As I noted, my first visit to Occupy Houston didn't satisfy my curiosity as to the whys and wherefores of the protest. Ever the curious one, I made a return trip Tuesday evening in hopes of learning more about the movement, the people, and the protest.
I had an appointment nearby and walked through the occupation around 4 pm. I asked a photographer that I had met during the prior visit what time the general assembly and other meetings started. He pointed me towards someone that would know and I walked over and introduced myself. After confirming that the GA started at 7 pm, we started talking about the protest in general and why he was there specifically. He didn't know much about the overall goal of the protest but he did know why he was there.
He told me that his name was Capital Maurice Baker and that he had come to Houston from Florida specifically for the protest about a month earlier, shortly after being released from prison. He had served 18 years in prison and had used the time to rehabilitate himself, earning both a bachelor's and a master's degree in psychology. After his release, he could not find a job in that field, even though both degrees were from accredited universities. He told me that no one would even hire him to mow their yard.
Depressed and ready to end his life, he heard about the protest in Houston and decided to check it out, to see if he could make a difference. He was immediately accepted into the community and found that he could guide some of the younger people because they looked up to him. No longer depressed, he wants to continue with the protest as a means of giving back to society. He stated that he had paid his debt in prison but still thought that he needed to do more and this was a way to do it. He still does not have a job but is no longer looking, considering his work at the protest too important. So he sleeps outside with the rest of the homeless and makes do with the donations of food that continue to be dropped off daily.
I asked him why his mamma gave him the name "Capital" and he said that it was because she thought he would amount to something one day. I told him that I thought his mamma was right and that he had already amounted to something through his service to others.
After my meeting a few blocks over, I made it back to the park about 10 minutes past 7 pm. The GA had just started and I was able to observe, in the words of one of the attendees, "pure democracy" in action. Almost immediately after I arrived, a guy came up to me and asked, "You're David Jennings, aren't you?" Why yes, I am, how did you know that and who are you? Turns out that he reads the Houston Chronicle and had read my earlier post about the protest. He wouldn't give me his name but as he turned to walk away, he said, "look, I know you're going to write something negative". Ah, the price of fame.
I also met up with Bob Price from TexasGOPVote.com. You see, I don't go as a "spy" or try to sneak up on the group. Both times I have attended, I have Tweeted and Facebook'd my intentions hours in advance. Bob saw this and decided to meet me there. I haven't seen him write about it yet but he might at some point. He had an interesting story about a young woman that he had talked with before I arrived. If I recall correctly, she was 25, had a degree, had been living with her parents, but decided that she wanted to live the life of the homeless. She was not looking for work, had no plans to look for work – she enjoyed the life thus far. Perhaps Bob will write more about her but I suppose that the point is that not all homeless people are homeless because they have no options – obviously this young woman was educated and could find work if she chose to.
The GA was in full swing when I arrived. I recognized the moderator, Amy Price, from her recent run for City Council under the Green Party banner. Progressive blogger Neil Aquino had written about her over at his Texas Liberal blog. Unfortunately for her campaign, C.O. Bradford came out the winner in that race. From what I could tell of the moderator's role at the Occupy Houston GA, she served much like a time keeper, frequently interrupting the speaker to ask the crowd if they wanted to extend the speaker's time. Speaking of the crowd, there were around 30 or so people gathered for the GA and another 20 or 30 back in the trees or already asleep in their sleeping bags.
The first issue that I saw being discussed in this form of "pure democracy" was an attempt to remove one of the volunteer attorneys, a Maria Ellana Castellanos. The speaker mentioned that she didn't attend meetings and that she was hard to get along with. After several minutes of questions and answers, one gentleman raised his crossed arms up and Ms. Price told the assembly that a "block" had been made. The guy making the "block" stated that he wasn't commenting on the merits of the proposal to remove her but thought that she had the right to be there to defend herself. After several more questions and answers, a second person raised his crossed arms and Ms. Price declared that a second "block" had been made and thus the issue was tabled.
Next up was a report on finances. The person giving the report stated that the financial picture was not good – they had $22 left in their cash fund and that cash donations keep disappearing. She proposed that if someone missed three consecutive finance meetings that their access to keys for the cashbox be removed. That proposal ended up passing. At some point, she stated that they also have $174 in the savings box.
At this point I decided to walk around to the other side and the same guy that had approached me before thought that I was leaving. He came up and said that he had hoped to have a conversation before I left. So I said, let's talk now. He never did tell me his name but I'm pretty sure that I heard him referred to as Jeff during the Q&A's of the speakers, so I'll call him Jeff. Just remember, I really don't know his name.
Jeff told me that I couldn't come as a outsider, walking around the outside taking photos, and expect to understand the movement. So I asked him to tell me about it. Bob Price had wandered over and we had a conversation/discussion that lasted perhaps 15 minutes.
Jeff has been attending the protest in the evenings after work for about six weeks. He stops by his home to take care of the dogs after work, then heads straight to Tranquility Park. He doesn't stay overnight because he has a job. Jeff is the one that told me that what I was seeing was "pure democracy". He explained that the "blocks" ensure that everyone has a voice, which is very important to this group. They do not think that everyone in our current system of governance has a voice – only large corporations and the wealthy. We talked for a while about Wal Mart displacing small business owners, with Bob interjecting that it was the choice of the people to shop there. Jeff said that people had been trained by the media and corporate marketing to blindly follow cheaper prices without regard to what it was doing to their communities. I told Jeff that is sounded like he viewed people as nothing more than mind numbed robots that couldn't think for themselves and he agreed that they were. I objected to this view of humanity but Jeff really does seem to think that people have been so dumbed down, so mind-numbed that they really cannot think for themselves.
It is very easy to see why Jeff would think this way. Just look at the examples from yesterday's Black Friday madness. People lining up for days in advance to buy junk that sometimes will last no longer than the time they waited in line. People brawling at a Wal Mart for the chance to by a two dollar waffle maker that they might use one time if they are lucky. Women fighting in a Victoria's Secret store to buy discounted yoga pants. Anecdotal stories abound to support Jeff's view
Jeff also pointed out the failure of today's churches not meeting the needs of the poor and people that cannot fend for themselves. Obviously I agree with him on that one, you cannot have read much of what I have written over the years without knowing that. But the question is, do we change the church and put it back on the right course or do we increase the size of the leviathan that FDR and LBJ created? At first glance, the occupy movement's goal seems to be the latter but after talking with Jeff at length about it, I'm not so sure my perception is correct. I'll need to visit a few more times before I can begin to understand the movement.
And I still haven't figured out why my friends on the right are so vehemently against the movement. I understand some of their animosity but I have to ask the question: what if, before branding us as hate-filled selfish racists and describing us with a term for an obscure sex act between homosexual men, the left had taken the time to understand the Tea Party movement and not relied upon media reports of fringe groups doing things that support their perception? One of my friends typed on Facebook for me to "ask the scum" about some issue. After meeting these people, why would I call them scum? And more to the point, without meeting these people why would she call them scum? They have been friendly to me, respectful even. Jeff was very engaging in conversation and was not the caricature that we have created of people that attend this protest. Capital Maurice Baker was doing his best to make his mamma proud of him and to give back to the society that had helped him.
So I'll go back yet again. Not because I understand or agree with them because the plain truth is that I do not. And that is why I will go back – because I don't understand and wish that before someone called me scum they tried to understand me. And because I'm a curious sort.
I'll leave you with a verse by the poet Mary Oliver:
Of The Empire
We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.