Partially silhouetted forms stood beaming, holding glasses of champagne or some other refined beverage. Sometimes they smiled and pointed, sometimes laughed. The mocking jokes, though inaudible, were visible through panes of glass. The backdrop of the expensive lighting fixtures glistened from the high windows of the Sheraton Hotel.
They were pointing at us. The occupiers.
The scene down below was not so refined, nor so polished or comfortable. Not with the sporadic arcs of mace and pepper spray. Not with the cops hitting us with their bicycles, or our people being jumped by undercovers when they reached down to help a fallen comrade. Not with the screams of indignation echoing, the rage permeating everything. Not with the calls to “hold the line!” as we forced cops to give ground, defiance one only hears about in stories or in dreams.
No, not so refined. But with all the dignity of the world.
This was the scene in Seattle on the night of November 2, 2011. It was the day of Oakland’s general strike. Which just so happened to be the day the CEO of JPMorgan Chase was scheduled to speak at that pleasant, refined, “suit” hotel. Perfect.
The day began with uncertainty. Did they know our plans? Would they attack us? Would they use pain tactics? Will we be hospitalized? If something happens, will those I hold dear know how much I love them? Will we be successful? What if we aren’t? Is our movement strong enough to work through such a setback?
These thoughts persisted as three of us approached a Chase Bank branch, only a few blocks away from our occupation.
The half-tinted windows made visible two young women, laughing, writing on what must have been deposit slips. Huge tubes of reflective red, silver and white wrapping paper poked innocently from their large black garbage bag. The clerks and security looked tense, but they didn’t know what we were up to. At least, not yet.
One of our people, a young man with a half-hawk, opened the door. The other two of us walked through.
“Thank you.” The words came out more softly than I had intended.
We walked to the counter, catching the eyes of the women with the wrapping paper. Maybe it was just me but I felt everything in the room get tense. The sterile beauty of the soft florescent lighting forced a sense of normality. People banking. Money exchanged. Tellers shuffling paper, having something to do with the profits of Chase. Maybe the paper he handled had to do with someone’s mortgage, bankruptcy, or loan. Financialization hard at work. This, the daily reality of plunder and parasitism, of speculation for super-profits at the expense of millions: the spirit of accumulation above everything worth anything, including people, was what we were out to disrupt, even for an instant. It felt like all eyes were on us. But it was probably just nerves.
The five of us converged at the counter. Our arms dove into the tubes of wrapping paper. A foot of slender steel chains fell from each of our sleeves. Fifteen seconds later carabiner mountaineering clamps clicked shut. Our arms were chained together inside the PVC hidden beneath a layer of colorful Christmas paper.
Minutes later I started to hear militant chants as marchers closed in on the bank from a distance. Hundreds of them surrounded the building. And while the bank had tried to continue business before, with us locked together sitting in front of the tellers’ station, now the bank was entirely shut down. Keys went into the doors, turning to lock out the many.
I heard our statement read on each side of the building. A mic check: “The world – Does not – Have to – Be this way!” pierced the glass. “General strike!” roared from the bullhorn.
Damn. I felt incredible. We couldn’t have hoped for such success.
We settled in for a long stay. We played word games and made up an elaborate stories. On one side of the building a dance party broke out to revolutionary hip hop. On the other I heard chanting, mic checks and agitation. All around us excitement, enthusiasm. There was a sense that we were doing it. We are changing the world. It was tangible and almost palpable.
Eventually, some of the friendly faced cops came in and sawed us out of our pipes and cut our chains. It was okay. We knew we were going to be arrested. For more than two hours we kept that bank shut down. Twice what we thought we could pull off. They stood us up in hand cuffs, preparing for our procession outside, but when we got outside it was a whole other scene.
The excitement and enthusiasm was still there. But it wasn’t alone. Someone from the crowd called out, “Mic check! – Hail! – Hail! – Hail the heroes of the revolution!” Everyone took it up. I’m not one for self-aggrandizement, so I don’t know how I feel about “hail the heroes” thing, even if it was spontaneous and heartfelt. But I’ve never felt such love from such wonderful people. These people, the occupiers, are the most selfless, passionate and high minded individuals I’ve encountered. It’s contagious. And it’s moments like that one where you really understand how important that is. It seems to me that it is a moral code, an ethics – almost a whole culture in embryo. It’s so radically different from how people are taught to think, live, act and love. Yet it exists. Right here. As a fracture, a departure, out of which something new is emerging.
We were placed in a police van, only to have our fellow occupiers start to push and rock. A spray of clear liquid hit the small windows. The mace was out. We saw someone do a running dive under the van to keep it from leaving with us. We cried out in shock when we thought the van had run over him. He was alright. Even without that sacrifice, what he did, that was heroic.
A small window that looked out the front of the van revealed people laying on the ground linking arms and legs. Occupiers were shoving the bikes back at the cops. I’d never seen anything like this before.
