SOMETIMES THE GIG CHOOSES YOU. This time the gig was the Occupy SF camp at the foot of the cities’ Embarcadero in Justin Hermann plaza.
I’d been invited the week before by an unlikely performer for the occupiers, Literary Death Match producer Alia Volz, who informed me that a performance series was being put on for the occupiers. It was too short notice, but automatically I was intrigued that someone would undertake such an effort. Knowing Alia from the spoken word scene, I couldn’t imagine street activists being terribly interested in poets or storytellers. They barely paid attention to musicians or stand up comics who always carried far more cache’. I couldn’t see a literary type having much of a satisfying experience doing such a thing.
But Alia knew my material; knew I could be very politically agitated with it. I spoke with her the next day, and she confirmed all the things I’d heard other people say: the vibe of the encampment is scruffy, like upper Haight Street kids being their typically transient and agro-hippy selves, but with tents. It was weird for her, but she encouraged me to go regardless and perform for the encampment with the sincere belief that they would be more receptive to my type of material.
A week later I found myself ascending the BART (our version of a subway in Northern California) escalator with nothing more than an address to text. The Occupy SF camp was only a block away, and the average tourist or pedestrian normally wouldn’t know it was there until they turned the corner to see a powerful albeit makeshift statement of…no question about it…rage. If one is to believe in “vibes,” then the feeling emanating from around a perimeter of SFPD squad cars and television news vans was one of suspicion, disenfranchisement and a nervous anticipation of looming violence, for certainly all these people must have known that just that morning, the Occupy Oakland camp had been evicted and were currently rallying and marching on the other side of the bay.
I checked the cell number I had written down for the series producer, a mysterious but energetic go-getter named Hiya Swanhuyser who had been encouraging me to come out since Alia had put me in touch with her. My text quickly was answered with a brief and terse “south side of the camp, by the MUNI trolley rail.”
I was on the North side, and feeling like a tourist in a place I normally felt at home, I decided to make my way to our meeting spot by plunging into the heart of the encampment, walking through huge waves of smoke comprised of sage, cigarettes and pot. It felt a little like being back in a Grateful Dead parking lot without the promise of a rock music spectacle but quite possibly a rock throwing spectacle.
Some of the residents lying in their open tents eyed me with a kind of resigned weariness. I was amazed to see kids and dogs throughout the tent village, as if it really were a state authorized campsite or park. Half way to my destination on the center patch of lawn, I noticed a large group of campers holding a “round table” meeting and I wondered if this was the fabled General Assembly meeting that I heard served as the daily glue by which the campers kept in touch with each other. If so, it meant I was either late or my set had been pre-empted. I was so taken by the spectacle of this meeting that I nearly stepped in a huge pile of dog shit. A young man quickly brought out a small cat litter scooper and a plastic bag saying “Sorry! Sorry!” to me.
“It’s okay really,” I offered with a tepid smile. Another person quickly joined in and helped him pick the offal up, and then as he made his way back to his tent, he smiled at his dog and said “Harpua, get over here and occupy this tent right now!”
I could see the concern city health officials might have with not just the human logistics of waste, food and hygiene, but the introduction of pets into the equation could certainly complicate matters. Still, no one was harshing on pet owners in the tent city and indeed, seemed to be supporting the notion that animals could share in the occupying statement as much as humans.
The occupation had begun during the waning days of September, but this was now October 25th and there was a cold bite in the air now, and I also began to wonder how well this particular group would hold up in the approaching storm season. I shuddered to think of the activists currently ensconced on Wall Street and what they would be facing during a NYC winter.
I shortly reached the South end of the camp and still wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be looking for, other than what I imagined to be a young woman with a determined gleam in her eye. It didn’t take long for me to find her though, since she was carrying a sandwich board and a sign advertising the performance series. She was talking to a young male activist who was asking her if she was a Laker’s fan because of the sign’s color scheme.
“Are you Hiya?” I asked. She gave me a quick, but brilliant smile and answered “That would be me! And I’m guessing you’re Paul?” I extended my hand and with a sheepish look said “Hiya, Hiya. I guess you get that a lot?” I was relieved when she didn’t look at me like I was an imbecile but merely said “oh yes, all the time.”
Hiya quickly set up her large sign on the sandwich board, which designated the “performance area” and then set about trying to find a bullhorn for me.
Some of the occupy campers were sitting on the concrete wall nearby, smoking tons of weed and looking very bored. I could only assume they were waiting for someone like me to begin ranting. A stiff wind coming off the bay knocked the sign and board over. I went over to prop them back up, but even as I was trying to balance the sign in a strategic manner to prevent its falling over again, another strong gust kicked up to prevent that.
I must have had a very exasperated look on my face as yet another scruffy, non-descript activist wearing a hoodie shouted out to me “losing battle their buddy!” I gave a wry smile and nodded, but then he quickly hopped off his perch on the wall and brought me over a plastic chair that was sitting just outside a nearby tent.
“Dunno if this will help, but maybe you can Mickey Mouse this somehow.” And I actually did, by using the weight of the chair to hold down the base of the sandwich board, and for the second time this evening, I was duly impressed with the helpfulness and co-operation of these people. I thanked the young hippy who was already back on his perch, taking a massive toke off of a joint. I wanted to ask him for a hit, but it felt presumptuous on my part. I was here as somebody who had a lot more than most of these people; a member of the “10%.”
