The Rural 99% – Notes from an Occupation (or “The Armies of the Damp”)

We were beset on all sides by a phalanx of local law enforcement officers, National Guardsmen and disgruntled mail carriers.

Occupy Astoria
Occupy Astoria: writer Ham waving in the middle -- after marchers brave the October monsoon

WISH I could make the first event in the young history of Occupy Astoria sound more exciting than it was:

We were beset on all sides by a phalanx of local law enforcement officers, National Guardsmen and disgruntled mail carriers.  The tension mounted exponentially; we knew the situation was a powder keg just ready to blow.  I had brought a powder keg with “THIS IS A METAPHOR FOR THIS SITUATION” stenciled on the side just to make sure we were all on the same page.  Something had to give.  Someone had to make a move.  And I knew instinctively that that someone had to be me.  Also, they told me to. So, fired up with righteous indignation and a handful of black-market pseudoephedrine, I did just that.  I crossed the street to the Bank of America trailer and bravely, brazenly, attempted to withdraw twenty dollars without paying the $5.00 ATM fee.  Then, in my boldest act of civil disobedience, I crossed back – refusing to use the crosswalk.  That was all it took. Fists flew; angry chants issued from the crowd as protestors were pummeled with truncheons, billy clubs, and rolled-up Sharper Image catalogues. Several of my fellow protestors were struck in the head with rubber bullets.  If the police hadn’t forgotten to bring the guns with which to fire them, their injuries might have been even more severe.  Chaos descended on this sleepy North Coast town, and through the smoke and the rage, I recognized it for what it was – a charged moment of brutality, passion and fury the likes of which this town had never before seen.  Aside from that whole “Goonies” thing a couple years ago, of course.

Gosh, that would have been great.  It’s neither a secret nor a surprise that many involved with the Occupy movements nationwide have been inspired by the protests of the sixties – against the Vietnam War, in favor of civil rights legislation, feminism and gay liberation – and I’m as guilty of romanticizing the era as much as anyone.  But where others dream of walking in the footsteps of the Mark Rudds, the Mario Savios, and the Jerry Rubins – the charismatic theoreticians and front-liners of Boomer radicalism – I dreamt of being the guy walking a few steps behind, scribbling madly in his notebook as he goes.  What I would give to have been present for the ’68 Democratic Convention – not for the glory of having my skull creased by one of Daley’s stooges-in-blue but for the chance to rub shoulders (and nothing else) with William Burroughs, Jean Genet and Terry Southern.  And so it went in the dreams that filled the days preceding Friday, October 28 – visions of New Journalists danced in my head.

Occupy AstoriaOh, that’s not to say that the more exalted motivations that power the movement were absent from those dreams.  Like so many, I have felt hard done by the inequities in our financial system; the corporatization of America and the exploitation of the have-nots (or at least the have-not-muches) by the haves via sub-prime loans and student loan debt (etc., etc.) enrage me like they do many others.  But we all do our part according to our abilities; what would be better than to utilize my meager talents in the service of Occupy Astoria, to report from the epicenter of the conflict for the world to see?  Maybe I could become the Norman Mailer of this small subset of the 99%!  Only one insightful communiqué away from awards, fame and drunkenly goading Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show!  (Or whatever the 21st century equivalent might be – drinking half a Four Loko and making snarky remarks to one Kardashian or another on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, maybe. And they say civilization is in decline…) And now that the first, crucial event has passed, all I can say is…

I should have known better.

I hate to disappoint everybody, but, contrary to what the naysayers caught up in the media gulfstream may believe, Occupy Astoria was rather well organized, pretty clear in their intentions, and overwhelmingly peaceable.  Hey, I’m disappointed as well – all those meetings I attended at the Labor Temple, with that slowly-widening circle of passionate people, and nary a major breach of decorum to be found in any of them?  No chairs thrown, no raised voices, no decisions arrived at without first consulting Robert’s Rules of Order?  Okay, fine, perhaps a little agreeability among like-minded citizens isn’t so surprising, however lacking in dramatic tension it might be.  But surely it will have been more than made up for in municipal resistance, right?  This town – named, after all, for its founder, America’s very first multi-millionaire – will surely erect roadblocks, deny permit applications, and otherwise entangle all concerned in enough red tape to colorfully mummify an entire district?  Alas, no.  Our first choice of venue for our 24-hour vigil fell through; another came along to take its place, no problem.  The requisite permits to use that land were almost as easy to come by – as long as we didn’t sleep in tents or engage in unlawful food-handling, we could do as we pleased from noon Friday to noon Saturday.  The local police force pledged to stay out of our way unless we called on them.  What the hell is going on here?

