No sooner had I arrived at downtown Oakland's Frank H. Ogawa Plaza — christened Oscar Grant Plaza by the activists who have established the Occupy Oakland encampment there –than the police showed up.
It was Oct. 18, and the ever-evolving occupation had been going strong for eight days. Oakland City Hall served as a backdrop for the bustling tent village, and the plaza steps were adorned with banners. "Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza," one proclaimed. "This is an occupation. We have not asked for permission. We do not allow the police. You are entering a LIBERATED SPACE."
By press time, a standoff between Oakland police and the 300 to 400 occupiers hadn't yet occurred, though a clash seemed imminent. City government had declared the autonomous village illegal and issued several eviction notices, citing health and safety concerns, while occupiers had made clear their intentions to stay put.
Around 5 p.m. on Oct. 18, two cops appeared at the camp. They weren't in uniform, but black polo shirts emblazoned with the words "Tactical Negotiator." Protesters immediately surrounded them, a customary response to police presence since the encampment was raised. The police said they'd come to "facilitate" a march scheduled to depart from the camp — but the protesters demurred. Occupy Oakland's General Assembly had not consented to this, they replied.
The impasse didn't last long, because a group of about 50 tore into the intersection and headed up Broadway. The radical queer march had commenced. "We're here! We're queer!" They chanted. "Tax the banks and eat the rich!" Many donned fabulous costumes, and one skinny person clad in form-fitting leopard print carried a sign showing a unicorn bursting from a cage, with the words, "It's time to break free."
As the march passed Wells Fargo and Chase, a dozen police vehicles trailed slowly behind, occasionally sounding sirens. Apparently, this was what they'd meant by "facilitating."
Despite the cat-and-mouse with the cops, the nonviolent demonstration concluded without incident. Protesters returned, flushed and energized, to home base — Occupy Oakland, a vortex of radical defiance against the ills of capitalism that had materialized Oct. 10 and showed no signs of fading. Intrigued, I decided to spend 24 hours there documenting it.
The camp encompassed a lively blend of projects that seemed to have materialized organically. There was a kitchen serving free food, a first aid tent, a media tent where one could power a laptop by bicycle, a free school named for police shooting victim Raheim Brown, an informational booth with stacks of radical literature, a container garden, portable toilets, an arts and crafts space, and a kids' area. Committees had been set up to tackle safety, sanitation, finances, events, and other duties, replete with color-coded armbands. Regular workshops, political discussions, teach-ins, lectures from notable speakers, and live music performances had all been arranged. Taking it all in, a woman with long gray hair exclaimed, "The '60s were never this organized!"
Occupy Oakland's experimental community mushroomed up as part of the wave of encampments established in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, part of a nationwide movement that has captured the public's imagination and reinvigorated the left.
"We are reclaiming public space to use as a forum for the people to come together, meet one another, listen to each other, and build power for ourselves," read a statement on the Occupy Oakland website. "[It] is more than just a speak-out or a camp out. The purpose of our gathering here is to plan actions, to mobilize real resistance, to defend ourselves from the economic and physical war that is being waged against our communities."