For me, it all began with jury duty.
Those of you in the congregation that are Facebook friends with me will remember that about a month ago I posted several whiney status updates about having to spend four days down at the Oakland courthouse not being impaneled on a jury. The experience was in itself a microcosm of how I and so many other people feel about our government right now. I went there because I had to, not because I felt my participation in the process would or could make a difference. I certainly believe in the idea of a trial by a jury of my peers, and would want 12 good and caring people to take that job seriously if I were to ever end up on trial.
But at the same time, it took just minutes of being in that courtroom to see the effects of our economy on our legal system. The defendant was a young man from the roughest and poorest part of Oakland who stood accused of murder. His public defender was disheveled and old and sat with his back to us as we entered the courtroom and sat down. The prosecutor was an attractive woman who was well dressed and stood facing us. She made reassuring and confident eye contact with each of us as we entered. I could already see the deck heavily stacked against the poor local kid, innocent or not. And it went on and on from there.
I spent much of my four days of jury service feeling this major disconnect between the ideals this country represents and the realities it currently exhibits, due to the economic climate. It is tough, because I want to love my country. I really believe that the American democratic experiment is one of the most important things this planet has going for it. But when I look around at the reality of the American political system, it doesn't look anything like the democratic ideals that make me proud to be an American. Our once brave idea of representative democracy by the people and for the people has been fully infiltrated and co-opted by financial interests. What once was a tyranny maintained by the crown has become a tyranny maintained through corporate influence. Sitting there for four days gave me plenty of time to stew about these issues, but I in no way was connecting them to Occupy.
At that point, I had heard about the Occupy Wall Street protest and encampment at Zuccotti Park in New York City on the news, and I knew that there was something going on at Frank Ogawa Plaza in Oakland that was related, but that was all. I had heard their language about the 99 percent but I hadn't really connected with their message because I wasn't really sure what it was. At that point if you had asked me my honest perception of the Occupy Wall Street movement I would have said it seemed like an unfocused bunch of campers and not much more.
And then during my second day of Jury duty we had a lunch break and I decided to wander the five or so blocks down to Frank Ogawa Plaza to see what was going on, more as a tourist than anything. And at first what I saw confirmed my assumptions. It was a bunch of college-age kids who had set up tents in the center of the park, and then surrounding their living quarters had built a kitchen, an info tent, a library and a few other amenities. It didn't look too different from summer camp, actually. I walked around for a few minutes, relatively disengaged from the camp, taking some pictures with my iPhone, still in tourist mode.
And then I decided to just sit down and observe for a few minutes. I wanted to see who was there and what they were doing. But I quickly learned that being an observer and tourist at Occupy is not what it is about at all. Before I had much of a chance to do that someone came up to me and asked, "Is that your sign?" I was sitting next to an abandoned protest sign that someone had left propped against the bench I was sitting on. I told him it wasn't, but it quickly became clear that the question had simply been a pretext to begin a conversation. We spent the next 20 minutes or so in the kind of deep and real discussion about our country and how to fix it that you don't just normally casually strike up. But being there, even just on the outskirts of the Occupy Camp gave this guy permission to just walk up to a complete stranger and begin this conversation.
It was more exhilarating then I expected, but then I remembered the coma-inducing reality of Jury duty and so I quickly tempered my excitement and hustled back to the courthouse. For the better part of another week my involvement and thoughts about Occupy stayed there. My interest had been piqued, but certainly nothing had changed my mind or even dared me to consider that anything real was happening down there. I was still convinced this was an unfocused group of campers which just happened to attract some neat conversation to it.
Then, on the evening of October 25th, the Oakland Police, supported by more than a dozen local law enforcement agencies, raided the camp in full riot gear, attacking peaceful and unarmed protestors with batons and flashbang grenades, in one instance seriously injuring an Iraqi war veteran.
The shocking images of police brutality quickly went flying around the world. It hit home for many people in the Bay Area as well, and I was one of them. I still was not quite sure what Occupy was all about, but I feel like part of my job as a religious leader is to protect anyone from violence, but especially those who are peacefully trying to exert their first amendment right to free speech.
So I joined thousands of people the next evening at the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa plaza and experienced my first General Assembly.
There is a lot - a whole lot - I could say about my experiences so far with Occupy Oakland and the larger Occupy movement. But in the limited time I have this morning what I want to focus on is the General Assembly, because I think it is the most important part of what this movement represents.
