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We’ve got another guest post from a guy named Owen White who is involved with the Occupy movement.  I’m really excited to have his perspective because I think it has been hard to catch the truly human side of this movement.  So often we just see and hear caricatures and stereotypes from the media sources, leaving it easy for us to dismiss it or to assume we know what it’s about or not about. Also, I highly recommend you read through his recipe. It’s just as interesting as the rest of his post. Maybe it’s because okra is kind of exotic to this Yankee girl, but I learned a lot from both portions of his post. Thanks Owen! 

On Occupy and Okra

I’ve been asked to write a post which touches upon some of the “human element” of Occupy.  Having debated the Occupy phenomenon along the usual nexus of the topics (demands, political viability, strategy, legality, etc.), I’m happy to be asked about the human side of Occupy as it is what interests me the most and what I find most encouraging.  So here are a few impressions:
I suppose I am now fairly active in my local Occupation – Occupy Memphis.  I don’t spend the night, but I do end up staying around till the wee hours of the morning sometimes.  I try to get to about half of the general assemblies and I am involved in a working group and in one of the caucuses.  This has come about gradually for me.  When I first read about OWS I had what was probably a pretty typical leftist-cynical response – those rich hipsters may do more harm than good and are posing as radicals, just like they pose as working class when they order PBR instead of Sierra Nevada at the bar – that sort of thing.  When Occupy Memphis started having meetings before they actually occupied, they were full of white mostly middle class persons who were, for the most part, the “usual suspects” when it comes to political activism in this city.  I noted to some of my leftist friends the utter ridiculousness of having a 99% white Occupation in a city that is 66% black.
But then, thankfully, the Occupation got underway, tents went up, and once again my cynicism had to eat a little humble pie.

As of the last couple of general assemblies I have made it to, we seem to be running about 40% African-American.  We also have some Asians and Hispanics involved, our “core members” include a majority of females, and this makes us a fairly diverse Occupation.  Most of the middle class folks who were involved in the initial meetings are now at the actual occupation no more than once or twice a week.  The day-in day-out Occupiers are easily made up of a majority of poor and working class persons.  One fellow, a firefighter, has easily spent over 20 nights there in the 5 weeks we’ve had the Occupation site going, and he is basically always there when he is not at his firehouse.  A local woodworker I know, whose wife was the midwife for my wife’s pregnancies, spends a night or two a week, sometimes bringing his son with him.  There are a number of unemployed and underemployed there, and a growing number of homeless folks.  And there are the college students ranging from community college kids to PhD candidates.

I have never seen anything remotely close to the bad behavior one hears about on the coastal city occupations, aside from public urination – but this is expected with homeless folks present – a fair amount of them. The Occupiers here in Memphis feed the homeless three meals a day, and they offer space in tents to them. They refuse to make any distinction between homeless and non-homeless occupiers. The occupiers have designated people whose job it is to keep the peace and only one time have the police had to get involved – and that was when a very high homeless man threw one punch which missed its target and then tore down a tent with no one in it. The police in Memphis say the park the occupiers are in has never been so clean, and has never been so safe at night.   

The police have recently been bringing homeless persons to the Occupy Memphis site, and this has us a wee bit worried because some of the homeless fellows they drop off are a bit more “rough” than our regulars and we recently learned that Occupy Salt Lake was shut down by police after a homeless man died overnight in a tent – which earned the Occupy Salt Lake site the title “public health risk.”  We wonder if the police bring some of the most troubled homeless to our site in order to encourage the possibility of an event that would get us so labeled.  My brother is a Memphis cop, one who supports the Occupy movement, and he thinks this theory is plausible but not likely.  It may just be that the cops know that the Occupy Memphis site is among the safest places to take a homeless person.

Memphis is perhaps a small to mid-sized occupation, thus far.  OWS is bigger than other occupations, and better known. It is going to attract all sorts of elements. There are now tens of thousands of people who have spent the night there at least one night. The typical Occupier who spends the night does not spend every night there.  Thus some old friends at the Occupy in little old Bangor Maine report that many hundreds of folks have spent at least one night there, though they usually only have 40 or less a night.  That is our experience in Memphis and it is consistent with what I have heard of OWS, the cadre of people who have lived there from the beginning notwithstanding.  That there have been so few reported cases of sexual assault at OWS and other Occupations, relative to the number of people coming through there, is surprising – especially when we consider the number of young people, unemployed people, and homeless people who tend to gravitate to Occupations.