Eventually uniformed enforcers were able to pry enough of our people out of the way to move the van. The last thing I saw peeking through those small windows was the face of one of my comrades, hidden behind a bandana. Our eyes met and his fist launched into the air. The image faded into the distance while we made our coerced journey to the precinct.
I later learned that street skirmishes and shoving matches continued between the hundreds of occupiers and the cops after we left. The police had tried force our people back to our camp. Instead, the rebels pushed the cops off the streets, holding intersections and marching up and down Broadway. Those men (yes, they were all men) in blue and black uniforms, were defeated. The protesters, now left alone, took the streets. That stretch of pavement was, quite literally, for that fleeting moment, theirs. We could win–not sometime in the future, but right here and now.
The day was a blur. The adrenaline, the ecstasy of collective action and power, makes what was hours of travel from handcuffs to processing to jail cell now seem like minutes.
“Those girls are having way too much fun. They’re in there singing. I haven’t seen anything like this since the WTO,” said a tall white man in a nurse’s coat, long brown ponytail swinging behind him. I smiled to myself. Back in 1999, when the World Trade Organization had tried to meet in Seattle, it too had been shut down by people putting their bodies on the line.
The cold cement walls, the uniform sleeveless red shirts and pants, the cheap plastic sandals designed to be impossible to keep on, the smug cops sitting behind counters pushing buttons to lock and unlock doors, the phones that hardly work…They all make you think of this place as an immovable, insurmountable monolith. You ponder your own powerlessness.
I was called out to get fingerprinted. One of the cop’s forensics people asked me, “Did you hear what they’re doing in Oakland?”
“Yah, its fantastic.” Even where I was couldn’t keep me from grinning with excitement.
“No, it’s terrible. I’m concerned about the people of Oakland,” he replied.
“It’s the people of Oakland who are rising up,” I said. “The only way they can change anything is by shutting down the city. How do you think the eight-hour work day was achieved? How about things like breaks? Or revolution?”
“Well what about the baker who just wants to go to work and feed his family?”
Another cop called to him from across the room, “That’s a stupid response!”
Later, while in our holding cell, an older white man walked by. The lines of age and stress told me he must have been in his fifties. He turned his back to us for a moment. When he walked away there was a taped a sign across from us: “Nurses support #OccupyWallstreet.” We saw him raise a fist, looking at us.
There, as deep in the belly of the beast as one can fathom, I witnessed the cracks and potential division, even here, surrounded by our enemies. In the future, there are fractures and schisms that may emerge even within institutions of the State.
With our triumphant spirit, we got our short-term inmates talking about occupation, about the cops, about the general strike. I joked with a couple of older guys, “It’s time we occupy this cell!” It’s probably not very often that the jail’s officers see their prisoners so jovial or hopeful.
Four or five hours later, we were released. As soon as the five of us regrouped and hugged it out, we received word: The CEO of Chase’s speech had been disrupted by Occupy Seattle. He had to end it early and Occupiers were trying to block the hotel exits.
We began our sprint through the rain, laughing, hugging, joking about going straight back to jail. None of us, as far as I could tell, could wait to get back to our fellow occupiers and stand with them again.
Back to the Sheraton. Every eye already bleary from the day-long exposure to chemical weapons. New goggles and masks cover many faces. The spirit is different. The anger of being attacked all day, of seeing our friends and loved ones maced or beaten (or both) gave it an edge. All those who once said the cops were on our side now had little to stand on. It was undeniable: There, inside that looming hotel, was Jamie Dimon, the face of one of the most criminal and insidious institutions in the world, and here, in front of us, were the cops defending him against more than a thousand people.
When I arrived, out of breath but relieved, I started greeting people. They were happy to see us, but exhausted and tense. They were on a war footing. Dozens had their arms linked. It was the fallback tactic when facing the cops. All four corners of the intersection outside the main entrance to the hotel were blocked by damp, determined occupiers. The heavy din of honks and shouts from drivers, participants, and supporters alike rang out in the background, coloring everything.
I sprinted to rejoin the line facing off with the cops. There, in the line with me, were all the people I had just gone to jail with. The five of us, now called the “Chase 5” by those who argue for our defense, grinned at each other, knowing we had no choice but to stand there. We could feel the world shifting and we were on the fault line. There was no way we could walk away.
A half hour passed, with periodic scuffles and mic checks and chants. It was clear the that the towering Sheraton Hotel was now empty of any CEOs or equally criminal people. The remaining occupiers gathered and started to march away from downtown, back toward our camp.
I have been involved in attempts to build a revolutionary movement for a number of years. Never before have I left an action feeling like we won a battle. It had always been left in the realm of the symbolic or moral: “We did good work,” as it goes. But as we marched up the long hill, grinning faces moist with mace and rain the people of this new movement cheered and shouted together, “We are victorious!”
The trial of five Occupy Seattle participants, known as the Chase 5, began on March 13, in Seattle Municipal Court. Check here for updates.