Imagine that you have stood up at a meeting of People’s Temple and warned members of the congregation that they were not safe around Jim Jones and needed to eject him from their group. It’s the mid-1970s, and you are at the headquarters in San Francisco where an aura of worship surrounds Jones.
You probably don’t imagine that members of People’s Temple would have thrown you kisses and flowers. No, I don’t imagine that either. Instead, I imagine the Temple would’ve erupted in jeers, boos, one or two people jumping straight up off their seats and screaming incoherently while others shouted insults at you. You would’ve been looking into a crowd where some faces were contorted with hatred. At least half of the people who weren’t screaming and shouting would’ve been talking over you. And some of them would’ve resorted to physical intimidation.
I can imagine it vividly, because that is what I and three other people experienced at the General Assembly on Sunday, November 6th in Todos Santos Park in Concord, California.
The cult leader/bully will be referred to as John Doe. I have decided to not use his real name, because I want to be perfectly clear on one point; my motive in writing this is not revenge or character assassination. If a destructive individual intruding on an Occupy group was an aberration, I probably would write this as a private entry in my own diary and leave it there.
The reason I’m writing this a public post is that I see our experience as part of something larger rippling through Occupy groups across the country.
We are vulnerable–not just to police raids and complaints from the Chamber of Commerce. We are vulnerable, because this movement has experienced a meteoric rise in public awareness and mainstream media coverage. The Occupy movement has become what the media likes to refer to as “sexy.”
That has attracted sociopaths to Occupy. There is a tug of war going on now between people who care about the Occupy movement versus sociopaths who’ve shown up at GAs, marches, and encampments to take advantage of it.
Participants in Oakland’s general strike describe it as a huge success. A massive crowd took to the streets and the port to demonstrate in a spirited and peaceful way. That night a small group of vandals stole the message sent by tens of thousands of peaceful demonstrators.
Recently I’ve read in the blogosphere of troubles at Occupy Portland caused by people who see the camp as a cool place to do drugs and refuse to abide by the no drugs rule. I have also read a blog by a very disheartened and discouraged participant in Occupy San Francisco who was leaving because their GA was devolving into rudeness and cutting off anyone who expressed an unpopular idea.
At Contra Costa 99%, we experienced another expression of sociopathy when a charismatic personality arrived at our group in late October. The rumblings in my gut started when John Doe attended his second meeting of our group. We had agreed at the previous meeting to do some outreach to the police. During the week, a Concord police officer contacted us, asked for and received permission to attend our GA on October 30th.
John Doe spent a good part of the meeting shouting and disrespecting other group members and the police officer, who remained polite, reserved, and stoic throughout. He made a point of IDing the officer to get his badge number, and obsessed about COINTELPRO until group members objected to his aggressiveness. As the meeting ended, I was troubled by the high level of hostility he’d introduced into our GA, including ad hominem attacks. Equally troubling, he was dismissive of Occupy’s consensus-based decisionmaking and complete disavowal of violence.
We were concerned about maintaining the peaceful nature of our group. As we were discussing the situation, my husband Googled him. We discovered that John Doe, 56 years old, is a convicted sex offender (child molestation). Within the last year; he was arrested for assault on a male student while leafletting at Diablo Valley College.
Meanwhile a new member of the group sent out an email informing the group that he was dropping out and refused to be part of any group John Doe belonged to. Six of us shared emails and phone calls discussing this situation. Four of us agreed that John Doe should be asked before the weekly GA to leave the group. One of our group met him earlier in the week and made it clear to him that we had become aware of his history and were deeply concerned about his presence in our group.
We decided we had no choice but to bring it up before the next GA. We put it close to the top of the agenda and used the heading, discussion of nonviolence. We knew before the meeting even started, it was going to be a fiasco. There were more than twenty people; we had never seen most of them before. He had spent the week calling his friends.
I think each of the four of us (Sputnik, Mike, Annie, and I) knew instantly that we would lose the vote. He had taken advantage of the openness of the Occupy movement to pack the meeting with his buddies. A person attending for the first time had voting rights equal to people who had been there from the first, even if the new arrival had no interest in Occupy and no intention of ever coming back.
