Occupy camps don't create social ills, they showcase them

Occupy Oakland, before police destroyed it, put the messiness of modern cities on display in one place.
Photo by Tim Daw

By Anna Lacey

OPINION When I entered the public square off Broadway and 14th on Oct. 17 -- the site of the Occupy Oakland camp that police violently broke up this week -- I immediately felt dazed by the atmosphere. But rather than seeing the squalor that has been highlighted by city officials and the media, I saw it as a place of real possibilities, particularly from my perspective as a social worker

Surrounded by tall buildings, the square is in the heart of downtown Oakland. It felt like I was in a commune of sorts. Walking through the rows of tents, I found myself amidst a sea of commotion; there were children of different ethnicities playing, a crowd was listening to some guy on a microphone talking about political freedom, a marching band was performing, and lines of people were dishing out and receiving free food. The energy in the air was almost tangible.

The police raided the square Monday night, October 24th, arguing that the occupiers were dangerous or directionless substance abusers. They had also been complaining about a rat infestation and other problems and about the camp being a magnet for homeless people. But when I visited the camp several times before it was raided, there were two important points that struck me about what has really been happening in Oakland’s occupation.

First: The occupation did not create new social problems. Instead, the movement has been making existing problems visible. Oakland is a city with an overwhelming crime problem and serious financial woes, a city known by many as “Oaksterdam” because of its many marijuana dispensaries as well as the presence of weed smokers on the streets. It’s a city with rats, gangs, unemployment, and school closures. Existing social problems have become more visible because people have congregated together, largely because they were sick of suffering from social ills in silence and isolation.

It should also be pointed out that the homeless population was in the square before the occupation. Yet only now are they able to receive free healthcare, learn about available social services, and enjoy respite from police harassment. The police were not allowed in the square for two weeks, and participants in the movement voiced extreme pride of the “liberated space.” As one organizer put it, “Here in Oakland we have a history that makes us unable to dialogue with the police. Occupy Oakland is unique due to the legacy of the Oscar Grant movement; we know the police are not on our side.”

It does seem quite clear that, instead of trying to resolve the problems being brought to light in the square, the police would prefer the protesters remain isolated from each other, so as not to bring attention to existing social problems. I suppose a gang of police in riot gear followed by the terrorizing and arrests of almost 100 peaceful organizers is easier, thanks to our flawed governmental system, than responding to the social issues put forth by the public.

Second: The occupation was never a party zone. Quite the opposite, for two weeks the participants functioned as an organized political and social union. By day, various presenters lectured the crowds on such things as the rights and responsibilities of political beings. One evening, several youth spoke of their hopes and dreams, saying things like, “I want to be the future of America, but I can’t if there’s no money to fund my school.”

Dusk would mark the start of the nightly General Assembly, a sort of lengthy debate giving all the opportunity to make propositions to influence the movement. The assembly would last until after midnight, and a 90 percent majority of votes was needed to pass any given proposition. One evening, the General Assembly closed with everyone chanting, “This isn’t Burning Man,” implying the seriousness of the movement and the need to leave the party in the desert.

At the same time, the square was far from utopian. There were a couple of fights, which were deescalated quickly. Another key issue remains how to manage the movement’s ethos of equality while still moving in a unified direction. However, as one organizer put it, “Our power is in the lack of a leader, and our diversity is a blessing. The media doesn’t know how to control the masses.” There are discussions of new occupations to bring attention not only to the recent jailing of many protestors but also to school closures, police brutality, prison hunger strikes, foreclosures, and other social and political injustices.

Obviously, the Occupy Oakland that I experienced was very different than what the media and police accounts would have you believe. I wish I could tell you to come and judge for your self, but unfortunately there is no longer any one identified place to congregate. Instead, following Monday night’s raid and Tuesday’s squirmishes, many involved in the movement have been scattered out on the streets, forced to defend themselves from the police without the sanctuary of a peaceful and supportive liberated space.

Snow Park, along Lake Merritt, originally an extension of the original camp, is currently one meeting place for those involved in the movement. While I think the police’s senseless and heartless behavior has, at least for the time being, destroyed much of the beauty taking place in Occupy Oakland, I still urge you to lend your support. As one occupier told me, “Be a part of the process. It’s not perfect. Then again, if it was so easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.”

Anna Lacey is MSW trainee and therapist with La Clínica de la Raza who lives in Oakland and is working on her master’s in social work at UC Berkeley