The Commonwealth Club experienced its first mic-check last night. And then its second. And its third. It was clearly the closest many audience members had come to the Occupy movement since it hit locally in early October. And they didn’t seem to know how to feel about it.
Things were fraught from the beginning. In the days leading up to the Commonwealth Club Inforum panel discussion on the future of the Occupy movement, the panel was discussed at length at multiple Occupy Oakland general assemblies; the night prior, that discussion went on for more than three hours in Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Should anyone from Occupy speak at all? Should there be an organized mic check, or a boycott? Ultimately both originally scheduled Occupiers dropped out of the panel.
Commonwealth Club Inforum program director Caroline Moriarty Sacks rushed to find replacements. Ultimately Diana Macasa of Occupy SF, Iris Brown of Occupy Oakland and Nadim Haidar, a traveling Occupier, rounded out the panel alongside UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, moderated by San Francisco Examiner columnist and frequent Commonwealth Club moderator Melissa Griffin.
“We obviously took an experiment and did something that was never done before at the Commonwealth Club,” said Sacks, who introduced the panel using words she had taken from a recent Occupy Oakland general assembly facilitator, encouraging respect of the speakers.
And then, well, things were fraught from the beginning.
A strict format of theoretical questions was not going to work for this crowd, one third to a half of whom were Occupiers, including many who had been personally subject to police action in Oakland in October and November. They wanted to talk less-lethal projectiles, not linguistics.
Macasa frequently hijacked her question time to respond to Mayor Quan, who defended herself out of turn at several points. The debate teetered unchecked between constructive dialogue and thinly veiled rage.
Quan countered occupiers’ righteous indignation with her own aggressive self-defense. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, she jumped in: “Can we bring this back to violence?” The crowd gasped a little.
Tensions rose throughout the hour. While some occupiers chose to protest Quan by standing in the audience with their backs turned to her as she spoke, or simply with a little “down twinkles” hand signals, many others were not content to stand idly by.
Most of Quan’s remarks were interrupted by “fact check” and other heckles from the audience, until the first full mic check came about half way through, from the very Occupy Oakland general assembly facilitator who had inspired Sacks’ opening remarks.
“It felt like the disruptions were just there to express anger at Quan and this just wasn’t the forum for that,” said Sacks. “Occupy is a lot bigger than just one occupation and one mayor.”
“Certain audience members [couldn't] act like adults,” said Griffin. “The protocol was always to defer to the club to provide security and deal with outbursts.”
Those outbursts are an Occupy standard at general assemblies, where facilitators rely on the audience in large part to keep the peace within the crowd. But this discussion was hierarchical, not horizontal, and the loudest hecklers were eventually escorted out by club security, left to scream their criticisms safely from the lobby.
As the panel format gave way to a question and answer session, occupiers ran to line up for their chance to speak. It’s a run familiar to any who have witnessed a contentious proposal process at an Occupy general assembly, Occupiers jockeying for position in the stack.
Only this stack was 20 deep, and only a handful were able to speak. After many occupiers were turned away, another rousing mic check devolved into a chant of, “Recall Quan.”
One Occupier chose to mic-check Quan after she was turned away from the question stack, and after the panel and recording had officially concluded. “If actual communication was her goal, her approach should have been less condescending, and her answers should have been on-subject,” said Occupy Oakland medic Elle Queue.
“She was also very rude to panelists.”
But after Quan and some of the occupiers had left, the tenor of the forum changed as the crowd broke into small groups for an open conversation on the future of the movement.
“I got a ton of thank yous on the way out,” said Sacks. “I think by and large the people who stayed through the end learned a lot.”
“It was a brave and active participatory event through every fiber of it.”
While the mic checks may have made some Commonwealth Club Inforum members uncomfortable, they might have been the closest any had been to a real Occupy experience. Without direct questions to Mayor Quan about police accountability–undoubtedly at least some portion of the future of the Occupy movement in Oakland–this discomfort was near guaranteed.
“No one knew what was going to happen last night, but we all wanted to give it a shot and see if we could have a thoughtful discussion, which I think we managed to do to a large degree,” said Griffin, who also expressed that she would have liked to hear more of the audience questions.
“The more we disagree, the stronger are,” said panelist Iris Brown of the movement.
Occupy can only hope that some of those who chose to come to the Commonwealth Club last night instead of taking to Wikipedia in an effort to learn more about the movement came away mostly enriched and not annoyed.
There’s no guarantee that they would have felt any better about the movement after seeing an Occupy Oakland general assembly.
Susie Cagle has been covering Occupy for Alternet, Truthout, GOOD, the Awl, and others. She is — so far! — the only journalist to have been arrested doing so in the Bay Area. You can help fund her coverage here.