Scotty’s Last Name
I took BART to Oakland yesterday morning to help a friend load his moving van. At 19th and Broadway, the percussive drone of a helicopter hits me from overhead as soon as I’m back above ground. The chopper doesn’t move the whole time I’m there, and my buddy (who has two young daughters) tells me it’s been hanging in that same spot all morning. Turns out the city was evacuating Frank H. Ogawa Plaza (aka, Oscar Grant Plaza, its unofficial moniker given in honor of the unarmed—and handcuffed, face down—shooting victim of BART Police on New Year’s Day, 2009) of its Occupy Oakland tenants. The helicopter is still hovering in that same spot when I walk back to the BART station a little later and, just after dark, the smart phone footage goes viral: Occupy Oakland demonstrators being assaulted with tear gas, flash bang grenades and rubber bullets (the veracity of the reports of rubber bullets has been disputed; the use of chemical agents and flash grenades has not).
Tear gas is what’s know as a “lachrymator,” it irritates the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, mouth and lungs, causing crying, temporary blindness and difficulty breathing. Flash bang grenades also cause temporary blindness, and the report is loud enough to shock the inner ear and cause temporary but extreme vertigo. So, the Oakland PD figures the best way to make people leave is to temporarily blind and asphyxiate them, and render them too dizzy to walk. And the OPD didn’t do this alone, but with the help of numerous other local law enforcement agencies, according to the reports I’ve read.
Let’s be clear about this. The protestors want to be heard, so they’re taking their message to their elected leaders, Oakland’s public servants, because it’s become abundantly clear in recent years that the normal channels for doing so—civically sanctioned demonstrations, the media, the voting booth, the courts—have been either overwhelmed or compromised or both. These civic leaders responded to their constituents with force. Oakland’s leaders did not fight back; instead they said, “We’re not listening to you. Go away.”
It was around 1:00 a.m. this morning and I couldn’t sleep, so I took a walk. I passed by the contingent of Occupy San Francisco demonstrators camped out in front of the Federal Reserve building. There’s a squad car parked at the corner of Main St. and Market St., and uniformed officers stand behind barricades in front of the Federal Reserve, keeping the sleeping protesters at a safe distance. Amidst the tents and sleeping bags are signs with every manner of slogan championing the 99%, along with tables of literature and even a bookshelf with a lending library (operating on the honor system) to help campers pass the time. It’s clear they’re here for the long haul, and this is even more evident when I round the corner to the larger camp in Justin Herman Plaza.
From the first, the targets of certain media criticisms are in evidence. There’s an absence of leadership, and if I look at the abundance of signage closely enough, the ideology blurs a little at the edges; one protestor nailed up a piece of cardboard that read “Free Leonard.” And I’m deep into this encampment when it occurs to me I might not look like I belong; reports of undercover cops camping with Occupy Oakland have been numerous, and I definitely look out of place. Still, nobody gives me a second glance or says anything to me as I pass from one end of the camp to the other.
About halfway through, a young man starts shouting: “Scotty is in the hospital. If anyone knows his last name, please let us know.”
The cluster of folks around him join in, and they all shout in unison:
“Scotty’s from Occupy SF and we need to know his last name. He’s in the hospital. If you know Scotty’s last name, let us know.”
With each stanza, another cluster of demonstrators within earshot repeats the message just as loudly, and the message gets carried on. Whether Scotty was injured in a protest, or why he’s unable to tell the hospital his last name himself, I don’t know. What’s clear to me is that while nobody is in charge, there is indeed an agreed upon sense of social order, and the fragmented ideology and absence of leadership is more than offset by a profound sense of solidarity. There is no leader, but neither is there any lack of an agenda. The goals are clear and have been from day one.
I exit the far side of the camp, and there I see two SFPD vehicles, a squad car and an SUV. I give them a wide berth, but I’m close enough to see the uniformed cop in the SUV watching the Occupy SF camp with a pair of binoculars. And right then, the absurdity of it all strikes me.
That cop—observing a bunch of unarmed, virtually homeless demonstrators from the safety of an SUV, at a distance, with binoculars, in the dark—and the Oakland PD in their riot gear, along with all over the other police forces who joined them yesterday (Alameda, Novato, Marin County, Berkeley, Emeryville, Hayward and Pleasanton, among others), none of these police officers are among this nation’s wealthiest 1% and, like our elected leaders, their salaries are paid by the citizenry. These cops have children, mortgages, and all the other pressures of life one has when just trying to make a living, and yet they also shoulder the additional risk that comes with their chosen line of work.
And so our wealthiest citizens have convinced law enforcement to accept their lot as part of the 99%, but also to assume the burden of protecting the 1%.
The 1% is not only a rich minority, but they know how to divide and conquer.
26 October 2011