"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."
-Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
Everyone has that mental image of a protest in their mind; people standing on a street corner holding home-made signs and chanting in the name of some injustice. The Occupy Wall Street movement that has spread throughout the country like a wildfire certainly has its messages scrawled on pizza boxes, but as I approached the scene at Cesar Chavez Park in downtown Sacramento, I realized instantly that something was different about this campaign.
It was the permanence of it all.
Ever walk into a stranger’s house and there is sort of an unnerving sensation of being in someone else’s nest, with its foreign scents and disquieting aura. I felt as though I had just intruded upon someone’s home when I stepped into that park. Tents were pitched, a food table supported a massive bag of bagels and occupiers stood talking with one another, while some stooped to compose their latest message in bright displays only children’s chalk can provide.
I would soon come to find that my initial thoughts of intrusion were about as far from the truth as possible. Everyone was welcome here: the poor, the rich, the law and everyone in between.
Headquarters consisted of four canopies used as a meeting area, one tent offering massages (accepting donations of course), and the food table that often served a few of the local homeless who frequent the park. That kind of compassionate mentality was easily identifiable in the protestors I spoke to, including an organizer named Trevor and another young activist Chad, both enthusiastic about the cause. The group had formed a Peaceful Resolutions Committee for anyone who had a disagreement or conflict they wanted to discuss.
No one was attempting to win me over or push a message with some memorized line about freedom, the rights of the people, or the greed of a capitalistic society bent on destroying the oppressed 99 percent. No, we just chatted, about who we were and how our respective days were going. Conversation veered toward the movement, but it usually revolved around how peaceful and cooperative everyone had been, including law enforcement.
Over 40 arrests had been made at that point, mostly for staying in the park past 11 pm. This, I also came to find, was part of the reason not many tents were pitched in the park, as it is unlawful to camp there overnight. Trevor spoke of how amiable the cops had been, often talking to one in particular who said he volunteered to patrol the park because he supported the movement. Trevor’s biggest concern was with a few of the local news organization who he says insisted on twisting it into a controversy by interviewing only a select few who were often the least educated, and at one point filming a vagrant who lit something on fire.
Despite this, occupiers were getting their messages out there, mostly in the form of a sort of chalk mosaic of quotes, credences, philosophies and demands encircling the central fountain of Chavez Plaza. “Replace politicians with philosophers.” “What are you waiting for?” “Capitalism stole my virginity.” “We are not leaving until those Kochsuckers are gone.” “35 people went to jail for your rights at Cesar Chavez Park. Stand Up!” “We will not be silent anymore. We are the 99%.”
A few took the Hollywood rout with references to films about the masses being held down by the powerful few. The Matrix: “Free your mind!” And a popular mask popping up around the country, the Guy Fawkes guise from the Natalie Portman futuristic thriller V for Vendetta, reminded me of the film’s message: Ideas can change the world.
In a quiet corner, in faded, modest hand writing: “Think for yourself.”
Ah, and in the biggest writing on the pavement, the quote that would make any fan of Los Angeles Labor 411 proud: “Stop economic crisis … BUY AMERICAN!”
As I circled the bubbling fountain, I enjoyed a two-man jam session featuring some Stevie Ray Vaughn-ish guitar accompanied by a set of bongos. People were smiling and greeted me with hellos that basically said, “Welcome to our pad.”
Walking from the park, I thought to myself, how’s it going to end? Thousands throughout the U.S. are making a stand, and it didn’t really sink in until that very moment that they are not just going to get up and leave because they are tired. It’s too late for that.
This Sacramento group had appeared at a city council meeting and used the entire public statement session to present their ideas. They’ve already put in a request to allow overnight camping in the park as an exception for this cause.
Robert F. Kennedy spoke of a “ripple of hope” creating a current when a person “stands up for an ideal,” and often we see those ripples lose momentum and die. Thousands are getting swept up in the current of Occupy Wall Street.
They are here to stay.
Michael Messina, Managing Editor, Labor 411