Occupy San Francisco: my conversation with a protestor

Philip Oje, 26, is precisely the kind of radical every societal revolution desires. Young, earnest and idealistic, Oje joined Occupy San Francisco on September 30th, 2011. He wants nothing less than to totally change the world. "Ideally, I'd love to see a money-less society," he confesses, grinning. I chuckle at this, but he's not joking. "Everything needs to change," he says. "We're trying to do something that has never been done before--what we're doing has never been done in the entire history of humanity!"

I ask him what he means by this.

"Well, humans have always lived as hierarchical and patriarchal societies. We want a more horizontal society. A sustainable, equitable society."

Despite my initial skepticism, I find myself warming to Oje's passion. We agree on several major societal problems: the homeless elderly, dependency on oil, severe global poverty, corrupt government institutions, a broken education system.

"If I could just meditate everyone into world peace, I would," Oje remarks. "The Occupy movement is devoted to non-violence and global compassion."

When I ask him if there are leaders in the Occupy movement, Oje shakes his head.

"We don't have leaders," he says. "There are some of us who have a...." he pauses, searching for the right description, "a stronger vision."

"So what does the Occupy movement want?" I ask.

"That's the most commonly asked question," he says, pulling out his well-worn notebook and thumbing through the pages filled with notes. He pauses, consults a page, looks up at the ceiling, sighs.

"We believe in and embrace a variety of tactics for social change," he says. "We are committed to non-violence and change without force."

But some of those tactics, I say, have people wondering if the movement is truly non-violent. Oje dips his head, closes his eyes for a moment and steeples his fingers.

"I support a protestor's right to break a window," he says.

"You support his right to break a window?" I repeat, readying my pencil to write this down.

He smiles and reconsiders. "Well....I respect his freedom of choice although I don't necessarily support that tactic."

"There are better ways than destruction of property, yes?" I prompt.

He nods. "I think so. But others in our movement have other forms of civil disobedience."

His step-dad, sitting a few feet away, interjects a practical question: "I heard the protestors in New York had to file for some kind of legal tax status--to handle all the donations they've received. At some point, you're going to have to organize, how will you do that?"

This seems to perplex Philip. "But filing for legal tax status? That's--that's becoming part of the corrupt system we're trying to change!" he says.

"Well, yes, but you're going to have to consider some of these real questions," his step-dad says.

"I know, I just....I don't want to get into that right now," Philip says.

Watching their exchange, I see Philip as a young visionary who is frustrated by the practical nitty-gritty of social change. As much as my heart soars with his ideals, I understand the concern of his step-dad. After all, even revolutionaries must eat and have a place to sleep. And then there's always that pesky question about laundry: who washes the clothes when you're running a revolution? Who pays the bills?

I can feel Oje's unease and so I change the subject a bit.

"Has the movement changed you?" I ask. "Are you learning a lot about yourself?"

"Oh, yes!" he grins and lets out a sigh of relief. "It's been a rite of initiation. I've learned I can be an effective human being. I can have conversations with all kinds of people. I've overcome many of my fears."

"Peace-making is hard work," I say.

"Yes! It is! It's such hard work and so full of interruptions! Sometimes I feel like I'm being pulled in so many directions. Most of my time is spent in meetings having hours and hours of conversations."

"The interruptions are part of the process," I say. "Conversations are a very important part of change."

"Yes! Thank you for reminding me of that," he says.

We embrace and I wish him well. If the Occupy movement is full of people like Philip, I have hope it will succeed--at least in convincing more of us that things need to change.

I'm not sure the Occupy movement has a positive identity yet. To me, it seems like the occupiers are more consumed with what they are against than what they are for. And because they have no tangible goals and no practical way of accomplishing them, I have to wonder if they'll achieve any kind of meaningful change.

I mean, a moneyless society sounds like a marvelous, utopic, lofty ideal. But short of radically altering human nature (which no societal revolution has ever been able to achieve), I foresee a grand dose of disillusionment in Philip's future--unless the Occupy movement is willing to create more realistic goals. Still, I love the heart of this movement and wish them all the best.

Maybe I'm the one who needs to, as Philip says, "evolve out of this current system."

I don't know.

All I do know is that I have children to tend and ain't nobody gonna wash that huge laundry pile of mine. What can I say? I am the 99%.