The Occupy D.C. experience actually began Monday, 12/5/11, 5:30 a.m., PDX (24 hours by air to D.C.!??!), where a couple of us went over to talk to Sen. Jeff Merkley (hey – SEIU put him in office!). I chatted personally with him a bit and thanked him for his work on banking reform (from an extensive article in the New Yorker on the Volker Rule). I also gave him a couple of “We’re the 99% – taking back our economy” sticker-buttons I had made the night before and a nickel imprinted with a tiny “no more war” on both sides. The nickels were “struck” by one of our “Silverton People for Peace” activists (and coin minter) who had recently passed away and who had for several years lamented economic injustice (and had prophesized eventually even greater economic destruction).
After over 24 hours of airport lounging and some actual flight, we got into some action: about 40 of our Oregon group dropped in unannounced at the state’s lone Republican Representative, Greg Walden. He left a meeting at another venue to meet with us and with his 2nd district constituents doing most of the talking, job creation and extension of unemployment benefits were the main issues he was asked to support.
From there it was to 5th District Congressman Kurt Schrader’s office. He stopped a meeting with his staff to come out and talk with a much smaller group of us (I simply told his receptionist we were from SEIU). He also was told repeatedly, “its jobs, jobs, jobs.” He was implored to keep jobs from going over seas and to work to return jobs to America. The group also said the big tax breaks for corporations and CEO’s were hurting the economy and making things hard for the majority (99%) of Americans.
So far, I was able to perform the “Economy Rap” for a Turkish news crew and for the local C-span radio station. While doing it for the Turkish news team (video) I attracted quite a crowd of our occupiers walking into the big congress annex building. Several cell cameras caught the rap and it received good reviews.
Along the lines of “[w]rapping, this morning in the mess tent (simple breakfast of “egg Mac-muffin without the sausage) with the largest captive audience I thought I would have at my disposal, I climbed on stage and with the mic woke up the crowd with the “Economy Rap.” People seemed to appreciate it and it paved the way for others to entertain the crowd. Unfortunately, I am getting requests to do it again for those who want to take it back to their communities but I am concerned about being cast as a one-hit wonder.” So, I am working on another rap. While my act surprised a number in our group, those who know me better and had left me to watch their things, returned shaking their heads with a “Yeah, leave Rob in the room with an open mic and …”
We “took” K St. today after a march that wound through downtown D.C. Various color-coded groups (two thousand) converged in a main intersection of the street that is known for the powerful lobbying firms that line it. We were there for about an hour – apparently pre-arranged with authorities – being as raucous as we could in the rain. But when it was time to leave, we stayed long enough to morally support about 20 of occupiers who sat down in protest and were arrested peacefully (pre-arranged, as I understand). We marched back in a heavier rain where I could sit at a laptop in the covered, but swamped-floor “media tent” (there was 3″ of rain for the day, I understand) and file my report before I got electrocuted.
Word is the next action may be at Newt Gingrich’s lobbying firm that lobby’s to protect the interests (and money) of the health care industry. I have the privilege of being on the SEAL team (don’t know what that stands for yet), the protest/direct action planning and implementing team, so it won’t be long before I know what’s coming down next.
I found out today the direct action team I am on – SEAL’s – stands for Super Energized Action Leaders and during yesterday evening’s drenching rain (3 inches for the day), I found out why: we were stuffed into vans along our occupy area on the Capitol Mall and then tumbled out of them at an up-scale hotel a mile away to raise a ruckus at Newt Gingrich’s fund raiser. The downpour only made our spirits more upbeat as we used megaphones to chant right up through the windows of the event where Newt was holding court among some of the D.C, elite: ‘Hey, hey millionaires, time to pay your fair share!” I tried to do my part with a “Shame on you; shame on you!” chant. We were there over an hour.
