Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Letter from Pedestrianica.2

I’ve been doing a little marching lately—marching as in walking with a large group of people (not as in lifting your knees in sync with an external rhythm). This marching—which is a simple act, but which is cathartic, thrilling, terrifying, mournful, ecstatic—this marching is the action of the Occupy movement I can most fully get behind.

I’ve mentioned before the creative usefulness of walking, as have many others (Thoreau and Robert Walser, to name a few). And I’d like to explore it further in the future. But for now, let’s quickly touch on it again, and remind ourselves of the loosening that happens while in stride. The stagnancy of the desk gives way to air and stimuli; frontiers of the imagination expand. And what happens on an individual level takes place communally as well. A movement is about moving, after all, and that’s why the march is so symbolic. The world is changing right before our eyes; possibilities come into view that would have stayed obscured behind a windshield.

Not to say the more stationary aspects of Occupy are unimportant, the camps and the general assemblies with their well-honed ways of conducting large meetings. I tend to fear interacting with strangers, though, unable to articulate myself in ways I wish I could, easily annoyed by certain types within activist communities. Isolationism, then, is what I gravitate toward, ironically a symptom of car culture: each enclosed in their own machine, with no time or proximity to study the faces of those you pass. But that’s the way—for right now, at least—things are over here in my region of Pedestrianica. There are comfort zones that need to be transcended, and we’re working on it.

But marching. Marching is an act that doesn’t require verbal interaction. Most of the verbiage is canned and one way: chants. Still there’s an understanding, one that grips and that will crush you if cling too strongly to your feelings of separateness. One that after the numb refuge of individuality, can paradoxically be freeing.

And the power. Rarely do I feel such Pedestrianican power. I’m usually one small body in a sea of steel and speed, but when the crowd takes over the street (for there’s nothing more flaccid than a march that’s been restricted to the sidewalk), there is vindication. At last, one small slice of space and time not subject to the motorist’s tyranny. For once, this crowd says, you cannot go where you want, when you want. For once the streets are whose? Ours. The crowd brings to light the stupid, stunted, unadaptable nature of the car.

Which is dangerous, this smug reversal of violence. The names of the crimes in these instances—the infractions the police cite as reason for breaking out their “less than lethal” weapons—the names of these crimes are telling: obstructing traffic and pedestrian interference.

In the last couple days, the media focus actually seems to have shifted from violent protesters to violent police. News sources have been forced to address police brutality as more and more footage of it surfaces. But two of the most disturbing examples of violence during protests in the last few weeks have been at the hands of motorists. During a march in support of Oakland’s general strike on Nov. 2, a man appeared to deliberately run over two pedestrians, badly injuring both. After Oakland police failed to respond to a 911 call, onlookers ran to the nearest BART station to ask the transit police for help. After taking down information, the BART police let the man drive his Mercedes away from the scene.

And in Washington, DC, when Occupy protesters set up blockades outside of a convention center where the ultraconservative Americans for Prosperity Foundation was meeting, a driver plowed into the crowd, injuring four, including a pregnant woman and a 13-year-old boy. Rather than charge the driver, though, police chastised the pedestrians for being in the street.

It makes sense that police would be on the side of the motorists. So much of what they do is based on an ethos of bullying, and the driver’s right of way comes from a similar place: Get the fuck out of my way, pussy, I’m bigger and faster and more armored than you. And get a police officer behind the wheel? This kind of compounded power is terrifying, resulting in gratuitous high-speed chases. My old roommate was skittish about walking her dog after cops unnecessarily chased a car into our Oakland neighborhood, resulting in the deaths of two innocent people. This kind of fear is in the air on so many different levels. It divides us, which makes us even more afraid. On a side note, which is unfair, I know, and simplistic, but perhaps a topic for another time: it’s interesting that fascism rose in the years after our cities became fully infested with cars.   

There has been a call to replace the name Occupy with Decolonize. America stands on land that once belonged to other nationsthe Ohlone here in Oakland, for oneand the implication of the word Occupy is imperialistic to say the least. It’s staggering to think of the layers upon layers of asphalt and cement, these concrete colonizations that smother the ghosts and bones of those whose land was stolen. When you look at it this way, the cars are just the icing on the cake. Some heavy icing, yes, some icing that's not going to be easy to scrape off. But we need to start working toward that first step, slow down this needlessly constant motion, stroll around the block for a second, acknowledge our common humanity, and discuss how we can work toward righting the injustices of the past. It’s this kind of reflection that will allow clearer visions of the future to finally come into view.

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