When I think of the Occupy movement, I sometimes think about a tall young man with long distressed hair and a thick earnest beard who stood silently alone amidst immobilized 18-wheelers and five thousand unemployed workers, students, union members, mothers with small children, street performers, dancing anarchists, preaching Leninists, people who usually don’t protest things, people who do nothing but protest, people who were just there, and held up a sign that said, “I love you with all my heart.”
It was early November in Oakland. A week earlier, the city had rousted the Occupy camp in front of Oakland’s City Hall, an action which ended up with police officers in riot gear using tear gas and rubber bullets on the occupiers. A few protesters also threw bottles and rocks at the cops. An Iraq war veteran named Scott Olsen had his skull fractured by police in the melee and would be hospitalized for weeks, his name becoming a rallying point for the movement. In response, Occupy Oakland called for a General Strike for the entire city. The capstone to the strike was to be an evening march, made in solidarity with longshoremen in Portland who were in a protracted struggle with their parent company EGT, which aimed to shut down all business at the Port of Oakland.
The rally began near City Hall, where the Occupy camp had already moved back to reclaim its earlier territory. In staggered waves, thousands of people marched down the streets, taking over entire boulevards. “Your greed is my poverty,” their signs said. “Education, there is no other way.” “We are the 99 percent.” “Me and fraud = jail. Banks and fraud = bonus.” “Fight like an Egyptian.” “Jobs not warfare.” “If corporations are persons, why hasn’t Texas executed one?” “Welcome to the paradigm shift.”
There were girls in white death masks as if it were Dia de los Muertos. There was a couple on stilts: a rich banker in tails and a top hat being chased by Rosie the Riveter. She banged at him with a hammer. Drums banged, dancers danced, stereos boomed. Overhead helicopters buzzed in the sky. On the back of a stroller a sign said, “Let’s build an economy based on the kindergarten value of sharing.” Another sign read: “The 99 percent got teargassed at Occupy Oakland and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” On green paper attached to a backpack: “Occupy Love.” Hanging off a chihuahua: “I attack corporations.” As we got close to the port we passed by a man standing in his yard holding a sign that said, “I do not need sex, capitalism is screwing me everyday.”
When everyone finally arrived at the Port of Oakland, the march stopped and a party broke out. People stood on the tops of rail cars and took pictures and texted while banners were hung from a catwalk over the train tracks. Huge rigs hemmed in by protesters were parked in the port driveway, drivers sitting inside and occupiers sitting on top. A woman in a leather vest and a pink shirt and a man waving a red flag danced on top of one of them.
The signs waved: “Got feudalism?” “Socialism is not a bad word.” “End the fed.” “I would rather get shot with rubber bullets than pay back my student loan.” “God hates banks.”
No traffic could get in or out of the port – the march had won, the point had been made: we are here, and watching, and willing to act.
There were speeches from a flatbed truck, and a man standing on boxes in the middle of the crowd doing sign language. There was a girl in a brown stocking cap and tan scarf with a tiffany blue sign that said, simply, “I’m mad.”
And then the man who loved you with all his heart. Who somehow had cleared out a little space for himself in the middle of everyone. Or whose sign had. At first I took him at face value. He loved us very very much and had made a poster to tell us about it. It was simple and sincere. No whiff of irony or sarcasm. His brown eyes looked at us and his arms held the cardboard and he indicted us with those words. I love you with all my heart.
When someone you don’t know says such a thing to you, spoken or written, your response is likely to go one of two ways. Either skeptical and cynical: You don’t know me. Go away. Soap exists. Or charmed, maybe even moved: Why thank you. No one has ever said that to me. Who am I to be loved with all of someone’s heart? Well, maybe I am.
And if you happen to be at a port shutdown in the middle of a fresh chapter in a wave of American social unrest, you just might realize that love has something to do with this movement. Love might be some sort of light adhesive in this attempt of people to get together. To get together and collectively say things they can’t quite say on their own. Things about their anger, their sadness, their hope for something different. Lost jobs, foreclosed homes, a swaddling of debt. I love you with all my heart. A love that, once we let it into our hearts, the 99 percent and the 1 percent, all of us together, that can move –
I’m sorry. I have to pause here. I am not used to speaking so sincerely anymore about love and unrest and changing the world. I have been for many years in movements, causes, rallies, the festive clatter of unruly picket lines. I find all of them to be ultimately heartbreaking. One way or another, it seems, they will let you down. The victory, it seems, is never really won; hopes and dreams so often dashed, etc etc. We show up, again and again, but still.
Perhaps our friend with the sign has never experienced such heartbreak.
But then I began to wonder if it wasn’t about that anyway. If he was holding this sign for a different reason, to deliver a more precise message. A message to a particular woman in the crowd. A young woman in, say, cinnamon leg warmers and a black chiffon cocktail dress – one that with perfect irony underlines her abhorrence of all chiffon-centric social occasions. Thick bangs lofted over her forehead, arms still tender from the noon class at Yoga to the People. A woman who has never really understood in all these years of their platonic friendship, ever since freshman anthro, what that man really feels for her. That he almost collapses weakly to his knees every time she gives him a hug goodnight. That it nearly kills him whenever she says to him “I love you!” Says it in a way that is sincere, that is truly heartfelt, but is the kind of love she also might give her seven year-old brother, or her cocker spaniel.
And so here, in this moment, in the midst of the revolution, I imagine him looking for her in the crowd, and holding up his sign. Finally she sees it. She spots it, and smiles and thinks that the sign is about everyone. Her friend from forever is saying that love can, in some generalized way, help us overturn corporate greed. Love can restore the goods of this earth to all the people. He is REMINDING us that it is really and ultimately all about love! What a great idea, a wonderful concept.
