The lessons this Occupy Richmond stay of mine have provided are almost overwhelming. It is nearly impossible for me to get the every day work of my life with my children done off-site, live on-site and blog. It is toooo much. But the experience every day is amazing, frightening, sobering, and frequently surreal.
Let's start with the living. The nitty gritty of Occupy life for me.
I let it be known to my neighbor and best buddy in tent city "Chad" that I am likely to leave the Occupation not due to temperature, police intervention, or disillusionment but because of illness. It ain't easy being a chronically ill protester. The meetings last too long. We sit on concrete steps that are cold at this time of year. The youngsters, many of whom do not live with us full-time, are smart, articulate, passionate, and shockingly extroverted. They talk all day and all night about their concerns and hopes for our country. They are deeply patriotic in a way that is not easily put onto bumper stickers or fourth of July advertising. But, dag! They talk forever.
I have had to limit my meeting time and replace it with protest time because it is better on my bones. Yesterday my children, another parent and I held up signs at rush hour. My 6 year old held up one that said, "We love you all." Mine was "The lion sleeps no more." My son liked switching signs and dancing with them.
Our favorite protest sign needs some editing and bigger lettering. We've decided it should say, "We respect the police because they are one layoff away from joining us."
The people who honk and wave are truly eclectic. White guys in contractor trucks, elderly black women in old Fords, Hispanic men headed out for happy hour, lawyer types in shiny foreign cars, the GRTC bus drivers. We can't really hold conversations because of all the honking, waving and smiling. Two populations always honk and wave: those who ride scooters and those who drive Cooper Minis.
The food is never there when I am hungry. I have yet to eat a real meal in tent city and I have lived there a week. I have eaten a lot of peanut butter and jelly and fresh fruit. It is enough but the reports of great dining are overblown. An old high school buddy saved me from palate boredom with some chex mix and mixed nuts the other day. They have fed 7 so far.
The port-a-potties are unpleasant. People work hard to keep them clean but they are still unsavory for a Southern gal like myself. There were 81 tents, lean-tos and other fabric structures last night. Many hold multiple people sleeping in them. There are 4 or 5 port-a-potties. But unlike Oakland, they can't claim we are using the park as our bathroom. The proof is in the pots.
What about the police?
Have you ever met any Richmond police, Capitol police, or State Troopers? I can guarantee the jerk to chill dude ratio is WAY lower in these professions than in food service, retail, or telemarketing. I know so many smart, kind, thoughtful police and this experience has not changed that view one bit.
I have heard that the police were visiting on at least 3 occasions during my week's stay. Each time someone walks through and says, "The police have arrived." Each time I check to make sure my bags are together should I be evicted in the next 15 minutes. Each time negotiations appear quiet and respectful.
I read somewhere that Occupy protesters are scared of the police in the wake of events in Oakland and Atlanta. I am not scared. I am more scared of the yelling people. Speaking of which...
What about other Occupy residents?
There are some folks with whom I live for whom I have considerable concern. Poor impulse control does not even begin to cover it. I think the Occupy leadership should all get graduate level social work and public safety credits upon the end of the Occupation. I have had my share of compassionate listening sessions during my stay (and am grateful to the occupiers who have provided them for me.) But dag, man. What is up with the screaming fits in the night?!?! I am getting flashbacks to when my son had colic, but these people can articulate why they are screaming. Sort of.
Why are you there and when will you leave?
I am there out of a respect for the American ideal of a balance between communal responsibility and independence. I am there because the process gives me hope. I am there because I have felt hopeless about American politics for over a decade and I want to speak up for change. I am there because I am fascinated by the opportunity to live with anarchists, college students, wanderers, old and new hippies, the unemployed, the employed but struggling, the mentally ill, dreamers, and strangers. I am there because our city is beautiful in ways I did not understand until I lived in the streets.
I will leave when living outside threatens my health. I will leave when the police tell me to leave. I will leave if it gets violent. I will leave (and already have left) for any opportunity I have to spend the night with my kids. I will leave the next time those portable toilets all overflow AGAIN. Ugh.
What will you take with you?
I will carry my belongings and any trash out. I will take my hopes for a representative government with me. I will take my respect for a variety of opinions. I will take a concern for the well-being of those who do not have friends, family, and others to provide them shelter for the winter. I will carry a deep and abiding faith that we are doing ourselves a disservice by building more jails for non-violent offenders instead of facilities that offer a better community to everyone. I will take a newly found disdain for peanut butter and jelly.
And I will take my butt to another group who will work for a kind and just community for all built on love and mutual respect.
Yes, I talked like this before the Occupation. No, not even the discomforts of urban tent camping nor the derision of strangers and acquaintances has drummed it out of me. Yes, the support of friends, my children, and absolute strangers has been immeasurably uplifting.
Time to go. I have to make sure that my tent signs don't ooze in the rain. They say:
This home is not HOSTILE. This home is LOVE. and
My Mama Doesn't Approve
but my kids do.