Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Murmuration and Occupation - Shutting Down the West Coast Ports

(photo by Luke Hauser)

Yesterday before dawn, I managed to crawl out of bed, fumble my jeans and boots on, and sling my drum and backpack – the one that has become the indefinite home for my first aid kit, a patchwork bag of herbal tinctures, a squirt bottle half-full of milk of magnesia, a bottle of bubbles, and some lavender essential oil – over my shoulder. 

The night before, Jason and I had landed at Oakland International at 11 PM, by the time I’d gotten home, showered, and fed my very irritated cat, it was half past midnight. 

As I checked my back pocket one more time for my ID and locked the back door, the clock on the microwave read 5:08 AM.  By 5:39 AM, I was snaking through the dark streets of West Oakland in what seemed to me to be a much-too-small crowd, mostly quiet except the occasional heartbeat of a lone drum or the sleepy but hopeful cheer that rose up as we passed under the overpass of Mandela Parkway, encouraged by the sounds of our own voices echoing off the walls. 

You better believe I was asking myself the same questions that CNN, the Huffington Post, the BBC, and Mayor Quan had that morning: Why on earth are we doing this?  Are you absolutely out of your gourd, trying to shut down all of the major ports on the West Coast?

It was striking and slightly eerie walking through the streets in the pre-dawn darkness, surrounded by so many folks with faces hidden by in scarves and bandanas to protect them from the cold or worse.  Because even the coffee shops are closed that early in Berkeley (where I live) I couldn’t even turn to caffeine for energetic inspiration.  My feet felt like rocks with each step, and my eyes felt bleary.  I found myself wishing, in the dark recesses of my mind, that the cops would decide to block off all of the streets leading to the ports before we could get there – as many predicted they would – so I could just go home and go back to bed.

By the time we made it to the port, the sky was getting lighter – and my brick-lined shoes seemed to, as well.  The streets widened, the bay spread out before us to one side like rippling gray slate, and on the other side, the bright floodlights from the port glowed like willow-the-wisps in the misty air.  Shorebirds, waking up luxuriously late compared to the rest of us, stretched their wings and rose up into the clouds as we passed Shoreline Park.  It felt strangely beautiful, this place of industry and concrete. 

The cops made no disguise of their presence this time (when we closed down the port in November, they were quite conspicuous in their absence).  They paraded past us in all of their various modes of transportation: cops in unmarked white vans, already suited up in riot gear; cops driving school buses painted blue, threatening a detention of an entirely different sort; cops on motorcycles blocking freeway on-ramps, cops in the creepy black tank-looking things with the teeny windows, and of course, entire entourages of cop cars. 

After we began blocking the gates of the port, the cops formed platoons and marched here and there, standing for awhile near this or that and sending our twitter streams into – well, a twitter.  But nothing happened.  They marched and stood around, and we drummed and chanted and stood around.  After three or four hours of this, we finally got the “final final” word that the port had been shut down, joining those in Portland and Longview (ports were also slowed down and partially closed in Seattle, San Diego, Long Beach, and Vancouver). 

In spite of the insipid media response, stopping the massive machines of commerce all along the West Coast is a big deal – and if the newspaper isn’t reporting so, it may be time to question which side they’re on and who’s paying them to be on it.  Each day that the port is closed costs anywhere from $4-8 million dollars; on average, the port of Oakland makes $8.5 million a day, none of which is taxed by the struggling city which pays to maintain the roads, traffic lights, and other infrastructure that make port commerce possible. 

The ports were theoretically targeted because of a longstanding but difficult to understand labor dispute that involves the firing of truck drivers who sported pro-union T-shirts in LA, longshoremen in Washington, and the EGT grain company.  But perhaps more importantly, the ports are the bastions of capitalism on the West Coast: the closest thing we have to Wall Street in terms of being a symbol of concentrated capitalist power. 

But to many, these two reasons felt insubstantial, intangible.  By the time the second shift at the port was announced closed, everyone from the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to longtime activists and organizers seemed to be questioning the strategic intention and real-life impact of our actions. How much did shutting down the ports really affect those large corporations, compared to the money lost by truckers and dockworkers?  Are we striking back against the 1% or standing in the way of the wellbeing of fellow 99% folks?  

