Interview: Susie Cagle Talks Occupy Oakland

Categories:  Features, Interviews

Susie Cagle was teargassed yesterday, ducked on the sidewalk in an attempt to avoid rubber bullets from police weapons. The cartoonist has spent much of her past week camped out at Occupy Oakland, gathering fodder for an illustrated history of the movement (one you can help fund here, if so inclined), and by sheer presence, becoming a part of the event.

We managed to grab a few moments of her time ahead of this evening’s events to discuss the movement,  objectivity, and what it means to be a graphic journalist.

You were hit with pepper spray yesterday?

I think it was tear gas. I videoing while it was happening [above]. They tried to prevent this peaceful march from going to the police department. And they wanted to protest outside, because there are still 100 protestors locked in that jail. And instead of letting people let off some steam and chant and yell, the police employed some crazy tactics of running to the front of wherever the march was and making a line and blocking the street and pushing the protesters down another road where they would block the line. It was very confusing—it was a march of about 1,000 people, maybe more.

That many people don’t fit on a block. So, to try to maneuver and turn around, to try to push back out is a big production. It was during one of those that they tried to push us back in. There were 1,000 marchers coming up against, maybe, six cops. I’m sure they were terrified, so they called for backup and a dozen police in full riot gear ran in with guns raised and batons swinging, and just let loose wildly against this small street.

They’re tear gassing in there, and it’s all getting trapped by the buildings on either side. I really didn’t want to get shot, so, as soon as I saw them raising the guns, I just dropped to the ground. The whole time I was on the sidewalk, I was pressed up against the building. They started tossing flash grenades and tear gas canisters onto the sidewalk. I was standing with people who had just come out of their business to see what was happening, and they were attacked.

As I crouched down to protect myself, a teargas canister rolled right under my face and exploded.

How are your eyeballs?

I’m okay. Anonymous has medics—“Anon Medics.” And this guy in a gas mask pulled me out of there and washed my face. It was amazing. It’s not something I’d ever encountered before.

This is not dissuading you from going back today, I assume.

No, not at all. That’s what they want. The fact that they specifically told press to leave last night at 7:45 and then after that, there were four more hours of tear gas and grenades… A lot of press did leave, but I think we have an obligation to witness that.

Did you encounter other media after that point?

I did. I saw two news vans around. Normally when the news vans are around, they’ll pop out real quick to get something and then go back in the van. But I ran into a bunch of newspaper reporters. It seemed like they were spending more time in protests and having an easier time being accepted and talking to people. I ran into a bunch of local media who were pretty freaked out. I’ll be curious if they go back. I hope they do.

Are you presenting yourself as media?

Yeah, yeah. It’s a weird thing, but I think that’s the most appropriate thing to do. If I weren’t a member of the press, I would be protesting. But I’m more valuable to the Occupy movement as a member of the press than as a demonstrator.

People think that I’m a protestor, and when you’re out there, you kind of have to look like one, because you have to cover your mouth with scarf for the teargas. So everyone kind of looks the same and is being attacked the same.

So you don’t consider yourself a protestor, since you’re there as media? Is it possible to be both?

I think I’d maybe consider myself an activist-journalist. But I think if I say that I’m a protestor and that I’m explicitly part of this occupation, then that doesn’t give me as much credibility.

You’re throwing any semblance of objectivity out the window.

Totally. But I kind of feel like I already have. I don’t really believe in objectivity anyway, so that’s not really too troubling to me. I was going there for the last two weeks, but I wasn’t sleeping there. I was kind of on the fence about it. I have been working on a piece. My plan was to file my piece this coming Monday and then join the camp.

With what’s happening now, I think I’m more worthwhile to the occupation as somebody who’s working to document it. I think that’s a popular tact amongst the occupation. There are a lot of people doing citizen journalism there.

Is this a comics piece that you’re working on?

