Friday, October 21, 2011
Disrupting OccupySacramento -- "Diversity of Tactics" as Practiced by the Mayor
When you operate in the public square, disruptions are a fact of life. OccupySacramento has faced all kinds of disruptions on an ongoing basis, including having to break camp every night and prepare for arrests for failure to disperse that are a nightly occurrence at Cesar Chavez Plaza.
Live video of these arrests is streamed on the internet every night. Thousands of people around the world watch these arrests as they happen. They watch the arrival of dozens of police vehicles, the assembly and deployment of scores of police officers in riot gear, the busy to and fro of police commanders and assistant commanders and police videographers within the Plaza. They watch the march of a double column of riot police through the Plaza and they hear the orders to the Occupiers to disperse. They watch the riot police surround that night's volunteers for arrest -- anywhere from one to 20 or so, each night -- as the volunteers sit on the pavement, holding signs saying "People's Need Not Corporate Greed" and the like, and they watch as brothers and sisters in Occupation stand in witness, chanting now familiar slogans ("We. Are. The 99%! You. Are. The 99%!" among others) of solidarity.
They hear the volunteers for arrest speak out at the officers as they prepare for the arrests: "Your rights and pensions are in as much jeopardy as anyone else's. You're being robbed of the future just like everybody else. Why are you doing this to us? You are our brothers and sisters, we are your sons and daughters, we are your cousins, your aunts and uncles, we are you mothers and fathers, we are you, and you are us. Why are you doing this to us? Who are you serving? What are you afraid of? We are peaceful people."
They may hear a chant go up from the crowd of witnesses: "Where's the riot? Where's the riot?"
The volunteers preparing for arrest may continue to speak out to the police who are surrounding them: "Why are you arresting us for exercising our constitutionally guaranteed right of peaceful assembly? Why are you arresting us for exercising our constitutionally guaranteed right of freedom of speech? Why are you arresting us for exercising our constitutionally guaranteed right to petition the government for redress of grievance? Why are you arresting us? Why?"
And then the Livestream viewers around the world will see the demonstrators arrested -- gently to be sure -- one by one, lifted from the ground by two officers, placed in plastic restraints, hands behind their backs, marched away for processing and transport to the jail. Some of the volunteers may shout at this point, "I am a criminal! I am a criminal for exercising my rights as an American citizen! I am a criminal! I am a criminal!"
And sometimes the police -- who are both actors and audience in this nightly drama of disruption -- will be brought to tears by what they are witnessing and what they are doing.
Night after night, it's the same. Night after night.
But there are other disruptions as well. Some are simply part of the chaos of urban living, such as the police officer who got dogbit the other day, or the homeless wanderer whose incoherent ranting even he can't fathom. There is always a police presence in the Plaza, and there are occasional arrests of people passing through the Plaza whose presence is "suspicious" in the eyes of the officers. They will ask for ID and run the person's name for warrants. Often, they will find their target has missed a court date and will take him or her into custody. These events are so common, they're almost not disruptive any more (although perhaps they should be.)
Sometimes the disruptions involve actions by Occupiers themselves. A young man in the Plaza has been on a hunger strike for many days. He is becoming thinner and weaker and more delirious, and sometimes he has agonizing outbursts of despair that affect everyone. This is not the ordinary chaos of urban life; this is purposeful direct action, mindful of the man whose name graces the Plaza and whose image in bronze watches over us. This is Cesar Chavez Plaza, after all, named, as many civic plazas in California and throughout the West are named, for the farmworker organizer who brought hope and strength and determination to the people whose work in the fields of the West is the foundation on which empires of agriculture and commerce have been built.
Sometimes, like yesterday afternoon and evening, the disruption is due to the visitation of "dignitaries." The Mayor came to call, along with a troop of staff, and several council members in train. We knew he was coming. He said on Tuesday he would cross the street to the Plaza sometime later this week to visit and watch and listen and learn. And he said on Tuesday that he would work with our representatives to craft a Resolution that he would take to Washington with him when next he traveled to the seat of national power.
So he arrived. An Occupant greeted him. "Hello. Stop the arrests, drop the charges, open the Plaza 24/7." His smile couldn't have been bigger, "How are you? Good to see you. Yes, I'm here to hear your concerns. Thank you." He moved on to the next knot of Occupiers. And the next and the next and the next, shadowed by staff and joined by a television crew. Some of the Occupiers turned their backs or continued with their business as if there was nothing out of the ordinary going on. Others were expressing more and more dismay at the Mayor's clearly disruptive intrusion into the life and work of the Occupation. He went all around the Plaza with his staff and the television crew, while many Occupiers followed along. He spoke to everyone who came up to him, he was always smiling, always pleasant, always gracious, "reaching out."
The people he spoke with were disarmed. The Mayor knew what he was doing.
General Assembly was called, somewhat late, but it was called, and though the Mayor continued to hold court off to the side, with perhaps 25 or more people surrounding him, a sufficient number of Occupiers were assembled to begin the GA. All went well for the first few minutes, and then the Mayor and his staff and the council member for the Downtown district joined the Assembly. Announcements were being made, and as a courtesy, the Mayor's presence in the Assembly was announced as well.