But, first, one quick tangent about tents: The planting of tents that has become the symbol of the movement is not what Occupy is about. But at the same time, symbols are important. As much as I do strongly believe that the regular General Assembly gatherings are the absolute most important part of Occupy, I also know that before those encampments sprang up all over the place, the national conversation was completely focused on how quickly we could cut our country's safety net of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But since those tents went up that conversation has been absolutely flipped on its head and refocused on the immoral and unethical distribution of wealth and the unchecked power of corporations. So I don't think the tents are unimportant; I think the occupation part of Occupy has been essential to getting attention focused on the right issues.
But it is the General Assembly that represents the answer to everyone's questions about what Occupy is and where it could be going. My first General Assembly was literally a revelation. As I wrote on my blog that night after returning home:
What I experienced was something so much deeper and more meaningful than I could have ever expected. For the first time in my life as an American I experienced true democracy. The work had gotten underway about an hour before I arrived. Thousands of people gathered peacefully, centered on a raised area where one person at a time could speak. And since the crowd was far larger than the small speaker system could reach, all the words were repeated by those close enough to hear, and so they radiated out in a slow, gentle echo, a system called "the people's mic." It truly is the sound of people hearing each other.
At the beginning of this evening's General Assembly, a proposal had been brought to the assembled group from one of the Occupy Oakland committees. The proposal called for a general strike and walkout in Oakland the following Wednesday, November 2. For the next several hours we debated the proposal, sometimes as a group of three thousand and at other times in small groups of twenty. By 9:30 pm we were ready to vote, so we once again broke into our small groups of twenty, exchanged a few last thoughts, and voted.
Although a few people in my group voted against the proposal, it ended up easily passing the 90 percent threshold we had set and people excitedly expressed their approval for the General Strike we had just called for. It was like nothing I had ever been a part of before. Thousands of us had suddenly pulled back the curtain of illusion that what we do in America is democracy. Suddenly the layers of campaign ads, lobbyists, pork bills, and crooked politicians seemed completely ridiculous and exposed for the corporate lie it is.
It is really not at all my intention to convince any one of you that the Occupy movement is for you. Like many things, it is complicated; probably anything you currently think about Occupy has some truth to it. But what I believe the Occupy movement represents is an opportunity for this country to have a much-needed and long-overdue conversation with itself. It is not true that we have to continue to feel alienated by our government and out-muscled for a say by corporate interests.
Although it is not my intention to convince you that Occupy is for you, it is my intention to strongly encourage you in whatever way I can to attend just one General Assembly to see for yourself. You may or may not walk away feeling as I did, but at least you will know for yourself. Because the other lesson I have re-learned in the past few weeks is that the way the media shapes a story is very much about the interests of corporations and has very little to do with reporting facts. There is no question that people benefitting from the status quo do feel threatened by the Occupy movement and have a real interest in portraying it as an unfocused group of people willing to use violence, which is so far from the reality you will find on the ground.
The reality I have found is that this General Assembly has indeed created a real space and structure for this conversation to take place and that it is attracting hundreds and sometimes thousands of average citizens like you and me who want to once again find a way to participate in a meaningful dialogue about the future of our country. This past Wednesday I invited anyone from the congregation to join me at a GA and a dozen of you showed up with only 24 hours of notice. I certainly plan on making this same offer again.
The final truth I want to end on is that I have no idea where all of this is going. My personal hope is that we are building momentum towards a constitutional amendment clearly defining that a corporation is not a person and that money and free speech are two different things. But these General Assemblies are radical little incubators where hundreds of new ideas are being proposed, debated and researched. I have no doubt that a lot is going to come out of this. New people are being motivated and encouraged to participate in our democracy and that can only be a good thing.
Most importantly, we are only a few short months into this movement. Recently I was speaking to the Rev. Phil Lawson, a famous and well-respected elder of the civil rights movement. He heard some discouragement in some of what I was saying at a recent meeting of the interfaith clergy group I am working with at Occupy. He wanted me to understand that the civil rights movement had started the same unfocused way. It was a confusing mess of committees, actions and ideas that took several years to gain the lightning focus that King and a few others helped bring. We only remember those iconic moments of triumph now, but the beginning felt a whole lot like this.
I conclude with these wise words from T.S. Elliot:
What we call a beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
May it be so. Ashe.