Whether true or not, it's always been my vague impression that West Coasters take as much pride in relaxation as East Coasters do in being assholes. On trips to California, friends yell at me for walking too fast. In Los Angeles, I constantly scream on slowpokes in parking lots and café lines. Spicoli. Portlandia. Too $hort. The Beach Boys. The Pacific states, I thought, were chill.
So since Occupy began, I've been surprised to see such extreme brutality unfold out West, from San Diego to Seattle. The situation in Oakland struck me as particularly alarming, even though I'm well aware of the ongoing tumult there since a transit cop shot and killed unarmed 22-year-old Oscar Grant on a train platform three years ago. Tainted history or not, the images of Oakland officers indiscriminately shooting tear gas and rubber bullets at peaceful protesters were significantly more barbaric than anything I'd witnessed at Occupy demonstrations back East.
After months of communicating with contacts in Seattle and Oakland, last week I went to see the savagery for myself, and to check out these Occupy camps that have been crushed by recent police raids. Things got even worse during the course of my expedition, as videos went viral of University of California-Davis campus cops deploying projectile chemicals as if they were watering a lawn.
After nearly a week on the ground — riding trains and planes down the coast — it's clear to me that authorities have escalated manageable situations into constant chaos. I've also seen that they never learn from their mistakes, continuing to anoint memes, mascots, and martyrs like Dorli Rainey, the 84-year-old Seattle woman who cops blasted with pepper spray just hours before I touched down.
WEDNESDAY The general assembly is entering its second hour of a hot discussion about what defines violence. I've seen this issue raised at nearly all of the Occupied cities that I've been to, and it goes the same here as it has everywhere else: soft-spoken women and effeminate men make their case for unconditional nonviolence, only to be overpowered by a charismatic anarchist in leather who pumps the crowd full of adrenaline. Tonight is especially contentious at Seattle's sprawling Capitol Hill encampment, since, on a march yesterday, cops sprayed a blind man, the Occupy Seattle chaplain, a pregnant 19-year-old, and Rainey, whose story is a source of international outrage by the time I arrive.
The miserable weather couldn't be more cliché if it was raining lattes. Still, despite the nonstop drizzle, camp is jumping, with a long and anxious queue to speak at GA, and people hanging late afterward to discuss planned actions for the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street the next day. Cornel West charged their batteries with a speech earlier this afternoon, and a few people are determined to take back their second camp in the bourgeois Westlake shopping district. Occupiers have been forcibly removed from there four times, most recently yesterday, when many — including Rainey — were peppered and six were arrested.
Home base is on the skirt of the Seattle Central Community College campus, and has one of the most magnificent waterproof set-ups I've seen at any Occupy. It's clean, has respectable Porta Potties, and even features a three-level structure that houses more than a dozen people. Since they're not permitted to have nails, camp architects researched building methods that entail just wood and rope. The result is a labyrinthine fort enclosed in plastic and tapestries that any kid would kill to play in, and that Occupy Seattle's roughly 300 full-time residents use for everything from meetings to sign-making. A homeless guy named David takes me inside, and an inviting group of artists fills me in on yesterday's attacks. They offer to put me up in the solarium for the night, and while their lair is much nicer than my accommodations, I graciously decline and retreat back to my motel.
THURSDAY By morning, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn has formally apologized to Rainey for any inconvenience that the police chemical bath may have caused the octogenarian. But that didn't calm people at Community College, where guys in sleeveless denim coats with fist patches are soaking bandanas in a mix of orange juice and vinegar — just in case their eyes get stung again during today's march. All morning, television news stations were reporting that Occupy protests are going to impede traffic, and the squad brewing here at 3 pm is going to make sure of that. As soon as about 100 students from the community college march out of their building behind an SCCC IS OCCUPIED banner, the rest fall in line and head north toward the University of Washington.
They've been here before; on November 2, about 300 of them rallied outside of a speech that JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon was giving to the university's business students. Still, despite mass arrests during that dust-up, both Occupiers and labor organizers are determined to lean on the massive state school, which still hasn't pledged support for the movement. After the first two miles, wrapping around lakes and under bridges, it's clear that some shit's about to go down, whether peaceful or not. They're moving faster, chanting things like, "They say, 'Cutbacks' — We say, 'Fuck that.' " The rain is torrential; still, nobody seems fazed — including the Livestream videographer who's in a full-body winter suit, shielding his Saran-wrapped laptop with an umbrella.
And then we hit the University Bridge, where more than 3000 union teachers, laborers, and members of their families walk south and meet us. It's a streamlined operation — workers in orange vests and SEIU hats guide the horde, and everybody heeds. Though there were some cops on the march — including one on a motorcycle who twice plowed through the crowd, and a few in riot gear along the way — police back off by several hundred yards once the bridge is taken. After two hours, during which Occupiers scale trestles and condemn Republican students from the University of Washington, the crowd disperses without a fight. Their message, one student speaker shouts while hammering a fist at his own campus below, is the same that Occupiers delivered to downtown Seattle two days prior, when police made Rainey a household name: "If you're not with us — then you're against us."