Hiya returned with a very worn and tattered bullhorn. “Here ya go,” she said, and gave me a quick primer on how to work my handheld amplification; the first time I would be performing my work through such a device. “We’re already 30 minutes late so you might as well get going,” she told me, despite the fact that the very large meeting in the center of the camp was still taking place.
I began with a piece published in this very ‘zine, “My Mein Kampf” which uses a fair amount of profanity. Even though it was clear maybe four people were actually paying attention to my work, I was grateful for those four. There was even some scattered applause from near the camp’s center. Another young hippy approached Hiya, whispering to her as I prepared to start another poem. He then approached me a bit sheepishly and said “Hey that was a really good poem man, but you know, could you not swear so much? We get a lot of parents with their kids walking by here and we don’t want to give them the wrong idea. We don’t want them to think we’re hostile to families.”
“No problem man, I understand. I’m a parent so I can censor myself.” The young man gave me such a grateful smile and a huge hug. I then launched into my poem entitled “The Newer and More Improved America” which included lines like “stop crying like a little bitch” and comparing the United States to “a hooker whose made the slide from the Tenderknob to Capp and dreams of running her own crew just as soon as she finds some bitches who are worth a shit.”
Oops. Guess I forgot about those lines. But the guy was long gone and presumably “occupied” with some other activity by this time.
Having finished, the stand up comedians who were following me had shown up and suddenly attracted a large crowd by shouting through the bullhorn “who wants to hear some jokes?” Poets like me will never learn.
But I knew that that wasn’t the point. I was far more interested in what motivated Hiya to keep on doing this series when clearly it was hard work that wasn’t particularly appreciated. I asked her how she got started.
“I just had the idea and started inviting people. I know enough about social justice in this country to know that everyone has the constitutional right to express their opinion in public space, so I thought "I won't just let the Haight street kids dictate the cultural tenor of what is EVERYONE's fight, everyone's mess, everyone's inspiration." So I started inviting hardworking artists, for the purposes of reminding them, the artists, that they are welcome and needed as part of this movement, and also with an eye towards USO style entertainment. I happen to know a lot of artists of many different kinds, so that helps. Everyone wants to get in on Occupy, as they should. For people who want to do what I'm doing, it's just a matter of facilitating -- I bought a boom box for the drag queen. I scraped wet food off the ground with my hands to make room for comedians. I borrowed the camp's bullhorn for the authors. But this is important: I did not ask first.”
“You just…did it? Started setting up on your own?” This struck me as being the core of what “Occupy” was all about.
“I didn't have to, and I didn't want to. It's more work to ask first. Just be nice, and try to be respectful, but respect your own right to use your craft to represent your political position (It doesn't have to be political art, by the way. Foxtails Brigade sang their regular songs and that's important -- they don't have to sing fucking protest songs. Of course they can if they want, they can do anything if they want.) just as much. It's vital to me to radically expand the "traditional" protest asthetic. This is not an open mic and this is not a drum circle. I hope to sidestep the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Michael Franti, Phish, and spoken-word poetry. I adore all those things except Phish, but they are already strongly represented. That's why I brought indie-folk, drag queens, stand-up comedy, accordion samba, performance art, queer literary readers, etc. instead. I want the range of expression to be wider, deeper, and more interesting. If you want to book jam bands at your Occupy, go for it. I just don't know if anyone will notice. I had a guy helping me the first week, Seth Fischer of the Rumpus. And I have a student from SF State who updates the tumblr and provides moral support to me. But otherwise, it's just me. I bring a sign on Bart. I do scheduling. I meet with the OSF organzers. I go to GA meetings to announce the performances. I publicize when I can. I update fb. I deal with the press. I'm supposed to be finding a generator for Tom Morello right now. This thing is all one person, and therefore any other one person can do it. My advice? Be practical. Be nice to everyone, always. Be prepared to scrape food off the ground with your hands and then have the campers tell you your performers sucked. Bounce back. Hydrate.
“Basically, tell people nothing can stop them from making and enjoying high-quality art. Not banks stealing all our money, not vicious bastards gutting public schools, not epidemic depression, not the wolf at the door. Nothing.”
“So how long are you going to keep doing this for?” I wondered.
“This is my last week. I really need to get a job.”
I can’t tell you how many times I heard this through the rest of the evening, like a mantra of collapse: “I just got laid off”; “I’ve been looking for work”; “I really need something to work out soon.” And when the hours for job hunting weren’t good, these people came down here to see the others just like them who had fallen through the cracks.
I sat through the highly educational General Assembly, learning about the hand signals used by the campers, even as people at the Assembly nervously kept their eyes on the ever present SFPD squad cars. My text messaging started going nuts about how Oakland was blowing up: “send reinforcements!” “They’re using flash bombs!” “Goddamn, Oakland still knows how to throw a really great party!”
Hiya had long since gone home, having done her part and I started feeling like a traitor, hob-knobbing here with the oh so peaceful and highly organized Occupy SF camp while things were falling apart in my own town. But even while many people at Occupy SF were saying that they needed to be prepared for violence, the overriding aesthetic of non-violence still carries the day in that particular community.
The truth is in Oakland, non-violence barely holds sway with the main group of occupiers there, but that likely is because they have repeatedly faced it down in the face of the thuggish Oakland Police Department and its old school tactics that they have never fully abandoned…the same reason you don’t see as many homeless people loitering in Oakland as you do in San Francisco. But still…it is my home; my town, and not for one moment do I believe the protestors there should back down, even if I disagree with many of their strategies. Consensus isn’t always the most important thing in desperate times like these. And we are far from seeing or hearing the last of this unrest.