As we gathered on the sidewalk/patio area outside Panama Red’s Coffee Shop, I realized, to my utter amazement, that John Doe was a figure these people looked up to. I began to comprehend with a sinking feeling that this was a personality cult. He was their leader and their hero. I could not fathom why.
Perceiving that you are in the presence of a personality cult is like looking at one of those double-imaged pictures. At first glance, you see a vase. But if you keep looking, you can also see two faces in profile. Some people just cannot perceive the second image no matter how intently they stare at it.
I knew that we would be trying to point out that second image (the bullying side of his personality) to people who would refuse to see it. Even worse, I could tell that his groupies would be furious with us for pointing it out to them.
The meeting had not even started yet; already the group was in turmoil. Sputnik was sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, a gray fedora with a big 99% sign stuck into the hatband. He was shaking his head, seemingly at the futility of what we were about to attempt. We went through three facilitators, whom I refer to as the three thugs. Two resorted to physical intimidation; the third used psychological intimidation.
The first, a loud and aggressive woman in a red sweatshirt, facilitated for only a few minutes. When Annie stood up to speak, she paused for a second to collect her thoughts. The woman came up behind Annie and grabbed both of her upper arms as she said, “I want you to stand over here,” while she tried to physically haul Annie sideways. Annie and the rest of our group protested so vociferously that the loud woman was forced to sit down and relinquish her role as facilitator.
Soon an employee came out of the coffee shop, and told us our group was too big to meet there. We crossed the street to resume our meeting in the park, only to discover that muzak was being piped into the park sound system, even though there was no event scheduled to meet there. This only intensified the turmoil.
The two succeeding facilitators were both males and both louts determined to silence us. The younger one, an 18/19 year old six-foot plus beanpole alternated between complete cluelessness as to the level of tension and total apathy about addressing the reason for it. This kid, who was actually the less loutish of the two, would later try to block me from speaking near the end of the meeting. As I was making my proposal that we as a group vote to expel John Doe, this six-foot-plus kid walked over and planted himself in front of me. At five feet tall, I was talking straight into his back.
Early in the meeting, we had to be tenacious about keeping discussion of nonviolence near the top of the agenda.When it finally came up, Sputnik and I rose and stood on the grass at the foot of the bleachers. He made a few short remarks about John Doe’s history of co-opting progressive organizations. My turn was next. I began by echoing the words of someone who’d spoken a moment before. “Someone just said, ‘Before you speak, ask yourself, is it true, necessary and kind? What I am about to say is true and necessary. I wish I could say this out of kindness toward John Doe. Unfortunately, that’s just not possible. Instead I’m saying this out of kindness toward the group and the need to warn people.” Fortunately, I had written a numbered list ahead of time on a long skinny piece of green paper. Without that list, words would’ve completely fled. I unfolded it and read down the list, summarizing what we’d learned from our Internet search, adding John Doe’s failure to inform us, that our meeting in a park near a children’s play area might not even be legal. This had exposed the group to potential embarrassment if we invited families with young children. I added that his bullying at our last meeting was the final reason on the list. I closed my remarks by saying, “As a woman, I do not feel safe with this person in our group.”
The moment I began speaking, the group erupted. The most chilling aspect of this was not merely facing a wall of hostility as I looked up into the bleachers. I had expected some hostility. It was the sheer force of their hatred I had not expected. I realized that many of the score of followers accumulated by John Doe seemed to walk around every day harboring a high level of rage. They were delighted to have an excuse to express hatred. The woman in the red sweatshirt who had facilitated earlier was particularly hateful. (Out of fairness, I will note that this is not true of every one of John Doe’s followers. A few did make comments or ask questions that seemed like an honest attempt to address the safety issue. But they were in the minority.) Sputnik would later describe this as the most hate-filled meeting he’d ever seen after thirty years of activism.
As the meeting wore on; Sputnik, Annie, and Mike were steadfast, maintained a level tone, and remained focused on the issues of respect for the group, its members, and our process despite hostile behavior displayed by the third facilitator, a middle-aged man who appeared to be one of John Doe’s best friends. He resorted to physical intimidation twice.
