Boilerplate End of Year Piece: The Four Factors that Made Occupy Oakland the Occupy Game Changer

Posted on December 29, 2011

7


People like End of Year retrospectives. So here’s mine on Occupy Oakland, highlighting what I think were the game-changing features of the movement that have made it arguably, and according to many, the vanguard of nation-wide Occupy.

The ‘Open’ Camp: From the evening of October 10, the camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza/Oscar Grant Plaza was open to all who wanted to join. Donated tents assured that the homeless and poor had an equal shot as their camping aficionado counterparts up the class chain to occupy. Over time the open nature of the camp was at once the most challenging, and most vibrant aspect of the camp. The open nature of the camp also made it attractive to residents of surrounding communities; even if they didn’t camp, the fact that the diversity of camp dwellers was so distinct and unusual, encouraged the curious to hang out at the margins, where they inevitably engaged in often life-changing discussions, heated arguments, and heart to heart truth-seeking. No observer who’d encountered the camp could leave without feeling as if they’d just experienced something exceptional and unique. I think this led to the vanguard leadership the camp quickly assumed.

The Revolutionary Kitchen: As the camp grew, a new dynamic occurred within one of the nascent and ancillary elements. Food, of course, was important, but unlike Occupy Wall Street and other occupies, which made a national meme out of delivered pizza, Occupy Oakland almost immediately began cooking its own food with a steady, and soon, unceasing, supply of provisions. Within days, the kitchen committee had made the decision to cook 24 hours a day, or as close to that ideal as possible.

The effect that this had on the camp and surrounding community is hard to exaggerate. Over the next weeks, dozens, perhaps hundreds of people who never slept at the camp, and may never have had any interaction with it whatsoever, were invited to enjoy a [often] delicious meal and share a conversation with an eclectic mix of the city’s politicizing, political and apolitical at all hours of the day and night. The sense of entering a new phase of social and political development–not seen, if ever, for decades–was palpable and intoxicating.

Moreover, as many have observed, the kitchen was not just a charity soup kitchen, nor even similar to the admirable work of Food not Bombs. The open camp may have perhaps acted as a spore-like meme–a matrix that affected the growth of everything connected to it, stressing: openness, lateral gravity, and decentralized planning. The staff varied from day to day, as did the type of food, and even the configuration of the kitchen and its also central dishwashing station—so that from one day to the next, it was a completely different entity. Sharing the cooking, the meal and the community growing around it, as well as the cleaning up created a sense of spiritual fulfillment—yes, as hokey as it sounds—that went far beyond politics of any kind. On more than one night I was lost washing dishes for hours in the luke warm water—melting into the conversation, music, street sounds, lights, and mingling humanity around me. Like many, I had to be forced out of the dishwashing station to make warm for new people. Because the sensation was so singular and fulfilling.

No Negotiations with Police/City: Novel structural elements like the kitchen were a product of the binding and relentless ban on cooperation with the city and police. Its likely no kitchen at all would have been possible from negotiations with police and the city, because city codes arbitrarily outlaw open flame cooking in Frank Ogawa plaza, though its legal in every other park in the city. Whenever the city tried to co-opt Occupiers with emissaries from Quan-related groups, they found it nearly impossible to herd them back into meetings with Quan, regardless of whatever status they had. And all such meetings had with the city surreptitiously posing as official Occupy Oakland encounters were heartily condemned by the General Assembly with a quickness. Police entering and exiting the camp at will wouldn’t have had much problem arresting campers and confiscating items from campers, harassing them with a withering and daily barrage of petty ordinances—the same kind of legal hounding that actual homeless people face every day and which drives them from one place to another.

The ban on police from the camp created an immediate hardship. But like so many other hardships created by structure of the camp, it was also a hidden blessing. Those who had never considered their interpersonal relationships as being products of political paradigms were forced to do some soul searching about how to deal with the mildly and radically problematic among them–as well as mental illness, class antagonisms, sexism, racism and just about every other societal fault that people are prevented from experiencing at levels of crisis by a reliance on police. Those who were used to only theorizing about such ideas were forced to put them into action, not just with like-minded people, but with people from radically different backgrounds.

It was difficult, but it also inculcated a new perspective on behalf of many, who, for the first time, perhaps, began to question all aspects of their social relationships.

