Occupation

An Oakland police officer who was fired after he lobbed a tear-gas canister into a group of people trying to help an Iraq War veteran who had been struck in the head by a police beanbag has won his job back through arbitration, his attorney said Wednesday.

Officer Robert Roche was fired in September in connection with an Occupy Oakland protest Oct. 25, 2011, in which Scott Olsen was critically injured.

The first time I went to Occupy Oakland, it was a Sunday.

The air was heavy. The sky was grey, dark, threatening rain; my father had brought an umbrella, my mother had brought a raincoat, and I had brought nothing but a leaky pen and a little grey notebook. In San Francisco, just a few days ago, the protesters had moved to the Federal Reserve and promptly been kicked out by the police. I was sixteen.

The year had started promisingly: I had joined the school paper, fallen in love with a girl, and watched as the Middle East blossomed with protests and revolutions. A man had set himself on fire in Tunisia. Protesters had overthrown the Egyptian government. Anything and everything seemed possible; anything and everything was possible; bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, said a poem about the French Revolution I had taken to scrawling on my arms, but to be young was very heaven, and I believed it.

But the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza — newly renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, after the young man who had been killed by BART police, in 2009 — that crowd seemed small. Quiet. It’s the first day, I thought, of course the crowd’s small, this isn’t New York, not yet. But still I worried– not that Occupy would fail, but that it would succeed, and succeed only on the other side of the country, and I would miss the action.

The crowd was mostly middle-aged, or in their thirties and forties. I saw all races — or more racial diversity than I typically saw at my high school, based in a little rich town up in the hills. The protesters were carrying signs that read TAKE IT BACK: TAX WALL STREET, or BAIL OUT SCHOOLS, NOT BANKS; there was a small child with a sign that read YOU ARE MEAN. There were men wearing Guy Fawkes masks — representatives of Anonymous — who I watched with some distrust.

And there were teens, who I went immediately to interview, in case the school paper wanted to write a story about it all. One was supporting her father, who was at Occupy Wall Street in New York; one was here because her mother had lost her job as a teacher for adults with disabilities; one was here because he believed it was his opportunity to start a socialist revolution. And more were there because, they said, they wanted to support Oakland schools — because because they had read about it on the Internet, and it sounded exciting — because they were angry, angry about the economy, angry about the government, angry that there was injustice in the world and nothing had been done about it.

“I’m here because it’s the right thing to do,” said a seventeen-year-old boy. “I want to say, y’know, more power to them, keep going. Whatever shape this ends up taking.”

It started to rain. I took BART back home, and did my homework. And plugged in my headphones, and listened to the Les Miserables soundtrack again. And watched the rain streak the glass.

A few days later I went to a movie, with some people from my high school I didn’t know very well. They were friends of Camille, the Belgian exchange student currently staying at my house; Camille was confident, and thin, and pretty, and I was none of those things, and the friends she had made were classmates who usually only talked to me to find out the answers to the pre-calc homework. They were two boys and a girl, all very friendly and quick-witted and good-looking. I admired them enormously.

From the movie we drove to one of the boy’s houses; he was behind the wheel, the other boy in the passenger seat, we three girls in the back. The boys were talking in Spanish, which I spoke and the other two girls did not, and laughing. The girls were begging me to translate; I smiled, not sure what I was supposed to do. The car was winding up, up, into the complex and overlapping streets that wound around the hills, the little Möbius strip of a town where I went to school. Someone mentioned Occupy Wall Street.

“God,” said the boy who was driving, suddenly vehement, “I hate those guys,” and I was taken aback.

“Why?” asked one of the girls, and the boy answered — it was something about their methods, something about the way they were going about things, but his answer was too casual; it didn’t match his tone. He was genuinely furious.

And the weeks went on, and the crowds grew larger, and October meandered its way from red leaves to brown, from the California autumn heat to the overcast skies and constant fog that wrap the Bay Area in their damp cotton dreariness the other ten months of the year. I studied for the upcoming SAT; I ran the winding little streets of the town I went to school in, several blocks behind the rest of the cross-country team; I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote.

On October 25, Oakland police came to Oscar Grant Plaza to clear out the occupiers. Seventy-five people were arrested. Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran, was struck in the head with a lead-filled beanbag fired by an unidentified police officer, suffering permanent brain damage. When protesters gathered around to help him, another policeman, Officer Robert Roche, lobbed a tear grenade into the group. Three years later, Olsen would call this “one of the most malicious things you can do.” The officer was, he said, “a sadistic person.”

Halloween came and went.

I skipped sixth period on November 2, because it was the day of the general strike, and went down to Oscar Grant Plaza with a boy in my drama class and another boy I had briefly dated the summer after freshman year. Neither of them especially liked me, and I did not especially like them– their friends were the sour-faced, video-game-obsessed type, and I had gotten into many fierce arguments with them about whether or not rape jokes were funny– but I got along better with them than I did with their friends, and besides, they had a car.

It was beautiful that day — one of the last brilliant hurrahs of early November, when the sky is so blue it hurts to look at. Everything was brightness. Everything was noise.

The crowd at Oscar Grant had swelled to enormous proportions, a hundred times larger than the huddled umbrellas and raincoats of the first day. There were stalls giving away peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; there was a children’s play area, filled with coloring books; there were teens reciting slam poetry, throwing lines at other like basketballs.

“Do you see those people dressed in black with bandanas on their faces?” said a woman to me, and I nodded, surprised. “Those are anarchists,” she said. “They want to start a fight. Don’t get near them. If you do, they’ll punch you in the face.”

There was going to be a march to the Port of Oakland. I couldn’t go — my parents had forbidden me from “getting into trouble”, and even the attorney’s phone number scribbled in Sharpie on my left arm in case of emergency was probably pushing it– but I wandered among the crowds, photographed the buses that would be taking the protesters to the port, wrote down the slogans on signs. There was no hope of finding someone to interview. Everything was chaos.

