Of Farming, Cloud Communities and Issue-Driven Occupation: A Model for Occupy 2.0

Posted on May 19, 2012

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Part 1: to plant, you must supplant

On an overcast and damp Earth Day 2012, a small but boisterous group of activists made their way to a rusting gate off of San Pablo Avenue, at the Berkeley-Albany border. Led by a marching band, carrying a shiny red soil tiller and trailers full of tools, the group cut the modest chains holding the gate closed, opening a mostly overlooked and forgotten ex-urb continuum of wild-life and unspoiled soil to the world beyond. This was the first breath of life of the Gill Tract Occupation, also known as Occu-Farm.

Activists got to work quickly, pulling up the tender mustard weeds and tilling the soil in ascending northward rows. But only minutes into the labor, just a dozen feet into the first row, the new farmers inadvertently upturned a writhing nest of baby rodents from the earth. The translucent pink forms were smaller than the space between nail and index finger joint, as naked and exposed as a living thing could be. A debate ensued on how to handle the infant creatures; it was clear their mother would most likely not come back for them now, nor could she in the turned earth that had been her nest. The only valid question was where to put them and how to think about what they had done. There was an essential and somewhat harsh truth in the dirt; to plant something, you must supplant what was there before.

There is a significant tenacious and inventive ex-urban ecosystem that has grown in the confines of the overgrown and blighted Gill Tract over the decades as Berkeley and Albany evolved from suburban communities to an urban archipelago, conjoined by San Pablo Avenue with Oakland; this episode was not the last unfortunate encounter with it. The tract itself is the last acreage of farmable high-grade soil in the area, bequeathed to UC to benefit agricultural education in days when the system of public universities was more than simply a REIT for the governor’s cronies and benefactors. A colony of deer inhabit the southern end of the tract, while wild turkey range far beyond the Tract itself, to the sidewalks and asphalt of Solano and San Pablo Avenues. Almost immediately an infant deer was left behind by a frightened mother, and a handful of turkey’s eggs was also unfortunately separated from its nest.

Despite the initial unfortunate encounters, farmers soon got the hang of co-existence. A “turkey corridor” was created as a no go zone. Occupiers were advised to leave deer areas in peace, and the southwest area became a kind of wild-life preserve. Those farmers that stayed to work on the farm and learned to live within the limits of this new ecosystem were treated to an ultimately peaceful co-existence with a nesting wild turkey hen that birthed her young in the last days of the Farm. The deer returned to the area and stayed, despite being under quasi-military siege by UC police.

This at first unfortunate collision with the native ecosystem serves as an instructive metaphor for the narrative of the Occupy movement as it moves into a possible second phase represented by GTO. Though firmly in the Occupy tradition of actions, the Gill Tract was from its start distinct from those that had preceded it. Planned in advance and in relative secret, the occupation was the work of a self-selecting group of organizers who had met through the loose East Bay Occupy and activist network.

Nurtured in secret, the group was relatively horizontal internally, but it actively eschewed the open ideology that created the initial excitement around an ideal popular movement at Zuccoti Park. GTO was relatively successful where other occupations in the past months had failed. But like its predecessors, it shared a similar life arc: a group of activists started out with a set of principles based on broad and only tangentially related goals. Some were protesting the austerity-obsessed Regents growing unaccountability to the state and students, and its emergence as a real estate broker using public land and funds. Others were advocates of urban farming, food-justice, and permaculture trying to create a symbolic kick-start and encourage other people to likewise take under-used tracts in their community. While some in the group had been at work on liberating the Tract from the inept strangle-hold of UC for over a decade, others had never heard of it at all before planning for the action began. And then there were the veterans of the first wave Occupations in San Francisco and Oakland, now bereft of a camp, and looking for a place to implement a powerful tactic and creator of community.

