Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

Why I Protest: Dr. Arthur Chen of Oakland, Calif.

A family physician, Dr. Arthur Chen, 60, was an unusual addition to the counterculture of the Occupy Oakland movement. But the Connecticut-born Oakland resident who works in the city's Chinatown had a cause — health care reform — and the protests gave him a forum. He spoke to TIME's Jason Motlagh:

TIME: What was the event that precipitated your activism? And what made it personal?
Arthur Chen:
I'm part of that 99%, proud to say, so it's very relevant. And then in addition to that ... I've been seeing patients that are low-income impacted, many of them unemployed, and then struggling for survival. They're immigrants, and so I've seen the negative impacts in their lives from day to day. And I've seen uninsured patients who have to struggle with the recommendations that I make because of whether or not they can afford it. So it's been real to me on a personal level, and looking at the population as a whole, looking at the patients that I see, and just knowing intellectually that there's flaws in our current system. We're taking capitalism and its negative sides head on, which I think is essential to a democracy. And hopefully preserve the positive side of capitalism, because I'm not totally against capitalism; I just think at this point it's probably out of control.

How did you go about participating in the protests?
It was really hearing it in the news and hearing it through radio announcements — they're just totally on top of that. Democracy Now, if you're familiar with Amy Goodman. And so they were openly publicizing it and explaining it. So it was really helpful, and that prompted me to feel, okay, this is the moment, and you really have to participate and you have to take time off and be there in solidarity with this and, you know, help have representation. And then as a person of color, certainly here in Oakland, we have such a diverse population, but it's really important for people to see that the whole spectrum of our demographics is there, and feeling the need to really participate and be counted.

How did protests in other parts of the world affect, influence, or inspire you?
The Arab Spring, very inspiring. Just to have seen what had happened in Tahrir Square and Tunisia and the start of things. And that it was really young people who played a significant role in that. All of that activity, the demonstrations in London around students outraged about an increase in tuitions, and all of this activity in Wisconsin, where people really spoke out against the governor, who really wanted to strip labor of its rights at that time, of collective bargaining. It's a combination of all of those things, and all of them, I think, again, representative about the growing resentment of the direction that our government is going, tax and other policies that favor the rich and don't really allow for an even spread of the resources to address our more needy populations.

What was the funniest thing you saw during the protests?
Well, it really wasn't the funniest thing, but it made me think about a new generation. On the day of the general strike, when they started having speakers line up at the podium, right there at 14th and Broadway, one of the announcers said, We're going to start speaking, and you're going to hear a lot of different views today. And you're going to hear some things that you may totally disagree with. And I chuckled a little bit, and then I thought, this generation is about inclusiveness and transparency. It was very moving, because I thought of previous demonstrations and big rallies where I know how controlled the speakers list is. And then in this particular case, they were just going the opposite direction and saying everyone's going to get a chance to speak. We aren't screening your point of view. That goes in line with the general assemblies, because I sat through a couple of those, and the way in which they're conducted, the inclusiveness, the way in which they ask us to sit down in groups with a few people around you. It's a different approach: it's horizontal. And so, it wasn't funny, but it made me smile.

What's an image of the protest you remember well?
The string people. They were expressing clearly the anguish and the pain of having to go through this economic downturn, but they were doing it with about four or five people caught up and tangled in string and rope.

What was the most memorable day of the protests in personal terms for you?
The most memorable day was when the camp was dismantled [which took place around 5 a.m. on Nov. 14, 2011]. That day around 8:30 a.m. or so, I decided to swing by City Hall [outside which the protesters were camped]. I wasn't seeing patients that morning; I was going to do some administrative work. So I swung by, and I walked out. I had to get past a police barrier. And I just told an officer, Look, I have a meeting over in this other building in the rotunda, where I knew people, and he let me through. And so I walked by, and it was like walking by a graveyard. It was so disheartening to see just nobody there. And I had been there before, and it was vibrant and alive, and there were people who were energized and feeling really positive about making a statement. And so it was disheartening; the mood was really somber. There was nobody there. Then I heard helicopters flying overhead. And then I slipped into a coffee shop, just so I could stay out of the range of the officer that had let me by — and went in to just buy a roll, and they were totally empty. During that time I saw a battalion of police marching by — there were about 20 or 25 of them. And it just sent a chill down my spine, of what things had amounted to. A peaceful, nonviolent protest around the economic conditions, and what are the causes of that, and here we had folks just cleared out and arrested, and now we had an oppressive-looking police tactical squad coming in. That was probably my worst day.