My curiosity got the better of me today, and I rode the bus to downtown Oakland to take a personal look at the Occupy Oakland encampment. It was a nice day and I wanted to see it for myself. I just missed the parade, with shouting and signs, by (I think) the SEIU.
The camp looks about the way the photos look. Lots of tents all over the lawn, pitched elbow to elbow, on a base layer of straw. People asleep in tents, and on the ground in front of them; people sitting and standing around talking. Dogs, with and without leashes. A plastic bucket full of cigarette butts. A group down in the little arena, arguing. A man with a sign, shouting. A tent labeled Acupuncture. Of course, it was two in the afternoon, so there wasn't a general assembly or anything in particular going on.
Then two men walked up to me, and one said, "Can I talk to you?" I looked at him and asked, "What about?" and he said, "You know why we're here?" I said I had a pretty good idea. He asked me to tell him, and I said there were probably as many reasons as people there; at which point he said, "Tell me one reason."
At no point had this guy introduced himself, explained what he was doing or said what he wanted; and he had this cocky little I-know-better-than-you-do grin. I told him I'd changed my mind, and I didn't want to talk to him, because I didn't like being attacked. He claimed he wasn't attacking me and I told him he was, and walked away. I had the feeling he was trying to goad me into taking a position, or at least stating one, so he could jump at me (metaphorically) and prove how wrong I was. I call that an attack, if not a physical one. Nobody stopped me leaving. I went back to wait for the bus home.
My problem with protests is that they're all based on confrontation (like my confrontational acquaintance) and they all involve crowds, both of which make me very uncomfortable. I avoid confrontation when I can; I much prefer to negotiate and try to build consensus. And crowds just make me nervous; it's way too easy for a crowd to turn into a mob.
The crazy thing is, I agree with them: income inequality is bad, we need more jobs, the banks and the "top 1%" are totally out of line. But am I going to go down there and carry a sign around? No, I'm not. And the newspapers have quoted some of the more extreme sorts (I'm sure) saying that violence is necessary and nothing will get done unless they break things. It's clear this is a minority viewpoint, but I haven't heard that wording from any of the other Occupy movements, which is why this whole Oakland phenomenon just feels different to me.
This post isn't meant to be any kind of definitive analysis; it's just my take on the situation. I don't know what the answer to our situation is. But I'm not convinced the protestors do, either.