Friday, October 7, 2011

On Failed and Arresting Institutions

I recorded California Democratic Party Progressive Caucus Chair Karen Bernal speaking with a couple of SEIU members at the #OccupySacramento demonstration yesterday at Cesar Chavez Plaza. This is only part of what she had to say that day, but I think it gives a good idea of where she's been coming from all along. Her activism is deeply grounded in the cause of justice -- economic, social, political, and legal justice -- and in this short clip, you can hear her condemn the failed institutions -- including the failed orthodox political processes -- that are being protested all over this land. She's been interviewed numerous times about the stand the Progressive Caucus took to "explore" primarying Obama due to the failure of the institutions in Washington, including the White House, to address and deal appropriately with the issues that affect so many of the American people. She says every time she does one of these interviews, she gets "tons" of hostile emails and phone calls from the Party establishment, essentially warning her to keep her goddamn mouth shut (bitch). She didn't use those terms, but I did as my interpolation of what she meant to say, but didn't want to put it so harshly on the public street.

Karen had earlier spoken about the danger to the OWS movement from the big institutional donors and "supporters" they are going to attract and are attracting. "That support comes with strings. Don't let them co-opt you." This seems like an obvious truism to those of us who have been involved in activist causes for many years, but most of those who are doing the Occupations seem not to have been involved in much of this kind of activism in the past, and the heady, stupendous growth of the movement and the sudden interest all of kinds of institutions -- from the White House's political operation on down -- have taken in "supporting" the movement is a real red flag to many of us who have been long time activists.

I pointed out to her that the issue of "hijacking" is raised all the time in the OWS framework; it seems everyone's aware of the potential, and there is a strong unwillingness to become anybody's political cadres, loyal troops or what have you, let alone become a slightly scruffier version of Democracy for America.

Well, that's as may be, the issue needs to be kept at the forefront, because all that money and apparently beneficial "love" from the major institutions will kill a genuine grassroots effort like this faster than Roundup.

She also discussed some of what's going on inside the CDP regarding the upcoming vote to re-certify the Progressive Caucus ...or not. I said I thought that she might be made a sacrificial lamb in order to satisfy those who want her head while keeping the Caucus in the Party. It is a really delicate dance they are trying to perform, because if they don't re-certify, they will have cut their own throats with large swaths of the California Democratic rank and file, and if they do re-certify, they have the dilemma of what amounts to a bunch of subversives in their midst. As the leadership seems to want to split the baby -- at least from my perspective -- Karen's role is likely to be the prime target. She thought that would be just fine; it's important to try to work within the Party, but she thought she could do so much more outside it; and if they chose to take her out while re-certifying the Progressive Caucus, she would be able to be a real activist again and maybe get a lot more done.

She was very encouraging about the OWS movement, and thought it had a lot of potential to bring about real change -- as long as it wasn't co-opted.

The issue might be particularly acute here in Sacramento because it is home to so many lobbyists and political consultants -- like Sal Russo, for example, who was instrumental in the both the growth and the hijack (if you want to call it that) of the TeaBaggers -- and much other mischief as well. These slime exist on both sides of the aisle, and the Democratic consultants and lobbyists are as worthless to the People as the Republican ones. The Democratic ones are worse in some ways because they love to massage the message to appeal to the lefties and then have their candidates give the left the shaft after they are elected.

So in my view, it's not just the big institutions you've got to watch out for, it's the consultant cadres, too. Especially in political seats like Sacramento and Washington DC. It's one reason I've tended to hold my tongue in meetings and assemblies of the local Occupation, and even on their forums and Facebook page, I will rarely offer my advice. I'll offer information, if I know it, otherwise, I think it is far more important that they find and make their own way through the thicket than that anyone tell them they should do it this way or that. They are finding their way, and they are doing it very quickly, sincerely, and openly.

Photo by Jeremiah Mayhew posted to OccupySacramento (Facebook)

Which brings us to the arrests of Occupiers last night in Sacramento. About a dozen people had said they were planning to spend the night in the plaza, which of course is a violation of some regulation, ordinance or measure. Of course it is. But they were hoping to convince the City to let it be. You can't win if you don't try.

(This is my interpretation of events based on what I've been able to see of what went on last night and this morning; the "official story" may be somewhat different.)

The city said "No." The police came around and informed the organizers that anyone still in the Plaza after 11:00pm would be subject to arrest. The legal team went to work and came up with a strategic plan: get the Occupation material and equipment out of the plaza before 11:00 -- because it would be subject to seizure by the police if they arrested anyone -- and prepare volunteers for arrest if they chose to stay as an act of conscious civil disobedience.

About a dozen volunteers said they were willing to be arrested. There was a call for supporters to come down to the plaza to witness and to support the cause, and they came in some numbers. From what I could see (all-hail the media team for Occupy Sacramento for getting so much live internet casting up and running so quickly last night), there were perhaps a hundred supporters at the Plaza by the time 11:00 came around.

The legal team advised the supporters of those who had volunteered for arrest to keep moving on the sidewalks -- standing still was a violation, and marching in place was not sufficient movement to avoid arrest -- and not to chant, for excess noise after 11:00pm was a violation as well. (Earlier, the police had been citing drivers who passed by the plaza and honked their horns in support of the demonstrators. "Unlawful use of horn." This only happens if the demonstration is considered to be "lefty." Sigh.)

Needless to say, the Occupation supporters on the sidewalks heard and ignored the legal advice to keep moving and not to chant and they became quite lusty and insistent in chanting and standing in solidarity with their brothers and sisters who were about to be sacrificed to the maw of Officialdom.

In the negotiation phase with the police, sound of which was simulcast on the internet, it was all very polite and almost ritualized with all the designated observers and photographers, and police department protocols and all the elaborate preparations for what was about to go down. During the wait before the paddy wagons arrived, someone in the crowd tried to instigate some sort of anti-police energy and that was blocked almost instantly. The point was made quite firmly that the police were not the enemy, they were part of the 99%, and they were doing their job. Relations with the police had been very cordial all day, and there was no reason at all to try to denounce them at this point. (I can testify; I spoke to one of the horse police during the day, and he couldn't have been more civil and respectful. Of course, he was putting on a show, but that's fine.)

The paddy wagons arrived, the scene was brilliantly lit -- compared to the utter darkness it had been enveloped in -- the media was assembled, the protesters and volunteers were officially warned.

Those who did not agree to be arrested were warned to "disperse" -- meaning go across the street or something, just don't be in the area where the arrests were to occur. Those who did volunteer were seated in a rough circle on the walkway. I couldn't see clearly, but it appeared they were trying to link arms, and yes they did sing "Kumbaya". So there. Later they assembled in rows as in the picture you see above, and some lay prone during the arrest.

It appeared for all the world to be classic passive resistance.

This is how what happened next was put by the Occupy Sacramento Media Team -- who documented the entire operation:


Thank you to our occupiers and Sacramento PD. You both showed great respect for each other. We must call to attention the fact that our protesters were punished for having doing nothing immoral. We simply exercised our First Amendment right in a non-violent manner. Please join us tomorrow at 10am for our General Assembly.

-Media Team

In other words, "Yay us -- all of us, including the police -- and Onward in Solidarity."

There are some rough videos of how it went down, as well as some "interesting" news casts from the local teevee stations, but I'll wait a bit to see what else emerges.

People are, as you can understand, tired and elated. This this first day of Occupy Sacramento has been something few of us really thought would ever happen.

There is so much more to do and so much farther to go.

"...the political orthodoxy and the political process has failed us... "

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