I have been hearing about the Occupy movement since it began, just like everyone else. Through reading reports and generally being down with the kinds of people who support what they are doing, I became relatively familiar with, uh, what they are doing and why they are doing it. I’ve had a few discussions with friends about the issues surrounding the protests and read a lot about them, but I hadn’t taken the time out to check it out for myself. I’m not in NYC or LA or Chicago or Oakland or Berkely where most of the headlines are being made. But luckily for me, there is Occupy Austin. So on a bright, chilly Sunday afternoon (November 27th) I headed down there to check it out. The following is adapted from an email I sent my girlfriend, so it jumps around a bit:
It was cold (in the 50s), so nothing was happening. The place had the air of a homeless camp. Lots of the people there were of the crust/punk variety, a lot of dreadlocks & scraggly beards & tattered clothes, a tent piled high with junk and cardboard, etc. There were a shitload of sleeping bags on the raised steps leading up to the City Hall ledge, and perhaps 20 people hanging out in & around them, reading, sleeping, talking, eating, etc. People were holding up signs like ‘Jesus Would Be Here’ and ‘We Have the Right to Not be Silent’ and selling donated baked goods along Cesar Chavez Street, talking to joggers and families who’d parked in the City Hall garage and who were wandering by. Cars on the street honked; whether in support or ridicule was left undetermined unless we happened to glimpse a raised middle finger.
The occupants were obsessed with cleanliness; I saw two people get in a fight because one guy was taking coffee but he hadn’t cleaned the machine, or something. There was a set of plastic drawers filled with toiletries and hygiene products. It hit home that these people are literally living outdoors. One protester was upset at a homeless guy who was wandering around (the open-air nature of the camp is attracting lots of homeless) with some sort of growth on his hand.
So there wasn’t much activity — just hanging out, like I described above. Whatever you’d do in your home, but just outside at City Hall with whatever amenities are available there, like skateboards and traffic cones and donations from passers-by and cell phone service. It is literally an occupation. At first I felt unsure about what I was supposed to do. No direction. Then after like 20 minutes I realized it was enough to just be there, and I felt better.
Two cops were onsite the entire time, just hanging out. I got hit up for money and cigarettes a few times. I don’t carry cigs and I spent my last $5 in cash in donating towards their trip to DC on Dec 6th, so I declined all requests. I did buy one woman a sandwich and a coffee from Austin Java though, because she said she was hungry and I wanted to help. The girl at the counter at AJ said some of the Occupy folks were stealing their salt & pepper shakers. That is the problem with a ‘horizontal’ movement like Occupy — anyone can call themselves a part of it, even those who do such things. Maybe the theft was a statement about the absurdity of private property, or maybe people just wanted their fries or tacos to taste better.
Overall I’d say they were good-hearted people with the right intentions but with an image problem. As some of my friends have stated, mainstream America is not going to take this bunch of crusty hippies seriously. Not even mainstream Austin will. I have a feeling the movement is more shiny in places like NYC, Chicago, and LA. Then again those cities are far more image-conscious than Austin is and protesters are starting from a higher standard of living. But I feel that getting PR and image consultants would violate the spirit of the protests. I am totally fine with how they are pursuing their agendas, disorganized and leaderless though it may be. As long as they remain nonviolent, arrests and military interventions will raise their profile & get their messages out.
My friend and I ended up chilling in the bar at the W hotel where I met a woman & her son who came down to support Occupy also. She seemed like this nice middle/upper-middle-class lady, a teacher, so I was very pleased that she was taking her son downtown for the protests. She said it was their fourth or fifth time out there. We discussed the issue of the image problem, also, and we talked about whether they are representing the poor effectively. This is the problem some friends of mine have with Occupy – that they claim to have grievances but focus only on those with cell/Internet access and who have the time to sit out there and protest, thus missing the people who need real help but are not reaching out to them. I have my counter-arguments to this claim, though.
It was surreal being in the swanky W bar (and 2nd Street District in general) watching people eat gourmet french fries & sliders while discussing these things. The atmosphere & very presence of the W seemed excessive & contradictory to the spirit of the movement they (we!) were there to support. But these people were definitely supportive of the movement’s aims as a whole. And I myself am a middle-class white guy with a steady corporate gig and a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. Who am I to criticize?
I am getting more & more comfortable with the idea of there being different levels of support that different people are comfortable with. And I do not want to to keep judging people for their lifestyles, although it is hard not to see the hypocrisy sometimes. Perhaps because I feel it so acutely in myself.