Preamble: JYCA & Troy Davis.
On September 21st, 2011 Troy Davis was executed after a long wait on death row and a decreasing amount of evidence. The day he was executed I spent hours glued to the radio. The night before I had made phone calls and signed petitions. I had contacted the youth in my organization (Jewish Youth for Community Action– JYCA) and asked them to do the same. When Troy’s time neared, all I could think was Oh My God, they are going to kill an innocent man and we are all just listening. I felt alone as I listened to the voice of Amy Goodman. Then they postponed the execution. I found a vigil at Plymouth Church and joined the group—a mix of passers-by like me, and church members. Together we held candles and rang bells while reading the names of the 700 people currently on death row in California. 700.
A few hours later I met with a group of youth action leaders from JYCA and just as I pulled up to the meeting, the Supreme Court announced they would do nothing to stop the execution.
I presented the youth with my original meeting agenda for the night. The plan had been to talk about the things that make us numb and get in the way of our core drive for justice. But we knew it didn’t make sense to talk about our general activism when injustice was happening at that very moment. Instead, we listened to the live Troy Davis coverage. We turned it off. We held each other and cried. We talked about how powerless we felt, how powerless the executioner must have felt. To simply act on their job like that. And then, though I too felt small and woefully under qualified to facilitate such intense feelings, I was somehow able to shift our conversation. If this is how disempowered we feel, then others must feel this way too, I prompted. So isn’t our role as action leaders to help people feel really powerful so that they stand up and act for a change? The youth thought about it. Yes, yes, that’s it, they said. They shared success stories, they shared goals. They couldn’t wait to tell the rest of the group the truth they discovered: that we are really powerful. And we do get to act for change.
What with the foreclosures, bank fees, bad mortgages, and also the murders of Oscar Grant and Troy Davis, we have been feeling hopelessness. We caught a glimpse of inspiration as young folks, from Egypt to Greece, Israel to Libya and all over, decided to stand up. And finally in the U.S, we caught on too.
At the first Occupy Oakland General Assembly on October 10th 2011, we assembled in groups with 4 strangers and shared who we were and why we were here. A few days later I ran into someone from my group while shopping at Berkeley Bowl. We couldn’t remember names, but we were thrilled to see each other.
The next day I headed over to Patelco Credit Union, to finally make a change from Chase. I had been intending to do so for years, and could never get it together. There was another woman there doing the same thing. Apparently she had also been at Occupy Oakland on and off. We high-fived.
As I walk through the streets I find I want to smile at everyone, to engage, to know how their life is going, to share about mine. Because for all I know anyone could wind up in a tent next to mine at Occupy Oakland. I’ll want them to look out for me, and me for them. When your world is that close, you want to gather your allies.
As I have been debriefing the occupation with my friends, multiple have confided: “My activist self has been awakened.” Someone at Occupy Oakland told me “This has already changed us forever.” And she’s right. We don’t know exactly where this is going. But we know we want change. And in each of us this is already happening. As each new Occupy story unfolds, more and more people in my communities are turning out, pulled for any number of reasons.
I believe that we are all activists. As young people we can feel the injustice in the world on a deep level. We ball up our fists, we scrunch up our cheeks and we cry out It’s NOT fair!! And then. And then we see that the adults around us don’t get particularly outraged when things aren’t fair. We’re told That’s life. You’re young. You don’t know any better. And such we learn. But it’s in each of us, waiting to be awakened. The movement is already successful. The success lies in all of the activists that have sprung forth from within us, launching ourselves with hope towards our friends, our new friends and the strangers on the street. And this remains true, no matter what happens.
More on human connection…
Naomi Klein described the Occupy movement as “addictive,” that it’s not that people feel obligated to go to the protest or meeting, it’s just that it’s where they most want to be on a Saturday night. I think what she’s getting at is the pull towards genuine human connection.
With wealth privilege in my family, I was given my own room around the age of 7. I tried it out and quickly opted to return to the bunk bed I shared with my little brother. Later when I returned to my own bedroom, I refused to sleep with the door closed, and for many years would often convinced my brother to sleep on carefully lain out couch pillows on the floor of my room. Sleeping alone felt like a skill I had to learn in order to be a part of society. I used to think that everyone wanted marriage because it was the way you could at long last return to close connection with people.
