IN EARLY OCTOBER, ABOUT A MONTH after the original Wall Street occupation had begun in New York’s Zuccotti Park and inspired offshoot occupations around the world, people began to stage their own general assembly meetings in Riverside, California.
I moved from Seattle to Riverside in 2003 to attend graduate school at the University of California, Riverside, where I studied creative writing and then taught as a lecturer until the state budget imploded; in 2009 I was laid off. Since then I’ve cobbled together employment at two of the local community colleges and hung on as a resident of this desert city — dusty birthplace of the California citrus industry — sixty miles east of Los Angeles, and home to an unemployment rate that for the last two years has stuck at around 14%.
At first I was skeptical about Occupy Riverside. I’d heard about the occupiers’ cultish hand gestures and the strange call-and-response that is the People’s Microphone. My closest friend and roommate, however, already writing essays about Wall Street’s role in wrecking the world economy, suffered no such hesitation. Like me, Kathryn had moved to Riverside to attend the university. Like me, she had lost her job teaching there. As soon as she found out about a local occupation near the downtown Wells Fargo on University and Main, she was at the site. I agreed to stay home with her daughter so that my roommate could take part. Within a few days, she was staying overnight.
The more Kathryn told me about what was going on downtown, the more enthusiastic I became. Soon I attended one of the general assemblies and saw for myself what all the right-wing media conglomerates had been trying to dismiss for weeks as so much twinkly hippie childishness. I saw people wiggling their upraised fingers and making jazz hands to signify approval of a speaker’s message, and waving in front of their faces to signify disagreement. I saw the hand signal to request clarification or a point of procedure. I heard the People’s Mic get checked.
In the entire eight years I’d lived in Riverside, I had never developed a relationship with the city’s downtown. After ignoring the area for so long, it felt strange to be there — the Wells Fargo and other businesses shut down for the day, the delis and restaurants and boutiques all dark, my fellow residents not just interacting with one another but taking their discourse seriously and seeing how far they could take their collective energy towards actual change.
Riverside, like Ontario, Colton, and Moreno Valley, is a densely populated city in Riverside County, which, together with San Bernardino County, makes up the vast Inland Empire: a freeway-crisscrossed slab of metropolitan Southern California. Until recently it was a place I had viewed largely through my windshield while commuting from one job at this college campus to another job at the next. Downtown Riverside, local historians like to note, is home to the Fox Theater, where Gone with the Wind premiered in 1939. But it is most famous for the hotel that likely put up Clark Gable, the inn that hosted every president — from Taft to Dubya — to pass through these parts since 1919. To me, the iconic and imposing Mission Inn — with its hokey presidential lounge, its yearly Christmas light display and its moneyed patrons — had long been synonymous with “downtown.” The last time I’d been to the Mission Inn, two weeks prior to writing this, was to drop off my friend Chantel at the Inn’s “job fair,” a cattle call for locals seeking seasonal employment; the event drew at least a hundred hopeful workers, most of whom were turned away. It seemed almost laughably sentimental to imagine citizens gathered together in such a place to voice concerns about their country. (One might recall more readily the city’s annual downtown Dickens festival.)
But it was real. Is real. At Occupy Riverside, as at other occupations around the nation, group meetings are led by a rotating facilitation committee that assists gathered members towards building consensus — rather than merely hammering out a satisfied majority over a dissatisfied minority. The funky-looking hand jive, then, isn’t just some kind of clannish secret code but is essential in expediting the consensus-building process. It is fundamental to building the kind of leaderless solidarity that can resist duplicating the same top-down power structure that made it possible for those at the top to bring the whole thing down upon the heads of the other 99%.
It took me a while to get on board with all of this. Like everyone else in America I was raised in a capitalist culture that values individual pursuits over collective well-being. “Anarchy” was a term bandied about by crust punks in fetid black threads tricked out with safety pins, not a political position anyone took seriously. Yet here were anarchists, some of them literally homeless, most of them taking time out of their days to assemble in a downtown plaza, to come together in the dim streetlight, to air their grievances, to share their hopes and fears, and to surrender their egos to the greater good.
The most tangible expression of this greater good and the heart of the Riverside occupation is the People’s Kitchen, an easy-up shelter where food is served throughout the day, free of charge, to any hungry person. Supported by the efforts and donations of the occupiers and the community, the kitchen exemplifies the Occupy movement’s intention to make public use of public land. What strikes me most about all this leaderless energy, though, is how organized it is. Very little does it resemble the bongo-playing, public-fornicating, litter-leaving orgy of lazy college students and “hippies” some media personalities have made it out to be. In addition to the kitchen, Occupy Riverside has committees dedicated to facilitation, legal affairs, media, actions, and education.
