Oakland activists transform a city square and wrestle with organizing a movement
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."
The camp supported a wild and unlikely mix of people united in their disenchantment with the status quo — young and old, black and white, housed and homeless, queer and straight, credentialed and uneducated, vegan and omnivorous — and within this developing space, societal barriers seemed to be falling away.
"It's an occupation that transcends what it was initially about," reflected a protester named Miguel. "It's feeding homeless people, and it's giving people a place to sleep."
Protesters didn't rally around demands. "From my understanding, this is a movement of autonomy, and liberation from ... the politics of representation, and the economics of capitalism," said Bryan R., an organizer who helped plan the occupation. "To engage in dialogue with the power by means of demand is to acknowledge their power over us."
All decisions were made by consensus in a General Assembly. The occupation had passed resolutions stating that it didn't back any political parties, supported the Pelican Bay prisoners' hunger strike, and was in solidarity with striking students and workers.
Rodrick Long, a 21-year-old Oakland native who'd been camped at the occupation for two days when I met him, said he felt he was participating in a piece of Oakland's history.
"As far as Oakland goes, I just think we need more unity," he said. "There's a lot of gang violence, and a lot of poverty. A lot of people don't show enough that they care about Oakland. But it's a lot of people here. I didn't expect this many people to come."
Occupy Oakland seemed both serious and playful as it journeyed each day toward fomenting the revolution, or maybe just keeping the camp together, depending on who you asked. A tense General Assembly meeting was reportedly held after the city issued the first eviction notice on Oct. 20, and occupiers vowed to hold their ground. But the somber moment broke up when someone kept randomly shouting "Michael Jackson!" — prompting someone to blast the song "Smooth Criminal" over a loudspeaker, sparking an impromptu dance party before everyone got down to business again.
The occupiers were sculpting a self-governed, non-hierarchical mini society in the heart of Oakland as an affront to Wall Street bankers and capitalism itself — a complicated endeavor, to be sure. This was, after all, a mix of perfect strangers, some with mental-health issues (who'd been failed by the very system the occupation was opposing, several people pointed out to me), striving to coexist in a densely populated public park. Illegally.
There were ups and downs. Mainstream newspapers were running headlines about the occupation's rat problems, television reporters had gotten into tiffs with protesters, and in the hours before I arrived, a man who went by Kali was forced out for starting arguments that eventually came to blows.
The outside world seemed separate from the occupation, though its presence was acutely felt. News vans were parked along the perimeter at all hours of the day, and a live stream sent raw footage directly to the Internet, making the surreal scene feel a bit like a fishbowl.
As night fell, around 150 people congregated in the plaza's amphitheater for the evening's General Assembly, which opened with general announcements. Ellen spoke about organizing actions against foreclosures. Jonathan urged a transition from mega-banks to credit unions. Someone proposed expanding the first aid tent into a free clinic that would operate out of an onsite RV. But just as a woman began describing the struggle of revolutionary youth in Uganda, shouts rang out from somewhere in the thicket of tents. Kali was back. Members of the "safer spaces" committee made a beeline toward him to try and deescalate the conflict, while others milled about in alarm and confusion.
Despite mediators' efforts, Kali went on a rampage, triggering an emergency meeting to determine how best to handle this kind of aggression. Once he departed, however, the encampment's emotional rollercoaster seemed to wind down.
"It's up to us to figure out creatively how to maintain the health of this camp," organizer Louise Michel told me later. "It's really important for people here to figure out how to problem solve ... Everyone has the commitment."
Dialogues had been started to address safety issues — but the city of Oakland was highlighting reports of assaults and sexual harassment as reasons the encampment would not be allowed to stay.
Security volunteers were regularly stationed around the plaza perimeter. Tim Simons began his shift around midnight, pacing the sidewalk and gazing out at the deserted downtown Oakland street while maintaining constant communication with his security crew via walkie-talkie.
"It's been the most intense mixture of people coming together that I've ever seen," reflected Simons, who'd watched the occupation grow since the beginning. "They're camping here because they want this to become a revolutionary political force. The significant question is: How do we project outward from here? Is this going to become more than just a camp?"
He stressed its significance as a takeover of public space, saying it integrated all manner of people whose lives had been impacted by failed economic policies. Simons also acknowledged the anti-police attitude shared by many occupiers. "In Oakland, it's really hard to play this game that the police are on our side," he said. "There's no real illusion here about what role the cops play."
That sentiment wasn't shared by everyone, though. "We're trying to practice a nonviolent response toward police," Mindy Stone, who was staying in a tent at the Occupy Oakland overflow camp at Snow Park, told me. "We want to try to make them feel like they are the 99 percent."
It had been an eventful night. I drifted off to sleep in a borrowed tent, as the banter of people sitting and smoking on park benches floated in.
The next morning was sunny and warm, and the mood of the camp was buoyant. Kitchen volunteers busily prepared food, joking together as they listened to music. Donations flowed in daily from Arizmendi bakery, farmers' markets, and other generous supporters.
In the arts and crafts area, people were painting a banner to urge people to withdraw their money from major banks by Nov. 5, Guy Fawkes Day. A redhead in a flowing silken outfit wound his way through camp with a garbage bag, asking people if they had pocket trash. A self-defense workshop was in swing, its participants partnered up, giggling, as they practiced holds and blocks.
Dallas Holland was tending wheatgrass, bok choy, herbs, and other edibles in a container garden. "I've been overwhelmed with the way the community has come together ... It's amazing to watch this transform into a Mecca of ideas," she said. "People are having meetings and thinking of ways to perpetuate the movement." An Alabama native, Holland graduated from college in 2006 and had been unemployed for a year.
Allen Adams, a 37-year-old Oakland native, told me he'd been sleeping outside regularly since before the occupation. "I quadruple up on the shirts. It gets to you," he said.
He'd had little luck finding work, though he was constantly searching online. With him was Brandy, his well-loved, four-month old pit bull.
"I've been struggling all my life," Adams said. "My dad did, my mom did, my grandmother did. And for what? To have no money." But he said he was amazed and inspired by the occupation. "I like the fact that people can get together and discuss issues. How can we implement programs to do what California has failed to do? It's a big task. We're just working toward betterment. Lasting changes, not just temporary shit."
Michel echoed these goals. "It's really bold, and it's really complex, but no one's ever lived what we're trying to do," she said. "People feel a lot of ownership over what we have here. There's a sense here of people having each other's back. Politically, it's huge."
During my last hour at Occupy Oakland, David Hilliard, a founding member of the Black Panthers, delivered a speech, driving home the point that the occupation should be organized and focused.
"You're here, which is a wonderful thing," Hilliard told the occupiers. "Now we need to have some very basic programs dealing with desires and needs here in Oakland. It can't be abstract. I can assure you, in a very short time, they're going to run you out of here. Put something on paper that can help you address the basic desires — otherwise, you're not going to last long. Get some concrete demands." *