OccupySF: The Week That Was, Or Wasn’t

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in Opinion, Politics

Published on December 06, 2011 with No Comments

Chance Martin. Photo by Luke Thomas.

By Chance Martin, special to FogCityJournal.com

December 6, 2011

“When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.” – Hunter S. Thompson.

Luke Thomas keeps urging me to write more about this ‘occupation’ thing that many San Franciscans still want to learn more about, and our tourists are still happy to consume, so blame Luke for what you’re about to read. I’m simply an experienced participatory journalist. (Trust me… I’m a professional.) Fortunately for Luke (less fortunately for you, Gentle Reader), my monthly disability check got held up for reasons unknown and I’m battling my second round with the Occu-Cough, so I’m relatively sober and have nothing better to do than wheeze over my laptop, crudely drawing pictures in the mud with a stick, which I now proudly present for your kind perusal.

This is the lead I was composing between my ears late Thursday night: Just when we were all beginning to think OccupySF was becoming a model for reactionary chaos and disorganization, enter the San Francisco Police Department. I think we can safely assume our brothers and sisters in blue are better organized and enjoy far more resources than our raggedy asses could ever scrape together, yet their actions Thursday (and I mean the orders these police officers were given, not what the police officers carried in their individual hearts) absolutely precipitated a major loss for the City. And not a loss quantified in terms of dollars and cents, but rather another indicator to the 99% that solidarity might be finally revealing itself among the ranks of the official wielders of San Francisco’s municipal stick.

This is what I saw of the events Thursday, Dec. 1, 2011:

G. from Communications (short for Generous) was supplying expensive beer and some profoundly overpriced (yet surprisingly tasty) grub at One Market. This hacker-occupy-er at our table was performing arcane rituals involving root kernels on my phone, G. was absorbed with Comm-related queries on his own phone, so your humble reporter exited the building to commit a tobacco-related offense (curse you, Angela Alioto!). Outside, the foot of Market Street evidenced puzzlingly increased police activity, and yet no actions or marches were planned for Thursday afternoon. Unusual activity in SFPD’s backfield had this correspondent’s Spidey-sense tingling, so I was on the lookout for an end-around or some other trick play from the offense. Factor in the absence of vendors at JHP (it was windy that day), and the plethora of news vans, and suddenly I begin to smell a skunk.

G. and the hacker-camper join me on the sidewalk, so I point out my seeming paranoia (I’m NEVER paranoid after a beer, to sometimes tragic consequences), but we achieve a minor concurrence and decide to migrate with the cops who are migrating to the plaza. Minutes after our arrival, we watch SFPD officers pushing Occupy-ers around willy-nilly, clearing a line to deploy the crowd barriers they had placed at strategic locations there the week before.

I asked an officer how was I supposed to get out of the camp and he pointed to a four foot wide gap in the barriers at the bus stop. Then I turned to watch a young man thrown by cops from these barriers with such force that he knocks over Mellody Gannon, an old friend and cancer survivor, and they fall together in a heap. I reach into my pocket to snap a photo or two with my phone (blame it on two years I spent working for that settlement mill at Dennis Peron’s old Market Street address), only to realize my hacker friend still had it. A few panicked minutes later I spotted him playing tug-of-war with a cop over a crowd barrier.

It is in moments like these, and probably ONLY in moments like these, that experience with police riots comes in handy. The secret is to focus on small goals and try not to get hurt. I somehow inserted myself to the center of the struggling knot of humanity at the barrier, and I positioned myself at Hacker-Camper’s ear: “You can’t get arrested until you return my phone!” Hacker-Camper releases the barricade, hands me the phone, we trade the briefest of warm smiles, and he then dives headfirst back into the fray. I look down at my phone… he had somehow installed Ustream and I was recording live!

By this time, everyone defending the camp had been ringed in behind the crowd barriers, and police officers were lined up around the outside of the barriers in order to defend them from us. I’m waiting around to see what develops next, and noticing that none of the officers present were wearing riot gear. Then, just as abruptly as they had first deployed the barriers, SFPD now removed them from the end of the camp facing the plaza.

Okay.

I look down at my phone to an incoming text from my buddy Elihu: “Chief Suhr says Occupy SF campers are paranoid about a raid, but no plans to raid the camp… we’ll see.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, I must confess here that my limited journalistic skills lie primarily in observation, not imagination. I just can’t make this stuff up.

This lull in Thursday’s events provided a brief opening to ponder some important questions… not to be confused with the urgent questions attendant to urban police encounters, such as “Why am I being detained?” or ”Do you realize you’re breaking my arm?!?” No, this is when chaos subsided to a point where the important questions penetrating my scattered thoughts began to form. “WTF?” was my first important question. Then it became “If the cops were planning to riot, then why no riot gear?” Finally, it boiled down to “Just who exactly IS in charge here?”

It didn’t take long to learn the answer. Whatever the reason, the cops blinked. And whenever a horizontal movement encounters a hierarchal organization suffering a crisis in command, opportunity smiles.

OccupySF was now in charge.

The next activity involved OccupySF’s removal of the remaining crowd barriers, prompting the rare and wondrous sight of uniformed officers in full retreat across Main Street. These liberated barriers were later re-purposed into an art installation (with a handy elevated observation deck) in the middle of the bocce ball courts. Spirits were high, the drums were beating, and to all evidence SFPD had taken an unexpected powder. I’m reviewing and deleting videos of my fingers that I took during the chaos at the barriers when I hear: “We’re taking back the Federal Reserve!”

