Something is happening. Something significant is happening all around us.
Wednesday I spent the day among millions. Wednesday, I found myself floating in a sea of humanity whose river flowed guided by an invisible hand through the streets of Oakland. I believe I felt the presence of God moving or the voice of God speaking but not in any way that I have before experienced the Divine.
Certainly the power and peace of God was present but that presence was so far out of the box that holds my theology, sociology and psychology that I am not sure I can understand it yet. I do not have an umbrella scripture that can encompass the experience or a bible story that can mirror it. I know deeply that God wishes to speak to me through this experience because the movement and those moments yesterday in the streets of my city connect so very directly to a lifetime of my prayers and preaching. So, I awoke early the next morning to prayerfully begin to search for meaning.
Wednesday, marked a week and one day after the tragic attempt to disband the Oakland encampment of the Occupy Movement. The attempt turned almost deadly violent. Early that Tuesday morning a police force containing seventeen different police departments and led by the Oakland Police Department (OPD) came to order the campers to leave the plaza in front of city hall where they had occupied for more than a month. The police met with resistance. That is to say that there were those who stood to deliberately and determinately defy the orders of the police. The Police Chief said his officers were violently attacked and responded. Others report that the police were aggressive and unprovoked.
Whatever the provocation there ensued that morning an armed police response that included teargas, rubber bullets, bean bags and other so called “non lethal” forms of weaponry. Live reports from the police action recorded moments that sound like a war zone. In the mêlée a two tour veteran of the Iraq war, Scott Olsen, was critically wounded when he was hit in the head by what was reported as a teargas canister shot directly at him.
Wednesday, the day after the plaza had been cleared, cleaned and sanitized there was a mass meeting in front of city hall. It lasted late into the night. I was there. I was there as a nonviolent clergy person with other nonviolent clergy persons to do whatever we could to prevent any further violence. There were a lot of people out that night. We were shoulder to shoulder and filled the square. During the general assembly it was decided that there would be a general strike on Wednesday the next week. That is the day of which I am writing here.
For a week there was this buzz about the general strike. I was invited to a clergy meeting which ended up at our church because it outgrew the scheduled meeting place. The meeting went on for three hours as a diverse group of thirty clergy persons met to lend their presence and plan for a peaceful outcome to the planned marches. There were to be prayers and peace rituals a half an hour before; the morning events which began at 9am, the noon rally and the 5 pm march to shut down the Port of Oakland. Valerie and I arrived before 11am.
We arrived into something big, something huge. As we drove into town there was an unusual calm. Even the unusually quiet traffic seemed serene. There seemed to be something different about our city. We parked the car at the church four blocks from the city center and began walking to city hall, as we turned the corner on 14th street we saw a huge crowd filling the intersection of 14th and Broadway. As we walked closer we saw a black sign stretching across the street with large silver painted words announcing: “Death to Capitalism”. The crowd was massive. There were people everywhere. If there were thousands at the rally the week before there were tens of thousands there Wednesday.
We moved toward the Interfaith tent and found our friends there already singing to a gathered crowd within the crowd. My friend Francisco was playing the guitar and singing. My new friend and Unitarian pastor Nickles was holding the mike and bullhorn. We all sang together with a gathered crowd of about a hundred people and after the song Rabbi Michael Learner deputized those listening to go tell the message of the movement. He addressed the critics and explained that the Occupy Movement is about building a Caring Society. He said that “we are a network of people who share the common idea that the world can and must be based on love, generosity, caring for one another and caring for our planet.” He called for an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The amendment would overturn Citizen’s United and declare that corporations are not entitled to the same rights as human beings; eliminate private and corporate funding of elections and finally, require periodic assessments of corporate conduct. There was more in his short talk but his was a cry for a society in which people are valued more than profits and the earth respected as a living organism requiring deliberate attention and care.
The time came for the noon marches. There was a children’s march leaving from the Oakland Library at noon that I was aware of, some of my friends and co-workers were headed that way. There were other marches simultaneously on the move. Valerie and I joined a mass of people moving down 14th street toward the library. We were among a multitude filling all four lanes of the street for as far as one could see. The crowd was dense and turned left on Franklin and headed north toward the place where several bank branches were clustered.
Neither, Valerie nor I knew where we were headed nor what route we would take or who was leading us but we knew why we were there. We like 99% of the people marching in Oakland moving with and among unorganized masses were unified by the desperate condition of our world, our families and our collective future. We were the cry of the lost Oaks that once lived here, as well as the moans of the Ohlone people who once thrived here but most of all we were the prayer sent to the God of the universe pleading for substantive change to the dark and devolutionary path on which we are currently traveling with increasing speed.
Valerie and I were joined by one of our members as we walked along Franklin Street. The three of us finished that noon march together. Throughout the day I saw several members of our congregation marching in different contingents. We paused to watch a man and a woman expertly climb lampposts across Webster Street and unfurl a banner that read “Occupy the Banks”. I noted that there were some who knew exactly where we were going and in fact had plans for the route. We moved from that corner to pause briefly at the large Bank of America on Harrison St. and then back to Broadway for the march back to the city center. The crowd was innumerable. The sense of peace and hope was immeasurable. The sense of community and common destiny was palatable.
I began these thoughts stating that Wednesday I was among millions. I believe that this is true not because I wish to exaggerate the number of those who peacefully possessed the city that day nor to engage poetic hyperbole. My wife, fellow congregants and I were among millions Wednesday because with the tens of thousands that were in the streets of Oakland that day there are hundreds of thousands in California whose hearts and hopes we carried with us and around the world there are literally millions, who from Tirhir Square to right here, resonate with the need for change, the willingness to be a part of that change and the inexplicable sense that this is the moment in which change must occur.
There is one troubling part of November 2nd. I did not see many African American clergy beside myself and a few students. I was asked by a reporter why that was the case and what did I think African Americans think about the Occupy Movement. Well the second question was the easiest to answer. I told the reporter that I could not speak for African Americans nor accurately reflect any imaginary consensus they may hold. The first question, however, does give me pause. I am a part of several clergy groups and all except one have ignored the movement. None have yet engaged any theological reflection on the dynamic of our time or how it is embodied in the Occupy Movement but it is time.
We who would like to think of ourselves as progressives or as followers of Christ should shout “Hosana!” with the crowd or be counted as the modern day Pharisees too foolish to follow the current movement of God.
— Servant BK Woodson, Sr., Senior Pastor, Bay Area Christian Connection (Oakland, CA)