As for vandalism and other aggressive behaviors, yes, it is stupid.   But contrary to what has been the popular stereotype of trust fund kids carrying on the OWS protests,  friends of mine who have been to OWS and spent the night there have told me that almost all of the vandalism and rule breaking (OWS has pretty strict rules) has been done by young unemployed kids who come hang out there for short stints of time.   Crime is on the rise just about everywhere these days, and when you have large swaths of young males who are unemployed, you are going to have increased crime rates. And of course when there are protests which protest such things as inequality, social disenfranchisement, and the like, you are going to have young disenfranchised males sometimes acting out in a manner that is immature and counterproductive. That goes without saying. I think it naïve to deduce from this that the protests are then delegitimized or proven to be puerile and pointless. I say better for young males to vent their anger at an Oakland General Strike protest than to get involved in gang wars or domestic abuse or some other nefarious activity.   

And of course some perspective might be in order – the kids who did damage during the Occupy initiated general strike in Oakland did thousands of dollars in damage. The capitalists have exploited trillions of dollars from America’s workers during this recession. They have created a situation in which hopelessness and despair are palpable within working class and poor communities, especially among the youth. To express self-righteousness and moral indignation toward the actions of a few young vandals in such a context is perhaps to miss the real point entirely.  The criticisms of what happened in Oakland also sometimes seem to stem from a lack of understanding the dynamics of such things as the Black Bloc (made up mostly of upper middle class kids) who attacked two banks and a Whole Foods, and the group of unemployed and working class kids who, mimicking the Black Bloc, attacked small and local businesses.  When reflecting on this it strikes me that angry young kids tend to attack what they know – the typical violence seen in African-American riots and the recent riots in Tottenham involves youth attacking the businesses they walk past every day.  So in Oakland – where rich kids attack banks and a Whole Foods and poor and working class kids attack a Men’s Warehouse, a local coffee shop, a Subway, and the like.

>It should be noted that in all the mentioned cases in Oakland the regular Occupiers tried to stop the vandalism.  I noticed that the now viral video of the a part of the attack on Whole Foods was used with one of the Occupy related posts on this site.  The guys in black are members of the Black Bloc – which is a loose organization of militant anarchists. Communists, socialists, and even most other anarchists cannot stand the Black Bloc because the Black Bloc is seen as a leach on other people’s protests – they use the cover of a large number of protesters to get away with their vandalism. In this case in front of the Whole Foods in Oakland Black Bloc folks beat up regular Occupiers trying to stop the Black Bloc from vandalizing the store. An acquaintance of mine, who is a Wobbly (a member of the anarcho-syndicalist union the IWW, of which I am also a member), was inside the Whole Foods as this happened.

>Richard, my Wobbly cohort, tells me that the IWW was talking with workers in that Whole Foods at the moment the black bloc came up. The IWW was asking Whole Foods employees to leave the store and join in the strike, offering IWW support if there were any retaliation by the business (Whole Foods is rabidly anti-union, and had told the employees at the Oakland store they would be fired if they participated in the general strike). At that very time the black bloc showed up and vandalized, which greatly irritated a number of rank and file workers in the store, and which ended any chances the IWW may have had of organizing and radicalizing workers there. The IWW is talking about sending heavies in from other locations if there is another action in Oakland, to put bodies (probably large ones) between the Black Bloc and some potential Black Bloc targets.
At the same time, most Occupiers I think recognize that whenever there is a mass movement which attempts to take the lid off of the despair and anger created by systemic evils like mass capitalism and perpetual war, you are going to have misdirected, wrong, and tactically deficient responses – especially among the young.  The hope is that some of the Black Bloc kids and especially some of the kids mimicking the Black Bloc will have genuine encounters with regular Occupiers and be directed toward more fruitful types of dissent.  On the other hand there are some anarchists who, even if they don’t always agree with the Black Bloc’s choices, point out that complaining about such petty little disturbances in the grand scheme of things borders on the absurd.  Anarchists tend to appreciate a multi-faceted protest culture with a wide array of tactics and protest postures.  I come from more of an old leftist background (by birth, and later by choice), and old leftists tend to have little patience for that approach.  Perhaps the most important debates going on within OWS and other Occupy locations are those between anarchists of various stripes and old leftists of various stripes.  What is particularly interesting is watching people who a year ago were not political at all watch and even take part in these conversations and debates.

