The 19th Annual LaborFest

7 Aug

The Present Is the Past: Occupying the Commons, July 30, The Green Arcade, San Francisco. Photograph by Steve Zeltzer.

It was fun and hard work for the Organizing Committee putting together nearly eighty events for the month of July.  But the process is collaborative and many of these events are actually organized by individuals not on the committee.  This year’s theme was Occupy, Past Present and Future: Lessons of the Past for Labor Today.  Presenting on the last day of programming, the evening before the closing party, I spoke on three events from unemployment activism and labor history that show us precedents for the ways in which the present Occupy Movement has utilized public space for political redress: the industrial armies of 1894 marching on Washington; the Ludlow, Colorado tent colony during the southern Colorado coal fields strike of 1914; and, the Bonus March on Washington in 1932.  It was standing room only at Patrick Marks’s bookstore.

One of the anecdotes I opened with involved a conversation between two people from Ukiah, California, who walked past the Occupy SF encampment on Market Street in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a site in use since early fall 2011.  Dan was engaged in a conversation using his cell phone about company projects.  Alma, his wife, and I were accompanying him to a local stationery store to purchase office supplies for the project where I am temporarily employed.  We passed the camp, which is separated from the bank by a pedestrian throughway along the sidewalk and metal barricades at the bank’s portico edge .  One couple struck me especially, a woman who was topless being held by a man, both swaying gently where they stood.  I later thought of Paul Cadmus’s egg tempera painting What I Believe (1947-48), based on E.M. Forster’s essay of the same title; “Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the state.  When they do ― down with the state, say I, which means that the state will down me” (see http://weimarart.blogspot.com/2010/10/paul-cadmus.html).  In this painted idyllic vision of humanity, an area is taken up by individuals in peaceful assembly; the heterosexual couple to the right just beyond the grave could have been the couple Alma and I spotted that morning.

The woman’s nudity shocked Alma.  Once Dan was finished with his business call, Alma asked him if he had seen what we just passed.  He said no and asked who these people were Alma described.  Alma replied, I don’t know, some homeless people.  If the two of them had known that they passed an Occupy site, Dan would surely have derided the camp and its inhabitants.  In a conversation I had with a cafe owner in my neighborhood about the incident, Brian told me that homeless people do join the camp because they will not be harassed by the city’s recently passed sit/lie law.  Brian probably speaks with some accuracy because he is host to a number of homeless people at his cafe, many known by name and present on a regular basis.  He is a very generous person allowing people in whom other business owners would keep out.

The anecdote prompted some people at the bookstore slide lecture to defend the Occupy Movement.  While the momentum of the movement seemed to peak as municipality after municipality across the country found ingenious ways to dismantle encampments situated in public space, the tactics have shifted.  Thus, today, occupation is alive and well, such as the occupation of an Oakland elementary school by volunteer teachers, parents, and students following the closure of five school sites by that city.  The parents were expected to ship their children to charter schools and they are not happy with that.  Nor should anyone else be when it comes to privatization.  Privatization is only the encroachment of corporate business in the public sector, rewarding a few individuals with captive markets.

The peace activist A.J. Muste observed in 1962: “We are now in an age when men will have to choose deliberately to exchange the values, the concepts of ‘security,’ and much else which characterizes contemporary society, and seek another way of life.  If that is so, then the peace movement has to act on that assumption, and this means that the whole picture of our condition and the radical choice must be placed before people―not a diluted gospel, a program geared to what they are ready to ‘buy now.’ ” (quoted by Nat Hentoff in Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963]).  I embrace ongoing political protest and the occupation of public space.  The work is not over.

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