But then she notices that he has stopped moving the sign slowly around. Instead he is just looking at her. He is holding a sign that says I love you with all my heart, and staring right at her.
It dawns on her that this sign is not what she thought it was.
And so she is confronted with a decision. When someone tells you I love you, there is always a decision. For love as a beautiful weapon of political revolution, love as the invisible fuel of enacting deep-seated, spine-shaking change in the American social structure, that kind for her suddenly has changed. It has become a love that can be more costly, and dangerous. And frankly, for all her years of marching and protesting and occupying, fueled in some way by the first kind of love, the truth is, maybe our girl really has never been in the second kind. In love.
She stares back at him.
And the dancers dance, and the music plays, and the speeches go on. And the trapped but supportive drivers in the eighteen-wheelers sound their air horns and everyone cheers. A man seated on a stool plays guitar and sings protest songs while next to him a woman on a stationary bike pedals furiously to create the twelve and a half volts of energy to power the amps that carry his voice out into the evening. And off in the distance the black port derricks push up into blue sky and the pink sunset it creates.
And a woman in white face paint stands placidly holding dollar bills in one hand and a green apple in another, holding them with a vague and deeply-felt mysticism that you do not understand but completely approve of.
And the girl wearing a t-shirt that says “Un-f**k the world” should perhaps meet, you think, the guy who doesn’t need sex.
And a cluster of people kneeling on the ground drawing things on index cards and the sign over them says, “What is real?” And the instructions: “Draw me a better $, get something real in return,” as a way to talk about the floating significance of money and the barter system, and the many revolutionary uses of white index cards.
And as night falls and the chants go up – “Egypt is Oakland, Oakland is Egypt!” “Tell me what democracy looks like!” “This is what democracy looks like” – Asian women play drums in a gyrating circle and a baby wears a sign that tells us “I poo on the 1 percent,” while a guy goes up to the open mic and says “I am 24 years old and I have been waiting my whole life for a movement like this,” and another sign proclaims: “The Beginning is Near!” while hanging from a truck, a banner with the names: Oscar Grant, Andrew Moppin, Gary King Jr., Casper Banjo, Anita Gay – all of whom were killed in altercations with Oakland police officers. And the fragile technology of the people’s mic, where you give instructions five words at a time to a group of occupiers seated before you who, with fierce liturgical elan, shout your exact words back at you: “Mic check… Mic check! “At this time we would like…” “At this time we would like…!”
Meanwhile back home well-meaning folks ask about Occupy, Why do they have to camp out? We want our city plaza back. You can’t have a movement without leaders. What are their demands? Isn’t Occupy just the dirtiest fringe of the dirty fringe of every city’s bloc of illegitimately disgruntled fixee-riding hipster baristas? Doesn’t the Oakland movement have a violent wing to it? Why all this chaos?
And the patient response of Letter from Birmingham Jail, or Micah, or the Magnificat, or the fact that no movement is pure.
(And the fact that for some, no response will do the trick. For it could be said we are all divided into those who implicitly get why sane and mostly reasonable Americans are, at this hour in our collective history, demonstrating in the streets all over the country, and those who don’t.)
And that two weeks after this strike a few dozen undergrads from Cal Berkeley, struggling against enormous tuition hikes and quietly refusing to move their own Occupy tents, will be attacked with batons by campus police.
And the way that suffering confers power.
Such that a week later five thousand students and supporters will gather in the middle of Berkeley’s campus and signal, not unquietly, that they refuse to give up.
And four days after that, three thousand people again march through Oakland, from bailed-out corporate banks to public schools the city wants to shut down, and signal that there is a connection. That something is wrong.
And cut to late January, just a couple weeks ago, and the President’s State of the Union address, where it is said that he “sounds Occupy themes” in talking stridently about income inequality, corporate crime, taxing the wealthy. For some it is proof that the movement has spooled into the inner chambers of the highest office in the land.
Or proof that another politician has one more plank in one more political platform he could resoundingly crash over all of our heads.
Through all of this I imagine back at the Port this girl looking at this guy, and his sign. And racing through her mind are all the things love means, and all that it doesn’t mean. And is she willing to give herself over to any of it? Is she willing to handcuff herself to the administration building of this man’s soul? To shut down any outside traffic to the port of his romantic future? To pitch a hazy blue Marmot tent in the city plaza of his heart?
If she exists, that is. If his sign proclaims the second kind of love and such a girl is really out there. Will she accept his offer?
Will any of us? What are we willing to risk for a love general enough to put us in front of billy clubs and tear gas, court dates and jail time. No matter how many times our hearts have been broken by causes – by linked arms and clever signs and unrhymed movement poetry and our own hectoring ideals. By a movement that isn’t always pretty, or perfectly focused, or even entirely peaceful. Because we know, even still, there is just an outside chance things really could be different. At the risk of quoting scripture, I quote scripture. We still look foolishly, impossibly, expectantly to the day when there is a releasing of those bound unjustly, a setting free the oppressed, a sheltering of the homeless, a clothing of the naked. A time when we will not turn our backs on our own.
Or maybe we are simply called by a love specific enough to get us to stand in one place before a wild-haired heartsick anti-prophet and let his silent, scrawled, one-sentence gospel wash over us, occupy us, and ask us to be with him, to simply be with him.
Fine. Go. We will build the movement there too.
Either way, love demands a decision. There is no neutral.