By Elisabeth Jay
After activists occupied the Frank Ogawa Plaza outside of Oakland City Hall for the second time, it seemed high time to visit the site that not only had been renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, but was suddenly in the vanguard of the Occupy movement. Enough of the “I’m-too- busy-being-a-working-parent” excuse. According to the Occupy website, something would be happening Saturday October 29 at 11 a.m. But what to do about the kids on a morning when their other mother had grading to do?
“So this morning, we’re going to take BART to somewhere really interesting, where there are going to be a lot of people having a big rally, kind of like what is going on in downtown Berkeley, only bigger” I explained.
“Oh, where they are camping out with tents and the police took away their sleeping bags?” replied my knowledgeable 7-year-old son. “Can I bring my book and read?”
“I don’t know…” said his twin sister. “Will it be fun for kids?”
“Oh yeah! We can take the BART, and there’s supposed to be a kids’ tent, and we’ll take snacks.” I cajoled. I even tried to get their much-beloved local cousins to come along, but they weren’t quite ready for civic action: dog still to be walked, son to return from a sleepover. We agreed to try to meet up later.
When my family emerged from Oakland’s 12th Street station, Broadway seemed quiet, not too surprising for downtown on a sunny weekend morning. But, as we approached the Plaza, the sight of tents reassured us that something was, in fact, going on. First sighting: a makeshift memorial to Scott Olsen, the Iraqi vet injured in Occupy protests, with the ends of candles, handmade cards, and pictures of him moments after he crumpled to the ground laid at the foot of a flagpole.
“Mommy! What happened to that man? Why is he bleeding? Did he die? Is he OK?”
As I tried to compose my answer, a slight woman with pink-striped hair approached us, or rather, the twins. She bent down to make eye contact and said “I can tell you all about it.”
Sensing that something wasn’t quite right in her demeanor, I said “OK, but can you make it age- appropriate?”
“I can tell you what happened,” she insisted. She then proceeded to explain her version of events, which had a lot to do with how troubled the whole world was, and how women were going to rescue it with the help of the goddess cannabis. As I’m trying to get them away, I see an older man, missing some teeth, coming up on my other side – and crossing in front of us to head her off. “This lady don’t want to hear that stuff. You leave her and her kids alone, now. That’s not for these kids to hear,” he said.
Duly greeted, we walked around the edge of the tents where, it must be said, the goddess cannabis had clearly been making a visitation in the not-so-distant past. We passed by a meeting of about 20 people engaged in avid discussion, some with matted hair and grimy t-shirts, some without.
Next to the first-aid station, a “Kids tent” stood empty except for a large cardboard box, overflowing with stuffed animals, and a few cartons of crayons. My heart sank as I wondered if I’d made a mistake schlepping my son and daughter along to satisfy my curiosity. We sat down in the shallow amphitheater where people were assembling, waiting to see what the 11a.m. event would turn out to be.
Soon we were rewarded as a tall man on crutches started speaking from the center of the plaza. He explained that the day’s agenda was to form affinity groups in order to come up with actions that would take the message of the Occupy movement out into the community. In particular, the Oakland General Assembly wanted to raise awareness of the General Strike they had called for this past Wednesday.
But, before breaking into groups, we were going to do an ice- breaker exercise and share resources. The ice-breaker turned out to be “popcorn,” where he’d call out “who here is/likes/has/will [fill in the blank]” and those who are/like/have/will stand up. He went easy on us, mostly: “Who here likes to garden?” Lots of people, us included, stood. “Who likes to bike?” You should have seen my kids pop up. “Who here is an only child?” Again my twins stood up. (Later, my daughter would explain she thought he’d said “Who is only a child?” and she couldn’t figure out why all these grown-ups were standing up). “Who here speaks another language?” Up we went, affirming their bilingual education. “And who has ever been arrested?” I stood up, along with half the by-now 200-person crowd.
“Mommy! You’ve been arrested? What did you do wrong? When? Does Mom know?!”
