Monday, October 10, 2011

Processing Symbols

Lindsey summoned myself and her other friends to the park this evening. Not all of us could be there, but I made the time, having something of a bodyguard reflex. Of course some friends were already there. Hi Fallon... James.

She was distraught that Occupy Portland might be co-opted by flag wavers, turning this into a tamer political movement with a mostly domestic focus, one that forgets all about the violence and oppression propagated in the name of the USA overseas, by its various backers and sponsors (puppet masters, whatever).

I understood her complaint, in light of the fact that a Stars & Stripes had made it to the forefront of today's march (all reporters agreed on this point of fact), and that a speech had been made in the park suggesting "reclaiming the flag" as a theme, the thought being that previous protest movements had fumbled, in treating Old Glory in some disrespectful manner (like by burning it or whatever).

Rather than enter this fray, by making the flag be a symbol, either as an idol of worship or as a symbol of evil and oppression, Lindsey wanted to keep "red white and blue" out of the picture entirely. She didn't want this global movement tainted with nationalism, which she sees as part of the problem (Albert Einstein would likely be in her camp on this one -- another smart cookie).

The General Assembly listened to her proposal to disavow the red, white and blue helium balloons, left over from the Portland Marathon, where they formed an archway for runners. These had become incorporated into the camp decor. She wanted everyone present to understand her concerns. She had physically attacked the balloons earlier (by popping them), but had been persuaded to delay further action until the group could be made aware of the principles involved. She then took possession of the balloons so she could more effectively be a spokesperson for her point of view. This is around when I got called in, by Lindsey and other organizers.

The Assembly decided it had never embraced any flag in the first place. People had their individual freedoms to express patriotism or whatever values (certainly there's lots of civic and national pride in some of the occupants), but there was no overt adoption of any nationalistic decals at this point.

The web sites seemed to bear this out, although again, individual protestors sometimes used nationalistic motifs, as is their right. Like I'd been waving a Swedish flag, at least indirectly, in my post from Ikea. I joked with Lindsey whether yellow and blue balloons would have been such a problem (Swedish flag), but she's not keeping up with my blogs, so this went over her head, naturally, and besides, I'm often somewhat indecipherable / obscure, so was just staying in character, playing me, somewhat of a comfort (we might hope) in these highly strung circumstances.

Lindsey said she understood the General Assembly's reaction (a lot of confusion), which had been expressed privately to her earlier -- but she and other organizers had insisted on a public discussion of this issue during Assembly, and not just in private conversations. Lets talk about symbols and how we wish to relate to them, so the process is transparent. Having national flags appear in various guises, branding the event, without public comment, or with only the one (controversial) "reclaiming" speech, would be too opaque (too secret) and therefore insidiously contrary to the democratic values of these self-governing event participants.

As we waited for the meeting, I expressed my sense of irony: the red, white and blue balloons were garnering a lot more attention thanks to her clutching them for hours, and some observers, judging from a distance, were likely interpreting her behavior as more flag waving. She easily disabused any within earshot of this notion, and spoke in no uncertain terms when given the microphone later.

I also invited her to spar with me as if I were a "reclaimer" (as in "reclaiming the flag"). I opened with the argument that some native American art incorporates the Stars & Stripes and re-spins it, makes it mean in a different namespace. She wasn't wanting to spar though, being both sleep deprived and in need of true supporters, not devil's advocates or philosophers.

After several people had expressed their thoughts about the balloons, Lindsey expressed her appreciation for the process, and then withdrew her proposal to explicitly disavow this symbol, saying she understood the objection that it had never been adopted. The GA then gladly allowed her to run her own meeting off to the side, about the fate of the balloon tower. Given this was not a symbol of the occupation, what happened to the balloons was no longer of core concern.

As we left the meeting, balloons in tow, a few people came out of the woodwork to express sincere patriotism. They thought maybe we were going to disrespect a symbol. Others were still on board with an earlier proposal, not Lindsey's, to buy more balloons of more colors, and add these to the pillar, making it more of a rainbow affair.