With our rain-soaked clothes drying over night, we met the next morning at the occupy site to plan our next action: a very loud demonstration inside an up-scale restaurant near the Capital Building where Missouri Sen. Roy Blont (no relationship to the humorist) was hosting a fund raising breakfast. You can Google Sunlight Foundation and get such facts as this about Sen. Blont: he has taken nearly $7 million from Wall Street interests, $3 million from the health care industry and $2 million from other lobbyists and other special interests. So who do you think he represents during this time of economic hardship for so many Americans?
Our tactic is to get an advance party inside to text the rest of the group when the dignitaries arrive. After piling out of vans at a nearby intersection, we move en mass by surprise to the venue and pin the doors open before the help can lock us out. This time we got into the restaurant quickly, but not quick enough to get into the separate dining area. Nevertheless, Sen. Blunt and company heard us loud and clear as we packed the hall and stairway into the room, chant volume boosted by megaphones:
“Hey, hey millionaires, pay your fair share!;
We’re hungry, we’re broke, we’re unemployed, we won’t take it no more!;
Who do you represent? – the people or the one percent?;
No more Wall Street greed – jobs is what we really need!;”
and of course,
“We are the 99%!.”
It wasn’t long before police arrived, and after stalling as long as we could inside, we moved outside, as the red-faced manager of the restaurant screamed at the top of her lungs in an almost chant-like cadence, “Get the hell out! Get the hell out!” As one of the last people to file out, I did advise her to “just calm down.” which was probably more diplomatic than reminding her, “Please use your inside voice” or “if you’re not making somebody mad, you’re not doing your job.”
Outside we lined the entrance and continued our chants for another half-hour. The D.C. police’s only involvement was to ensure the sidewalk was not obstructed.
When I later asked one of the organizers to divulge how she knew where and when these politicians were having their fund raisers, she just laughed and directed me to the “top secret” political fundraising scrutiny site, polticalpartytime.com. (The link now seems unworkable)
At our noon surprise action – a hit on South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s fund raiser at another posh restaurant a couple of blocks from the Capital Bldg., we were successful in pinning all doors and found ourselves – about 30-40 – quickly encircling Sen. Graham and his party at a 10-ft. table in an intimate dining room. The chants were deafening and it wasn’t long before the police showed. By then we had quieted to allow the senator to speak, so the 2-3 police in the room stepped back. The delivery from the senator was of the typical vapors, ambiguous and pompous nature we have come to expect from politicians and which they expect us to be impressed and disarmed by.
After enough of his speech of no substance (are there any politicians out there who don’t claim to have grown up in something resembling a log cabin with hard working parents who scrapped by?), we took over, with a very eloquent Marine Iraq War veteran testifying to his continued unemployment and his inability to get proper treatment for his war related post-traumatic stress syndrome. Others spoke of personal unemployment and home foreclosure or that of family and friends. Another spoke of the sorry state of education she had witnessed in the senator’s home state due to lack of funding.
The testimonies were done in the culture of Occupy: “Mic check! Mic Check! (this gets everyone’s attention, silences the room for the speaker, and instills discipline as well as energy). Each phrase is repeated by the group as the testimony continues, both to reinforce points and to ensure everyone hears. A speaker than tried to pin down Sen. Graham on support for pending legislation on extension of unemployment benefits and jobs creation, but he wiggled his way out and ruled out (obviously, considering those gathered around his table) tax increases and removal of tax breaks for the wealthy.
Sen. Graham has taken $2 million from Wall Street, $1 million from the health care industry and $3 million from special interests lobbyists and lawyers. So who do you think he represents during this time of economic hardship for so many Americans?
When we had overstayed our welcome (we were in the room for a half-hour) with our concluding deafening chants (makes it difficult to digest), we followed the police out for another hour of raucous chanting, lining both sides of the entrance to the restaurant until Sen. Graham made his way past us to the final chant: “Hey, hey, Senator Graham – who do you support: the people or the Wall Street hams?”
