Occupy Made Me Do It
I think it’s Occupy that I have to blame. Being a big, bad revolutionary has given me an inflated sense of my own place in the universe. It makes me think I am capable of things that I really shouldn’t be. It makes me do things that I ought not. Last Monday, for instance, I think Occupy is the reason I intruded when I saw a man assaulting a woman outside a seedy bar in Eugene.
It wasn’t me. It was Occupy. I was Occupied by the belief that I have personal power. For decades, that belief has been in short supply. It’s the American dichotomy: we see America as a super powerful state, and yet those of us who make up America see ourselves as powerless. How a nation of powerless people can create such a powerful state is beyond me, but we believe it.
We believe that presidents can steal elections and we can’t stop them. Then we believe that same president can start a war, and we can’t stop him. We believe that the Patriot Act can steal away our freedoms, and that the NDAA can take away more freedoms. We believe that we can’t stop horrible things from happening. They keep on happening, and we keep on not stopping these horrible things from happening. It all makes us feel even more powerless. Loot our economy; steal our retirement; take away our health care and our homes. Each injustice makes us feel even more powerless.
Eventually somebody has to stand up and say, “Stop!”
That’s why we Occupy.
Somebody has to stand up. Somebody has to tell the people with all the money that they have to leave something for the rest of us. Somebody has to tell the corporate run government, that it’s time for change. Somebody has to stand up and demand our rights and create that change, because nobody is going to do it for us.
That’s why we Occupy.
We are the ones who are standing up.
Marching through the streets yelling, “Whose streets? Our streets!” gives you a sense of power. However, once you stand up. Once you understand what it means to stand up, it becomes really hard in the future, to duck your head and avoid the responsibility to stand up.
When I see a woman go running from a car, with a man chasing her, I can’t just shrug it off and tell myself, “Somebody else is going to take care of it.”
Maybe it’s smarter to stay back like all of the other people watching it unfold. They watched the guy trying to stuff her unwillingly into a car. They watched her break away and they watched the guy go chasing after her. Just because I march through the streets decrying economic injustice doesn’t mean I have become some sort of bike-riding street hero.
Unfortunately, it was a woman being menaced by a man right out in public. So I reluctantly detoured across the parking lot of the check-cashing store and rolled over to the crowd of onlookers. I was positive I was making a bad choice. I had visions of getting shot, beat-up, verbally abused, but somebody had to do something and nobody was.
That’s what Occupy does. It forces us to identify the moments which call for action and it forces us to be the person who takes action. We Occupy because we believe we no longer have the choice to wait for somebody else to fix things.
I was full of that belief as I rolled my bike through the line of onlookers. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was going to do, but I knew that I had to do something.
The Rise of the Underdogs
I’m not a superhero. I don’t take action before second guessing that action. Then I third guess it, and fourth guess it, in case I missed something. I’m an underdog and I’ve been one all my life. Maybe that fact isn’t always clear to others, but it’s always been clear to me, and that’s what counts.
I come from a culture of underdogs; all of us barking, and none of us biting. So much so, it’s become a cultural habit. We are all underdogs. Even the people with the guns and the badges and the ones with really platinum plated checkbooks, are underdogs. None of us can stand up to the myth of the true American. We can’t all have celebrity good looks, master of the universe business acumen and NBA prowess. We all fall short of the goals our culture has set for us.
In order for us to be Americans, we have to continuously fall short of the standard by which Americans are measured. It’s the cross we all bear, quietly; hoping nobody sees it in us, but knowing that they do. America is a nation of superheroes, inhabited by underdogs.
That’s what makes it tough for us to stand up. We have all been convinced that there will always be somebody more qualified to stand up, than us. We have all been convinced that the superheroes who run our country have got it all figured out. There’s no need for us to step up and there is no point. How can we underdogs face down the superheroes?
Last Monday, I coasted my bike up to the couple, arguing behind the bar. I wasn’t thinking about superheroes and underdogs. All I knew was that I was watching a large man assaulting a smaller woman. As I approached them, I hoped that I wasn’t making a mistake.
He was dressed in a hoody and jeans. She had long, black hair and pale skin. Her red scarf looked a lot like the Occupy bandanna that I like to wear. He had her backed into a corner behind the bar.
It felt wrong, invading their space. I’m sure it was a personal matter, and they didn’t have the skills to solve it. I circled in close enough so that they knew I was there, and then out toward the people who had gathered for the show.
