Occupy Protests Need a Simple Goal: Vote

Photo: Michael Macor, The Chronicle

I am the 99 percent. Theoretically, at least. So why do the groups camped outside Oakland City Hall feel as different from me as the theoretical 1 percent does? Somewhere between our appreciation for unpolluted air and frequency of shampoo usage lies common ground.

I'll put it to you straight. As a 23-year-old Oakland native and former political organizer from UC Santa Cruz, if you've lost me, you're in trouble.

Most of what outsiders watching these protests see is the gross caricature of a bunch of jobless, college-educated, vintage-frame-bespectacled, twentysomething transplants who fancy themselves "working class," when chances are most of them have never held a full-time job.

Of course, that's not every resident of the Occupy Oakland encampment that Mayor Jean Quan had blessed outside Oakland City Hall. Not by a long shot. In reality, it's a wildly eclectic group of inspired and concerned citizens, of which I count myself one. And yet we lack one voice.

I was at Camp Quan the night after the Oct. 25 police offensive. I sat front and center while a group of thousands debated for hours the pros and cons of calling the Nov. 2 general strike a "strike" or a "rally" because the term "rally" is more inclusive, but "strike" is more activist.

No, I'm not joking.

I'm not looking down my nose at these protesters - I can say these things because I am one of those twentysomethings.

I've helped build consensus, marched, faced police barricades - but I certainly wouldn't dream that the working men and women at the Port of Oakland with mortgages to pay and kids to feed will empathize with my minuscule worries about paying for kombucha tea while working part time at an organic grocery store.

The dockworkers and I may be in the 99 percent, but that 99 percent cuts two ways. It's awfully inclusive, but awfully diverse. I'm not talking buzzword diverse, I'm talking I-have-very-little-in-common-with-this-person diverse.

Don't get me wrong: For all my misgivings about the protests, the polemic idealism and occasional untenable self-righteousness, I stand by them. We share common ground, just not a common goal. It's easy to sit at home and throw stones while adding nothing to the dialogue. We curmudgeons return to our armchairs to watch cable TV while those in front of Oakland City Hall put in time and effort to try to change this country. That smells pretty blue-collar to me.

The real tragedy is that the idea of these protests is simple: Every year, we get fewer services for the same or more taxes, less value for an equal or higher cost. Our schools close, our benefits evaporate, and we are left holding the bag. This movement believes that the 99 percent have taken enough for the team - it's time for richest to step up to the plate.

So never mind the general strikes - people have bills to pay. Never mind occupations - the majority of us in the 99 percent don't feel comfortable with the accompanying violence. Let's start with a simple goal in an election year: Let's vote.

We don't even need a single platform or candidate. If everybody in the Occupy movement signed a petition pledging to vote, the numbers would be staggering.

The sweeping diversity of this movement, from Oakland to Des Moines to New York City, is our biggest strength. Let's use it by doing something that all 99 percent of us can get behind.

Just sign the petition.

Just vote.


Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle