Twenty Minutes at an Occupy SF General Assembly

"If you really want to understand the Occupy movement, you should sit in on the subcommittee meeting of the General Assembly." The 20-ish college kid smiled as he said this. I felt a motherly urge to protect him. What was he doing in Justin Herman Plaza, soliciting passersby to sign a petition? Didn't he have books to read, term papers to write? Didn't he need to go to the library, hang out at a coffee shop, cook barely edible food in some low-wattage microwave oven? Didn't he need to be a college student, not a college student-activist?

Don and I had finished our kiosk-artisan shopping and, reenergized, decided to give adjacent Occupy San Francisco another look. We'd stood at the steps leading to the encampment, wondering who would be willing to talk to us. At that point the college student approached us with his clipboard, asking if we would sign a petition to get The California Disclose Act (AB 1148) on the ballot. When asked, said he was a student at San Francisco State. When further pressed, he said he was part of the OSF movement.

"Do you sleep there?" I pointed to the tent-slum a few yards away. I'd asked this on his mom's behalf, wherever she lived, because we moms share a universal bond and want to protect each other's kids. I know that's a generalization. But it makes me feel good to think it's true.

The college-activist-kid laughed, shook his head. "I stay at my own place." I nodded, relieved. He went on. "Actually, those people are part of the problem. There are a lot of homeless who don't want to leave…and then there are others who just want to cause trouble…it's been…challenging."

He explained he had an organizational role in OSF--a semi-leader in the leaderless movement. As such, he was the first person with any OSF authority we'd met. I posed a question: "If OSF objects to huge profits made by multinationals, why does its website use LiveStream, which runs commercials for multinational corporations? Isn't that hypocritical?" Activist-college-student hugged his clipboard to his chest.

"I have no idea about anything on the website," he said. "Someone else handles those decisions."

"Really? Who?"

"I don't know."

Don then tried to tell him about this project and the movement to create more jobs for the middle class by purchasing products made in the U.S.A. "Our complaint about American multinational corporations," he said, "is that too often they ship jobs overseas." At this point Don unzipped his black jacket to reveal his All American Clothing t-shirt that says


one shirt at a time!

Are YOU helping?

That's when the college student-activist kind of backed away and pointed us in the direction of the Assembly. "It's happening right now, so it's a good time to head over there." And so we did. I'm pretty sure the kid was relieved to see us go.

About a hundred protestors had gathered for the subcommittee meeting. They sat on metal risers arranged in a wide semicircle. We stood in the rear off to the side. Down in front, on the cement "stage," various protestors took turns speaking into a bullhorn. Whatever each said, the crowd repeated back

"Nonviolence comes from inside!"

"Nonviolence comes from inside!"

"Violence breeds more violence!"

"Violence breeds more violence!"

"Take personal responsibility for our actions!"

"Take personal responsibility for our actions!"

Each time a speaker finished, instead of clapping, audience hands went up and fingers waggled. If they disagreed, some hands were pointed downward. After those first seemingly positive statements on violence, however, the "discussion" hit a bump in the road.

Was throwing a brick at a window violence? Not necessarily, some said, if no one was hurt. Damaged property--said one voice through the bullhorn as the protestor-parrots repeated his words back--didn't constitute violence. Only damaged people. Yikes.

The bullhorn was passed around. The creepiest members of the subcommittee, in my opinion, were the ones who approached the bullhorn wearing black bandanas over their faces from their eyes down--like outlaws / anarchists--to hide their identities.

One other thing: a tanned, white-haired guy named Phil--dressed in pressed khakis, a button down shirt and brown leather jacket--stood on stage at all times, too. He seemed to be giving instructions (but did not speak into the bullhorn) to people as the meeting progressed. He appeared to act as an elder leader in this otherwise youthful, leaderless movement. I have no idea who he was. But I am very curious.

After about twenty minutes (we'd missed the first part of the meeting), someone took a vote:

"All in favor of a resolution that we are officially non-violent?"

Some waggled fingers, some downward hands. The guys down in front counted. The results? "We are not going to reach consensus. We will discuss this again another time."

No consensus on what constitutes violence? Seriously?

Don and I left the OSF meeting area, more confused than ever.

As I finish this post, the advisor named Phil and those protestors wearing bandanas stand out in my mind. I have no answers, just questions and concerns. And fears: for our country and for those who--like the friendly college student-activist we met--may be well-intentioned but clueless about what group might really be orchestrating this movement. Hate to sound paranoid, but you have to wonder. We shall see how the Occupy movement unfolds. My hope is that it will lose steam, but my gut says otherwise.

One bright note: as Don and I left the Ferry Building after a scrumptious lunch of fish tacos, three young women pointed at my China Ate My Jeans sweatshirt and laughed. They stopped to see what CAMJ was all about. I handed my business card around and explained. One of the group said she had just returned from China. "I was there working for Intel for three years," she said. "I'm so glad to be home! But I could tell you a thing or two about the challenges of working in China."

Really? Do tell. Hope to share that conversation with you as soon as we can connect.


Meanwhile, back to the CAMJ project at hand. Our not-so-cheap China-made space heater broke just in time for the cold snap. I've found a new one, Made in the U.S.A.

More to come.