What are the lessons from the conflicts of the latest Occupy Oakland action?
After a chaotic day of marches and confrontations between police and protesters Jan 28, I was arrested along with about 400 others who were trapped by police in front of the downtown Oakland YMCA. Seven of us were journalists.
The goal of the march was to take over an abandoned building — an the vacant Kaiser Convention Center, a city-owned building that's been closed since 2005, was a prime target.
I have not yet been able to retrieve my property, including my recorder and notebook, which is being held by the Oakland Police Department. What follows is a pieced-together account and a perspective on what the events of Jan. 28.
I spend 20 hours behind bars, and missed the later parts of the action. But I was able to observe what happened in jail and make some sense of what happened.
Occupy people are constantly debating tactics and goals, and for many, the idea of occupying a vacant building made sense. When Occupy Oakland had a camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, also known as Oscar Grant Plaza, and commonly shortened to OGP, it created a strong community. That community bridged divides between the homeless and the housed, between students and labor organizers, and between Oakland residents of different races, genders and levels of ability in an unprecedented fashion.
The camp had a kitchen that fed hundreds of people everyday and a network of shared tents and blankets which welcomed in hundreds who otherwise would have slept on the streets, often feeling isolated from other residents of their city and made to feel inferior.
The camp was repeatedly raided, Occupiers were tear gassed and shot with rubber bullets, and when OGP was cleared out, the community no longer had a home. And the police started that violence.
That was the practical reason for wanting to occupy a vacant building: to have a social center for Occupy Oakland.
Of course, there are other reasons. There's the question that many squatters and homeless advocacy groups have been making for decades: why let buildings lie vacant while people freeze on the street?
Remember: The building that Occupy wanted to occupy is public property, and right now nobody is using if for anything.
In one exchange in jail, a guard asked a protester why the activists thought they had the right to take over a vacant building. "I mean, it's not yours," he insisted. The protester replied that many vacant buildings are government-owned and therefore public.
"So it's the government's," the cop said.
"But I pay taxes," the protester responded.
"Me too!" replied the cop. "It's mine!"
"It's both of ours," smiled the protester. "It's all of ours."
That's what made the convention center action such a clear and easy political decision.
A lot of people in Occupy would go further, saying that at a time of a severe housing crisis, it's perfectly legitimate to take over privately owned buildings that are sitting there vacant. It's part of the central argument of Occupy — that corporations and the rich unfairly own and continue to acquire much more wealth than the majority of people. For many people, owning a vacant building and doing nothing with it, while hundreds freeze on the streets, is a crime itself.
UP AGAINST THE COPS
Then there's the question of the police -- and violence.
The word "nonviolent" has a specific meaning in the history of political movements. Martin Luther King Jr. defined it in his essay "The Meaning of Non-Violence": "If you are hit you must not hit back; you must rise to the heights of being able to accept blows without retaliating ... But it also means that you are constantly moving to the point where you refuse to hate your enemy. You are constantly moving to the point where you love your enemy."