Shannon Biggs directs the Community Rights program at Global Exchange.
By 5:00 am on October 25, as I was boarding a NYC-bound plane, reports of police forces raiding Occupy Oakland were beginning to filter through the local news, Twitter and Facebook. By the time I arrived at the Liberty Plaza/Zucotti Park headquarters of OWS, events in Oakland were already a main topic of conversation.
As one-day visitors to Occupy Wall Street, my fellow organizer Ben Price from CELDF and I were asked to speak and share stories from the frontlines of the grassroots movement enacting local laws that place the rights of communities and nature above corporate interests. But within me was also a keen desire to be a part of the conversation happening on Wall Street that has inspired Occupy Everywhere: Will history remember Zuccotti Park as a landmark location and this as the defining moment we took an evolutionary step forward for democracy and system change?
Indian activist Premilla Dixit, on whose invitation we had come, greeted us Wednesday morning, and walked us through the encampment, answering our countless questions and introducing us to the Zucotti Park community. Throughout the long day of activities we learned of her journey to occupy both Wall Street and Hudson Valley, NY over the last several weeks, and how she connects to the rights-based framework. Click here to meet Premilla Dixit.
By 10:00 am, a drizzling rain ensured many tents remained up, and the number of people walking around remained down. Still, this is a busy place: information booths in different languages, a considerable library, sidewalk cleaning teams, press tents, and no shortage of drop-in conversations and committees already at work. Click here to see a video clip of the Occupy Wall Street site the morning we arrived. As a tourist, this would be your experience – the earnestness engagement and diversity of those gathered. But Premilla also pointed us to the deeper human experience of life inside this crowded instant-village.
There is the occasional sign of social strain. We heard that the kitchen workers were on a bit of a mid-morning strike, feeling the pressure of a 24-hour a day operation. And we walked the corner claimed by newly released Riker’s Island inmates, whose presence has raised some security concerns among occupiers (reportedly they are directed there by prison officials). But equally invisible to passers by, is the direct-democracy experiment at work, coursing through the community like blood to vital organs, to address concerns, meet new and ongoing needs, and organize countless working and moving parts.
By 11:30 we had met with dozens of activists, occupiers and visitors from every walk of life. Standing at the top of the Plaza steps on the Wall Street sidewalk, surrounded by a crowd of tourists, Wall Street workers, city dwellers and occupiers I took my first words at the People’s Mic in the the staccato cadence it has become famous for. The 360 degree crowd repeats and amplifies your words to the surrounding neighborhood, drawing the curious in for a closer look. Please click here for a blog transcript and video of our presentation.
The rest of the day moved at a blurring pace faster than a New York minute — and our group was growing. Reinette Senum, former mayor of Nevada City CA and a longtime supporter of rights-based organizing and Democracy School, was being filmed as a visiting occupier. She and her videographer joined us for much of the day, as well as new friends met during the presentation. Click here to see a video clip of Reinette talking about Democracy School. We met an Egyptian student, Shimaa Helmy, who was involved in the democratic uprising in her own country, and was in the US to tell her story in hopes of strengthening efforts in Egypt and in the US. Click here to meet Shimaa. Conversations had to be kept on the move, as we walked to the next activity, and the next. Premilla took us to WBAI radio station to set up interviews, instructed us to grab a pizza slice from a truck and keep walking.
We were asked to give our speeches again on camera for the OWS web and suddenly it was 6 pm, time to observe and participate in the daily General Assembly meeting, in a formerly empty office directly across the street from OWS, piled with boxes, and a makeshift supermarket of dry goods and a wall rack full of winter gear. After being on the street all day, the roomy space was quiet by comparison. The meeting itself is informal, run by consensus and a rotating facilitator and a well organized committee structure to address each item and provide report back. We linked up with those on the organizing team, about potential next steps.
The day ended with a solidarity march for Oakland, and I vowed to bring the spirit and stories of OWS home with me to the Bay Area. Whatever you may think about the Occupy Movement, its full of people moving the first conversation about structural change to the spotlight in decades. This is the most necessary conversation we could be having in our hometowns, and for the sake of system change, we need to have it peacefully, free from excessive force or violence.
Global Exchange is organizing our participation in Oakland tomorrow as part of Occupiers’ call for a citywide general strike/day of action, and if you live in the Bay Area, consider participating for a day, or part of a day or taking action in your community. Here are some resources:
- November 2nd Day of Action Events
- Michael Moore Speaking at Occupy Oakland
- Van Jones article on Occupy Oakland