He was offered an opportunity to speak. An opportunity he took full advantage of. He spoke at length about why he was at the Plaza: to "dialogue" with OccupySacramento. To listen to concerns. To take them back to the council and to have his staff follow up. Were there any questions? He started calling on people. The GA facilitator said, "Wait. Please. We have a procedure. We will open stack. [To the Assembly:] Please, if you would like to ask the Mayor a question, join the stack over there." And so a score of people "joined stack" and the Mayor took their questions one by one. Periodically he would say, "I would like to learn. I don't want to interfere with your process. I am so impressed with what you are doing." Then his disruption would continue. He was asked many questions having to do with how he and the council and the Occupation could work together to improve services and conditions for the least among us. He was always ready with an answer. He was asked a few questions about how to end the nightly arrests, questions which he did not answer, he launched into a campaign speech instead -- about how proud he was of this endeavor and so on and so forth, blah-ba-blah. He was challenged several times, "You haven't answered the question." Ba-blah-ba-blah-blah." Someone spoke very firmly to him, "You say you're here to listen, but you haven't heard us tonight any more than you heard us on Tuesday. Stop the arrests. Open the Plaza for our continuing use."
He smiled his biggest smile. "I hear you. I understand that you want the camping ordinance overturned, and I have pledged to you that I will work with staff and the council to see what can be done."
The crowd murmured. "We are not camping! We are occupying!"
"Stop the arrests!"
"The city has already made accommodations for you by extending the park hours, and we are working with staff to see what else can be done. We hear you."
"Stop the arrests!"
"We understand that you want to be able to camp here overnight..."
"We are not camping!"
"Occupy, occupy, that's right. We understand you want to stay here overnight. I understand that. We are working to see what can be done. There is a process. The process is under way. It's just begun. Please give us a chance to dialogue with you and see if we can come up with a solution."
"Stop the arrests!"
Someone got up and said, "What makes you think the city has any authority to interfere with citizens' rights to assemble, to speak freely and to petition. Is the city really prepared for the lawsuits that are inevitable? Do you realize the city attorney gave you very bad advice on Tuesday and demonstrated she has no idea of the case law involved? Do you realize the legal jeopardy she and you are putting this city in?"
The Mayor, for once, lost his aplomb. He claimed that he has to rely on the city attorney's opinion, and as far as he knows, she was offering her best assessment of relevant law. But clearly was made aware there... may... be a legal problem.
Another questioner asked: "When was the last time you or any other council member read the Constitution?"
"We are not camping!"
"I hear you."
"We want this park opened around the clock. We've been told many different stories about how to do that. We should go through Parks, we should go through the Council, we should go through the City Manager, we should ask the Police Chief. What should we do?"
He called up another council-member to answer.
"There's never been an official request to use the park around the clock, so the procedure is somewhat difficult to determine. Ordinarily a request would go through the Parks department, and they can issue a permit. But in this case... since there's never been a request, Parks can't act to grant it."
"Who has the direct final authority to make the determination of whether or not the arrests will continue? "
For once a direct answer from the Mayor: "The city manager."
"The mayor and council have no authority to make that determination?"
Murmuring in the crowd. Apparently, it was the first time many of the Occupiers had heard or realized that.
He was asked if he thought he was a member of the 99% or the 1%. "I like to think of myself as part of the 99%.... I pulled myself up by my bootstraps..." Kevin Johnson, multi-millionaire from professional sports, real estate investments, and privatizing public schools (among other endeavors). He was challenged on his privatization of Sacramento High School, with his private company, St. Hope, now running it as a charter school. "It's a public charter school!" he said defensively. "I'm very proud of the accomplishments of the school and its students."
"Yes, you are. That's because the teachers have no defined benefit pensions, they are paid less than public school employees, and they have no protection from arbitrar..." and he was cut off.
He was asked to take his money out of banks like Chase, Citi, or BofA, and put it in local banks or credit unions. Disingenuously, he asked: "Which ones are they?" He was asked again to take his money out of predatory banks, and he said that people have a choice in this country and he doesn't choose to do that.
He was challenged on the cost of the preliminary studies for the new arena the NBA is demanding be built for the Kings, especially given the fact that the city is always crying poor about social services. He said the new arena will bring 4,000 jobs. He was called a liar for that. (Net, there would be essentially no new jobs, and conceivably, given the proposed location in the Railyards, there could be fewer jobs than the current arena in the northern suburbs. And yet the project is slated to cost $350,000,000 just to construct an arena.) "No public money is going into this project," he insisted -- after conceding spending half a million dollars of public money for a consultant's report.
By this time, it was getting late, people were getting crankier and crankier, and so Question Time with the Mayor concluded, but as he went off into the night, practically everyone followed him, pestering him with more questions, personal statements, unresolved issues, and he continued to hold forth at the side of the Plaza while the GA facilitators tried to restart the aborted meeting. There were only a handful of people remaining for the GA, though, and many of them were very angry at what had just transpired.
Some were clear about what had happened. The Mayor got what he wanted: he successfully disrupted the Occupation and shifted attention from the purposes of the Occupation to his own wonderful self. And he kept the attention on himself no matter how much the GA facilitator tried to get things back on track.
There were many tears and much fury in the next few minutes. Accusations were flung willy-nilly, loud and very angry voices were raised. All this while the Mayor and his staff held court, surrounded by supplicants. Pleading their case. Kissing his hem.
At one point during Question Time, one Occupier asked, "Why are we on our knees before this man, asking, pleading with him? He works for us. We don't work for him."
When the Mayor wearied of treating with the rabble, he finally left the Plaza, and the tattered shreds of what was left of the GA were braided together into the semblance of order. The remaining items of business were covered as quickly as they could be. The anger and tears only partially defused.
He got what he wanted, the Mayor.
He's a master at it.
He will represent our voices. Make sure they are heard... Thank you. Thankyouverymuch.