The Poetics of the Street

October 27, 2011

If the Goddess had wanted me to lead the revolution, she would have given me a loud voice.  Since she didn’t, I have to assume she just wants me to wheeze along, doing what I can.  Yesterday that was sort of an Occupy marathon.  I went down to #Occupy Santa Cruz in the open convertible of a curly-headed forty-something anarchist named Wes, talking at the top of our lungs about all the issues at Occupy Santa Cruz, which are similar to all the issues at the other Occupy sites.

Occupy Santa Cruz has a sweet site at the courthouse, with a camp in the park, information booths at the steps, a porta-pottie, and a grassy area on the side that was relatively quiet, where I did trainings all afternoon, a mix of nonviolent direct action, facilitation, and then a short talk at 5 pm, to which many people came out from the community, including some dear friends like writer Vicki Noble and others from Diablo Canyon blockade days.  Then I helped them facilitate their General Assembly, which may go down on record as the shortest, most efficient GA ever—no thanks to me as I really did very little.  Occupy Santa Cruz has a warm, family feel, and seems very well grounded.  Tehya, the young woman who called the meeting that sparked the encampment, like many of these young activists had never done anything like it before.  But she got inspired by pictures of Occupy Wall Street, and she thought, “I can put up a Facebook page.”  And then, “Oh, I’ve just called for a General Assembly and I’ve never seen one, I better go up to San Francisco and see what it’s like.”  Less than a month later, the Occupation is in full swing.

By the end of the meeting, we’re getting live feed from #Occupy Oakland where 3000 people are having a General Assembly.  They’ve retaken Oscar Grant plaza and have taken down the barricades.  We head up to the city.  I’m tempted to go to Oakland, but need to stop home first to drop my stuff and I suspect by the time I do I’ll be more tempted to stay home for some well-deserved rest.  But on the way up we start getting texts telling us to come to SF, that they are expecting a police raid between 10 and midnight.

So instead I change my shoes, strap on my action waist pack (complete with rescue remedy and a spare pair of glasses) and head down to #Occupy San Francisco.   As I get in the car, I hear that they are being raided, but when we get there, the police have not yet come.

Hundreds of people are massed in the corner of the square, and a young African-American woman with a bullhorn is leading them in a nonviolence training.  I’ve never seen her before but I love her instantly, she’s so calm and strong and confident as she organizes people into rows, sitting down in front, standing behind.  David Solnit is crouched in one of the lines—he’s been down at the occupation a lot in the last weeks, training and organizing, and I give him much credit, along with others who have devoted time to helping this occupation, for the feeling of strength and determination in the plaza.  Just a week or so ago, Occupy SF was beleaguered and dispirited from constant police raids, more like a huddle of tarps and blankets on the edge of Market Street in front of the Federal Reserve.  Then they moved onto Justin Hermann Plaza, took more space, defied the ban on tents and raised their banners.

And tonight, it’s beautiful!  I’m seeing friends in the crowd that I’ve been on blockades with since Diablo Canyon in 1981, amidst a sea of new people, young, old, a wide diversity of backgrounds and colors and attire, from punk anarchists to business suits.  The plaza is filled with a palpable aura of strong, calm, joyful resistance, nonviolence at its best.  People are preparing to stand their ground—not to fight the cops or bait them, but to hold firm and stand together and defend our space and our right to be there.  There’s a power in that plaza that is deep and strong, and because the moral ground is so clear, we’ve pulled in people from all walks of life to a movement that has room to grow.

Marion beckons to me from the midst of the seated group.  We’ve been friends for thirty years or more and would be good street buddies, but I shake my head.  I might get arrested, but damn if I’m going to sit down on the cold concrete until I see the whites of their eyes.

Instead, Paradox and I entertain the troops, which he does supremely well.  We go with the group to the far end of the plaza, where we run some drills, getting mock cops to rush the lines.  The people stand strong!  I teach my quick version of activist grounding.  Riyana and Jason have their drums. and the Brass Liberation Orchestra comes around to play.  Nothing like a brass band on the street to raise the energy!

