I marched in the Spring Mobilization for Peace in San Francisco in 1965 when I was 16 years old. I still lived at my mom’s in LA, and took a bus by myself to the Bay Area to march in this protest. I had no idea where I would sleep that night, but luckily ran into some kids I knew from the Labor Zionist movement at the demonstration. (Today Zionism is conflated with right wing politics, but in the ’60s, Habonim Hatzair was a hotbed of civil rights and anti-war activism.) I stayed with them at the home of Esther Silverstein Blanc, who had served as a nurse with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and for the International Dockworkers Strike. She thanked us for marching for her, now that she could not.
Thousands of people of all ages, ethnicities, and manner of dress marched from the downtown financial district to Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park, where Judy Collins sang for us. Police in uniform (not riot gear) stood at intervals along the route, and did not try to impede or intimidate us. I learned they were there to protect us, when a posse of neo-Nazis tried to attack us, and the police stopped them before they harmed anyone.
The following year I moved to the Bay Area, and began my life as an artist. The year after was 1967, the Summer of Love, when thousands of seekers descended upon the Haight Ashbury, and the Diggers, the social work arm of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, served free meals daily in the Panhandle of Golden Gate Park, opened the Free Store, and also the Free Clinic. It was an ongoing encampment for the benefit of the 99%, like Occupy.
The Diggers asked Lou Gottlieb, the comedian/bass player of The Limelighters, to let them harvest fruit from his thirty acre farm in Sonoma county, and start a vegetable garden to supply more food for their free food offerings in the park. He agreed, and suddenly his land filled with, well, ANYONE who wanted to come, because, who wasn’t a Digger? They told Lou, your land belongs to God. And Lou agreed. So was born the first open land commune: Land on which access was denied to no one, especially draft dodgers.
Occupy’s encampments run on a similar basis: open to all, including the homeless, where even well-off people live in voluntary poverty side by side with the poorest of the poor, for the sake of a greater truth. Like the Diggers, Occupy’s encampments serve meals to all. And, like Occupy, both the Diggers and the open land communes faced police harassment .
The Sonoma County Sheriffs Department, Building Department, and Department of Health stormed Lou Gottlieb’s Morningstar Ranch with much the same accusations as the cities attacking the Occupy encampments: unsanitary, unsafe, and not in harmony with the more conservative community surrounding it.
For Morningstar, a rebellious member of the 1% stepped up and saved the day. Bill Wheeler, heir of the Wheeler-Wilson Sewing Machine Company, and owner of 360 wooded acres ten miles west of Morningstar, invited the embattled residents to live on his land, without cost and without rules. I found my way there while hitchhiking for fun one spring day in San Francisco, lived at Wheeler’s Ranch for several years, and there wrote and illustrated Living on the Earth, a handwritten manual for living off-grid with boho panache, which went on to become a bestseller in 1971 and is still in print in English and Japanese.
Like Occupy, the open land communes were an earnest experiment in human community that challenged the larger society’s commonly assumed concepts. Unlike Occupy, we did not explore consensus building, but we redefined ownership, personal identity, social position, architecture, work and leisure, fashion, food, and family. Most especially, we prioritzed our relationship to the earth and her children.
Sharing this profound experience linked us like blood relatives, and many of us are still visiting one other on the Internet and in person forty years later. My friends from this group support Occupy, and, as Esther said to me in 1965, they march for us, since most of us are now senior citizens, unwilling to face police in riot gear.
I see now the effect of our encampment in those rural communes. Environmentalism and sustainability are international issues. Recycling is part of city planning. Ethnic and racial integration occurs even in a Republican White House. Intentional communites have spread worldwide. Our organically-shaped and renewably-powered architecture, loose natural clothing and healthful foods are chic. Most people, even otherwise conservative couples, live together before getting married. Gay marriage and marijuana appear soon to be legalized. And yes, drum circles and tribal dancing are still going, famously at Occupy.
Similarly, Occupy, through example is changing the way people behave. They have popularized consensus building, leaderless non-violent protest, Internet video reporting and organizing, and coalition-building with other populist movements, especially labor unions. Occupy meetings passionately discuss economic theory, something I suspect previously did not occur outside of universities. Occupy’s concept of “the 99%” includes the lonely and desperate, as well as organized groups that have been fighting for social and economic justice for decades.
We 60s radicals were not nearly as inclusive. White blue-collar workers despised us, and we had little sympathy for them. The economy was booming, and their jobs were secure. We were against the war, and did not appreciate those who volunteered to fight in it. Occupy, by contrast, comes at a time when the economy is dire, the wars endless, and the wealth disparity vast. Occupy welcomes all working people, all active military and veterans, and even the police. “We are fighting for your pensions,” I’ve heard them chant to menacing squadrons of police. This, to me, is a very high level of spirituality, greatly contrasting with the way my generation referred to police as “the pigs.”
For most of us on the left, the Occupy movement is our first ray of hope since Obama selected his cabinet. It has reframed the way we look at economics and politics. Bravo.