I checked out the Occupy Oakland site last week. I had lost my food stamps ID card the night before in a drunken blur so I had to go down to the Food Stamps office in downtown Oakland to get a new one. The Occupy Oakland site was just a couple blocks down the street, so I decided to see what all the fuss was about.
There were about 150 tents crammed into the plaza in front of the City Hall building. It was like a little, instant village. The scene was mostly quiet and laid back aside from a couple of homeless black guys that were threatening to kick eachother’s asses. The people were mostly clean-cut or hip, bohemian types — it wasn’t the homeless squat I had expected. The beautiful green lawn had been crushed and replaced with hay and wood chips which gave a carnival air to the site as I circled around checking out the different booths. They had a library tent. An information tent. A first aid tent. A painting tent where you could paint pictures (a little kid was painting away as I passed). And there were hand drawn protest signs everywhere with the usual slogans: “GREED KILLS” and “OBAMA CAN’T DO EVERYTHING,”etc. There was also a drum circle. And a Buddhist prayer group sat in lotus silently meditating. There was a make-shift shrine for the Iraqi veteran who got his skull smashed by a police tear gas canister a couple days ago (so the movement had its prerequisite martyr). And a shrine to the great hero Oscar Grant. And there was a food booth with two cute chicks behind the counter serving up a mountain of free pizza slices and sandwiches and coffee. “When the moon hits your eye, like a big Occupy, that’s amore!” While I was standing there a clean-cut surburban house wife dropped by and donated a big home-made peach pie. So they were getting a lot of support. And of course there were mobile TV trucks lining the street reporting on the Big Story.
A couple days earlier there had been a big riot on the streets of Oakland. Mostly started by a band of about 100 black-clad “anarchists.” The police shot off tear gas and the protesters set off bonfires in the streets. The usual. They smashed out the windows of the local Whole Earth Foods grocery store and covered it with graffitti. They also smashed out the window of a little asian dry-cleaning joint in an expression of their displeasure with Wall Street greed. Sure. They even smashed out the windows of the local Burger King. The home of the Whopper for gods sake. Have they no shame? At one point the protesters tried to occupy an abandoned building from which they threw bricks and firecrackers at the cops. So it was a real street battle. Over a hundred people got arrested, most of whom didn’t live in Oakland. But I heard it got massive TV coverage (not that I watch that crap). “The eyes of the world are on Oakland!” So Oakland was kind of glowing in the spotlight after years of having an inferiority complex to San Francisco and even next-door neighbor Berkeley. There was a sense among the crowd that they were Where Its At. At the least they were now part of a hit TV show. The “liberal Hollywood filmmaker” Michael Moore even showed up the next day to check out the site. What an original fellow he is. A liberal Hollywood filmmaker. Not too many of those. Sure.
I walked down to the Burger King, bought a Whopper with bacon and cheese, and ate it at the Occupy site to show my solidarity with corporate America and good-tasting meat products. A group of people were standing around listening to a black guy make a speech (everybody got their allotted 5 minutes of free speech). The black guy was middle-aged and clean-cut and soft-spoken. “The reason I’m here is because my house got fore-closed by the banks,” he said. And that kind of summed up to me what the whole thing was about. American society was falling apart so people were banding together in fear, voicing their discontent and trying to collectively figure some way out of this looming hell.
I walked back to the food stamps office and hung around outside the building smoking a cigarette while I waited for my number to be called. A white, young hippy-looking guy came over and said: “Can I buy a smoke for a quarter? Nobody’ll give you a cigarette in this town.” I gave him a smoke just to be contrary as usual. He was one of the guys who had been tear-gassed and arrested a few nights back. After regaling me with this exciting story he seemed to pause and wait for me to congratulate him on his heroism. But I wasn’t quite up to it, much to his apparent disappointment.
“How long do you think the Occupy Oakland thing is going to go on?” I asked.
“Probably at least for another year,” he said.
Holy shit, I thought.