Occupy the Trauma – still struggling with PTSD years after Occupy Oakland

By Fallen Flower

I was doing okay five years ago. I had steady employment as a teacher, and was training to start a new job when the shutdown of Occupy Oakland happened, and some high-born roommates in my co-op insisted that I join their group at the protest that day.

I just moved in, and hadn’t told my roommates about my past: That I had grown up in low-income housing and had spent nearly a year homeless as a teenager. Sure I’d made it through college and must have, but I was still struggling every day to create a sense of personal safety in my life.

One of the roommates, a Yale graduate, sat down next to me a few hours after the Occupy shutdown, and told me if I didn’t got down to protest it, I was “part of the problem,” that I would regret it years later. She was quite persistent, and not willing to let it go until I agreed to go with her.

At the protest, we met up with other roommates, and after enduring a round of teargas and flash bang grenades, they all left. One of them asked if I was coming with them as they headed to BART, but my brain wasn’t able to make sense of his words. I wandered around the mayhem for hours after that, trying to regain my bearings, to regain my sense of reality.

In the five years since that night, I’ve dealt with severe PTSD, such as anxiety attacks, flashbacks, and suddenly going into shock. I tried going back to work as a teacher after the incident, but for the first time ever, I emotionally broke down in the classroom and I haven’t been able to face a classroom of students since. Something in me broke that night. I’ve tried holding down other jobs, but can’t keep them for long, as my anxiety tends to surface in some way employers aren’t cool with. One boss for example had a habit of grabbing people’s shoulders from behind and shaking them. Another boss became distrustful of me after I turned down an offer to join him and a local police chief for dinner.

An irrational side of me blames my former housemates for my PTSD. But I know it’s not their fault. Sure, I was bullied into going down to the protest that day. But who could have guessed the police would have turned Oakland into a firestorm? The things that happened that night were staged, I believe, with the intent to traumatize people. It is crazy-making to have fireworks shot at your head. Or lead-filled beanbags. Or tear gas. Other cities use pepper spray, but (at least in 2011) Oakland was the only city in the country using actual tear gas, even though it’s known to contain chemicals that specifically harm women and can lead to mischarges, birth defeats, and reproductive problems.

Flashbacks from that night haunt me everyday. I get the shakes. My guts tense up. Sometimes I vomit. A flashback hit me on the subway the other day and I vomited on the empty seat next to me.

The police turned Oakland into a hell-scape. I saw an elderly black man fall to the ground covered in his own pee, disoriented and humiliated as the yellow gas wafted all around. I saw a young blond man on the ground after he got hit in the head by one of the police projectiles. I later learned he was Scott Olsen, a military vet who had served 2 tours of duty in Iraq only to come back and get his head knocked in. Where I was standing that night, it looked like blood was dripping from Mr. Olsen’s eye sockets.

According to information released a few months later (see below), the shutdown of Occupy camps around the country was a coordinated effort between the FBI and big banks. That was why the shutdowns were almost simultaneous across the country, rather than different cities shutting down camps at their own rates, or not shutting their camps down at all. The banks used the police to harm and terrorize American citizens. How can I face a classroom of students after what I’ve seen? What do I say to them about the society in which they live?

I’m not in touch with my old roommates anymore, but if I were, I wish I’d told them to fuck off that night, rather than letting myself get bullied into going so that shutdown protest. I wish I had set better boundaries. Maybe they also got traumatized. But all of them had families to rely on and moneyed support networks, which helped them to emotionally recover afterwards, sending them on expensive vacations, helping them talk through their feelings, paying for their therapy and yoga classes. As for me, I’m a kite without a string. I didn’t have the network or money to recover, to build my life back.

If there is one thing I want people to know: If someone isn’t emotionally ready to go to a protest, don’t twist their arm. Sure, they may seem like they have the same past and support network as you, but don’t assume. Also, don’t pull someone into a protest unless you are ready to be there for them afterwards, and to keep an eye on their healing. I felt completely abandoned by my roommates, at the protest and after, as they continued to orate about the issues, rather than checking in in a meaningful way to see if everyone was really okay. This can create a cycle of trauma in which, directs people away from recovering, people start to politically bully others.

Later, when I tried to talk to the woman who pressured me into going to the protest, she shut me down as I tried to talk about my emotions and showed me video footage of a horrific New Orleans City Council Meeting she’d experienced in which the police tasered members of the public who were attempting to speak about a shady gentrification. I felt for her, having experienced such an awful moment of state violence—I could hear her voice screaming in the video as a reverend was being tasered in city hall—but her bitterness about that event, and about the futility of the eventual loss of all those people’s homes, this made it hard for her to hear me as I tried to voice my pain. I’m sure my bitterness and PTSD after the OO shutdown likewise made it hard for me to hear others. Perhaps this is how oppression works: a cycle of one heart being calcified after another.

Now our nation is in a state of dire poverty, with more than 50% of Americans holding less than $1000 to their names. The big banks have continued to do the same type of risky lending that caused the housing crisis, and schools, hospitals, and all social services are being gutted and made private. Occupy didn’t change anything for the American poor, and the middle class has vanished. Many of us who tried to stop this downward spiral five years ago are still dealing with the trauma dealt to us in a rigged game played by corporations under the guise of the state. What do we do with al this hurt when more just keeps on coming?

Learn more about the FBI & big bank coordination of the Occupy shutdowns: www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/29/fbi-coordinated-crackdown-occupy