The first time, I was standing in the central area at the foot of the bleachers. I had just made a comment and was listening to someone’s response. He walked up to me from the right side and pushed against my upper arm before he spoke up and asked me to step off to the side. I was completely taken aback by this, but stepped a few feet off to the side anyway without making an issue of it.
Later in the meeting, this same “facilitator” was standing in the central grassy area addressing the crowd in the bleachers. He turned and walked several feet toward me across open space. He said, “and Janet here.” As he spoke, he reached out and swiped his hand across my shoulder.
“Don’t touch me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. I jabbed my finger in the air. “Get away from me!” I yelled again as I pushed my right arm straight out in the air, with the flat of my palm facing out in the stop gesture. He did back away and stayed several feet away from me after that. My husband was standing next to me, so what else could he do?
After we, predictably, lost the vote to expel John Doe, the meeting lumbered on. The four of us gathered in a knot at the far edge of the group and conferred with heads bent together. We agreed that we had to leave and form our own group. There was simply no way we could coexist with people who not only thought a pledge of nonviolence was a joke but also expressed their disdain for us through shoutdowns and physical intimidation.
Before we made our exit, we were gifted with yet one more extraordinary moment. The “facilitator” who had touched me twice ( and whom I’d yelled at minutes earlier not to touch me) had assumed a spot on the grass at the foot of the bleachers. “I will admit,” he said, ” that I have used violence in my speech.” He paused and made a dramatic sweeping gesture over the grass toward our group. He continued speaking, his voice ringing out over the park and the people gathered above him on the bleachers. “Just as Janet has used violence in her speech.”
My mouth must have fallen open. I stared at the thug in utter disbelief. A wave of physical revulsion rolled over me. I thought this is probably the kind of line John Doe uses when he sets to work seducing a 14-year-old girl. (To be fair, I don’t know if the speaker had a rap sheet like his best friend, but his words were creepy.)
Annie had turned her back on the group and was walking across the grass toward the coffee shop. I was standing between Sputnik and my husband, Michael. Both were shaking their heads and muttering, “These people are completely insane. Let’s get out of here.” We turned and followed Annie across the grass.
We spent several minutes on the sidewalk in front of the coffee shop before Sputnik suddenly realized that he’d left his belongings over there. Michael and I decided to go back there with him. Based on what we had just experienced, I feared that if Sputnik went over there alone, he could’ve been roughed up.
As we returned, they were still meeting. Sputnik gathered up two tote bags of his belongings and the whiteboard easel he had borrowed from his office and promised to return Monday morning. In one of life’s delicious little ironies, the agenda was written on the whiteboard. They protested. Too bad, we replied.
The lout was standing nearby. I told him we had paid for the domain name contraCosta99.com.org.net, created the logo and the web site, and we were taking them with us. “You’ll have to call yourself something else.”
As we helped Sputnik carry his belongings across the grass, I realized this outcome was inevitable from the moment John Doe heard of our group. In a flyer Sputnik had quoted from earlier in that raucous meeting, John Doe had brazenly stated his goal was “to penetrate and radicalize existing groups.”
And yes, I am aware that John Doe chose words with a sexual connotation. I am also now acutely aware that the structure of the Occupy movement is open to all comers and trusts people to participate in good faith–to not co-opt a group and turn it into a chapter of SDS or the Democratic party. Occupy also trusts newcomers to not commit acts of vandalism or do illegal drugs. And we trust that people who vote in the GA care about what is good for the Occupy movement.
Our little group was open to anyone and everyone voting on anything in the GA, even if they’d arrived minutes earlier. A newcomer could’ve walked down the block to the movie theatre and said, “Hey, do you wanna make $20? Come down the street with me and vote the way I tell you to. ” In short, our little group, like the rest of the Occupy movement, has been as naive and trusting as a 14-year-old girl. The predators and parasites have begun to arrive.
I love the Occupy movement. My husband and I have been squeezed by student loan debt, lost our health insurance, and worry about the types of job opportunities available as he completes his degree. We worry about what will happen to Social Security and Medicare–unless we stand up now. We need the Occupy movement to survive and thrive. We will not stand idly by and allow it to be destroyed by those indulging in vandalism, violence, and personality cults.