Occupy My Heart

This is Part I of a reflection by a friend of mine, Joe Hoover, on the Occupy Movement. Part II will be posted tomorrow.  

When I think of the Occupy movement, I think about a tall young man with long distressed hair and a thick earnest beard who stood silently alone amidst immobilized 18-wheelers and five thousand unemployed workers, students, union members, mothers with small children, street performers, dancing anarchists, preaching Leninists, people who usually don’t protest things, people who do nothing but protest, and people who were just there, and held up a sign that said, “I love you with all my heart.”

It was early November in Oakland. A week earlier, the city had rousted the Occupy camp in front of Oakland’s City Hall, an action which ended up with police officers in riot gear using tear gas and rubber bullets on the occupiers. A few protesters also threw bottles and rocks at the cops. An Iraq war veteran named Scott Olsen had his skull fractured by police in the melee and would be hospitalized for weeks. In response, Occupy Oakland called for a General Strike for the entire city. The capstone to the strike would be an evening march to the Port of Oakland to shut it down for business, in solidarity with longshoremen in Portland who were in a protracted struggle with their parent company EGT.

The rally began near City Hall, where the Occupy camp had already moved back to reclaim its earlier territory. In staggered waves, thousands of people marched down the streets, taking over entire boulevards. “Your greed is my poverty,” their signs said. “Education, there is no other way.” “We are the 99 percent.” “Me and fraud = jail. Banks and fraud = bonus.” “Fight like an Egyptian.” “Jobs not warfare.” “If corporations are persons, why hasn’t Texas executed one?” “Welcome to the paradigm shift.”

There were girls in white death masks as if it were Dias de Los Muertos. There was a couple on stilts, a rich banker in tails and a top hat being chased by Rosie the Riveter, banging at him with a hammer. Drums banged, dancers danced, stereos boomed. Overhead helicopters buzzed in the sky. On the back of a stroller a sign said, “Let’s build an economy based on the kindergarten value of sharing.” Another sign read: “The 99 percent got teargassed at Occupy Oakland and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.” On green paper attached to a backpack: “Occupy Love.” Hanging off a chihuahua: “I attack corporations.” As we got close to the port we passed by a man standing in his yard holding a sign that said, “I do not need sex, capitalism is screwing me everyday.”

When everyone finally arrived at the Port of Oakland, the march stopped and a party broke out. People stood on the tops of rail cars and took pictures and texted, while banners were hung from a catwalk over the train tracks. Huge rigs hemmed in by protesters were parked in the port driveway, drivers sitting inside and occupiers sitting on top. A woman in a leather vest and a pink shirt and a man waving a red flag danced on top of one of them.

The signs waved: “Got feudalism?” “Socialism is not a bad word.” “End the fed.” “I would rather get shot with rubber bullets than pay back my student loan.” “God hates banks.”

No traffic could get in or out of the port–the march had won, the point had been made: we can do this. And still everyone stayed. There were speeches from a flatbed truck, and a man standing on boxes in the middle of the crowd doing sign language.  There was a girl in a brown stocking cap and tan scarf with a tiffany blue sign that said, simply, “I’m mad.”

And then the man who loved you with all his heart. Who somehow had cleared out a little space for himself in the middle of everyone. Or whose sign had. At first I took him at face value. He loved us very very much and had made a poster to tell us about it. It was simple and sincere. I couldn’t smell any irony or sarcasm coming off the sign. His brown eyes looked at us and his arms held the cardboard and he indicted us with those words. I love you with all my heart.

When someone you don’t know says such a thing to you, spoken or written, your response is likely to go one of two ways. Either skeptical and cynical:You don’t know me. Go away. Soap exists. Or charmed, maybe even moved: Why thank you. No one has ever said that to me. Who am I to be loved with all of someone’s heart? Well, maybe I am.

And if you happen to be at a port shutdown in the middle of a fresh chapter in a wave of American social unrest, you just might realize that love has something to do with this movement. Love might be some sort of light adhesive in this attempt of people to get together and collectively say things they can’t quite say on their own. Things about their anger, their sadness, their hope for something different. Lost jobs, foreclosed homes, a swaddling of debt. I love you with all my heart. A love that, once we let it into our hearts, the 99 percent and the 1 percent, all of us together, that can move–

I’m sorry. I have to pause here. I am not used to speaking so sincerely anymore about love and unrest and changing the world. I have been for many years in movements, causes, rallies, the festive clatter of unruly picket lines, and I find all of them to be ultimately heartbreaking. One way or another, it seems, they will let you down. I show up, again and again, but still.

Perhaps our friend with the sign has never experienced such heartbreak.


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