Saturday, November 26, 2011

Thanksgiving Day, Occupy Wall Street DC

Movements shift the public will - Rinku Sen

I've written again about Occupy Wall Street DC, this time my experiences there on Thanksgiving day - see below.  In the spirit of exploring the word "occupy," the two words "basic goodness," and how individuals can "shift the public will," I have another video clip to share. A seventeen year old Toronto high school student and victim of bullying, Jacques St. Pierre, wrote to Lady Gaga and several other celebrities to ask them to support the movement to end bullying in schools. To St. Pierre's astonishment, he recieved an a-mail from Lady Gaga herself a few days later, as reported in Huffington Post:
"The subject line said 'To Jacques from Lady Gaga,'" he told (CBS new correspondent Melanie) Nagy. "It said 'click on the link below to download the video for your assembly.' So no questions asked, Lady Gaga sent us a video. I watched it, and I started crying. I'm a huge fan. It's kind of embarrassing because I love her so much. I couldn't believe it."
I started to cry, too. Here's a link to the full Huggington Post article and video

.  .  . 

Statue of General James B. McPherson,
McPherson Square, Washington D.C.

Thanksgiving Day, Occupy Wall Street DC
(Down load PDF of article)

I bought $80 worth of roasted chickens at the Peruvian rotisserie and hailed a cab for McPherson Square. The driver approved of what I was doing - donating food to the OWS tent city - and we were both in a good mood on an exquisite sixty-three degree Thanksgiving day, with no wind, a clear sky, and the fallen oak leaves still strong with a muted orange that made the sky all the more blue. I paid him eight dollars including tip for the ride, which meant I was still twelve dollars short of the $100 I told myself I would donate to OWS on this Thanksgiving day. I'd recently spent a hundred dollars or more on so many hotel rooms over so many nights - not to mention the hundreds of dollars over a lifetime on this or that pack of cigarettes, bottles of Côtes Du Rhône, DVD rentals, novels I never finished and clothes I thought I needed - that this was a small sacrifice indeed, as well as a more creative and interesting use of a hundred dollar bill.

At the head of a line of folding utility tables where all the other food that had been donated - everything from turkey to pizza to glazed doughnuts - was being served was a young man who looked like he was in charge of something, at least for the moment. I told him I had five roasted chickens. He asked if they were cut, I said "no" and he escorted me to the kitchen tent, showed me the cutting board, and gave me a knife. After I'd hacked leg from thigh and breast from ribcage, I washed my hands with antiseptic gel from a dispenser bottle, since of course there was no running water, covered the chicken back up with aluminum foil - they wouldn't be needed until later since so many other people had also donated - and left the tent. The young man couldn't think of any more work that need to be done, so I began to mill around and get to know the place a little bit more for the second day in a row.

The first place I went was the library tent. Not surprisingly, it was by far the most orderly, if not serene, nine square yards of McPherson Square (though many of the private tents were also models of organized space usage). A young man named Brian told me the books had all arrived a few at a time, donations that had now filled the tent and were all organized into clearly labeled sections: education, democracy, identity politics, labor issues. As libraries are closing all over the country, in OWS they are springing up inside tents. Maybe this would be one of the best ways to continue the movement; street-side library tents? And what is more potentially transformative and powerfully non-violent than a book?

An older man was inside the library with me, browsing the books in the posture of browsing; shoulders slightly hunched and head cocked to the side in order to read the spine titles. It's a posture of privacy and inquiry; one feels quite safe and comforted inhabiting it, protected from interruption and millimeters away from a book that might change ones life or at least provide the next footsteps in the lifelong educational growth that written language supplies us. That's what the man was looking at, the Language section. His posture reminded me of my father and of myself, men who like(d) to browse bookstore aisles.

Outside of the library tent I ran into the woman who had given me the list of things I might donate to the encampment. She recognized me and smiled immediately. "I brought five roasted chickens," I said. Rene - I learned her name during our conversation - hugged me and kept her arm around me, escorting me in the direction she'd been walking. "I told you I'd be back," I said, "Yep, I see you are." Rene had the same alert presence as she did twenty-four hours ago, and added, "I've been up for forty-eight hours, working ever since the marchers from New York City arrived." She showed me to tents she had procured for them. "They're stuffed in there at night like sausages, but at least they are warm."

Tent door, OWS DC.

The library tent, as well as the choice residential tent locations, face and open onto the circular sidewalk that rings the statue of General James B. McPherson, the only army commander to die in the field of battle during the Civil War. The bronze man and horse tower above the encampment in a synchronistic symbol of sacrifice. I walked down the sidewalks that bisect the park and as I got close to one tent a women emerged and gazing vaguely in my direction - though never directly at me - began to shout, "You come in the direction of this tent and you're charged immediately with attempted rape. I mean it, you're charged with rape and I'm not kidding mother fucker." As they were yesterday, the realities of mental illness, former abuse, and homelessness were represented in every quadrant of the square.