>One thing not being discussed by the corporate media is that the Occupy Oakland general assembly is working through the process of devoting funds to help pay for damage done to some of the businesses who were damaged (I don’t think they will be giving Bank of America any money, but the smaller businesses are supposed to be getting some at some point).  Union construction workers have offered to do repairs on some damaged businesses free of charge.  This week the Oakland Occupy is devoting time and asking for a large number of volunteers to help clean up the streets around the occupation.  There remains residue on benches and lampposts from the tear gas canisters that landed close to them.  Apparently if you touch the residue and then touch your eyes there is a burning sensation.   The paint thrown by protesters, some of them now outed as police acting as agents provocateurs, also needs to be cleaned up, but I’ve heard a number of people from Oakland remind others that this is Oakland we are talking about – it’s never been the prettiest and cleanest place on earth.

-Friends of mine have been at the OWS site and have had varied experiences.  One friend saw nothing dangerous or threatening while he was there.  Another friend did run into some aggressive miscreants his first night at OWS.  They were drunk and would not let him put his pup tent near the area they were claiming as theirs and they threatened my friend.  So my friend posted this on Facebook, and shortly thereafter a mutual friend of ours who was also at OWS commented on his FB thread and told him where she and her family had their tent.  Everything was smooth sailing from there.  My friend said that the next day those drunks were gone and he didn’t see them again during the week he spent at OWS.  He did smell weed coming from tents on occasion and saw people urinating in public, but he told me that the people he saw urinating in public usually looked to be homeless.

Another friend of my family’s, a man in his 60s, has spent several weeks sleeping at OWS at night.  He assures me that there is no more public urination or defecation at the OWS sites now than there was in much of Manhattan in the 1970s, prior to the gentrification that has made Manhattan a semi-closed community of millionaires and elite.  There was a period before large swaths of the elite decided to move back to Manhattan, but after Robert Moses gutted traditional Manhattan neighborhoods with his highway system and dystopian vision of a place people came to work but not to live, when the rich didn’t seem to mind all the miscreants and public defecators and criminals that were left reigning the night streets of Manhattan – because by and large they were not there at night.  Now that the borough has been thoroughly gentrified and flats in former working class neighborhoods cost millions, all of a sudden these “retro” nuisance acts have been characterized as the epitome of human depravity.

There are many problems with OWS and the occupy movement. General Assemblies are a procedural nightmare. The cacophony of such a disparate group of persons can be draining and infuriating.   I find myself getting frustrated at each one – with all the back and forth and with the ability of anyone to block the progression of a proposal, for any reason.  This results in a lot of talk about personal reasons for this or that stance and so forth.  But inevitably at each general assembly I attend at some point I step back out of the circle to smoke and look over the folks there, many of whom I know by now.  I see the kid whose fundamentalist Baptist parents kicked him out of his north Mississippi home when he was 16 and they caught him with gay porn.  He was on the streets and become a drug addict, eventually got clean and now lives in a co-op in Memphis’ poor bohemian neighborhood (we have a rich bohemian neighborhood too).  One of the other guys who lives there used to work with me at the metal shop where I still occasionally get some hours.  This gay kid from Mississippi (he’s maybe 23 or so) is very shy and soft-spoken.  He’s been exposed to a considerable amount of hate and disgust, and, having heard some of his stories, it seems that he is lucky to be alive.  I remind myself that there is no other place where a kid like this can stand in front of a group of all sorts of people – old veteran African-American civil rights activists, homeless folks, hippies, lawyers, nurses, school teachers, guys like me showing up to a general assembly wearing Dickies shirts and steel toed boots after our shifts, college kids, a bunch of unemployed 20somethings, and even a few gangbangers who inevitably show up to see what this is all about – not to mention the bike cops that come and watch for a bit.  So this quiet kid who has been told repeatedly in life that his opinion counts for nothing can cross his arms (making the “block” sign) at a proposal and stop it from going through even though 100 other people are for it.  And then he is given time to explain why.  It makes for long, tedious meetings.  It also makes a direct encounter with democracy a reality for people who have been disenfranchised from the democratic process in our communities and in our culture at large.