Okay.

I assembled my real camera (the one that takes fingers-free photos and videos) and slipped the lanyard around my neck. Regretfully, I cinched up my laptop bag–it’s not an item that I can afford to lose and I was taking it into the fray for the second time that day—and joined a group of Occupy-ers quick-stepping their way to 101 Market Street in the gathering dusk. When we got there, regular-uniformed SFPD members were attempting to re-establish control of the sidewalk in front of the Federal Reserve Bank. They failed.


Police violently attack demonstrators re-taking the sidewalk in front of the Fed. @6:55 pm on 12-1-11

Reportedly, only one arrest was made–the young man the officers were standing atop in the video (no small feat to get that footage… I shot much of it through the gap between one officer’s knees). Reportedly, he took a swing at an officer. We all have days like that, even when we aren’t deliberately provoked. My favorite part of the video is the pudgy officer with the flashlight and the econo-sized pepper spray defending the barrier. I certainly didn’t want to provoke him.

OccupySF’s General Assembly meeting-in-progress took over all lanes of Market Street in front of the Fed and continued meeting. Finally some riot cops showed up, and I’m somewhat relieved because if I’m going to be brutalized by a public servant, I demand the guys who are trained for it. Then an SFPD flatbed truck pulls up, the cops load the crowd barriers on it, and the barriers are removed to an area somewhere behind the Fed.

I’m positively flummoxed that the solution for getting rid of those damned crowd barriers was looking us right in the eye until we finally started taking them. Additional barriers are then removed along Market Street by police. Then all the other regular-uniformed officers retreated, leaving only a line of cops in riot gear (to deter any further progress by our group up Market Street) and the four or so fellows (including Officer Flash-and-Spray) who generally hang out under the patio heaters at the Fed’s front door.

I headed to Starbucks on Drumm Street for a hot caffeine infusion, suddenly glad for my laptop’s weight because I could upload and share some video and info. Somewhere between the waning adrenaline, the sweet rush of the coffee, and the drumming my fingers on the table waiting for video to upload, I found another clear mental space to begin forming some conclusions about the evening’s excitement.

Primary finding: another threatening action against the community we call OccupySF resulted only in more gains made by us.

The upshot? OccupySF has re-acquired the public space (aka sidewalk) in front of the Federal Reserve Bank for our ongoing free speech activities. The only barriers now permitted at the JHP OccupySF Camp are those we’ve borrowed for our own use. They’re pretty durable, just like OccupySF.

As with any good diversion, there’s still discussion after discussion at OccupySF about that offer the City made last week. Personally, I find it insulting that we’re being offered such obvious crumbs from the City’s table, including another set of rules we can’t comply with (i.e. no pets or minors). But resource-minded demonstrators are keen to use whatever crumbs we can find, and that’s totally valid. In fact, re-use and re-purposing is clearly emerging as one of our many shared values.

In the meantime, a clear move to de-centralization among Occupy-ers is occurring, with some wonderful results. Occupations are now happening at SF State and at City College, in front of Wells Fargo Bank, and wherever else I haven’t heard about since Saturday. There are also covert camps scattered around the Financial District and elsewhere, as well as plans to take over foreclosed homes. The so-called “division” among Occupy-ers that corporate media reports can rightly be seen as growing pains of a three-month old movement, nothing more.

We’re “dividing” just like cells do to grow.

I’d also like to point out that it is beginning to look like a fool’s errand to almost everyone here at OccupySF to negotiate “in good faith” with a City that keeps pulling shenanigans like Thursday’s. I don’t believe it’s much of a stretch to feel we have a right to continue to peaceably assemble and practice free speech WITHOUT random (sometimes inept) attempts by the City of San Francisco to intimidate us, steal our supplies, deter or detain us. If the City REALLY wants to negotiate with OccupySF in good faith, perhaps we might move forward in our talks WITHOUT the continual setbacks these police actions cause?

Or, as with my previous question, and to put it succinctly: Just who exactly IS in charge here?

Finally, I have to question if the mainstream’s skewed coverage of OccupySF also played a role in Thursday’s dog-and-pony show. Whatever the reason, SFPD was clearly unprepared for our united and visceral response to their attempts at taking our camp hostage. OccupySF didn’t look much divided to me. Maybe that UNREPORTED story we Occupy-ers continue to hear regarding division between SFPD’s rank-and-file union members and police brass played a role as well (hope springs eternal). Add Homeland Security and the Eff-Bee-Effing-Eye to the mix as a baffle-factor, and who really knows what transpired among the powers-that-be on December 1st, 2011? (But I’ll just bet there’s a FOIA brewing as I write this.)

For the record, I am amazed and grateful there were only a couple of minor injuries suffered either side of the crowd barriers, and very little property damage… well, we do get our property damaged every time the police show up, but we’ve learned to adapt. Like I said, we’re durable.

Any way you look at it, last Thursday SFPD was unwittingly co-opted by OccupySF into one rather remarkable evening of impromptu street theater.

To all the expense-accounted folks viewing the unfolding spectacle through One Market’s windows (you’d HAVE to be on an expense account at THOSE prices), we hope you found it was a performance to remember.

Peace.