Yeah. It’s going to have to be totally different now. It was going to be a five-part piece about how different Occupy Oakland is from the rest of the occupation. When the camp was up, it was very different. They were primarily concerned with creating this functional mini-city, rather than doing focused protests and actions, which is very different than the other ones. They spent more time trying to figure out how to feed everyone and building a kids’ area, and a library and a community garden. That’s what they were spending their time on.

Is your process generally the same as a print journalist? You’re going in and interviewing people?

Mm-hm. I’ve been doing a lot of sketches, the past couple of weeks, so that’s different. I probably won’t use them for the final piece, but they’re character studies. I do sketches and take pictures of things on my phone for reference. In the last day and a half, I haven’t been doing any drawings, because that’s not so realistic out there.

The interviews are largely with protesters? Or are you able to speak with members of the establishment?

I haven’t been able to get in touch with the Oakland police department. Certainly you can’t talk to police while they’re down there—actually, I spoke with one really, really, unusually friendly officer, who gave me a little information on background.

Suspiciously friendly?

No, no. Those are the undercover cops that are in the protest—and there are definitely some of those.

Today I got in contact with Mayor Jean Quan’s office. But they haven’t answered my questions. I’m sure she’s being barraged with hate. I thought if I seemed nice and non-threatening, I could get through. And it seemed to totally work.

Do you tell people that you’re working on a comic when you approach them as a member of the media? Does that decrease the chance of compliance?

I don’t use the word “comics.” I’m very careful about that. I depends on how much time I have to explain it, because I figure that it takes at least 20 seconds to make it make sense, and if I don’t have that time, I should just write down whatever. But if I explain it as, “I’m doing art and a story and I’ll put them together. It’s kind of like comics,” and people are like, “okay.”

But the Bay Area has such a history of underground comics, and there’s a huge overlap between the Occupy movement and self-publishing/zinesters. And I know the people who run Infoshop are down there. I’ve been talking to them. They love comics. And they were excited to hear that it would be a comic.

–Brian Heater

10 Comments to “Interview: Susie Cagle Talks Occupy Oakland”

  1. Ken A. | October 28th, 2011 at 10:57 am

    Be safe, Susie. Your comics are too wonderful for some thug of the 1% to blind you, disable you or lock you up.

  2. Rebecca Rice | October 28th, 2011 at 5:05 pm

    Susie, thank you for documenting, as best you can, what is going on there. If I didn’t have three kids and two mortgages, I’d be Occupying too, and we may yet make it to some marches or other protest stuff in Chicago. Just keep at it, and don’t give up. This is too important.

  3. Glee Violette | October 28th, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Good for you Susie! I’m in my 60s – and protested in the 60’s in pretty much the same political/economic dynamic. We faced National Guard as well as police, and tried to be non-violent while we were getting our heads beaten in, like you. I plan to go join during the day with the Occupy in my city this week. We are gaining momentum! Thank you for being involved – Glee

  4. Eric Bowser | October 29th, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    Thanks for being there. Reminds me of police brutality in the 60’s. I find it very hard to suppress angry feelings wanting to retaliate against them but I know that is the worst thing we can do. I also remember clearly Kent State. I hope this movement continues, grows and remains non-violent on the protesters side. It can bring much needed change.
    It is always amazing how people’s perceptions differ depending on where they get their information. The Fox crowd see’s this so differently than the rest of the world.

  5. Merle Morrigan | October 30th, 2011 at 8:14 pm

    Alright, SUSIE!!
    I am so sorry you got gassed, what a horrifying experience! What a blessing the Anon Medic caught you up and helped you out! Awesome.

    They really don’t understand that when you attack and injure innocent people you galvanize them into action that they might not have considered before. They don’t realize that when they show unreasonable force they just make dedicated folks more entrenched in their cause.

    As a survivor of the Vietnamese War demonstrations of the early seventies in Berkeley, CA I can attest they only make us stronger.

    Thank you, Susie, for carrying on.

    Merle Morrigan

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