For over a month things went on like this: people coming and going, learning to speak an unfamiliar language of mutual respect and participation, many of them sticking it out overnight in sleeping bags to show solidarity with their homeless brothers and sisters, to express continuity with the original Wall Street protesters, and to peaceably protest a system that increasingly makes those at the bottom pay for the sins of those at the top. Then, after a month of nightly general assembly meetings and people sleeping on the grass or on the concrete near the statue of Martin Luther King Jr, and despite police warnings not to erect structures on public land, some members of Occupy Riverside decided it was time to pitch tents. Overnight, a tent village sprouted up, becoming, for many occupiers, a surrogate home. The Riverside Police Department again warned protestors that the tents would have to come down. But they stayed up. The occupiers occupied. The police then threatened to tear down and confiscate the tents.
Last Friday night, at 9:08 p.m., Occupy Riverside posted an urgent Facebook status update: “Cops are threatening to come to the site in 30 mins to take down tents. We need backup.” Backup arrived, but the cops did not. Within an hour, the number of occupiers in the downtown plaza had quadrupled to around 150 people, and a lone officer showed up around midnight to inform the occupiers that his boss wanted the tents taken down. (Cops don’t always arrive when they say they will.)
Each time it appeared the police were finally going to raid the site, it ended up being another false alarm. Until Sunday. At 3:25 p.m. Occupy Riverside’s Facebook status read, “Getting raided.” At 3:29 p.m., “GETTING RAIDED.”
By the time I picked up my friend Chantel and drove to the site, the police had already torn down all but one of the occupiers’ structures: The People’s Kitchen still stood. Circled around it were some thirty protesters, including Kathryn, locked arm-in-arm in a human chain.
A rare Riverside rain drizzled down on us. One man pounded a drum he’d hung from his neck. The People’s Microphone had been checked. One man shouted, “Solidarity brothers!”
The crowd chanted back, “SOLIDARITY BROTHERS!”
“They say get back!”
“WE SAY FIGHT BACK!”
“They say get back!”
“WE SAY FIGHT BACK!”
A phalanx of at least fifteen police officers — most of them in dark sunglasses, and all in full riot gear — marched towards the human chain to where two elbow-locked women must have looked to them like the weakest link. As the officers approached, the protesters’ chants, adrenalized, became faster and louder:
“They say get back!” “WE SAY FIGHT BACK!” “Theysaygetback!!” “WESAYFIGHTBACK!!“
An officer asked the women to step aside, but they stood their ground. The officer then tried to pry the two women apart, his gloved hands pushing them by the shoulders away from each other. He wrenched the women’s elbows unlocked, breaking the protesters’ human chain, which now becomes a writhing melee of bodies thrown against each other and onto the cement.
Before I know it, I am screaming at one of the officers. “Shame! Shame on you!”
I cannot see his eyes behind his sunglasses, but I can read his lips as he raises his riot gun and aims it at my torso. “Get back!”
Occupiers are dragged across the ground by police officers who will arrest and jail them for eight hours. Protesters’ arms flail about, seeking other bodies to regain balance or restore courage, while others are yanked and shoved by officers who twist the occupiers’ defiant limbs in order to get them on the ground where the officers can take advantage of gravity, use their weight to press their knees down on our bodies.
Men in yellow hardhats file through the opening the police have torn in the human chain. The men begin to dismantle the People’s Kitchen.
The people continue to scream. I continue to scream.
Then, amidst the chaos of bodies and drumbeats and shouted curses, a woman shouts, “Mic check!”
“Mic check!” we shout back.
“I have notified Channel 2 and channel 4!”
“I HAVE NOTIFIED CHANNEL 2 AND CHANNEL 4!”
“They are on their way!”
“THEY ARE ON THEIR WAY!”
Within less than ten minutes, the police gather their things and begin to leave. I find myself marching after them with a group of protesters, all of us shouting our demand that the police come back and answer for the mess they’ve made. By this point my throat is sore from screaming, my voice almost gone. About forty of us plant ourselves at the police department entrance and continue to face off against the cops. Nothing we say seems to matter — not the fact that we’re defending First Amendment rights, nor the fact that we are the only ones giving voice to them, the police officers, our fellow 99 Percenters, our fellow Americans who need their jobs and pensions just as much as the rest of us.
Half an hour of standing stalemated outside the police department allows my head to clear. I remember that I can’t allow myself to get arrested, that I have to take care of a kid, that I cannot stay the night.
Leaving the police station, Chantel and I walk past the occupation site. Disheveled, traumatized protesters mingle around the cardboard signs and personal belongings heaped in an ugly rain-wet pile left behind by the police. The People’s Kitchen is no more. I want to stay and help pick up the pieces, but I don’t know what belongs to whom, and it’s getting late.
Driving home, I can’t stop shaking. Chantel can’t either. Her eyes are watering. She tells me she’s nauseous; she’s never seen anything so awful. Something inside of us has ruptured and won’t stop gushing. Everything else — everywhere other than downtown Riverside — now seems beside the point.