The haters of Occupy of course hold that such utopian experiments in direct democracy are hopelessly naïve and are riddled with so many problems that a failure to manifest any serious social change is inevitable.  Well, sure.  I’m inclined to think the same much of the time.  But my, albeit sarcastic, response to these haters is to encourage them to keep disenfranchising more people.  I think many white middle class conservatives still unwaveringly hold the “What Happened to Kansas” paradigm and believe that working class whites will from here on out be more likely to get caught up by Limbaugh and Beck than they are to be radicalized.  I’m not so sure that’s true.  I’m a leftist and I have been surprised at how easily the white guys who work or worked at my recession devastated shop have been conducive to radicalization since this recession began to affect them.  People you used to be able to count on to distance themselves from blacks, illegal immigrants, gays, and the like are not always so eager to be the shock troops of counter-revolution when they find their own circumstances going down the toilet.

Occupy has confronted capitalism by giving face to dissent for this generation and at this time. It has provided solidarity to anti-capitalists, overt dissenters of various particular stripes, and folks who aren’t easily categorized but want to express their conviction that things in our society have gone terribly wrong. It has reintroduced the social language of direct action and successfully pulled off the first general strike in America in 65 years. It has gotten a lot of people who would normally never talk to each other to talk to each other.
Here in Memphis two weekends ago, I saw a conversation between a friend of mine about to get his PhD, a factory worker, a local lawyer, and an Iraq vet who is now homeless because his PTSD is bad and untreated. They sat together for 2 hours late at night and told each other their life stories. I found out last week that that lawyer got involved with the homeless guy’s legal problems and thinks he can take care of them all (this particular homeless vet has been picked up for loitering and disturbing the peace – that sort of thing; he does spontaneously yell a lot).  PhD guy is helping factory guy reroof his house soon.  I could go on describing the interactions of this quartet.  What created that bond?  Those 4 guys all took the bus that several Occupies in our region sent to Nashville a couple weeks ago and all 4 got arrested together with the Occupiers in Nashville (before a federal judge ordered that the arrests stop). The Iraq vet, a large guy, threw himself on top of the lawyer, a small guy, when the police started using their batons on the lawyer to try to get him to release his arms which were locked with the guys next to him. These 4 Occupiers are comrades now, and each is invested in the lives of the others because they have shared something together that mattered. For every story I read or hear which relate the vice and selfishness among Occupiers, I can easily find 50 like the one I’ve just told you.

Occupy is about human beings coming together and saying, and experiencing, that being human together is more important than being cogs in a wheel in which each of us is disposed of indiscriminately when we are no longer useful.  Occupy may sputter out between increased aggression from police and the logistical problems posed by winter, but whether that happens or not, I am thankful to have experienced it, and believe that it has created social circumstances that can be built upon, and, if nothing else, helped to develop some good and unusual friendships.

For my recipe I’ll provide an easy culinary gem from here in Delta region.

Roasted Okra

about 1/2 pound of small, whole okra per person
salt to taste
pepper to taste
olive oil spray

First, start with the smallest okra you can find. Larger okra gets woody, and that dog don’t hunt.
Preheat the oven to 450 F. Spray a shallow baking dish with olive oil, add okra, and season to taste. Give the okra one quick (1/2 second) spray with olive oil, and put them into the oven. Bake, stirring every 5 minutes, until okra is browned on all sides, about 15 minutes. Serve hot out of the oven.

You can spice these puppies up – curry powder, chili powder, Creole seasoning, even something as mundane as onion powder or garlic powder. But simple salt and pepper is exquisite on this dish and this leaves the okra unadulterated.  Then again, once out of the oven I usually drown this in hot sauce, as I do most things.  Back when I had money the hot sauce of choice for this dish would have been Texas Champagne made by D.L. Jardine’s, but nowadays I just use whatever giant hot sauce bottles Cosco is selling in 4 packs.

I’m not sure how you would do this recipe if you are not living in the South were you can get fresh okra half the year.  The first thing to do is ask yourself why you would live in a place where fresh okra is not available.  It should be noted however that okra from Arkansas is vastly superior to that crap they call okra in the Carolinas.  I suppose you could make this dish with frozen okra, but it might be very squishy and slimy.  Fresh roasted Arkansas okra straight out of the oven melts in the mouth, and is manna from heaven.