I took these questions to my community, curious about what they would say.  The most articulate and beautiful response was from writer Adriana Camarena.  “I define the Occupy movement as a social movement that simulates a startling murmuration in which participants tug and pull in different directions - even in opposition to each other - but under a principled commitment to question the economic and political structures that have institutionalized a devastating inequality between a top elite percent and the rest of us,” she said.

Murmuration as a phenomenon is something that took the social media sphere by storm in the last few weeks, after two young Irish women happened across a flock of thousands of starlings swirling over the River Shannon and posted the handspun video on the internet (a flock of starlings is called a murmuration, much the same as geese are a gaggle and crows are a murder).  The starlings seem to move as one organism, twisting and dancing in the sky, smooth and flawless as liquid. 

It is one of nature’s most wondrous sights, and how it works remains mysterious for those of us born without wings.  We know that each bird is actually following one other bird – the one closest to it – the same way that schools of billions of herring migrate hundreds of miles in warm coastal waters and still manage to evade predators. But knowing that one small fact explains relatively little.  

“It’s easy for a starling to turn when its neighbor turns — but what physiological mechanisms allow it to happen almost simultaneously in two birds separated by hundreds of feet and hundreds of other birds?” asks Wired writer Brandon Keim.  “That remains to be discovered, and the implications extend beyond birds. Starlings may simply be the most visible and beautiful example of a biological criticality that also seems to operate in proteins and neurons, hinting at universal principles yet to be understood.”

There is a lot that we can learn from starlings and sardines about collective movement – what we know in this moment is that it begins with relating to just one neighbor even as we hold a much larger collective intention.  The neighbor, in this case, could be the longshoremen of Longview, the truckers in LA, the Occupiers in Seattle who were gassed by police officers, or the other protesters within Occupy Oakland who chose this action over countless others that we may have attempted.  All of us in relation, moving together, even when it isn’t obvious how it will work out or if we agree on everything.

I know what you’re thinking: that sounds a little cult-like.  What if someone makes a wrong turn?  What if we end up being lemmings instead of starlings?

Well, it turns out that lemming mass suicide is a myth, which, I’m quite sorry to say, comes from a 1958 Disney documentary that used staged footage showing the poor beasts being launched off of a cliff with a turntable. 

In other words, I don’t think we have anything to fear when we can tune into our deepest, most instinctual ways of knowing and communicating with one another.  When we move, dream, and organize in ways built out of our relationships with one another and trust that we can navigate the complexity and the distance.  When we tap into an intelligence greater than our own and more magnificent than a simple sum of its parts. 

Thinking back to that morning -- the crowd weaving through the dark streets of one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the state, the spontaneous drum jams with people I’ve known for years and those I’ve never met before in my life, the Food Not Bombs team that showed up with coffee and polenta just when I thought I’d drop from exhaustion, the friends that I never managed to meet up with but who tweeted me with updates every ten or fifteen minutes from a different gate – I can feel that the shutdown of the West Coast ports, in spite of its imperfections, came from a deep instinctual place of our collective understanding about where we want to go and how we want to get there.  Just as with so many things about the Occupy movement, it’s more complicated than a simple soundbite or facebook update can articulate, because it’s a transformation of the entire paradigm into one that honors our interdependent and interconnected nature. 

And the next step?  I’m not sure.  What I do know is that in the murmuration of starlings and the silver swirl of herrings in the shoals, we’ve finally found a map.


  1. I just wanted to thank you, Riyana. I want to thank you for the lyrical reporting and mythic tale telling that you are sharing with us. I also want to thank you for your daring, dreaming and visioning which are helping to bring the Cultures of Beauty, Balance and Delight that much closer to full manifestation here on the Good Green Earth.

  2. You have to do what feels right even if it doesn't make sense to others. It's YOUR dream and freedom of expression. Your writing is beautiful Riyana.
    Living on an Island occupying Oak Bluffs Ferry Terminal wouldn't have quite the same effect:)but living an alternate lifestyle IS an occupy movement of it's own, occupying one's LIFE. We do to disengage from the machine as much as possible,to not feed it, ...takes power from it. Most of the people I know personally, who have successful right livlihood have invested ALL of their energy into it, they don't have time for occupying ports or downtown LA. I'm not sure if successful right livlihood precludes demonstrating, of course it doesn't. I was just thinking yesterday though- how the people I can example don't participate in that.