After this, the organizer asked everyone with resources to share to come forward. They formed a line to his right, and one by one came forward with their offerings. Boxes of chalk; all the poster board to be found at the local arts supply store; a book on community art projects; handouts about radical organizing offered “in solidarity, from Occupy Humbolt County!” from a guy with half his hair stuck up with gel, the other flopping down, nerdy glasses, and a big smile.
One white woman who identified as living in Oakland Chinatown had used Google Translate to print out handouts in Mandarin; she was looking for native speakers to help her reach out to her neighbors. A Latina woman offered posters about the “huelga,” seeking to form a bilingual team to do outreach in the Fruitvale area.
Since we were outside with no amplification, we used the so-called “people’s mic.” Although I’d seen (and heard) it in action, I didn’t really understand how effective it was, not only as a broadcasting, but also an incorporating, tool. It consists of people repeating what speakers say right after they say it, so that everyone can hear. The speakers quickly learn to speak in short phrases, but any time they go a little long and the repetition gets messed up, someone calls out “mic check!” and everyone roars back “mic check!” and then the speaker knows to try again – only shorter. I found it exhilarating; it immediately made me feel like I was a part of something that was happening literally all around me.
But I was still a little apprehensive about how the kids and I were going to figure out what our role was in the action; while the assembled multitude was multicultural and multi-generational, it seemed to skew, uh, taller than four feet and change. Surely no affinity group would want a mommy and two seven-year-olds tagging along? My kids, I should point out, were not nearly as concerned: “Mommy! Can we make posters? T-shirts? What about the chalk, look at all that chalk up there!! Can we chalk?”
Luckily, we were soon approached by a friendly dad and his two girls, of 8 and 10. He wondered if we were up for a family-oriented action outside of the Fruitvale BART station – he’d overheard that there was a Dìa de los Muertos festival going on, so even if our outreach wasn’t too successful, well, it would still be a kid-friendly outing. That sounded too perfect to me, and off we went.
In true Bay Area fashion, his older daughter was getting service learning credit for the event. “But I can’t find anyone to sign her form! I keep asking people, but no one will say they are an organizer of the event.” I pointed out to him that, as he’d invited us to get involved, so too could we consider ourselves organizers; wasn’t that kind of the point of the Occupy movement? And I’d be happy to sign.
As we took the train to the Fruitvale BART station, he engaged the kids in a discussion of what the message we should be getting out might be. He’d downloaded some charts from the Occupy Together website about growth in CEO compensation vs. average worker income and suchlike; as we tried to explain the meaning to our respective children, they soon caught on. His older daughter came up with the idea that a few people were getting most of the pie and “that’s not fair!”
At the plaza outside of the station we quickly realized that we were a day early for the Dìa de los Muertos event, but it was just as well: more room for chalking! With four kids, a box of big chalk pieces easily became a plaza-ful of brightly colored “pie charts” that read “1% get 99% of the pie: NOT FAIR” and “Porque el 1% tiene 99% de la torta? NO ES JUSTO!” Individuals and families drifted by, and some came over. One, Jesus, was accompanied by his daughter Emily (who quickly joined in the chalking fun); he stood with me in the sunshine. I tried to say something about la huelga del miercoles but was stymied when he replied “well, I was just down at my union hall yesterday and didn’t hear anything about a strike!” Continuing on in English he asked me “so, what should we do about all this inequality?” “I’m not sure? What do you think?” He weighed the pros and cons of what had happened “in Spain, in Germany…they are so much more organized in Europe.”
Finally, our chalk was exhausted and we were ready to go. As we packed up, a woman carrying a stack of Red Flag newspapers and holding a girl’s hand came over to us.
“Hey, nice work here! I’m with the International Communist Workers Party.” My heart sank. I was tired, it was hot, the kids were done. Now this?
“I was just wondering – do you know where the face painting is? I had heard there was going to be face-painting here.”
Elisabeth Jay Friedman grew up in Berkeley, went away for a while, then came back. She is a professor at the University of San Francisco, and a mommy.
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