"The dynamic had changed from my being a passive observer to an active participant. Should I stay or should I go?"
[The following's an account by someone who came upon a WCW protest on the anniversary of Katrina at FEMA's offices in Oakland. Her comment, as I quote above, reminds me of the Clash song: "Should I stay or should I go? If I stay there will be trouble. If I go there will be double." Words that ring true for us now more than ever.]
An accidental storming
September 1st, 2007 at 3:50 pm (censure, Federal Government, Thomas Roche, Impeachment, Globalization, Politics, Republicans, Work)
I crossed paths with a World Can’t Wait rally while walking home in Downtown Oakland on Friday, August 31st. The group consisted of maybe 20 to 40 orange clad activists ranging from their teens to late 60’s, standing and speaking in the courtyard between BART entrances and the 1111 Broadway Ave Office building. I had never heard of the group, but they were speaking about the failure of the Federal Government to respond to the levee breaks in New Orleans and the need for the public to hold the government accountable. Two men held aloft a cardboard coffin with “New Orleans” scrawled across the side, the sight of which is what originally compelled me to stop. The levee failure — let’s move away from calling it “Katrina” — what happened in New Orleans was a federal disaster, not a natural one – is an issue close to my heart, and one often forgotten by the public even on the 2 year anniversary.
While an older woman read a firsthand testimonial about an experience after the levee break in New Orleans, which moved her and me to angry tears, I watched as two security guards came out from inside 1111 Broadway. They spoke with two young guys who I assume were the organizers. Even though I was not close enough to hear what was being said, it was obvious that the guards were telling the group it had to move away from the building. A handsome, well dressed white woman (more on that later) from the 1111 Broadway building management came out and was verbally aggressive to the organizer as soon as it was apparent the group was not going to move on. I will repeat that at this point, while I had been watching carefully, I could not hear the conversation, but the body language of the building manager changed and suddenly she was loud enough to be heard yelling “This is private property! I am calling the police!” Now it was getting interesting, suddenly by standing in place I was participating in Civil Disobedience. The dynamic had changed from my being a passive observer to an active participant. Should I stay or should I go? The organizer got on his loud speaker and shouted “The building management has said we don’t have the First Amendment and can’t be here!”
Now, if this was private property I was not sure of the legal footing the activists have citing the first amendment. Private businesses are not obliged to comply with the Constitution (a commonly misunderstood point of law). I was about to move on when the organizer continued “So we are going to march! Shall we deliver the coffin to FEMA? Let’s go to the 12th floor!”
Whoa!?! FEMA? FEMA is here? Suddenly it made sense to me why this group was gathered here in front of 1111 Broadway; suddenly our constitutional right to assemble here seemed more valid than it had seconds before. If this small group was going to enter the building and deliver the coffin to FEMA, I was going to go with them.
There was a great scramble as the activists mounted the stairs and the security guards ran to the doors. Tug-of-wars ensued as American citizens cited their right to access the office of a federal agency and security tried to maintain “order”. Young men and older women began crying out that they had the right to enter the building. After a few moments entry was granted, but as the group (about 30 of us) approached the elevators, again we were halted as security prevented Can’t Wait’s impassioned members from closing the doors and going to the 12th floor.
At this point it was loud; people were shouting and the organizers were on their loudspeakers leading chats that echoed off the marble walls and 50 foot ceilings. The building’s workers, mostly white-collar employees, were exiting the elevators into the midst of this chaos, their faces registering confusion and alarm at the scene. The noise was overwhelming and sent one security guard (whom we will call T.) over the edge. She was trying to grab the megaphones from the protesters and yelling, obviously overstimulated by this sudden chaos in what I assume is most likely a pretty benign gig. T. was shouting that we needed to take this group out of here and over to the Federal Building on Clay Street. She claimed this was not the place for protest, that the Federal Building was the appropriate destination for our vitriol.
It was at this moment, when it was apparent that the elevator was not going to move, that the body of the group made a break for the lobby where they set up camp and were chanting. I remained behind, having started a confrontation with T. that gradually changed into one of mutual understanding. For the life of me I wish I could recall every word of our interaction, but emotions were high and memory is so difficult in those kinds of situations. What I do remember is T. stressing that this was not the place for protest. I explained that if the management and security had simply allowed the gathering to play out in the courtyard this situation would not have been created. It was triggered by refusal to let a small group speak in public. T. agreed, claiming that she had not had a problem with our protest outside, but that the “white management” had been very upset and wanted us gone. T. is black and stressed that she agreed with the cause, but that it was not right to disrupt her workplace and that we should take this protest to “the white people on Clay”. I explained the role of civil disobedience in disrupting the everyday to raise awareness; that often times protest is not about telling the government that we are unhappy, but in creating a disruption to daily life that makes regular people think about what is happening and why. T. said she too was angry with the world, and that she often thought about quitting her job and becoming active, protesting. What went unspoken between us was the fact that as much as we might want too, bills still need to be paid and jobs still need to be held. Life doesn’t allow regular people to take the actions they know in their heart might be needed to create justice in the world.
At this point I was spent. I was emotionally drained and simply walked out of 1111 Broadway. As I walked away I could see the group through the full length plate glass windows, still chanting, security buzzing around them. I knew I should go back in, but I didn’t. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe I had invested all the energy I had that day to spare from my day to day existence. Maybe, because while I had stormed the lobby with a group, ultimately they were strangers to me and while I had “climbed the barricades” with them, while I had shouted in their defense and challenged the status quo, their method of combat is not mine. Ultimately I think I left because I wasn’t as brave as they were. The other night, apropos to nothing, Thomas and I discussed the act of civil disobedience. I admitted that while I often find myself on the frontlines, I have never been one of the heroes who cross that line. It takes bravery to take that step. I once watched an 83 year old woman sit down in protest of the war and force uncomfortable police officers to physically carry her away before a crowd of thousands of anti-war protestors. She was brave. The men and women who stayed behind on Friday were braver than I am, because they stayed to suffer the consequences of their disobedience, facing possible jail time and fines (or worse in some other nations), for a moment of righteousness that will go unmarked by the public, unheeded by the government, and unremembered by history. Now that’s brave.
In a follow-up I was curious about the right of citizens to protest on private property that is in turn leased by the federal government. I called an expert on the matter, who, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit is my mom, former Representative Lynn Rivers. I asked if there was a precedent for this sort of situation known as the right of entry. She looked in a few books and couldn’t find a citation in the short amount of time we spoke, but did present a logical argument that seems perfectly valid: Over 500 Senators and Congress people lease private office spaces in their districts all over the country. Using the 1111 Broadway Building manager argument, citizens would never have the right to protest before these offices or practice sit-ins. Historically this is not the case and citizens have had the right to protest in these places, which would establish a precedent for situations such as FEMA and 1111 Broadway Ave building.