Today, my support of Occupy Wall Street took a new form.
I’ve supported the movement from its inception, two months ago. Even though I was in France, I kept up with the events on Twitter and through the news. I brought it up (probably a little bit too much) in my French classes. My Twitter account brought me the news that Occupy Oakland was under attack the night of October 25, and I watched in horror as the police department fired tear gas and flash grenades into the crowd. I was moved to tears watching the protesters try to pull Scott Olsen (an Iraq veteran who was injured by a tear gas canister) to safety, only to have another stun grenade thrown into their midst.
A mixture of anger, shame, pride, and sadness merged with a desire to do something. I challenge anyone who disagrees with Occupy Wall Street to watch the videos from that night and the other coordinated police actions across the US and across the world, and not feel something. I wouldn’t deign to suggest what you should feel, but you must feel something. If you don’t, something isn’t right.
Today I took the advice of Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old activist who took a faceful of pepper spray at Occupy Seattle on Tuesday night…”Whatever you do, take one more step out of your comfort zone.”
I joined the protests in person. I was nervous. I’ve never protested before. I was alone. I had my purse with all the money I currently have to my name ($30) in it, and my camera. I am female, and I worried that maybe someone would hassle me. I’m not going to lie, the violence over the past few weeks and the potential to be caught up in a riot were deterrents. I drove around Civic Center Park to check it out, looking for protesters and police. At first, all I saw were police cars. Everywhere. I was intimidated. I hid my sign in my purse and walked through the park, prepared to leave if I didn’t think I could go through with it.
But I walked up to the steps of the City and County Building, about thirty people were gathered. They used the People’s Mic to spread the word about their ideas, grievances, hopes, and stories. The crowd grew, and the more vocal and annoying protesters were calmed by the group.
Then we left to march into the streets.
The police pulled into the intersection, lights blaring. I was emboldened by the hundred people who had showed up in the half hour we had been at the step, but I worried that a confrontation might break out. We walked directly through the intersections, under the carving on the side of a building declaring, “What is the city, but the People?” The police followed us on bikes and with squad cars, blocking off the streets to prevent us from getting leveled by lunch hour traffic. That was actually pretty nice of them.
I felt apprehensive to walk in the streets, through traffic and scared-looking people trying to get to Chili’s for a lunch meeting. One step further, Coleen. Come on. I stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curb. People in the cars were responding with smiles and honks to my sign, “Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE.”-Martin Luther King Jr.
We turned onto the 16th Street Mall, marching directly down the middle and stopping traffic. Our shouting bounced off the buildings and people moved out of the way, taking pictures, sometimes cheering. Everyone was on their lunch break. The Mall Ride busses were forced to stop in their tracks, a hundred of us blocking their way.
I still felt nervous, but I was beginning to get stronger. There was a giddy, light, happy feeling to taking the streets. I felt proud of us, connected, and proud that I live in a country that (at least for the moment) allows peaceful protest.
A woman in front of me leaned over to a police officer.
“Feeding the hungry is not a crime! Not a crime…” she said, walking away.
“Your ass is a crime,” the officer joked to his colleagues, obviously thinking that no one was listening.
“Dude, really?” I rounded on him, my best “shame on you” teacher voice and expression confronted with a doughy, and rather surprised-looking young officer. “That was totally inappropriate.” He seemed frozen. I made a noise of disgust and kept walking.
Um, holy shit. Did I just scold a uniformed police officer? One step further. The nerves were gone.
By the time we reached the Federal Reserve Building, I felt liberated. That sounds cheesy and contrived, but it’s true. I was no longer quiet. I felt connected to the people around me, the hippies with dreads and guitars, the kids in business suits, the parents with their babies in strollers, the people walking their dogs amongst us, hell…even the giant transvestite in leopard print. We all had different reasons for being there. We all had different ideas. But we shared the megaphone. We clapped and cheered. We respected the stories. We even cracked jokes and laughed together.
Sharing, playing, dancing, singing, learning. It was kind of like kindergarten, but all grown up. That gives me hope.
We walked back through the mall and up 17th street, through the financial district of Denver. People came out of the bank buildings, making videos on their phones. They leaned out of offices and apartment buildings. I smiled to them and waved. Hardly anyone waved back. Again, our chants bounced off the cold glass.
“We are…Occupy Denver!” “We are…Occupy Detroit!” “We are…Occupy New York!” “We are…Occupy Melbourne!” “We are…Occupy Oakland!” “We are…Occupy Seattle!” “We are…Occupy Cal!” “We are…Occupy Everywhere! And we aren’t going anywhere!”
We walked through one of the largest intersections in Denver at Colfax and Broadway, to loud cheers and honking from the cars stopped by our progress. The gold of the Capitol Building shone in the sun as we marched across the park, and back to the City and County Building. We addressed Mayor Hancock directly, and I could see people watching from inside. We filed the paperwork necessary to begin recalling him from office following the violent crackdown on protestors in Denver.
Very rarely have I felt the sense of community that I felt today with complete strangers at Occupy Denver. They were so welcoming. They all watched out for each other. They all shared and were respectful, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, or age (which unfortunately could not be said for that dummy officer who made the ass comment). There was a pervasive sense of collective goodwill, and the desire to work together to change things.
We didn’t always agree. We certainly didn’t speak with only one voice, even through the People’s Mic. We chose to act together, in unity as individuals drawn together by a least a bit of common ground. I felt empowered.
It was amazing!!
After we announced our recall of Mayor Hancock and the City and County building shut its doors in our face, I walked away. It was time for this occupier to go to her new job. I slipped away, drawing a few snarky laughs as I walked back to my car. I didn’t care. I walked down the middle of Broadway armed with nothing but a piece of posterboard and a camera. Laughing doesn’t phase me.
But this did.
Two blocks from the City and County Building, I walked past this staging area for the Denver PD riot squad. As I came around the corner, one of them was messing around with a pepper ball gun, and practicing aiming it. For just an instant, it looked like it was aimed at me. My blood went cold.
I was nervous again. I no longer had a hundred fellows around me for support. One step further.
I took their picture. Several times. In the open. I rationalized, “I’m near the art museum. I could pretend to be a tourist if they have a problem.” I tweeted to Occupy Denver the intersection, and within minutes another protester had arrived. The police looked over at me. I calmly turned and walked away.
This is not over. It doesn’t matter what your political beliefs are. This is not about politics. I learned today that the Occupy movement is incredibly welcoming. They accept people as they are, and are happy to have healthy debate. They encourage others to join in. Just check it out for yourself. Take one step further than your worries, your nerves, or your fear. Go see it for yourself! You are welcome anytime!
Get off your couches! Democracy is not a spectator sport!