Friday, November 11, 2011

No bottom line

I've been confused a lot lately. For weeks now I've had my nose in one book after another about the Ratlines, the escape routes the Nazis used to get to South America. At first I thought I was going to find more grist for the mill in my anti-Vatican kick - they seem to have been major movers in aiding ex-Nazis and Ustashi. But now I'm rattling around in my head wondering how hard it must have been for anybody trying to find a middle ground between fascism and communism. And the more you know about the British and American efforts to help the ex-Nazis, the more the Vatican comes off as just another player. The "real story" remains elusive.

I've also just watched City of Life and Death, a Chinese movie about the Rape of Nanking, and am struggling with how to set up the "real story" here too. There is overwhelming evidence of Japanese nationalism so vicious it puts Japan in the same category as Nazi Germany, Pol Pot and Rwanda. But how much of the story should be mitigated by the fact that its chief narrator these days is Communist China, where truth routinely serves the power structure without even an apology. I've pretty much decided the story is essentially true (because I've heard Japanese eye-witness stories), but I'm bothered nonetheless by attempts to embellish it and milk it. What are the facts? Is this about a few sadistic military officers? About a genocidal policy? About reprehensible Japanese cultural values? So much of this story continues to be elusive.

And now, on a very different level, those of us living in the Bay Area (and anybody else looking on, as well) are being asked to evaluate the confusion of the Occupy Oakland Protests. Don't get me wrong. I'm not comparing American civil disobedience to genocide. But there is a parallel in the confusion, even chaos, even with all those cameras running, and the bottom line remains elusive.

I complained to no one in particular yesterday [What was the message, anyway?] that the message of Occupy Oakland - and thus the larger message of Occupy Wall Street - was being lost because of thugs on the one hand and overreactive police on the other. I woke up this morning wanting to take that piece down, feeling as I always do when I tell a story that lies by omission. I don't think I got any facts wrong, but everything I said was second-hand from local media reports, and I don't trust local media a whole lot. I might have thrown in a few caveats here and there.

What really bothered me was that I think I left a bunch of false impressions - that the thugs and the cops are equally culpable and that the violence on the part of both are the real story of the moment. They are the real story. But they are only part of the real story.

I met a Berkeley cop not long ago at a dinner party and was seriously impressed. I had imagined his work to be something like an airline pilot's - hours of boredom interspersed with sheer terror. "What do you do most of the time?" I asked him. "I like to make arrests." Great, I thought. A power-hungry fool.

"I go for the drug dealers," he said. "They're actually quite stupid. Easy to spot. They use certain intersections, and I ride a bicycle so I can come up on them before they figure out what's happening, and get them off the street. It's like graffiti. You stop it quick, and keep the volume down and that's the only way to keep it from getting out of hand."

OK, so I was wrong. Not a bad guy. In fact, quite a good guy, if you're going to work in black and white.

The media dash from one controversy to another and blow it up. If you get your news from television you get blown-up news. Manufactured stories, like the suggestion that Michele Bachmann was ever a serious contender for the Republican nomination. Most people know but we all need reminding that the truth is not at the extremes, nor is it in the middle. Sometimes one side is largely but not entirely right, sometimes there is no right, only perspective, and often the real truth of the story is in the complexity of narratives, including the contradictions.

That would seem to be the case with what's going on at present. Taku is focused on the mess at Frank Ogawa Square. He hates it that Frank Ogawa's good name is being trashed as folks try to rename the place Oscar Grant Square, for the kid killed by a BART cop when the cop pinned him down on the ground and got his taser mixed up with his gun. Taku focuses on the fact that Oscar Grant, while he certainly didn't deserve to die, or even be roughed up by the police, was fighting on the train, and was actively resisting arrest. I think Taku's Japanese pride is hurt this guy should take Frank's place. Small matter, but part of the story.

Taku's in tune with 75% of locals who now think Occupy Oakland protesters need to be cleared out so local business owners can get back to business, the city can stop paying cops overtime, and give downtown a chance to get off life support. Where my shoe is pinching is the need I see to keep Americans talking about the inequities and the evidence our Congress is a high-priced whore working almost exclusively for lobbyists and other big money. There's no middle ground. No compromise between Taku's focus and mine. We're looking through different lenses. Both stories and others besides all need to be told and left for still others to sift through. Occupy Oakland is not Occupy Wall Street, either. If Oakland goes, it does not signify that time for OWS has run out. That time should come only when talk about inequity has turned to action against inequity.

The fact that Oakland lives with out-of-control crime and homelessness is an on-going one. I just read that as many as half the folk camping out at Ogawa Square may be homeless, and that allegation has convinced the majority of folk in Oakland that it should be shut down. Maybe they're right, but should that be the reason? Maybe the cost of keeping it going is too counter to the original intent of calling attention to inequity. But what do we do now with the spin-off stories, the rogue trigger-happy cops, the drugs, the homeless?

How many people actually know that the killing that took place right next to the protests the other night was passed off as "routine" in this city? The fact that gang members met another gang member with guns and shot him dead in cold blood at the 12th St. BART Station is routine here. You do know, maybe, that the full name of that BART Station is 12th St/City Center, by the way. And consider this question. Is it worse that it's happening in City Center and not out on International Boulevard in the ghetto? Is it better?

How many people know that up to half the people sleeping in the protesters' tents are homeless? And for them it's a step up from sleeping on the streets. We've got to clean this place up, says Mayor Quan. And the people of Oakland agree. And you would too if you actually went down there, as Taku did the other day. He came away saying, "I think the average protester is going to leave pretty soon anyway - the stink is so bad."

What are we to do now? I like the attention to broken America they're calling for. I never liked sleeping in tents and am sure as hell not going to do it now, particularly if I'd have to share the place with all night drumming and stench, but this is our way of banging pots and pans, and if we don't bang the pots and pans, we'll go back to business as usual where 100% of the Republican candidates for the presidency still argue we should take even more money from the poor and give it to the rich, and the PBS news hour thinks we should somehow treat Republicans with as much respect as we do Democrats.

The story isn't in the middle. The cops are not all good nor all bad. Things are real bad and we need to keep attention focused on the fact things are real bad, but we also need to face the fact that part of the story are guns and stench and things that can not easily be summarized. It's a time for story-telling. Everybody get in there and tell stories. Of good cops and bad. Of stinking people and heroic efforts. Never mind the idiotic things written on the sign of the guy marching next to you.

We depend on journalists and analysts to sum things up for us, to sift through the flood of information and tell us what's relevant and what's not. There's an entire industry of pundits working full time at that sort of thing.

But this experience of trying to make sense of the Occupy Wall Street protests and the confusion you find in dealing with the chaos they have engendered suggest to me this is a time to set the pundits and others claiming expert knowledge aside.

With all the cynicism and despair, all the mistrust of those in authority, all the if-it-bleeds-it-leads media stories, all of our own limited attention spans, I think this is a time to keep the stories coming. And if you've got contradicting stories to tell, tell one today, the other one tomorrow. It's a time of considerable chaos. Chaos, like depression, is usually thought of as negative. But it doesn't have to be. If you know how to use it, it can be a time for shaking loose some ossified misconceptions. Forget the bottom line, the neat summary, the real story, the greater truth.

Tell the whole story.


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