Hours go by.  Rumors fly.  The cops are massing a mile away.  They’re piling into paddy wagons and busses, dressed in riot gear.  BART officials have shut down 12th St. Oakland and Embarcadero stations to prevent Occupy Oakland from joining us.  Instead, protestors have taken the Bay Bridge.

But the cops don’t come.  Instead, five of our city supervisors come down to join us.  They hold a press conference to express their solidarity.

Determination is still strong, but energy is beginning to flag.  Paradox leads a group in some stretching.  I suggest asking people to say why they are here, using the people’s mike, where the crowd repeats what you say.  There’s a moment of hesitation, then an older man speaks.

“I was forced to retire early…”


“My health care costs…”


“Eleven hundred dollars a month…”


“On my pension….”


“I can afford…”


“Only health care, rent…”


“And half the food I need.”


“Mike check,” calls a young woman.


“I have two BA’s….”


“And tens of thousands of dollars of debt…”


“I have a part-time job…”


“As a nanny…”


“That doesn’t use…”


“My education…”


“I am the 99%!”

“I AM THE 99%”

“Mike check,” cries a young man.


“I’m here because…”


“When I went to my comfortable job…”


“This morning, and saw…”


“Pictures of the Oakland cops…”


“Lobbing flash grenades…”


“Into a group trying to help…”


“The injured vet…”


“Who was shot in the head…”

“I got so mad…”

“I walked out of work…”


“And brought my whole office with me.”


The stories go on and on for hours, the circle moving and shifting to face each speaker, to put them at center.  Echoed by the crowd, each story becomes our own story, a poem, a choral theater of the streets.

I’ve been on my feet all day, but I don’t feel tired.  I’m exhilarated.  What’s happening here is so beautiful, so powerful.  It answers our most primal human needs: to have a voice, to have that voice heard and affirmed, to tell your story, to be seen, to be part of something, to stand for something, to stand together, to stand strong.

I could stay in that moment forever.  But sometime after 2 AM, someone evidently brings some kryptonite onto the plaza and my super-powers desert me.  I return to being a sixty-year-old woman who has been talking all day in a wheezy voice.  My intuition tells me that the crisis has passed, and I go home.

Later in the night, the police send the demonstrators a letter, saying that the raid has been called off.  Essentially, it admits that there are more of us than there are of them.  They can see the strength, the determination and the discipline of this crowd.  Arresting us all would be a long and grueling process for the police.  Dispersing us with clubs and tear gas would be a PR disaster for the Mayor who is fighting an election in just a few days.  We have succeeded in creating a dilemma for the powers that be, and they back off.

Now a day or two has passed.  Across the bay, Mayor Jean Quan has recognized how disastrous a mistake it was to let the cops turn Oakland into a war zone.  They have indeed shot an Iraq veteran in the head with some sort of projectile, and the internet bleeds with photos of his wounds.  When he collapsed in a cloud of tear gas, other protestors came to his aid, and the police did indeed shoot flash grenades into their midst—also caught on video.  It’s a crime that has disgusted the nation.  Quan backpeddles furiously, and Occupy Oakland retakes Oscar Grant plaza.  The power of nonviolent resistance has won!  For the moment….

11 comments to The Poetics of the Street

  • Writing from rural north Texas, I thank you for this beautiful report. I have visited Occupy Dallas a few times in the last few weeks and have come away amazed at how much more sophisticated the group has gotten between visits. Dallas is an hour and a half from here and the gardens at Wildscape need attention, so I don’t get down there as often as I’d like. The 30-something couple who went with me the first time are now suggesting that we do an Occupy Bonham as soon as we finish with the Gasland event we’re hosting to raise awareness of the hydraulic fracturing that is going on under cover over in Sherman.

    There are very few kindred voices up here and when you blog about the work you, Riyana, Jason, and others are doing there, it empowers our little group of radicals here on the Upper Blackland Prairie. I love you all and I miss you. Blessed be.

  • Leon Kieding

    Hi, well written, thank you. You had me there with you in a way. You do very interesting work. I liked the story about people echoing their stories. At GA in SF one of the most potent moments for me was when a guy proposed a plan of action and everyone had to repeat what his proposal was even if they did not agree with it. : )

  • Last night I attended the occupation in Sacramento. I told them about your books “Dreaming the Dark” and “Truth or Dare”.

