Last week I woke up in anger at the Oakland Police Department (and their affiliates, and the mayor). This week I woke up in anger at some of the demonstrators. Wednesday’s “mostly peaceful” General Strike was overshadowed by the acts of a few extremists which vandalized buildings and broke windows. Dressing ala the ‘Black Bloc‘, they took the opportunity to wreck havoc under the cover of the crowd and confusion of the day. (More coverage here and here.)
Since Oakland is now in the international spotlight, I didn’t want the world to get the impression that Occupy Oakland had become destructive. Out of several thousand peaceful protestors who took part in the General Strike, it was only a few dozen who lashed out. When I saw an event posted on Facebook, “Occupy Oakland Clean up today“, I felt more personally moved to act than at any time since the occupation began three weeks ago.
It was my 39th birthday, and I wanted to spend it picking up trash and scrubbing down defaced buildings with noxious chemicals.
I rode my bike down to Frank Ogawa Plaza on a dreary Thursday and ordered a sandwich and a mocha for sustenance and warmth from a proud Asian cafe owner wearing an “I am the 99%” button. Surveying the camp through a thankfully unbroken window while I gathered my strength, the scene was active, but calm.
Once fortified, I made my way to the supply tent and inquired how I could help. “Grab a bag and pick up any trash you find. Simple as that,” said a frazzled young black man. With plastic garbage bag in hand, I slowly wandered around the plaza, picking up broken tent poles, cigarette butts, and used paper plates. While cleaning the front steps of City Hall, a text came in from my friend saying that he had just arrived. Unsurprisingly for a theatre playwright, Iggy showed up looking as dapper as Dick Van Dyke.
Together we found a street corner down the block where graffiti-removal efforts were already underway. We grabbed scrub brushes and went to work, using one of two available chemicals – one a milky-grey liquid worked well enough, the other an iridescent goo was like magic. After getting off the worst of the graffiti from one building, we moved onto the one across the street when the city power washers came by to finish the job, but the stone on this one was much more porous and was an uphill battle between 5 of us trying to make a difference.
Iggy and I split up, and I joined a couple of young women who had been with us on the first corner, and we tackled a small section of wall right next to the main plaza. A man with a nice looking Canon started chatting with me, and asked if I’d be willing to say a few words on camera about it being my birthday and how I felt about what had happened the night before. It turned out he was from Time magazine, trying to cover a different angle than the sensational account made by another reporter. I then rejoined Iggy at the street corner in front of Tully’s coffee to work on the BART elevator in the picture above. As you can see, even with scrubs and chemicals, removing graffiti is hard work, but it felt good to be making an effort, showing both the city and the world that the actions of a few don’t speak for the movement as a whole. My friend eventually took his leave, and as I stood pondering where to work next, a woman with a reporters’ notebook came up to me to ask me a few questions. I answered in much the same fashion as the first interview, and when we were done I asked who she worked for, and she told me the Associated Press.
That night, the San Francisco Chronicle picked up the article featuring my quote as a spokesman for responsible and peaceful demonstration. That article also showed up in Louisiana, Indiana, and several other California local online news outlets. Little did I know when I left the house with my conviction that I would be able to share it so widely.
Done with scrubbing but not with helping out, I found myself wandering near the food tent staged right next to City Hall. Once again, I asked how I could help, and a frantic woman exclaimed, “Oh gods yes, I haven’t had a break in hours. Put on some gloves and serve people what they want.” So I spent the next several hours serving vegan minestrone soup, spiced sweet potatoes, and made dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The line was never-ending, but I found it heart-warming to see all the different faces, some confused, some tired, most just happy to be given a warm bowl of soup on a rainy day.
In typical Hobbit fashion, I gave the gifts of my time and energy on my birthday, and what I received in return was worth far more than any commercial product could possibly provide.