Occupy D.C. ended Thursday evening with a silent march to the national headquarters of the Chamber of Commerce, whose entrance looks across a block of lawn to that of the White House’s. The silence of the event ended with a red carpet, stenciled with “99%” from one end to the other, rolled down from the entrance steps across the bodies of four demonstrators. Chanters implored well-heeled attendees to the holiday party inside (where Speaker of the House John Boehner was reported to be) , “Walk on the carpet; walk on the carpet!” Though all declined, the message was clear: the 99% have been walked on for way too long: “We’re hungry, we’re poor. The rich get richer the poor stay poor; we won’t take it anymore!”
The action went on for almost two hours as party attendees arrived. I had to leave a bit early for a social engagement and my route found me passing the White House with chants, such as “Hey, hey millionaires, pay your fair share!” and “Jobs is what we need – not Wall Street greed!” fittingly carrying across the wide lawn and bouncing off the White House entrance. I guess you’d call that a twofer…
I was impressed that on a sunny, mild day of departure, the priority of a large group of our Oregon contingent was visiting the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial. The continued relevance, inspiration and poignancy of his engraved quotes made it difficult to read them without lumps in our throats or misty eyed:
“Make a career out of humanity. Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights. You will make a greater person of yourself, a greater nation of your country and a finer world to live in.”
“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.”
The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial is next down the walk. It was eerie to see how relevant his quotes – and the accompanying sculptures (e.g., spirit-broken unemployed standing in a line; an older couple bending over a radio, seemingly for some uplifting news) – are to these economically trying times:
“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order.”
“I have seen war… I have seen war on land and sea. I have seen blood running from the wounded…
I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed…
I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
And finally, what should probably be the rallying cry of the 99%:
“They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rulers… Call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order.”
Indeed, in the last thirty years in America in particular, it seems democracy has deteriorated into a system more resembling that of feudalism; to where the many serve the few with the expectation the masses be grateful in return for any parsimonious favor or protection granted by the few. Some call it “trickle-down economics.”
SEIU International actually began such a campaign – “Take back the Economy” – early last spring to regain for all working people security that is rapidly disappearing from the American dream: adequate employment with a living wage capable of supporting a family, affordable and effective health care, quality and accessible education for all (as with health care, higher education costs have spiraled out of control, leaving students with tremendous debt or preventing them from continuing education), opportunity to purchase and maintain a home and a secure retirement at a reasonable enough age to enjoy it.
These elements should be the standard for all working Americans; they are now regarded as plush benefits of the favored few: mainly those in unions and even more specifically, workers in the public sector, who comprise the brunt of union membership.
It has long been the axiom of organized labor that these elements of the American dream should not only be protected within our own ranks, but to be reestablished as a standard for all working people. Instead of the “have-nots” attacking the “haves” out of jealousy, all would become the “haves.”
For the labor movement at such a low point in membership – about 13% of working people in this country – to take on this fight by itself and against such powerful financial and political interests was incredibly onerous.
So when the “occupy” movement unexpectedly sprang up from the grassroots in early fall of this year, the initiative was a windfall of interest and participation for unions’ agenda – a fair economy for all. Additionally, the intense emotional action was supported by startling statistics: over the past 20 – 30 years, the wealth and power in this country was being controlled by a shrinking percent of the population (e.g., the “1%”). In this current state of economic devastation likelihood of any kind of willing and fair recovery by the elite that included restoration of the American dream was becoming more and more remote. And this was as widespread unemployment continues, more homes were foreclosed on and the ranks of the hungry swelled.
In short, we now have an economic emergency; a dire situation threatening the majority of Americans in the short term and long term. It is a situation that requires bold and decisive action on a large scale. That is what Heather, other union staff and members were conveying through willful arrest the large scale action on the Steel Bridge.
