"Occupy Wall Street" Comes to Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Wednesday October 05, 2011 - 12:26:00 PM

As Jimmy Durante used to say, ever’body wants tuh ged in tuh duh’act. (If you’re too young to remember him and/or don’t come from Brooklyn, Everybody Wants to Get into the Act.) After a frustratingly slow start, the Occupy Wall Street action finally has legs.

Over the weekend, it became front page news in the big national papers. They all ran approximately the same story, recounting how the previously invisible campers took to the road and were arrested in impressive numbers while trying to cross the Brooklyn Bridge in the auto lane. Most of the stories featured approximately identical quotes from various Poli Sci professors at second-tier institutions, ones easily located in the metropolitan areas where the newspapers were published, on the order of “If they want to accomplish anything, they’ll need a program and identified leaders.”

Well, no. The most useful analysis of what seems to be going on could be found on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times Science Section, in a fascinating article about slime molds. Here’s the basics: 

“Slime molds are a remarkable lineage of amoebas that live in soil. While they spend part of their life as ordinary single-celled creatures, they sometimes grow into truly alien forms. Some species gather by the thousands to form multicellular bodies that can crawl. Others develop into gigantic, pulsating networks of protoplasm. 

While naturalists have known of slime molds for centuries, only now are scientists really starting to understand them. Lab experiments are revealing the complex choreography of signals in some species that allows 20,000 individuals to form a single sluglike body. “ 

These congeries of creatures can move long distances as a group, consume all kinds of fodder, and generally take over the world by concerted action. Kind of like the Wall Street Occupyers, isn’t it? 

And now they’ve started spreading around the country. They’ve been detected in places as diverse as Chicago and McAllen, Texas, wherever that might be.  

They’re even in Berkeley, have been for a while now. The first wave was a group of Red Diaperish older people who spontaneously organized a “Tax the Rich” sign-waving in front of the empty Oaks Theater on Solano in mid-September, with allusions to the ongoing Wall Street action but no formal affiliation. The original convenor of that group, an artist friend of mine, doesn’t even use the Internet, but she found someone to publicize their second appearance on Solano with a commentary in these pages.  

The message was all over the web before it hit the big papers, of course. But national press, complete with videos of 700 people getting arrested, did wonders for spreading the word.  

Now even U.C. students, a bit slow off the dime, are poised to get into the act, according to the Daily Californian. A couple of planning meetings have already happened. There will be an official planning meeting (“General Assembly”) at noon this Saturday in front of the Bank of America at Center and Shattuck, followed by a full-dress Occupy Berkeley action in the same location the Saturday after that.  

These new folks are fully up to code in their use of modern media. They’ve got a web site, http://www.occupyberkeley.org/, a Facebook page, Twitter (@occupyberkeley), and even a telephone number (1-510-924-0268) and an Email address for questions.  

Of course, using all this stuff as they are, they haven’t quite managed to free themselves from corporate shackles. The first item on the website is an invitation to join a Google Group, and Facebook and Twitter are also somewhat corporate, aren’t they? 

So what’s the message? Well, it seems to be whatever you need it to be, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There has even been sotto voce speculation, in Twittering and commenting in various venues, that some Tea Partyers might want to make common cause with Occupyers, since none of them have anything good to say about big banks. 

The possibly apocryphal story about what President Franklin Roosevelt is supposed to have said to African-American union leader A. Phillip Randolph comes to mind: “Go out and make me do it.” Roosevelt supposedly knew what the right and just way to deal with “Negro” demands was, but was reluctant to take the intiative to set things right without pressure from Randolph and his troops.  

This story has been reported to be a favorite of President Barack Obama’s. He might be hoping that the Occupyers will “make him do it.” 

Whatever, of course, “it” is. That’s the problem. So much is wrong, it’s hard to know where to start. Lists of grievances have been produced in New York, Berkeley and elsewhere, but solutions are not so easy.  

It’s all about money and moneymen, though, as it always is. There’s another Roosevelt presidential quote for that one: “malefactors of great wealth”—but it’s from a different president, trust-busting Teddy, way back in 1907. The malefactors been around for a while, and they’re still up to the same old tricks. 

Commentators on current events are talking about “right” and “left” populism, but the distinction continues to be fuzzy. Those of us who didn’t sleep through our European history lectures can’t help remembering what we learned about other periods, especially the 1930s, when the many populist streams initially seemed to be flowing together into a mass almost as powerful as a slime mold on the move.  

Slime has a bad name in some quarters, but this is not intended to be a pejorative analogy. Slime molds are one of nature’s many forces, neither good nor bad intrinsically, just what happens.  

We’ve been down these paths before. Commenters on Occupyer websites and Facebook pages are already citing Mario Savio’s famous Free Speech movement exhortation. 

And these new populists could easily take as their manifesto Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 speech announcing the Second New Deal, in which he denounced all of the same evils being catalogued this week on Wall Street. What’s often forgotten is that America’s most powerful homegrown Fascist, Father James Coughlin, started out as a strong supporter of the New Deal and denouncer of bankers. He cleverly manipulated radio, the modern media of his day, to build a strong national following for diatribes that sounded not unlike some of the speeches which are now being made in New York and elsewhere, if you leave out his anti-Semitism.  

The populism of the 1930s eventually diverged and re-coalesced into a variety of mass movements, some good and some bad. Even Hitler started out as a populist.  

Some of my Old Left descended friends now organizing for this new movement can remember family stories about the horror with which some of their parents and grandparents greeted the 1939 Hitler-Stalin pact, though it eventually collapsed. They don’t want to make the same mistakes their parents did, but they don’t necessarily have a completely new strategy to cure the ills of society.  

Meanwhile, we can expect the Major Media to continue to look for The Leaders, because that makes reporting so much simpler, doesn’t it? Just a simple quote or two and home to bed. Both publishers and politicians searched furiously for the “Negro Leaders” in the 1960s, and were continually confounded by the likes of Fanny Lou Hamer, who didn’t fit their stereotypes of what a leader looked like.  

In the end, all we really know now is that this movement, whatever it will turn out to be, is on the move. Why and where are yet to be determined. It will be fun to watch.