Everything was chaos — but everything was light, everything was energy, everything was conversation and laughter and shouted slogans and slam poetry. Everything was happening, not in New York or Los Angeles but happening here, and I felt at that moment that if the crowd had turned to march on City Hall and take it over, they could have done it, and I would have joined them.

Bliss it was to be alive at that time, but to be young was very heaven.

That night–

When I was seven years old, in early 2003, my mother sat me down at the kitchen table and told me we were going to war. We had gone to war before, she said, and it hadn’t even lasted two months; we might be all right. I tried to imagine the war lasting two months. I tried to imagine the war lasting a whole week.

We went to a peace protest, my family and I. I remember not knowing what the war was about — we’re at war because Saddam tried to kill his dad and now he wants to go after Saddam, said my mother darkly, we’re at war because of oil, said the peace protesters in San Francisco, we’re at war because, said my second-grade teacher, Mr. Wong, and launched into a complex explanation that made the war seem perfectly logical when I heard it and which I could never quite remember afterwards.

I remember sun. I remember drawing a sign — my mother outlined the letters, I colored them in with crayons– that read NO WAR IN IRAQ. I remember crowds, bigger crowds than I’d ever seen before.

I don’t remember this:

Towards the end of the protest, watching the signs and the people, hearing the chants of what do we want! peace! when do we want it! now!, I looked up and said to my mother, “They can’t go to war now. They definitely won’t go to war now. Not after all this.”

My mother remembers this. It’s one of her favorite stories about me.

And now it was November, almost nine years later–

Or take a few years after the war began, when my family curled up on the couch to watch October Sky together; my mother taught the book, Rocket Boys, in her high school English class.

We took a break in the middle to eat dinner, and talked about Homer Hickam, Jr., and coal mining, and rockets, and I asked my mother why the people in the movie didn’t just leave their poor town and go somewhere better. So she explained what a company town was, and I asked, “So when did company towns go away,” and she explained to me, somewhat confusedly, that of course company towns still existed.

Which is when I started to cry.

I was too old to cry, and neither of my parents had the patience for it; they cajoled me, they reasoned with me. My father said, well, maybe one day you can write about company towns, Hannah, and make things better, and I cried harder, because in some unspeakable and unreasonable way, writing was not enough. And eventually they gave up on me and went back to the couch, and I sat at the dinner table, and could not stop crying.

And then it was November, and there were riots.

The police had come, and come again, and still the tents stood in Oscar Grant Plaza; the attorney’s phone number on my arm would not fade, even with repeated scrubbing. The world was changing, and I had seen it, I had touched it, I had been there. The world was changing, and the world was going to change.

And there were riots. And winter came.

The weather was growing colder. Not truly cold– there was no snow, no ice in the pipes, a West Coast winter was still only a West Coast winter — but cold nevertheless. I drove with my father past the plaza; there were fewer people, no more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, no more children.

In English, we read Walt Whitman, and our teacher said, we’re going to have a fun assignment today, you know how Whitman makes lists of types of Americans he sees? the sailor at the docks, the carpenter with his tools? Well, we’re going to do that for the twenty-first century, you all make lists of Americans. We’ll read them aloud.

We went around: the ballet dancer putting on her shoes, the Silicon Valley CEO on his laptop, the late-night talk show host with his microphone. One of the students, a curly-haired girl who I didn’t know well, said, “The Occupy Oakland protester, yelling about things he doesn’t understand and camping out with homeless people,” and laughter rippled through the classroom.

And I hated her, at that moment. I hated her because she was rich and I was not; I hated her because she had not been there, had not seen the tents and the children and the protest signs and the slam poetry and the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, had only seen what the television showed her and had been content with it; I hated her because the laughter was warm, and relieved, and friendly; I hated her because I felt, suddenly, very alone.

And I hated her because I was sixteen, and because the world had been enormous, and exciting, and full of adventure, and now it seemed nothing but small and ordinary again. I hated her because the revolution was over and I was still here, in this Möbius strip of a town without beginning or end, and because I had believed so fervently that everything was about to change.

I hated her because I was sixteen and my heart had broken, as it had broken when I had discovered there was still injustice not eradicated, as it had broken when we had gone to war and not returned. I hated her because I was sixteen, and I did not know how many more times my heart could break before I would have to tuck it deep within myself, to hide it from harm and from hope.

I walked home that day.

From the top of the highest hills in that part of the Bay Area, you can see all the way to the other side of the bay. The fog had burned off here, but not over there, and San Francisco was buried in cloud. Somewhere in the sky, above the oak trees, there were helicopters buzzing like flies towards Frank Ogawa Plaza.

And below me was Oakland Tech, and Mountain View Cemetery, and the BART stations, and the rest of the sprawling monster woven from concrete and graffiti and hope that I called home. My backpack was heavy on my shoulders, and my heart was hot and tight in my chest. Everything had come back to where it had begun.

I was sixteen, and I had grown up that autumn, more than I had wanted to.

Bliss it was to be alive in that time,
but to be young was very heaven.

So I thought about revolutions, and I thought about hope, and I thought about Oakland; and I wondered whether I would ever be able to write about this, and if I wrote about it, whether it would mean anything; and I wondered what difference it could possibly make. Whether it could ever be enough.

And I shrugged my backpack over my shoulders, and began to make my way down the hill, towards home.

oc·cu·pa·tionäkyəˈpāSHən
noun
  1. the action, state, or period of occupying or being occupied by military force.
  2. the action or fact of living or using a building or other place.
  3. a job or profession, i.e., the answer to the question, What do you want to be when you grow up?
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