As I walked on, an African American woman holding three chocolate chip cookies approached me and asked for money. As she began to spin the details of her story I pulled a twenty-dollar bill from my wallet and gave it to her (now I had donated $108). She increased the dramatic enactment of her story, gave me the chocolate chip cookies, took me by the hand, and started to lead me to the street. It was logical and humane for her to try to get more from me, and when I said the twenty was all I could give she took it well and insisted that I eat all three cookies myself.

I ran into the librarian again who told me his name was Phil. He was twenty-four, exactly three years younger than my own son, and I could have easily guessed his age. A tall, muscular, and street-worn black man of my age approached us and reached with both hands into the pockets of his coat, pulled out something sticky and orange - a kind of grain, pumpkin, squash; I had no idea - and intermittently stuffed the food into his mouth, which spilled out again as he spoke to us. He zeroed in on me. I told him where I was from and where I had lived. It was hard to understand him, but he kept saying something about my age, "Born in the early 1950's" he said a number of times - certainly correct about my age and making me feel like that fact was the only one I know about my existence. There's few faster ways to have self-credentials rattled than to carry on a conversation with someone who is mentally ill. 

I was taken back to the 1980s, after then-California-governor Ronald Reagan had closed the state mental institutions which responded by dumping their populations onto the street. At the Berkeley meditation center, which was so much a part of my life then, there always seemed to be a mentally ill person in the building - since they knew it was one that might accommodate them - and I often navigated the boundary between seeing if the person would behave reasonably, and therefore be allowed to stay in the room while we meditated or held a class, or if they had to be asked to leave. In those moments I always felt tested. Was my compassion real or a sham? To what degree was this person telling me the truth or hustling me? And where is the moral boundary between giving someone your time and telling them you have to go?

As always in any moment of reality - not to mention any social configuration - there are many stories that could be told about OWS DC. I'm writing about the intersection between homelessness and the OWS movement - the very visceral reality of it - because this is the story that has most prominently come my way, and through it I am understanding something. Apropos to this understanding, I received an e-mail from a friend in response to the blog I wrote yesterday:
Your piece on the encampment touches many of the feelings and thoughts I've been having about it here in Portland.  The camp was taken down a week ago now, but as in DC, the camp had become a gathering of much of the city's homeless population after the initial momentum began to dwindle. One protester returned to his tent to sleep and was jabbed by a used needle someone had left behind - the media feasted on that incident.
My teacher once said, "Luxury is experiencing reality." Living here at McPherson Square is a bit more luxury than I'm willing to experience, but I think this is clearly the reality he was talking about. Closer to the elements and not shielded from pain. It makes perfect sense that homeless people would move in - just as they came to the Berkeley meditation center. Here they are not shunned and were in fact invited (as my friend told me they were in Portland). 

That the homeless population might overpower the abilities of the OWS demonstrators - just as the cold might - is completely natural. Homelessness is part of a soup whose recipe includes most of the issues the protesters are aware of and protesting: PTSD from childhood abuse, alcohol and drug addiction in the family, napalm dropped in the Vietnam War, roadside bombs in Iraq, vets turned out on the street, sub-prime loans made in the poorest neighborhoods with contracts signed by machines, cancer caused from living near Superfund sites, and families without any medical insurance. Pain and neglect rolls downhill and OWS DC is a downhill collection site. A horrific and beautiful campground that I feel privileged to have entered and a lot happier for having done do. 

Just as there were many stories I could tell about the ninety-minutes I spent at McPherson Square on Thanksgiving day, 2011, there were many reasons why I had to come. The central reason I had to come... is that I just knew I had to come. That feeling had struck me when I was still in Turkey, when I first read about the OWS encampment in NYC. It wasn't until later in the day - at 2:28 AM as a matter of fact, when I was lying in bed wide awake - that it struck me that something had been "transmitted" to me by coming, and that I had entered OWS. It was a good feeling. I no longer felt outside of something I had admired and identified with, but inside it. And I knew that this feeling was the point, the message of that word "occupy," that it means - to quote Ram Dass from 1970 - "be here now." It means be here now with a 2011 twist, that we can be here now with a lot of other people, without any one particular agenda, but with an increased commitment to push and nudge global society in a more positive direction. It means to move, to the degree one can and is willing, outside of the comfort zone and into the chaos. It's not about seeking utopia, aggrandizing oneself, or being hopelessly idealistic, and therefore naive. It's about coming out of the closet.

Inside the library tent, OWS DC.


  1. Dear Bill,

    Thank you for taking the time to do this and to share what you experienced. A few weeks ago I visited and became part of, in a small way, the Santa Rosa Occupation. What I saw and felt was very similar to what you describe here. I also feel grateful for the opportunity created by others, as a result of a convergence of the factors you describe, for me to come out of the "comfort zone".
    Wishing you safe travels and looking forward to future posts...

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