Public Comment

Why, Why Occupy?

By Kevin Gorman
Saturday November 26, 2011 - 10:39:00 AM

I’m a student at UC Berkeley - and lately, an Occupier. In the last month, I have seen hundreds of people from many different backgrounds sitting down in the public sphere and talking about what they think is going wrong in our country right now. It has been inspiring to see such a diverse group of people coming together hoping to make the world a better place.

I’ve also found myself on the wrong side of police barricades more times than I ever imagined happening. I've seen peaceful protesters in Oakland tear-gassed and shot with 'non-lethal' weapons. I've seen peaceful students on Sproul Plaza beaten viciously. The scenes I have seen – both the good and the bad – are not unique to the bay area, they've been repeated in dozens of other cities across the country. 

Why occupy? 

I have been frequently asked by friends what the Occupy movement is about, or what we want. These questions are not easily answerable and I’m not sure that it is actually possible to answer them. The movement is decentralized - everyone is present for their own reasons. The most universal feeling I have found among Occupiers is a deep-rooted sense that there is something dreadfully wrong in our country today. I share this feeling and I am sure that many of you do too - even those of you who are currently ambivalent about the Occupy movement. 

I do not think that a lack of focus or goals is a major problem for the movement at this point - and I definitely don’t think it’s a valid reason to not support the movement right now. I am always hesitant to just directly quote someone else to explain my own ideas, but I think Robert Reich’s recent speech on Sproul Plaza brought this point home incredibly well - “Every social movement in the last half-century or more, it started with moral outrage…and the actual lessons, the specific demands for specific changes, came later.” 

Occupy is a very very young movement. Occupy Wall Street began less than two months ago. We are gaining astounding momentum. This is the very beginning of something, not the end. A few hundred students were attacked by the UCPD a couple weeks ago - and a week later 10,000 angry people came out. I do not believe that it would be possible for any movement this young with this explosive growth to have an explicit set of goals in the absence of top down direction - and I do not believe that a movement with top down direction is what America needs right now. 

Well, why do you occupy? 

I think that a lot of the issues brought up in the public discussion around Occupy are critically important. Many of them are issues I’ve been concerned with for a long time. That said, even though I’ve been concerned with them for a long time, they’ve never previously motivated me to take to the streets. 

So why am I doing so now? 

On the morning of the 25th, Occupy Oakland’s camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza was violently attacked by a coalition of eighteen law enforcement agencies. Tear gas, batons, and stun grenades were used against nonviolent and nonresistant protesters. 

I read about the morning raid that afternoon, but I had problems believing it. I did not understand how the events as described could have happened in the United states, let alone in the bay area. In retrospect the stories seem entirely believable, but at the time I just could not wrap my head the idea that a peaceful protest in the United States in 2011 could be attacked in such a fashion. I decided that I wanted to go to future events, and began trying to figure out what I should bring to future events to minimize the chance I would experience serious harm (and to increase the chance I could help out other people present.) 

While I was in the process of planning out what I would bring to future events, I began to see news and social media reports that the Oakland Police Department was teargassing protesters again. I also got in touch with a friend who was present who confirmed that tear gas had already been used despite the protest being almost entirely peaceful. Reading about something in the media is very different from having it described to you by someone you know and trust. 

While I was talking with my friend, I began to get angry - almost unbelievably angry, angrier than I had ever been before. I had no idea what I could do or what I should do, but I felt like I absolutely had to do something. I do not mean that I had an abstract desire to do something, I mean that I am literally unsure if I would have been capable of staying home that night. 

I ended up running half the way to Oakland before remembering that the buses would still be going. When I got there it quickly became apparent that the descriptions I had read at home were accurate: a peaceful protest in downtown Oakland had been attacked with gas, flashbangs, and rubber bullets by police officers. The actions of the police that night were unjustifiable by any conceivable standard, and I am still shocked by them. 

My friends and I all came out of that night without experiencing permanent physical harm. This is not true of everyone who was present. This is not true of everyone who was present. Scott Olsen, a former marine, was shot in the head with a tear gas canister from very short range. His skull fractured and he spent weeks in the ICU. He will probably experience significant permanent disability. If I saw Scott Olsen that night I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but I definitely saw some of the other people from the group he was with. One of my most lasting memories of the night was a Navy veteran in uniform standing completely calmly holding a flag just a few feet from the barricades. Although I didn’t see it in person (I was running away) he continued to stand his ground after he was tear gassed - you can see a video of it here:  

A couple weeks later, there was a protest on Sproul Plaza, the historic center of the free speech movement. During the protest, students erected a handful of tents. That night, around 220 police officers in full riot gear showed up to dismantle the miniature tent city, and proceeded to beat with incredible force many students and professors, hospitalizing several people. There was no violence against the police that night, and no illegal action except for the erection of tents. I was present that night, and I will stand with every ounce of integrity and credibility I have and say that there was no hidden off-video justification for the police attacks that day. There is no missing context that will make them intelligible. I saw in person the full context to the attacks, and it makes them more horrifying, not less. (There’s a video of one of the daytime incidents here: 

The police response I have consistently seen to Occupy protests has been one of the most disgusting things I have seen in my life but it has a very comforting flip side: Occupy is growing. In the face of brutal and unjustified violence, more and more people are coming out to support us. For every person sidelined by injury or arrest five step forward. 

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. You and I both know this. You and I have both known this for a long time. Occupy is the first populist movement fighting against these problems in many, many decades. I honestly believe that the current movement is the best chance we have had to create meaningful change in at least forty years. We have the support of the people and we’re growing, even in the face of outrageous violence. The time to strike is now. 

I hate to draw on the emotion captured by previous movements, but Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young summed up well why I go to Occupy events: 

What if you knew her 

And found her dead on the ground 

How can you run when you know? 

I don’t know how to run anymore. 

Please, stand with me.