The Occupy Together Movement is just that: occupying together. When you’ve tasted what it’s like to live in a community where the group is all working together to make sure everyone’s basic human needs are truly being met, and the human to human connection is palpable- how could you want nothing but to spend every minute there?
A visible Jew
The morning of Sukkot, the 8 day Jewish fall harvest festival, my co-worker and I set up a sukkah—an open, temporary shelter—at Occupy Oakland. We figured we’d put it out of the way, in a corner of the plaza. Several hours later we returned with friends and community members to finish decorating and to share a Sukkot meal. The following is the dialogue that ensued between us, the sukkah decorators, and other occupiers. I’ll use conversational quotes for what was actually said, and italics for what I thought of saying, but refrained from.
Person from Child Care Committee: “Hey, so we just had a meeting and we felt like it would actually be safest if the child care tent is where your tent is located. So we’d like to ask you to move.” My co-sukkah-decorators start to tense up.
Me: “Of course, we’d be happy to move, can we just change places?” Yes! An opportunity to prove that Jews can share land! Great!
We un-stake our sukkah, pull out the carpets, and—like a wedding chuppah—pick it up and move it over. Re-stake, re –put in the carpets, re-hang disheveled decorations.
Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Hey so we just had a meeting, and it seems that someone told us that we could have the spot you’re in.”
Me: “Okay” umm…Someone? England?!
Same Person from Crisis Tent Committee: “Yeah, so we’d like to ask you to move. It looks like you just moved here and we hate to ask you to move again, but I think we need that spot so we can be near first aid. I’m not sure where exactly you can go, but I’m sure there is somewhere.”
Me: “That makes sense.” Somewhere? Like….Uganda?!
Crisis Tent: “Yeah. So, I don’t really know where.”
Me: “Well could we go there?” I gesture close by.
Crisis Tent: “I’m not really sure if that will work, we’d like to keep our options open for where we can go and where other tents can set up. But you look pretty mobile, maybe you could go one place and just be willing to keep moving?”
Oy. We ain’t doing this for 40 years, I can tell you that much.
Co-Sukkah decorator: “Well, I mean, we’d sort of like to settle somewhere.”
Oy. “Settle.” We didn’t mean it like that!
Me (determined): “Well I’m sure we can work together on this and find a place for everyone.”
And in the end we do. We pick up, re-shuffle, move about and wind up with a spot ring-side to the general assembly. All I can do is laugh.
I wish I could say that was the end of it. Spending a lot of time sitting in a Sukkah makes me very visibly Jewish. Visible in a lefty movement that has stood actively against homophobia, transphobia, ableism, racism, sexism and more…. But has not yet claimed anti-semitism either consciously (for not wanting to go anywhere near the “I” word…Israel) or unconsciously (for not having Jews or the oppression of Jews on their radar). I have spent a lot of time sitting in my Occupy Sukkah, being as inviting as I can possibly muster, to prove Jews belong in this movement. This has meant some of the following things to people at Occupy Oakland:
– that I must immediately want to talk about Israel/Palestine
– that I should be careful not to attract the “AIPAC-type-Jews”
– that I am the exception among Jews as a radical
– that I am hitting on them (the passerby) and want to sleep with them and they should therefore hit on me
– that I am risking taking away from the movement by bringing my Jewish Stuff
– that I am doing a really great thing by both bringing Jews together and creating a peaceful space in the Occupy movement for all to come rest (in the only open tent on site)
As the last one suggests, there has been a lot of beautiful moments. Many people have thanked me for creating the sukkah, for sleeping in it, for being so welcoming to all. I have made many new friends by inviting strangers into the Sukkah. And it’s been hard too. The combination of wanting so badly to help Jews be seen as good and important to the movement, while simultaneously needing to not seem too welcoming so that men get the wrong idea… is exhausting. And it’s a familiar combination of anti-semitism and sexism I have experienced in my life. It has become clear to me that this must be when you call on your allies for support. And fortunately, there are many allies in this movement. And though I think many Jews could site individual incidents of anti-semitism, as a whole, this movement has not gone in that direction. This is quite a victory given that oppressive forces get set up to blame the Jews when things get hard.