    They could use your presence, Starhawk.

    Caesar Chavez park, 910 I street, Sacramento.

    • I’m finding it hard to be everywhere! But you can also look on my main website, for a free download called “The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings” on meeting facilitation. Also check out my new book, The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups, And we are organizing to provide trainings for trainers regionally to help more people get good skills at running meetings, etc. love Starhawk

      • Paul

        You really captured the essence of what it’s like to be at the Occupy Sites. The entire time I’ve been working the occupy movement and watching what was going on in the other cities, I was thinking gosh it sure would be nice to see Starhawk helping the protesters, her way of doing things would really help, and here you are giving classes and helping the movement. Its wonderful.

  • Thank you, again, for coming down to Santa Cruz! It was a real pleasure to receive your insights on communication and facilitation, and was no surprise to find such insights cultivated in a person of great kindness and openness. Consider this an open invitation to return to OSC whenever you’d like. 🙂

    ( For those interested in seeing what we’re up to down here, check out … A publication with much more useful content is in the works. )

  • […] read Starhawk’s blog, and I’m delighted to tears to read her poetic words as I breathe and feel along with her as […]

  • Starhawk,
    Thank you for all you are doing to help the Occupy Together movement. Occupy Cleveland, like many occupations, is experiencing the results of an incorrectly implemented consensus process. The result in the past few days has been factionalism and many people leaving the group. It seems as though many people have no issue using “consensus” until they run into their first major conflict. Most people aren’t really equipped to resolve real conflict through consensus. Is there in fact anything that can be done to reverse factionalism once it has set in like this?

  • […] What follows is an excerpt from veteran community organizer Starhawk‘s blogpost on the Poetics of the Street. She also wrote an ”Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups” that is a […]

  • […] Starhawk, who’s a favourite of mine and whose work I periodically reference over on Urban Meliad, talks a lot about this kind of thing in Truth or Dare and Dreaming the Dark: The idea that, the more you understand – and have afirmed by the people and structures around you – that you are valuable in and of yourself[3], the more you will also value others intrinsically and, as such, actually give a fuck and want to help when they’re in trouble. The idea that knowing, intrinsically, that you are worthy of food that isn’t full of growth hormones or pesticides can lead you to not only believing the same thing about people other than you (people with less money than you, people whose “life choices” aren’t ones you approve of or would choose for yourself), but also believing, intrinsically, that the plants and animals you eat are worthy of living lives that don’t involves being pumped full of hormones or pesticides; that the farmers who cultivate the plants and raise the animals that you eat are worthy of a good wage for their labour even if that means buying fair-trade or farm-gate and making a sacrifice[4] in order to do so; that the land you live on, the land your food grows on or is raised on, the earth and water that your food is born of – literally or figuratively – is worthy of not being poisoned by agricultural-chemical run-off, by oil spills and tailing ponds, of being treated with respect. The idea that knowing, intrinsically, that your body is your own and you hold sole dominion over it and that no-one else should be able to legislate or guilt-trip you into doing or being anything you don’t agree with or concent to, leads to knowing, intrinsically, that everyone else’s body is their own and that those same rules apply. That just because you mourn the loss of the son you thought you had, and all the futures you envisioned for him, doesn’t mean you can’t rejoice in the daughter you turned out to have or respect that she knows her own identity better than you do even though you’re an adult and she’s still a child. That just because you think the choice between eviction and prostitution is a horrible one to even consider, doesn’t mean you can’t respect the people who choose sex work and support them in their decisions rather than trying to criminalize their best options. That just because you suspect the chick who begged $2 from you in the park is only going to use the money to get a fix for her drug adiction doesn’t mean it’s your call to condemn her for what she does with her money – you may not like it, but your job is to work to make sure that there’s a methedone clinic, and a safe inhalation/injection site in your shared neighbourhood, it’s to greet her as a neighbour rather than look through her, it’s to recognize your shared humanity and your shared intrinsic value. […]

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