Occupy Astoria marchGood thing, then, that we had the biggest enemy of all working against us that day – the weather.  Beautiful, unseasonably sunny days preceded us (and an equally lovely day followed immediately thereafter), but 10/28 itself was host to the highest winds and the heaviest rain we’ve seen all year.  Now that was more like it – a heroes-against-the-elements scenario!  (I was heartened, then disappointed, when I went online to check the forecast for the day and found it on ground.”  I was hoping that it was the work of renegade meteorologists commmitted to fighting the climatic power by any means necessary – “Our Seven Day-of-Rage Extended Forecast shows a 75 percent chance of oppression by means of precipitation, but at least the clouds are black” – but no, it was just a regular old weather website with a name that had obviously stuck in someone’s head without any political/historical resonance or sense of irony whatsoever.  If that doesn’t give you a snapshot of what’s happened to radicalism in this country, I don’t know what will.)  How inspiring, really, the sight of those hardy few battling wind and rain to stake their temporary claim on that tiny patch of land on Leif Erickson Drive, erecting canopies, unfolding tables, priming generators, setting up lights, testing the efficacy of Sharpies on damp cardboard, chasing after one of the canopies when a heavy gust sent it flying onto the adjoining baseball field – okay, that last might have been less “inspiring” than “funny” – and it only became moreso when some thirty of us massed together to embark on our March on Astoria.  Our clothes may have been dampened, but not our enthusiasm as we made our way downtown, waving, cheering, chanting, hey c’mon guys we should really come up with a good chant, should we turn left here, we should really wait until the light turns green before we cross, seriously guys I spent all night coming up with chants and the least you can do is, wow that puddle is a lot deeper than it looks, I think my sign just fell apart, do you think God is part of the 1%, I mean, have they looked up his tax returns lately, no I don’t think “wooooooo!” counts as a chant… By the time we returned to the site, we were saturated but elated.  (Now that would have been a good chant.)  And it laid the foundation for the truly heartening display of unity and fellowship that went on into the night.  A makeshift PA system was fired up as the sun (hah) went down, and the members of our little tribe took turns giving testimony well into the evening.  (The less said about my personal contribution, the better.)  Some drifted away as the hour grew late, some toughed it out through the night, and others joined us on the much brighter Saturday morning which followed, raising their voices (and their much-drier signage) in streetside protest before coming together at noon to clean up (and, it should be noted, leaving the site cleaner than when we got there) and then part fondly.  How wonderful, how moving…

…how utterly unjournalistic.  No riots.  No real confrontations.  Not even any dialogue with those opposed to the cause, unless you count the people who drove by, gave us the “1% salute” and screamed “GET A JOB!” out their windows (and for all I know, they might have been members of an all-white Coasters tribute band and they were just rehearsing).  No, I don’t really want to see our efforts marred by violence for the sake of a story, but it bothers me that most seem content to express their discontent from the safety of message boards and Facebook posts, when true engagement is what’s needed if this discussion is going to get anywhere.  The impulses and concerns behind the Occupy movement affect us all, and unless we come together, talk, argue and listen, to recognize the considerable common ground we share across the sociopolitical spectrum, we may as well cede that ground to the corporatocracy forever.  A true populist uprising is in progress.  Perhaps you’d care to join us.  You can find me by the side of the road, dripping wet, holding the sign that reads “I AM HOLDING A SIGN.”  (Hey, every movement needs its clowns – if I can’t be Norman Mailer, I’ll settle for Paul Krassner.)