The Hybrid Autonomous/GA Action Model: As cranky fixture Gerald bellowed last night on the stage, the GA, despite being every bit the often petty bread and circuses political theater of reputation, is the life’s blood of the Occupy movements. The GA represents the distinction between top down political and non-profit organizing and a truly open structure. It’s the one forum where all Machiavellianism, secrecy, invisible leadership and all the rest are forced to come to some accounting. I was there the first day, and no one took the rally at then Frank Ogawa Plaza seriously until the GA began. The investment of thought and effort necessary to come to decision making, creates and created emotional investment. And it continues to bring people back to run their own affairs in the intersecting shadows of Clorox, the Tribune building and City Hall, constantly making use of the political space liberated by this unprecedented movement which would, with no further political use, have devolved back into the greatest barrier that exists between Federal Building employees and 12th street BART entrances.

The GA has been responsible for two historic mass mobilizations, the likes of which have not been seen in the Bay Area for at least a decade, if not longer. And those actions, for several weeks, filled the plaza with new faces and energy—many people who hadn’t been a part of Occupy Oakland before, and didn’t become members afterward, but have and will continue to identify with the group, and come out for the big actions.

But despite all the complaints about the rigid and confining GA, Occupy Oakland has been constantly invigorated and amplified by autonomous actions as well; in the first weeks, marches occurred almost daily, unsanctioned by city or group, bringing attention to everything from prisoner’s rights, police violence, lack of education funding, queer issues and  anti-patriarchy. After the first camp raid, impromptu street demonstrations were common, with hundreds, if not thousands, marching through the streets to the jail at 7th and Broadway, jamming the streets, with the police helpless to do anything but direct traffic for the protesters. And when it was time to replant the camp after the first and second raid, no one made a proposal to tear down the fence; but it did happen.

And the first two campers who set down their tents didn’t wait for a proposal to reoccupy OGP. They set down and cajoled and advocated for the birth of the second camp, without support or even the faintest assurance that their efforts would bear fruit. Thanks to them and those that joined them, Occupy Oakland rose up again within a number of hours—though things could have very well ended there, or with a final hurrah at the General Strike and Port Closure of November 2nd.

Since then, autonomous actions, despite failures, have kept the idea of occupation alive in the TreeSit and Snowpark; on the Lake with Aquapy and at  18th & Linden; with Causa Justa at 10th and Mandela and at 20th & Mandela. The Tree Sit, the Interfaith Vigil and the 247OGP, in fact, are arguably responsible for the continuing Occupation–the foot hold on the political space opened up in the plaza may have died in the Winter’s chill otherwise. Whenever there are arrests at an Occupy action, such as today’s at the 10th and Mandela house, activists have rallied around the plaza—still occupied, even without tents—as their spiritual and tactical base of operations, and even simply to console one another after a brutal day. Though vigilers have lacked support, they haven’t need it, or permission to continue, either.

But its important to note, as many vigilers argue, the 247 and Interfaith would’ve had a much harder time, if not for the vigil approved by the GA, which remains today in the form of a Tipi and information table at the plaza, sustained by the tireless Oakland Occupy Legal committee.

Like an ecosystem, all of these factors have come together to make Occupy Oakland a flexible, vibrant and die-hard organization.

There’s not much else to say this year. Its cold out, and we’re getting our asses kicked this week, and some of us are at a low ebb and wondering where to go from here and how much of our lives to invest in that trajectory. But we’ll be back, as they say.

Update:

Just an hour or so after I wrote this, the occupiers from the 10th and Mandela house who were arrested earlier today, and their supporters, rallied back to the camp, where they’ve apparently founded a new tree sit in the very same tree where the old one was constructed. There’s also apparently some tents set up underneath. Again, the power of autonomous action keeps giving this movement wings, even when all seems lost.  Here’s a photo from @BellaEiko

Update 2:

I’ve also started a twitter list of Occupy Activists who also Tweet. I hope that it will be useful to people who want to know what’s going on in various occupations around Occupy Oakland, and, as always,  in the plaza itself. With a talented group like this, actually experiencing events as they happen, and with the tools of the internet at their disposal, there really is no point in relying on–or letting–journalists tell our stories for us. We can do the job faster and more accurately and with our biases and motivations in the clear and as obvious as anyone can imagine.

Also; here’s a photo gallery of some of the photos I took this year thru camp and un-camp.