Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Outside Agitators

Every time there's a protest in Oakland, there's a whole lot of blather in the corporate press about those evil and mysterious 'outside agitators' who come to cause trouble and use our city as their 'playground'.

The storyline was alive and well during the Oscar Grant demonstrations of 2009 (otherwise known as The Defenestration of Foot Locker) and is once again lurking openly within mainstream reporting about Occupy Oakland actions. After J28, we were solemnly informed that 'only' 35% of those arrested were Oakland residents. Setting aside the fact that 35% of 409 is still a pretty impressive 143, the implication is that if those wicked people had stayed in Berkeley/Fremont/San Francisco/Alpha Centauri where they belong, none of this trouble would have happened!

It's an attractive argument, and I must admit I once gave it some credence. It's easy to fall into a parochial mindset, especially when you've set down roots and lived in one place for a while. It's nice to believe that the folks who live in 'your' city wouldn't get up to any naughty business without the incitement of craftily manipulative foreigners from the badlands on the other side of Alcatraz Avenue. But it also defies logic.

For example: I've lived in Oakland for thirty years. I consider myself an 'Oaklander'. By the logic of the outside agitator argument, I should, therefore, limit my protest participation to actions within the city limits. But wouldn't it be just as logical for me to restrict my direct actions to the three cities in which I've actually worked during those thirty years: Emeryville, San Francisco, and Berkeley? After all, I've never worked a single day in Oakland, unless you count the occasional afternoon spent at the Northern California Independent Bookseller's Association annual meeting at the downtown Hyatt. Based on all those eight-hour work shifts (plus commute time), I've probably spent at least ten of the last thirty years 'outside' the city in which I 'live'.

And what of my national origins? I wasn't born in this country. Perhaps I don't have the right to protest anywhere in the United States, never mind Oakland. Do I need to 'go back to where you came from', as has been suggested to me on numerous occasions, to protest about Deanna Santana's ridiculously generous salary to whomever will listen to me in the Greater Merseyside area?

This issue came home to me last week, when I spent time supporting the Ice Cream Bloc's autonomous action outside the Wells Fargo Bank on Piedmont Avenue. As I was engaging in a very pleasant chat with a nice young Occupier named Matt, an angry, red-faced man with bulging neck veins confronted us and asked us if we were responsible for the bank closure, and if we were, how dare we attract such riff-raff to our events? As he steamed away, he turned and shouted "I live in this neighborhood!", to which I replied, "so do I!" This clearly struck the gentleman as preposterous: he'd assumed that a bunch of alcoholic criminals had been bussed in from Berkeley/Fremont/San Francisco/Alpha Centauri to disrupt his day.

I'm going to have more to say about this interesting encounter in a future column, but for now I want to keep the focus on the question of 'outsider' protest. I felt very comfortable on my home turf--this action took place within blocks of my house--but did this man have a point? Does one's right to protest decrease the farther one gets from their home address? And if you're homeless,
does this mean you have absolutely no right to protest at all? Considering the zeal with which OPD broke up Occupy Oakland's encampments, and with which other encampments were broken up after they started attracting 'undesirable elements', this may be one of the unwritten rules of the 'legitimate protest' game. Those who have the most 'skin in the game' aren't even allowed to participate in the game.

The argument leads to the inescapable conclusion that property invests people with rights, and the more property you own the more rights you have. After all, in addition to living in the neighborhood, Angry Bulgy Vein Man also owns a business (something he felt was important enough to mention to us). This is my neighborhood, and I own a business, and the fact that a group of 'alcoholic criminals' prevented me from visiting my bank is an outrage!

More on ABV Man next time.

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