Absent a Voice, In Search of the Words

November 3, 2011 § 3 Comments

Sometimes words only expose how inadequate they are. I’m in this position now as I try to reflect on what occurred at the General Strike / Day of Action in downtown Oakland on Wednesday. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that whatever it is that occurred, most of us who participated will not soon forget. Imagine, as an example, the convergence of four parades at a single intersection—one with a thousand or so people marching north, another with a thousand or so people marching south, and still a third and fourth coming from the east and west, each a thousand people strong. At this meeting point, you hear the chants blend. The sounds of their voices, the words, songs, the languages, the music, they all become, in a very strange way that you will sit the next day and try to explain, visual. You see the sound they have become, and that sight is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.

So many clichés you’d ordinarily bristle at make you smile; so many people you’d ordinarily not even see, though they were right in front of you, make you want to weep. This is the sight and the sound of the many who have, if but for a moment in time, become one. And what a strange One this is! For a day at least, it is precisely those things that make us both cosmetically and profoundly different (whether they be race, language, political persuasion, personality disposition, or personal histories untold) that somehow manages to animate a convergence of marches into such a powerful and shared moment. (It’s hard not to sound like a token liberal when describing such moments. I apologize.)

“Whose streets?” they cried. To which they responded with the slightest of pause so that we might acknowledge the question: “Our streets!”

It was a three-letter word day for me, you might say: “One,” “Our,” and, oh yes, “Wow.” There was a moment last night in which there was no sound to be made visual. For even the sight itself was silent. I, along with several hundred other cyclists, had biked ahead of the marchers coming from downtown to the Port of Oakland, in order to provide tactical support and communication between the picketed dock gates. While I regret not sharing in the chants and the community of that long walk, I will never relinquish the memory–the “Wow”–of seeing them, from a silent distance, as I leaned against my bike in the shadow of an idling semi, police occasionally texturing the silence by revving a motorcycle engine, ascend the steep climb on Adeline Street that descends into Middle Harbor Road. “And this is only the first wave of marchers,” I said to my camera, as I tried (and failed) to capture the moment. All told, some 10,000 people ascended and descended into the Port last night. You may agree or disagree with its closure for the night, or perhaps even question its purpose and effect, but I defy you to watch the aerial footage or photos and not find yourself mouthing another three-letter word, “How?” How is that even possible? Or maybe another three-letter word, “Who?” Who are these people?

“Whose port?” I screamed last night until I was voiceless this morning. “Our port!”

For now, I insist on emphasizing the uncertainty at the heart of the Occupy movement. It does not represent (or yet demand) anything nearly so much as it embodies this sense of Our—i.e., our discontent with the economic and political systems in place, our desires for something else, etc. And like all bodies, this embodiment is necessarily plural. We do not know what it is capable of. If we agree at all, it is primarily in our shared presence: our occupation of a space. Some of those chants we hear and actions we see may make us cringe, but this is all the more reason for our embodying the alternatives to the cringe-worthy (e.g., impotent acts of vandalism). Those acts speak for and embody the entirety of a movement only if the movement allows them. [ed.: A little naive here, it turns out. The police have even more power in this regard than I allowed in this piece.] (Which reminds me of a speaker at a recent General Assembly who said with a mix of humor & anger, “Ain’t no motherfucker going to speak for me!”) So while I celebrate yesterday’s General Strike / Day of Action, I also see it as issuing an important challenge going forward. As the Occupy movement grows larger and becomes ever bolder, as I believe it may, we will unavoidably find ourselves standing next to and being associated with activities we would like most to avoid. This, I feel, is as much a necessary risk as it is an invitation.

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§ 3 Responses to Absent a Voice, In Search of the Words

  • @lib2core says:

    I am in awe of what happened yesterday. All of you were an inspiring sight to behold. I cry that a few would mar the essence of what everyone accomplished throughout the day. Media may target those individuals as a negative for OccupyOakland BUT I refuse to see it that way. They were the exception. Sights of some cleaning off graffitti is more indicative of the spirit of Occupy. Thank you for standing up for those of us who can’t.

  • tom clark says:

    To me, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this entire confusing clutch of events has been the general willingness of most people involved, despite the massive differences of background and disposition from person to person, to attempt to allow to others the freedom to express as chosen, while at the same time gently diffusing the (necessary) jagged edges of some of these forms of expression. In the heat of a battle, perhaps it’s impossible to “just chill”. Nonetheless, never a bad idea.

    I am trying to say it’s the self-regulating aspect of the crowd events that feels hopeful.

    (By “crowd” I designate any gathering, planned or improvised, of a group of persons larger than two.)

  • […] Absent a Voice, In Search of the Words by Brad Johnson. […]

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