Civil disobedience has had a long-standing place in the labor movement and other movements of social conscience and civil activism. It has been practiced by many famous and respected Americans as a suitable and proportional non-violent response to oppressive or immoral law as and situations. In fact, the very founders of this country ardently practiced civil disobedience, repeatedly violating sedition laws and restrictions against speech and assembly (don’t forget also, the very unlawful “Boston Tea Party”). Following is a brief explanation by the late writer and historian, Howard Zinn:
The Role of Civil Disobedience in Promoting U.S. Democracy
There is a long and honorable tradition in the US of citizen actions of civil disobedience–that is, of technical violations of law to serve important social values. Either at the time these actions took place, or later, in the judgment of history, they became recognized as justified because they served a vital purpose for society. What follows is a list–far from complete–of such events:
1. The acts of civil disobedience in the period preceding the Revolutionary War are quite well known, but often ignored when contemporary acts are judged, not by standards of justice, but by narrow technical standards of war. The various oppressive British laws were disobeyed by colonists, in protest against the harshness of British rule: there were demonstrations against the Stamp Act of 1765, there were violations of the Tea Act, including the dumping of tea in Boston Harbor, known as the Boston Tea Party.
2. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, requiring the return of escaped slaves to their masters, was violated repeatedly. In 1830, for instance, an escaped slave brought into federal court was rescued by anti-slavery people and set free. The people who committed that act of civil disobedience were not prosecuted, despite their violation of the law, because it was recognized that the moral end of their action superseded the technicality of breaking the law.
3. There were many violations of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, in which groups of white and black abolitionists rescued, or attempted to rescue, escaped slaves. They took place in Christiana, Pennsylvania, Syracuse, New York, Boston, Massachusetts, and Oberlin, Ohio, among other places. In several of these instances, juries refused to find the defendants guilty, judging their technical violation of the law to be superseded by a higher moral objective.
4. The rights of working people in the US–the eight hour day, decent wages, safe working conditions–were achieved by many decades of struggle, including violations of trespassing laws and other statutes. The occupation of factories in 1936 and 1937–the famous “sit-down strikes”–were illegal, but resulted in the recognition of unions and the betterment of working conditions.
5. In more recent times, the civil disobedience of the civil rights movement of the 1960s is well known. Not only were local segregation laws violated, but when people engaged in “sit-ins” in 1960 and 1961 to protest racial segregation, they were in violation of recognized federal law, as enunciated in the Civil Rights Cases of 1883. The nation soon recognized that these violations of law were honorable, and that punishment of people seeking to support the principles of the Declaration of Independence was wrong.
6. Also in the 1960s and 1970s, the movement against the Vietnam War involved countless acts of civil disobedience, but these violations were recognized as playing a crucial role in bringing that disastrous war to an end, and thus saving many lives.
In short, American history sustains the idea that civil disobedience–the violation of laws on behalf of human rights, against starvation and sickness–should be distinguished from criminal disobedience, where a law is violated for individual gain. Civil disobedience therefore is not to be punished because it is a technical violation of law, but to be honored as part of the American tradition, enhancing democracy. ”
Zinn also contended: ” You are saying that our problem is civil disobedience, but that is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience. Our problem is people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while jails are full of petty thieves, and all the while the grand thieves are running the country.”
Indeed, we are in desperate times and will take heightened realization, awareness’s and sacrifices on everyone’s part if we are to reverse the course of our economy which has in many ways legally compromised the welfare and future of working families and rendered the American dream more of a mirage than a possibility. Our Statewide SEIU President Linda Burgin has said she believes this is as real as a war has any that this country has fought in the past (her husband is former Oregon Military Dept. Adjunst Two-star General Alex Burgin) and that lives will be lost before it is over.
And lastly, this by Thomas Jefferson:
“I hold it that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical. Unsuccessful rebellions indeed generally establish the encroachments on the rights of the people which have produced them. An observation of this truth should render honest republican governors so mild in their punishment of rebellions, as not to discourage them too much. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”