Give us time. We’re new at this. And we’ve been living under capitalism
Sometimes I hesitate to tell people about the hard parts of Occupy Oakland. About the sexism and anti-semitism. The racism and cultural appropriation I have seen. The male domination. Or even how my phone got stolen there. Because I want this movement so badly. And I want everyone to want it. We are the 99% after all.
As is often the case, it seems like anyone will jump on a chance to discredit a movement. To me, there is something adultist about this. In my work with JYCA, we talk about “adultism” as the system of oppression that targets young folks. As young people we deeply believe in justice and activism, but as we grow older, we get the message not to be hopeful, and to belittle the hope of the new generation. So when we see a whole group of people rising up for a movement, I think that that part of us that got shot down is ready to do the same to others. We resist being hopeful. It feels scary to get excited only to be slammed again. But I actually think we’re strong enough to be hopeful. If things don’t go exactly as we want them to—it’s okay. We can cope with that. Why not get hopeful? Why not be that young person jumping up and down with excitement for justice?
So I think I can be honest. There are problems. It’s not perfect. The goals haven’t been figured out so precisely. Some people haven’t undergone all the JYCA trainings on oppression and liberation. What I keep telling people is: give us time. We’ve been living in an oppressive capitalist system our whole lives. The Occupy Together Movement has lasted just over a month. We’ve got a lot of layers of numbness, competition, greed and anger to work through to really get at our core visions and desires for human connection.
Judaism teaches us that it is possible to work in the present moment while envisioning an ideal future- the time of the Messiah. And there is a teaching that says Shabbat, the holiest holyday, is just a small taste of what the Messiah is like. It sustains us, so we can keep working for that vision of justice.
My dad always tells me about a time in the 70s when he attended a “celebration of the end of the Vietnam war” 5 years before the Vietnam war actually ended. It was a brilliant protest strategy considering how much activists can get bogged down with despair.
So I wonder- maybe that’s what we’re doing here at Occupy- celebrating an end to capitalism, a few years before it actually ends. Maybe we’re giving ourselves a taste of the Messiah, just to keep us working for justice. And we’ve just gotten started. Who knows how rich this could get?
What gives you hope?
Recently I became part of a national cohort of interfaith community organizers through Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice’s Community Organizing Residency (COR). At our opening retreat we talked a lot about sustainability. What sustains you in this work? My activist advisor Paul Kivel reminds me that the abolitionist movement took 250 years. How do you comprehend that? With my COR cohort we stayed up late snuggling and talking about our lives. We shared our faith journeys. We shared our activist journeys. I left the retreat full of hope from my new connections, and I found myself continuing to seek out community organizers and ask: What keeps you going? For some it was faith, for some it was trust in the arc of the universe. Some said they simply need to be of use, no matter the outcome. Others said it’s possible nothing good may come of their work, but if they don’t do anything, then surely nothing good will come of it. They’d rather take their chances on the possibility of something.
A few weeks ago I was having a difficult day, and finding myself getting sunk in the pit of endless work. At just the right moment, a fellow COR resident from across the country sent me a text message, encouraging me to keep rocking on. This is what movement building is about.
The More Art the Better
Just in the way I believe we are all activists, I also think we are all artists.
It is clear that art has already played an essential part of this movement. Many have commented on the movement’s impressive ability to produce such beautiful posters and with such speed too. Many poems have been written and songs performed. Drumming and dancing have gathered people in close. Videos and films have been raced through facebook. This movement, like all movements in history, has included and needed the brilliance of artists.
I know from what we can get like as artists: we feel competitive, we want to be the special one, we don’t want to be called a copycat. But this is part of the capitalist rhetoric we are trying to work against. I think this is the reality: There is no such thing as too many artists. We need all of us. Creating creating creating. Art is what will bring the people in, and art is what will keep us here.
The Revolution is Coming and my heart is jumping up and down
In my final hour of fasting on Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement), I had a vision as I sang. I looked inside my chest, and instead of seeing my heart, I saw myself as a five year old. Jumping up and down. And when I looked out at the congregation standing in prayer, I saw that everybody had kid hearts, leaping inside of them. So thrilled just to be alive.