Back in the summer of 2011 I was head of marketing for a start-up called Tropo. Our team was geographically spread around the globe, but I mostly worked out of a small office on 3rd floor of a building right on the corner of Market and 2nd Street in downtown San Francisco. We had a lovely view of Market Street and I would often find myself gazing at the crowds passing by below while working on a press release, company blog entry or planning our next tech event.
One afternoon I noticed what, at first I thought was a parade heading north up Market Street towards the Embarcadero and the Ferry Building. Drums were pounding, people were chanting…I looked a little closer and noticed some were carrying signs but I could’t make out what the signs said. It certainly wasn’t a parade…and I quickly realized it was some sort of protest. Ah! but protesting what?
Since I had moved to San Francisco a year earlier I noticed three things that San Franciscans love: Getting dressed in costumes, Parades, and Protests. Sometimes all three at the same time. This particular group kinda had costumes…some of them were wearing Guy Fawkes masks, some had a cyber-punk/steampunk look…but it it was less of a parade and more of a moving crowd. The crowd stopped right across the street and circled around a Chase Bank retail location on the ground floor. I grabbed my camera and went out to investigate.
As I approached I could see some of the signs, “We are the 99%”. “Tax the Rich”, and others. Some of the protestors had entered the bank and I could see them through the window with signs, holding hands and sitting cross-legged on the floor. The crowd outside of the bank was peaceful, but clearly they were protesting something…but what?
That was my very first introduction to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The police arrived, the protestors started walking further down the street to the Federal Reserve Bank building. I was taking pictures and video, mesmerized by this protest that had seemingly popped up from nowhere. The protest turned into a sit-in. Tents were erected. A small community of protestors took up residence outside of of the Federal building, and later around the Embarcadero. Police would periodically come in and clean all the “occupiers” out by destroying their tents, pepper spray, and mass arrests. I attended protests in San Francisco and Oakland, and because my job required a lot of travel that summer, I attended Occupy Protests in NYC, Seattle, Austin, Orlando, Miami, London, Berlin and Paris. It was a global protest of the have-nots vs. the haves and stretched on for months.
Now we’re seeing a different kind of protest movement. 2020 has proven to be a difficult year. Personally, I was battling liver disease and desperately needed a transplant to live (something that thankfully happened on May 13th!). But while I was busy with my own health issues and generally thinking “things couldn’t get worse”, the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. Quarantines, stay-at-home-orders, curfews, and conflicting information from scientists, doctors and politicians cause a general sense of chaos and frustration.
And just as it seemed we were emerging from the worst of the pandemic, as armed Trump supporters took to the streets to protest state lockdown orders and demand access to salons and golf courses, a few racially-charged incidents happened.
The first was the killing of an unarmed black man named Ahmoud Arbery was killed by three white men in Georgia. The second was a story of a woman named Amy Cooper who falsely reported to police that a black man, Christian Cooper, had threatened her in Central Park. While no one was physically hurt, the incident, caught on video by Christian Cooper, served as a reality check for anyone who still believed that systemic racism didn’t exist anymore. Amy Cooper was willing to lie and wield her “white privilege” to hurt another human being simply by pointing out his skin color, with full knowledge that she would likely get away with it.
Which led to the real spark: The brutal murder of George Floyd under the knee of Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.
Within days, what started as peaceful protests in Minneapolis broke out into violence. Protests spread to other cities…within a week there were peaceful and violent protests in almost every major city in the United States and some international cities as well. Donald Trump flamed the fans of the fire with his (now anticipated) divisive rhetoric, causing more civil unrest. We are still in the midst of seeing this whole thing grow with no peace in sight, and no strong leadership to quell the anger and frustration.
What will happen next? Trump made an announcement today to tell local mayors and governors to stop the violence or he will use the military to do it for them. In the meantime, protests continue across the country with many cities enforcing overnight curfews.
Civil Disobedience is as American as, well, America. Perhaps Trevor Noah says it best.