At this time last year, a small group of individuals – mostly college students - in solidarity with the national Occupy Wall Street (OWS) Movement decrying income inequality and other social ills, gathered in Palm Desert Civic Park. I was curious; I went over to see it was all about.
In this well-appointed town, with more than $60 million in its coffers , undulating sidewalks bordering gated communities, progressive green energy policies, clean streets and swimming pools galore, a 4 star hotel and a shopping district touted as the Rodeo Drive of the Desert, one would think that few among its citizens would be the hard-pressed that the Movement was media-linked to.
Yet, there was a remarkable show of support for Occupy Coachella Valley – pizzas came in by the dozens (known nationally as Occu-pies), and tables were filled –and then re-stocked again - with everything Kirkland… from granola bars to blankets. And each day, enough cases of bottled water arrived to fill a small Jacuzzi (almost :)).
These were all donations from people who, even if they did not outright support 'the Movement', had heard its rallying cries, and they resonated with them. And as this particular gathering was not on Wall Street, nor via a TV newscast from some other city, but right in our hometown - and with some of the very same placards against corporate greed, illegal foreclosures and predatory bank practices, homelessness, lack of healthcare benefits, the vanished labor market, and others, they had the opportunity - and DID - show that they, too, were frustrated by the problems the OWS Movement pointed to. (And were supportive of the outcry even, if they, too, did not have solid solutions to present.)
And it wasn't just dropped-off donations and loud and frequent honks that said how interested community members were; In just 5 days, those who had the time to come, came... by the hundreds. The wanting to be informed, and the well-informed, students with idealism in their eyes and lots of older people who had seen much, knew better, but still had hope. There was a wide spectrum of color, age and income. Discussion of issues was rampant – it seemed that, finally, there was a forum for all.
And in a heartbeat, it was gone... Occupy had been evicted.
TONIGHT, at "A Gathering for Free Speech", I'll be speaking about that. How it happened and, MORE IMPORTANTLY, why it happened. And with such a show of force (a squadron of police officers, a dozen guns, a K-9 unit). Night time, too, was an element... and that is why this particular presentation is planned when it is again dark, and as the last of the evening - at 7:15.
(Best wear a sweater, bring a blankey... and, no, we don't got no chairs either, so you might want to tote one of those along, too. And, yes, in the lead story of today's issue of the Patch, you did see another presentation planned for 7:30... but that has now been moved up to 5:15.)
For the curious... and the cautious - "This Event HAS a Permit from the City." So come, and hear/see why it so important to be at events like this one.
For another perspective of what I might be saying - and how important it is to be present - here follows a letter from Dustin Powell who, like I, was arrested that evening when Occupy was evicted.
I think you will find it well-written, and cogent, for someone who was 'just a protester'.
I OCCUPIED my life.
A year ago I found myself, quite literally, in chains for something I believe in. I won’t pretend my experience has been any great hardship. I have seen the sickening images of those whose voices have been silenced throughout time and across the planet. My story is a pretty unremarkable one. Accept to me. The result of my experience has been no less than the outright OCCUPATION of my life. I am galvanized in my direction. My decisions and the path I’ve chosen for my life stem from the values which were tattooed on my heart by the experience. I am who I am, and I am becoming who I am becoming, because of OCCUPY.
OCCUPY may never have been the media darling that the Tea Party was, entirely because it was never marketable as either something easily defined or sound-bite friendly, and therefore could not be promoted as an object of either admiration or scorn. It was not partisan. It accepted all comers. It was, therefore, largely ignored until it could be sensationalized by violence. And then, suddenly, it was only the violence anybody saw. Whether it came from police or protester, it was the focus. It became the defining characteristic in the popular media, and therefore in the minds of many people. I know better. You know better. But most people don’t. As with any media focus, it was reduced until it could be contained in news segments, for revenue. I believe citizens themselves have been reduced by this process.
What is citizenship? What is our role as regular people in a country of, by, and for the people? Our function in this democracy for quite some time has been simply to vote when called upon, then return to our homes where we yell at the television until the next election or ballot measure. Citizenship in this country is special in that our level of involvement is voluntary. We choose our commitments. But regardless our individual levels of involvement, the stakes are shared. And those stakes are as high now as they’ve ever been. I believe the responsibility of citizenship calls on us to invest ourselves, to contribute our critical minds. And there is a great need for immediate opportunities to do so.
OCCUPY was just such an opportunity for me, one where I could help to establish and grow a public forum at the ground level; a place for common citizens with no positions of power (and therefore no jealous interest in the maintenance of power) to come and partake of community; a place where equals can both learn and teach; a place where the tenets of democracy can be experienced firsthand, not simply the privilege of our representatives. It was there that I came to see what my role as a citizen could be, beyond my vote. It was there that I came to recognize the value of my investment in citizenship. It was there that I first heard productive discussion about the relationship between citizens and their government.
What is the role of government? It is rarely discussed with critical approach. For example, the fallacious narrative of the choice between small and big government is somehow very popular. I have heard the argument that a government which threatens to provide medical insurance to all citizens is naturally the same that will commit extra-judicial assassination of them. This false dichotomy is legitimized by the left and the right, alike. We as citizens have an obligation to dissect this construct, and articulate the what, where, and how of our government. It won’t happen in government, itself. Government will protect its power, regardless how it collects and distributes taxes. We as citizens must decide and describe our more perfect union, then build the paths that lead there. But we cannot do this without each other, with the presumed divisions which we allow to separate us.
What is the actual substance of the framework which separates the left and right? The popular narrative is that we as a people are irreconcilably divided. We are amid a civil war of words and values, where the two sides must never compromise, but always and endlessly compete for power. We as citizens must choose our side, then vilify the other. The market of the media moves on this pathology and profits immensely from the division. We trust the news which recites our opinions back to us, and we honor that trust by believing what they tell us, and acting upon those beliefs. What results is a facile feedback loop of proud ignorance between the media and viewers.
There are those of us who recognize that our problems are problems we share, our concerns are concerns we share, our values are values we share. There are those of us who recognize that we aren’t betting on horses. This is not a zero sum game. It is not “I win, you lose.” In fact, we all seem to be losing, at present. And no one needs to lose for us all to win. But the path to any place where we can share opportunity and thrive together is painfully long and obnoxious. The process must be a democratic one, accepting of conflicting ideology. It must embrace dissent. It will be slow and methodical, and all involved must be unnaturally patient. Because democracy is hard.
I believe that relatively small but mobilized community groups, whatever name they go by, however the media treats them, are the only means to our collective future success. We must continue to come together. We must rehumanize each other. We must build trust. We have to be willing to be disagreed with. Ignorance flees to a place it won’t be refuted. Knowledge is unafraid of the challenge. As we come together, learn, teach, and trust, we will have the ability to share our insights and skills in the development of diagnoses and solutions.
I am no longer a part of OCCUPY Coachella Valley, but the sense of community it taught me has followed me into my career and my new home in the East Bay. The group will always be a part of me, and my energies as a citizen. Groups like this, whatever their heading, are among the most valuable creations of citizens.