First Fires

Occupy Oakland

There was some sort of relief, I decided, in having set foot in the Occupy camp and finding it quiet. Wednesday, Oakland was paraded across the global consciousness as national news media displayed scenes of urban warfare, with ghostly images of terror-stricken faces sent helter-skelter across the airwaves. Zach showed me the frontpage of the BBC website (Occupy Oakland protestors disrupt city) and made a cutting remark about how the protestors were making fools of themselves on global media and how Oakland was going to suffer. The next morning we all got worried emails and well-intentioned text messages from friends and family: hey, you doing okay? to which we’d respond with sheepish grace that no, we weren’t part of the protests and no, Oakland hadn’t burnt to the ground. Yet.

That Saturday we walked the downtown Oakland area and stood among the protestors in Frank Ogawa Plaza and I tried taking it in, inhaling the hot, musty mess, sidling up to the sleeping giant. I’m not quite sure what I had expected: chaos, rowdier citizens, widespread aggression and disquiet? Instead we found sleepy-eyed campers, dreadlocked ponytails, and hand-drawn raggedy signs. You could smell the weed from blocks away. Nate confirmed the portable toilets were overflowing and rancid.

Self-conscious, I realized later, is how I feel, not knowing how to identify with this spectacle. My sentiments about the whole thing are less of explosive outrage than subtle helplessness. Here I was, middle-class and Asian-American, walking through the tent city of the dispossessed, and I felt both a repulsion to the sideshow and an isolating sense of guilt knowing that I was a stranger to racial and economic injustice.

We bumped into Bonnie on the way over, a homeless friend of ours who makes appearances often at the church. ”You should have been there, they had us cornered“ she exclaimed with wide eyes, giggling in her two-toned accent. Pohh-leece got us trapped up on both sides. I got some of that gas stuff in me, and it make you tear up real bad.”

Bonnie had stayed with the protestors for a couple of days. “It was like a war, let me tell you, and the sad thing”—her voice dropped to a whisper—“is nobody can help you.”

I wondered what Bonnie must have felt; my mind replayed scenes from a Free Speech Movement documentary I once watched at Cal. Observe: an aerial shot from what must have been a tall building or a helicopter, riot police on either ends of the block, smoke rising from the street in lazy, elegant arcs. Notice: a couple of figures limp for cover, fumbling to cover their eyes. See: grainy film, shot black and white, viva free speech & the cause of justice, fin.

So I was relieved to find Frank Ogawa Plaza rather pleasant. A tent city had risen, built on fresh-laid straw, with hypnotic Native American drumming drifting through camp. Smiling stoners sat cross-legged in a corner beneath a tarp and gazed intently into the distance. A mini-rally proceeded in another, where a megaphone-toting Latina woman was organizing that afternoon’s march on Wells FargoIn other words, it was amusingly like college. We opened our burritos and ate on the steps of the City Hall amphitheater and watched the tent city pulse as it awoke.

The Tuesday night that things got bad, I was running the lake under the assured hum of news helicopters, but I couldn’t tell you if things were out of the ordinary. It was strange, I suppose because I had imagined that should my city go down in flames, everybody should know about it and share in the panic and outrage. Women pushed murmuring babies by in fancy strollers. The wind whispered through the grove of trees around the lake’s finger-bend. Runners grunted to each other, pushing gravel through the ground. Starlight & Lake Merritt’s necklace, swan, geese, & ghetto birds all there to witness war, but somebody had forgotten to remind me.

Saturday, Kylan and Betty and I walked up Telegraph and prayed for Occupy Oakland and I felt rather foolish for not knowing what exactly to pray for. I remembered Silvia’s weight of sadness, when she showed up and wound up feeling lost and helpless and hurt for the brokenness of the world she lived in and the chaos unfolding around her and the need for Jesus to show up right there and occupy

Proverbs 29 was a comfort, the words breathing and expanding in my thoughts:

When the righteous increase, the people rejoice but when the wicked rule, people groan

and,

The poor and the oppressor meet together, the LORD gives light to them both

Occupy Oakland

Earlier that morning I dreamt we were evacuating our city in long single-file strands. We wound through our neighborhood, and I remember standing in our living room arguing with Justin whether we should load this or that couch into the U-Haul. People shuffled by outside in colorless clothing, feeling here and gone at the same time. Children whispered to each other in shy, hushed tones. The helicopters were there again, whirling lazily, watching overhead. In that moment I knew (though a dream) the question had become not how we would leave, but whether we would stay.

I woke far too early, thirsty, trying to recall how the air felt against my cheeks: thwup thwup thwup thwup thwup.

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