[Please forgive this brief interruption in my multi-installment blog, "Black Face/Identity Politics Is for Suckers" -- the next installment of which, Part 3: Obama's Putrid Predecessor, will be posted shortly.]
Last Friday, Afghans for Peace, Iraq Veterans Against the War, World Can’t Wait, CODE PINK, and Occupy Wall Street (Oakland and Fremont branches, at least) participated in a rare event: a rally and march in sleepy, suburban Fremont, CA. Well done, everybody! We stood in solidarity with one another in the heart of the nation’s largest Afghan-American community and demanded an end to the longest war in U.S. history (also one of the most futile wars in our history… and expensive, too, costing taxpayers well over a billion dollars per week).
In many ways the event was a real success, but from the perspective of Occupy Fremont, I regret to say that I think we may have taken a small step backward… at least with regard to achieving our goal of promoting and modeling a particularly peaceful, gentle, and civil approach to political activism (Occupy Fremont’s members have officially adopted a stance of doctrinal nonviolence, of course, and it’s clear that many of our members are committed to applying that peaceful spirit as radically, liberally, and inventively as we can… even if that means refraining from shouting “fuck the pigs!” in the faces of our neighborhood police officers …even if it means marching in a way that doesn’t disrupt traffic or inconvenience our community… even if it means offering policy solutions in addition to policy criticisms… even if it means challenging the corporate media’s unflattering caricature of us).
Undoubtedly, we accomplished some positive things on Friday, but I think it bears saying that we also failed to live up to some of our highest aspirations for what Fremont activism can look like — hopefully what Fremont activism will look like: inviting, inspiring, and principled…
RECAPPING THE MARCH 30th EVENT:
Diverse members of the Bay Area peace community came together to peacefully protest the Afghanistan war outside of a Fremont military recruiting office. Speeches were given condemning the war and the politicians who have prolonged it. Signs were held, boldly condemning atrocities committed with our tax dollars. The names of sixteen recently murdered Afghan civilians were read aloud, and we marked their passing with silence, reflecting on the fact that these innocents, human beings with names, are forever lost to the world.
There was a bit of a commotion early in the speechmaking when a 67-year old military veteran (a supporter of the Occupy movement, by the way) became angry and disruptive, convinced that our protest would somehow end up vilifying military men and women. To my dismay, a few of my fellow protesters were immediately up in his face, shouting back at him and apparently inviting violence. Fortunately, I and a couple others, including a young woman from IVAW, were able to intercede, walking with this upset older man past the shouters, putting ourselves between the would-be antagonists, and stopping with the disturbed gentleman at a quiet spot just outside of the rally.
We spoke calmly to the man and allowed him to speak. We also politely asserted that he should, in turn, listen to what we had to say. I pointed him to the language in our flier for this event that stated explicitly: “Help America’s military members understand… we recognize their sacrifices and we will work to see that America honors its commitment to their future health and security.” Before long, the old veteran was speaking civilly and even laughing with us. The matter was resolved entirely peacefully, and the gentleman walked away clearly more receptive to our message than when he had arrived (and isn’t that what it’s all about?).
So far, so good. Here’s where we began flirting with trouble…
TAKING IT TO THE STREETS
I first became concerned for the event when it was spontaneously suggested that we take our numbers into the streets for an unplanned, traffic-obstructing march: no permit, no organization, and higher potential for risk.
“Okay,” I told myself, “we can go out on the street for a little bit. Drivers can be inconvenienced a little bit, if it helps raise awareness of this war’s terrible costs.” I told myself that a little civil disobedience in the face of grotesquely immoral policies isn’t the worst thing in the world (far from it). Uncomfortable as I was holding a sign toward the end of the march with car horns blaring behind me, I managed to put my trepidations aside and stay with the group from Paseo Padre to Mowry, then west on Mowry until the confusion worsened and the march did a U-turn, creating more confusion, and…
And then I saw the violence instigators in our midst (maybe ten or so people, mostly young, to be honest)…
Long after we should have called the spontaneous march over and the event a success — realizing that we had pushed boundaries and inconvenienced people enough — I noticed that some marchers were apparently instigating an ugly confrontation with the police, repeatedly halting and refusing to move from the middle of the street, leaning in toward the police vehicles and shouting, inviting escalation…
I’m sorry, folks, but these cops are my neighbors, too. The Fremont police, near as I can tell, exercised considerable restraint on Friday. A few of our fellow protesters, however, clearly did not. By the time the event was over, thanks to the conduct of a few individuals, we resembled EXACTLY the unflattering portrait of the Left that is so often painted in mainstream culture: self-indulgent, angry, rude, out of control (mind you, I witnessed no overt acts of violence by anyone, but the standoff with the police clearly threatened to degenerate into a violent clash — and it seemed to me that the protesters were the ones pushing it to the brink).
The turn of events was unfortunate — but, my friends, it was hardly unforgivable. We’re a young movement. We’re going to make mistakes. Please understand that this blog isn’t about repercussions or blame; it’s about doing better tomorrow.
DOING BETTER TOMORROW
Certainly, we accomplished some positive things with last Friday’s rally, but I am of the firm belief that we can do better in the future. The next time we support an event in Fremont we should be clear to all of our activist guests — the people we invite and with whom we interact — that we are trying to model a different kind of activism in Fremont: positive and hopeful. We need to tell our friends up front (before the next event spirals out of control) that, the way we see it, angry, self-indulgent, and ugly behavior makes it easier for the corporate media to marginalize our movement and ultimately defeat us. If we believe in this movement, we mustn’t let that happen.
Lest I seem too negative, let me point out that Friday’s event was mostly a success: the organizers did a good job of putting the event together; the Bay Area peace community came out in solidarity to end a brutal war; someone was savvy enough to notify the local press; and we undoubtedly increased awareness of our presence in this community… even awareness of our issues.
That said, I believe we need to be more disciplined and focused about our movement — who we are, what our values are, and what we hope to achieve — than to repeat the mistakes that were made a week ago. It is my belief that Occupy Fremont (and OWS) can elevate a model of protest that is thoughtful, hopeful, positive, and WINNING. I hope my fellow activists will agree.