Lindsey had at first championed this proposal, but then heard reminders from Tre, Jen and myself that buying balloons was hardly an eco-friendly maneuver either, so while we're on the subject of symbolism, lets just make balloons have no further role. She changed her proposal at the last minute to leave immediate popping and disposal of the balloons on the table as a possible outcome.

I wish I'd had my camera, but I went down there in a hurry. The pillar of balloons, when not in an archway shape, ascended for over 100 feet I'm pretty sure. We had to make it more dragon shaped, more snake like, to wend it through the crowds beneath the canopy of trees, from the pre-meeting (park based) to the main meeting (street based). I mentioned my Chinese Gate pictures to Lindsey, suggesting the snaking balloons were more Chinese, which was fitting, as Portland is an Asian city in some ways (Pacific Rim and all that) -- me being obscure again.

The upshot of it all, as determined in the post-meeting, was the balloons would have to be disposed of responsibly sooner or later and not in any messy way, such as by just letting them go, so best to pop them now and get it over with, then pack out the detritus. However, about half the pillar was set aside for another group of tents, which wanted to do something artistic with them. We'll see what they do (or maybe not -- I may lose the thread at this point, so check with other bloggers if interested).

The biggest adrenaline rush for me was when the guy with the security arm band got all exercised about my having a pocket knife (a gift from Glenn). I was helping with the disposal process, popping a few with the blade as Lindsey held them. He decided I was a reprehensible individual and threatened me with bodily harm should I approach him more closely, even after I'd closed the pocket knife. In his defense, he had no idea Lindsey and I were co-occupants of the Blue House or that I'd been summoned to assist as a trusted individual. I was just some guy with a knife, perhaps stepping in recklessly.

The occupants have a lot of untrained rather unprofessional people doing the best they can in these arm band roles. I immediately retreated and made no further use of my pocket knife. The balloons were not really my problem to deal with. I'd performed in my cameo role.

Lindsey walked away too, soon thereafter, having clutched these balloons for hours, satisfied with the process and eager to step out of the limelight, as her powerful persona (which several had remarked on) was not the point. She'd been acting on principle, as were many on this world stage.

Food Not Bombs in general has been sticking to its guns, cracking down on paper plate use, other thoughtless / wasteful behaviors. Tempers flare in these circumstances.

Lindsey herself was in no physical danger. Many had rallied to her side and accepted her leadership role. She then told me I was free to leave in her polite manner and I rolled home soon thereafter, reassured she was OK, if strung out. Jen and Tre had also come down in support of their friend (Melody would have, but she's got a lot on her plate -- I kept her updated by borrowing cells, as my battery had died).

Tre was upset by all the tobacco smoking going on, with people not confining it to a GA-designated area. At least one of the park characters was actively pushing tobacco smoking, giving out free cigs. Perhaps cig smoking served to counter body odor, other smells? That's how it worked on the Blueback (a submarine) according to OMSI guides.

I'd taken the car thinking I might need to evacuate my friend Lindsey (this was her car originally, with both our names on the title today), given her distressed tone and the organizers saying to please hurry, but really, she was taking fairly logical action around an emotional issue, and following a group process.

Better to let things run their course and let the high notes stay high. My role was not to extricate but to participate in a low key manner, to chat with the various players, sharing perspectives.

People need to pace themselves if expecting to stay at the site for the long haul, get away for R&R sometimes. The same applies to any police working this beat. I hope we see lots of rotation. That will give more fresh volunteers a crack at a front row seat, and bragging rights for later.

On that note, I plan to visit Holladay Park on the east side tomorrow, where a different action is planned for Columbus Day. FNB has been named as an accomplice and I want to make sure we're not dropping the ball on this one.

By the way, I've noticed some bloggers poking vicious fun at the way GA meetings tend to rely on repetition by the crowd, of whatever someone is saying. I agree this tends to look silly and unnecessary when the speaker is using a bullhorn, but that wasn't what was happening in this meeting.

Running a real microphone to any would-be speaker in the crowd is not always practical, so having the crowd loudly repeat what anyone is saying, once recognized, is a way to keep the meeting from either degenerating and/or being dominated by those few with access to electricity. With all that repetition, everyone is better able to follow what's being said and decided, plus one needs to listen well enough to repeat, a skill in itself if you're not used to really listening.