“How to dress for a riot?” was the question I found myself facing as I prepared to depart for an “Occupy San Francisco” demonstration and march in San Francisco on Saturday morning. I settled for Levis, Nike’s, a black T-shirt, a black and orange San Francisco Giants baseball cap, and a great big handkerchief in my back pocket for the tear gas. In other words, I looked like an undercover cop. Maybe at least the riot police would think twice before beating my brains out, like they were doing across the bay in Oakland.
The march marshaled at Justin Herman Plaza in front of the Ferry Building, and it was déjà vu for me all over again. This was exactly where I joined a 100,000 strong anti-Vietnam War demonstration 40 years ago. At 2,000, today’s group was more modest in size, but just as devoted to the cause, and just as angry.
Of course, whenever you organize a march of any kind in San Francisco, at least 20 other groups from every political description will automatically join the party. These include gay rights, Lincoln Log Republicans, transvestites, traditional unions, 1930’s Bolsheviks and Trotkyites, died in the wool socialists, animal rights activists, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and Save the Whales.
Some defied descriptions as members of the human race. To make the day even more bizarre, many demonstrators were dressed as zombies and vampires because Deadmaus was hosting a Halloween party at the Bill Graham Auditorium afterwards. Maybe they were emulating our zombie banks? The City by the Bay is nothing, if not diverse.
So it took some work to separate out the broad strands of the real movement. I walked with and spoke to about 30 of the participants. I was expecting to hear a lot of ludicrous leftist conspiracy theories and crackpot economic theories one often finds on the Internet. I was completely wrong.
I gave everyone an impromptu quiz, attempting to ascertain their level of understanding of financial issues. For the suspicious few who thought I might be an undercover policeman, I flashed my membership card from The Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong, telling them I was a journalist, and they opened right up.
I found the group amazingly well informed, with a majority holding undergraduate and graduate degrees. Almost everyone could accurately describe the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which separates investment and commercial banking functions, and was repealed in 1999 after a billion dollar lobbying effort by the industry. This was the reregulation that handed the banks a pistol to commit suicide while holding your money.
I heard a lot about too-big-to-fail, bail outs for the banks, huge pay packages for the executives of failing firms, and a bull market on Wall Street that never made it to Main Street. Many talked about privatizing profits and socializing losses.
The rich were a natural target, soaking up most of the new wealth that has accrued in the United States over the last 30 years with minimal tax rates, either through stock options or inheritances, while the fortunes of the middle class have declined. And now, congress wants to raise the tax burden for working people. You can argue all day about whether it is right or wrong, but you can’t deny the absolute numbers. Many described this as our own Arab Spring. Indeed, I found that quite a few of their data and arguments could have been lifted out of my own newsletter.
Surprisingly, many were angry with President Obama for selling out to Wall Street and special interests. In fact, about 80% of their complaints mirror those that I have heard at Tea Party rallies. Their only real difference is on the moral issues of gay marriage and the right to life.
Students of history will tell you that every time too much wealth has accumulated at the top of a society, a revolution has resulted. This led to the fall of the Roman Empire, the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and even as recently as the Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War. At the rate that local budgets and benefits were being chopped, which I have been writing extensively about for the last three years, I knew that large scale civil unrest was just a matter of time. The surprise is that it took this long to explode. Who knew it would go global, thanks to Facebook.
The political implications of all this are interesting. If it survives the winter and snowballs into the spring, it could become a major factor in the 2012 presidential election, like the Tea Party was in 2010. And let’s face it, this is definitely not a pro-Republican Party movement. It all reminds me of another revolution that faced the test of a long winter ordeal in order to survive, the one that started in Boston in 1776.
There were about 100 of San Francisco’s finest escorting the parade, blocking off the streets from traffic as we made our way across town. I spotted one obvious former jarhead and spoke to him in the familiar jargon unique to the Marine Corps, asking what his orders were. He opened up like a cheap bag of coffee beans from Costco.
Keep the peace, and only get involved if there was a destruction of private property. No one was in riot gear. We were in the middle of a mayoral election in San Francisco, and if the incumbent wins, the current chief of police, a local guy admired by the officers on the beat, will get reappointed. It is so true that all politics is local. My handkerchief would stay in its pocket.
On my way back to City Hall, where I parked to get a free electric charge for my new Nissan Leaf, I dropped in at Neiman Marcus to see if they had any Brioni suits in a size 48 long, a copy of The Socialist Workers Party prominently sticking out of my back pocket. I was sadly informed that there was only one of that elephantine size in the country, in Virginia.
What a long and winding road it has been.