  3. This is such a beautifully written reflection Riyana and one of the best articulations of the interconnected, instinctive purpose of this movement. I love how over and over and forever we can turn to the phenomenal power and lesson of nature as model and lullaby for our own actions and movements .

  4. Thank you everyone for your beautiful insights and encouragement. It means a lot to me -- this is how we weave our web. ;-)

    By the way, Monica, it was your note on my facebook post about the port action that really led to this post and the conversations that ensued. "Would you please explain the goals of this action?" you said. Well, I thought about it, and realized that I couldn't. So thank you for that challenge!

    Joanna Macy talks about how there are three components of the Great Turning: the holding actions that protect what we have, the consciousness changing actions that make it possible for us to create change, and the utopian actions that bring the world we want to live in directly into our day to day experience and create the new models and systems that we need to replace the old ones. The third type is what I think you're talking about - and it seems very true to me that we need all of them to be strong and support one another.

    Much love,

  5. "bring the world we want to live in directly into our day to day experience and create the new models and systems that we need to replace the old ones". YES! otherwise everyone goes back to work and the same demo's that we did in the 70's continue in the 90's and today and little changes. I just think we need to build a house to replace the one we don't like, so we have someplace to go. otherwise.... there is no forward motion. I personally don't care for my family to be tazed or jailed or tortured and I would take some persuading, somethings critical.That's me. My father was jailed for 2-3 years in AMERICA and tortured. You know the story. Ask him privately if it was worth it. Ask the American dead girl run over by big machinery in Palestine if it was worth it. Ask our mentors if the dead girl was their baby daughter was it worth it?. We all have to proceed the way we see fit. I PERsonally feel the best use of MY energy is to promote right livlihood. If I am there then I promote others on that path. Being just one little mommy that's what I can do.If there is a kid from the truckers union who wants to learn what I know, send them over. Maybe that girl wont have 2 drive a truck. Build worlds of our own that don't rely so much on those worlds. Remove one's energy from those worlds. They need US to survive. Once we remove our energy they will collapse by themselves. That's my op. I prefer to build and let the destructors destroy themselves. And I don't mean to be critical. It comes from my babyhood. I just don't feel it was worth it for my father to be in jail.

  6. Thank you Riyanna for that wonderful description and meditation. I too found the light and the equipment and concrete and steel beautiful. But lurid.
    I had seen the starlings video before, and I've actually seen the phenomenon a few times in my life. Love your words. love, Rosie

  7. Re Well, it turns out that lemming mass suicide is a myth, which, I’m quite sorry to say, comes from a 1958 Disney documentary that used staged footage showing the poor beasts being launched off of a cliff with a turntable.

    I didn't know that until I read this post two days ago. I haven't seen that documentary, but when you mentioned "1958" and "Disney" in the same breath it wasn't hard for me to make an educated guess about Disney's motivation for staging a lemming mass suicide.

    Of course I didn't realize this when I was a kid delighted by "Fantasia" and "Cinderella" and his other feature-length cartoons, but Disney was an arch-conservative and 1958 was the height of the Cold War. The subtext or message of a lot of popular entertainment was the brainwashed, manipulated condition of the unfortunate citizens of the Soviet Union, who didn't have a free press and were told only what the government wanted them to know by the state-controlled media. That's what the lemmings were being compared to, and anyone who grew up in the paranoid political climate of the Cold War would have picked up on the implied comparison immediately.

    For children the association would have been an unconscious one, but as far as the PTB were concerned a subliminal message was even better. What we didn't know until much later was how much WE were being manipulated by Disney and others. They made sure we heard only the message our government wanted us to hear, but at the time they were a lot sneakier about it than they are now. And we actually did have something like a free press, at least as compared with Pravda.

    This is a wonderful post and I'll have more to say about it later on. I just wanted to get the historical part down before I forgot about it.

    Love, Mom