Oakland Pastor Reflects on the Occupy Movement

We, like 99% of the people marching in Oakland, were unified by the desperate condition of our world, our families and our future. We were the cry of the lost oak trees that once lived here, as well as the moans of the Ohlone people who once thrived here.

During the General Strike, many thousands marched several miles to shut down the Port of Oakland. Ariel Messman-Rucker photo

 

 

by Pastor Brian K. Woodson

 

Wednesday, November 2, I spent the day among millions. Wednesday, the day of the General Strike called by Occupy Oakland, 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 Occupy Movement and those moments in the streets of my city connect so very directly to a lifetime of my prayers and preaching. So, I awakened early on the morning the day after to prayerfully begin to search for meaning.

That 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, October 25, a police force with officers from 17 different police departments, and led by the Oakland Police Department, 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 determinedly defy the orders of the police. Oakland Police Chief Howard Jordan said his officers were violently attacked and responded. Others report that the police were aggressive and were unprovoked by demonstrators. 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.

On Wednesday, October 26, the day after the plaza had been cleared, cleaned and sanitized, there was a mass meeting in front of Oakland 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.

A lot of people were 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 following week.

For a week there was this buzz about the General Strike. I was invited to a clergy meeting which ended up at our Oakland church because it outgrew the scheduled meeting place. The meeting went on for three hours as a diverse group of 30 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 9 a.m., the noon rally, and the 5 p.m. march to shut down the Port of Oakland.

Valerie and I arrived before 11 a.m. We arrived at 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 on November 2.

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 100 people.

After the song, Rabbi Michael Lerner 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, “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. His was a cry for a society in which people are valued more than profits and the earth is respected as a living organism requiring deliberate attention and care.

The time came for the noon marches. A children’s march was leaving from the Oakland Library at noon; some of my friends and co-workers were headed that way. Other marches were 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 headed north toward the place where several bank branches were clustered.

Occupy Oakland held one of the largest demonstrations in history on the day of the General Strike. Ariel Messman-Rucker photo

 

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 oak trees 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 church 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 had plans for the route. We paused briefly at the large Bank of America on Harrison Street and then went 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 on November 2, 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 yesterday, nor to engage in poetic hyperbole.

My wife, fellow congregants and I were among millions on November 2 because along 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 in Oakland, 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 the General Strike. I did not see many African American clergy, other than 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 in 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.

 

Brian K. Woodson is the senior pastor of the Bay Area Christian Connection, an inner-city church in Oakland with a women’s treatment program and a food program that distributed more than 435,000 pounds of food this year to inner-city residents.

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The Obscene Wealth of the 1%

by Pastor Brian K. Woodson

Wall Street thugs and pinstripe gangsters have stolen our homes with credit default swaps. They have pilfered our pensions with their over-leveraged, undercapitalized positions. And for all their larceny, they get bailed out and we get bailed on. The money we need is sitting useless in their bank accounts. Tax the rich!

The American military budget is over $800 billion that we can count. The Pentagon budget is largely unknown and unquestionably out of control. If we need money, cut the defense budget. America is like a home whose parents are spending so much money on burglar alarms and security systems there is no money to feed the children.

We don’t need any more bombs. We need books. We don’t need any more bullets. We need butter and bread. We don’t need any more foreign horrors to fear. We need homes and good jobs. We need the decency of living wages and hope in return for our hard labor.

For the past 30 years, the top 1 percent have engorged themselves in obscene wealth and it is time for them to pay their fair share. We who work for a living demand to be able to live from our work. Put some billionaires behind bars and they’ll stop stealing so much. And put American workers back to work.

From Tahrir Square to right here! The workers of the world must unite, ‘less all of us be defeated!

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