Occupy Oakland, not Afghanistan
As I marched jubilantly with tens of thousands of my closest friends, one refrain on our lips was the classic, “show me what democracy looks like, THIS is what democracy looks like!” Indeed.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last month, you have probably heard about a little movement that is currently taking the country by storm. Occupy Wall Street has captured the imaginations of hundreds of thousands across the United States who are standing up against economic inequality and the unbridled power of transnational corporations and massive banking institutions. Its impassioned message, surprising momentum, organic growth and non-hierarchical structure have been hard to ignore recently—especially here in Oakland.
A mere 8 blocks from Peace Action West’s main office, the Occupy Oakland encampment has stepped into the spotlight as the current epicenter for the grassroots movement. In response to the violent crackdown on a group of protesters October 25th that left Iraq veteran Scott Olsen hospitalized with a fractured skull, our city, drawing on its activist roots and defiant spirit, has come together in a remarkable way to denounce police brutality and demand a more fair economy. Last Wednesday, tens of thousands took to the streets in solidarity with the poor and downtrodden here at home and across the globe in a citywide general strike and day of action- the first that has been called in this country since 1946.
With homemade signs in hand, throngs of protesters from all walks of life converged on downtown Oakland at several points throughout the day to march on big-name banks. Those of us in the office that day took a break from our hard work occupying US foreign policy to join in solidarity around noon. The day of action culminated with a stunningly huge march to and occupation of one of the country’s largest ports, successfully shutting it down for the evening. Estimated numbers ranged from 7,000 to nearly 100,000 – as someone who was in that sea of people, I can attest to the latter figure.
As was the case with the New Deal, civil rights legislation and the winding down of the Vietnam war, grassroots “street heat” is often the fire that fuels change; the momentum that such movements generate has the potential to push politicians into actions they wouldn’t otherwise take. In a month and a half, the Occupy Wall Street movement has already shifted the political conversation on Capitol Hill despite the censorship of an unfriendly media.
The advancement of ideals however, has to go beyond a movement and beyond a particular historical moment. Within our democratic system, lasting change is made when movements like OWS intersect with the current legislative process, leveraging passion and numbers to hold politicians accountable and make specific changes to policy. This is where Peace Action West and the crucial work that our members make possible come in. As an intermediary between the people and the politicians elected to represent them, PAW has the unique ability to translate the political climate into legislative change RIGHT NOW.
One of the novel, exciting, and, to the mainstream media, confounding aspects of the OWS movement is its lack of a specific set of demands or political platform. While OWS is not a peace movement per se, it is safe to say that the teachers, nurses, veterans and young people on the streets are there at least in part because of perverse spending priorities in this country. One need only glance at the discretionary budget for 2011 to understand how cuts to the massive military spending in this country might fit in.
No one can say what the ultimate effect of the Occupy Wall Street movement will be, but the energy of OWS can have a synergistic effect on our work and may amplify our ability to end wars and reduce military spending. This is why, when we were done marching for the day, the PAW team cam back to the office, got on the phones and back to the important work of pressuring the super committee to cut military spending, invigorated by the prospect of a new season of opportunity. This is also what democracy looks like.