Was I making a mistake? I looked for clues in the crowd. Why weren’t any of them intervening. Did they know something I didn’t?
As I circled and pondered, she darted out of the corner and around toward the front of the bar. He chased her and grabbed her by the arm. I pedaled to keep up. As I rolled past them, he let her arm go. “Stop backing away from me,” he told her, as she backed away from him.
I stopped my bike and set my foot on the ground. “She’s backing away because she feels threatened,” I said. If I had to defend myself, I realized, I would have to do it while straddling my bike.
The angry guy turned to me and barked, “I’ll threaten you!” For the moment, he forgot about her. “What would you do if your girlfriend told you she was going to fuck some other guy? Said she was going to get in his car…” I had his attention, and I really didn’t want it. She stood against the wall and watched us. “So why don’t you butt the fuck out?” he yelled at me.
That was all the energy he had for me. He turned back to her. “I can’t,” I answered, “because you’re threatening a woman.”
He was shorter than me, and rounder and angry. He took a step toward me with his hand in his pocket. He flipped his butterfly knife out and around, and it occurred to me: ‘oh yeah, I could get stabbed too.’
Isn’t that how it always is for us underdogs? He had a knife, and all I had were words and good intentions. That’s us, always outgunned; always facing superior force. As I watched him flip out his knife, and as I saw it coming toward me, I hadn’t realized yet, that he was an underdog too.
Even when the odds seem insurmountable, they can be surmounted. Even when the opposition seems tougher than you, it might not be. So much of communication is the stuff that isn’t being said. In Occupy we have chosen to stand up to the forces that have taken over our government. That requires a new mindset that we as a culture don’t have.
I have never had a knife pulled on me before. Not in earnest. That slowed-down moment of peril is still imprinted on my brain: him flipping the knife out and it coming toward my eye. There was a moment while he was flipping his knife into stabbing position; I considered whether I should flee, or at least defend myself.
Another part of me watched the guy as he lunged awkwardly and drove the knife toward my left eye. I’ve worked security, and in group homes with mentally challenged adults; plus, I’ve raised kids. In all of my experience, there is usually some negotiating before outright violence. I clung to that belief as the knife came to a stop two or three inches from my eyeball.
“Get the fuck out of here,” he told me, “or I’m going to shank you.” I know that I squinted my left eye a little bit, but other than that I didn’t give him any response.
It was all about communication. He wanted me to leave. I wanted something more. I’m not certain what I wanted, but it encompassed much more than that kid and his girlfriend. I spend a lot of time these days thinking about how to prevail in this fight with the corporations. What I keep seeing is: it’s not even a fight. It’s just communication.
Because his knife wasn’t sticking in my eye, I knew that he didn’t want to stick it in my eye. I stopped worrying about the knife and shifted my attention to the guy behind it. I looked into his eyes. “Are you really going to do that?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said as he quickly pulled the knife back. “I do it all the time.”
“You stab people all the time?” I asked him.
He slouched as he walked away. He was no master of the universe. He was just some dumb kid who didn’t know how to deal with his problems. I’m a middle-aged guy with plenty of uncertainty in my own life. We both live in a world where the odds are stacked against us, at levels we can’t even begin to comprehend.
In Occupy we are communicating. We don’t want our homes and financial security stolen from us. We want things that other countries have provided their population; things like health care and worker’s rights.
Forces that hope to make a profit from our financial insecurity get their hackles up when we point these things out. They get all threatening and scary-looking. It’s up to us to control our reaction. They are communicating fear and uncertainty. We need to communicate calm, certainty.
Knife guy went back to his girlfriend. She was still leaning against the wall, watching us. He ordered her back into his car.
She said, “No.”
He cursed us as he walked backward to his SUV. He told her she was going to have to find her own way home. She walked away from him, toward the front of the bar, like she was going to head up Sixth Avenue. Ultimately, though, I don’t think she wanted to walk home. She turned around and walked back to him.
In Occupy, we’ve discovered that when we march to close banks, we succeed. The banks will surround themselves with cops, but when we march up to their doors with signs and costumes, they lock their doors. There is a lot of bluster between Occupy, the cops and the corporations, just like there was between Knife guy and me. But once it was all done, he backed off.
Maybe that’s the lesson we as a nation need to learn: Sometimes all it takes is standing up.