They won’t do that, because they don’t want to change business as usual politics, but simply use their position to make life a little nicer in the meantime and to continue their career-goals as leaders. They’re never going to address issues like the one about where the port’s money goes, or how to actually help truckers the other 363 days of the year when Occupy Oakland is not oppressing them.

They’d like to convince us to not make them look bad in public, to tone down rhetoric, and to feel ashamed if someone breaks a window. They don’t want to negotiate, they want to convince us to be manageable and amenable to their needs. Though OO may from time to time occupy a chamber and stand on the same expensive carpeting, that’s totally not going to happen.