These various political interpretations of the same plot of land coalesced into one campaign with a unified goal—pressuring the Regents into using the land productively for farming, while simultaneously preventing the Regents from selling adjacent property to corporate behemoth Whole Foods. The Farmers shared another unifying idea—a rejection of the dialogue driven democratic-aligned mainstream politics that have impeded change of any kind for decades. Occupation, the unpermitted use of the commons for political goals was their unanimous answer. Once the act of ‘unlawful assembly’ was ignited, however, the potent intersection of local government propaganda, police repression, community interaction, expanding membership and blind luck create trajectories that no one could foresee. The synergistic outcome is something more, and perhaps less controllable and ultimately directed, as the one foreseen in the original goal.

GTO upset the previous scheme of things. Oscar Grant Plaza, its predecessor, had as well, shaking up a helter-skelter ecosystem composed of vast wealth disparities: homelessness juxtaposed with luxury condo-living; hunger side by side with opulent dining; curb-side drug and alcohol abuse in front of high-priced alcoholism and up-scale recreational-pharma in uptown’s bars and night clubs. Occupation does displace, it does halt, it can damage; but its intentionality, its open process, its not profit-driven focus is the obvious alternative to the rapacious and constant transformation that creates blight out of fecund expanses like the Gill Tract.

The Gill Tract Occupation went even further, juxtaposed as it was with the last desperate attempt of Occupy Oakland to reclaim the commons on May Day. While an ever-shrinking, but committed May Day Assembly met throughout the week in downtown, some of its previously most active members migrated up the San Pablo corridor, spending increasing amounts of time at GTO. Oakland’s Downtown May Day convergence, though as well-attended and chaotically business-halting as one could hope for, given the circumstances, failed miserably at re-establishing a public occupation. In the aftermath, there were serious public questions from Occupy Oakland’s most committed proponents about the viability of another Oakland occupation.

That night of May first and throughout the next day and week, many Occupy Oakland activists joined their comrades at the Gill Tract. While there had never been any intention of over-shadowing its partner to the North, GTO had effectively, and perhaps reluctantly, turned the last shovel full of dirt on the hopes of re-occupying the commons under the rubric of Occupy 1.0.

Part 2: intentional and found communities come to life beneath a supermoon

On its first night, the Farm formed a social nucleus in the center of the tract, consisting of a large tent for the dozen or so people who would be staying the night and farming throughout the next day. Tables for an abundance of donated food were situated nearby–broad uprooted ganglia of mustard weeds served as barriers, wind protection, organic arm-chairs. As enumerated at that night’s first meeting, the camp itself would be the utilitarian servant to the Farm, to exist only so long as it was helpful and productive to the camp itself.

During the next days as the cultivated area expanded, however, so did the social milieu that supported it. A kitchen committee formed; the food tables became a food preparation area and moved southward at the entrance of the Farm, housed in an easy-up and then two, a familiar dish-washing area was added to clean donated cooking and dish ware. The kitchen committee—animated by Occupy Oakland food justice advocates—became the heart of the camp, its most consistently staffed and amplified working group. Next came the “LadyBug Patch”, a children’s garden bottom-lined by many of the same Occupiers that had created the “Children’s Village” at OGP.  From there, a culture and society emerged, fed by those who slept at the camp, and farmed and did other support during the day, and buttressed by daily morning work meetings in which the day’s struggles were diagramed and bottom-lined.

The farm work itself was an indispensable part of this community building process in a way that less-concrete political labor may not have been able to duplicate. Farmers worked opposite one another on the rows, sharing tips, knowledge, water, compost and political insights in the hot Spring sun: some of these people were committed activists, some had never attended a demonstration; some had extensive farming experience, and some had none; some were polyamorous nomads, others were conventional families firmly planted in the community; some were bottom-liners seeing out their political vision, others had fled to the Farm to escape the harsher withering political battles of Oakland.

Though the tract itself was surrounded on two sides by heavy traffic and not far from a freeway, being in the center of the cultivated area, digging into the dirt and nestling the starts, one could really be convinced they were long miles from the city in an idealic commune. Farmers and visitors did not have to be urged to do work; they took ownership of their tasks and of their product. The farm indeed seemed like a magical place, where a “supermoon”, the largest and closest of the year, filled the night sky in its middle age. With all of this, it was not difficult for Farmers and their supporters to become emotionally invested in their struggle, in their crops, and in the well-being of their Occupation.

The focus on production, and a solid, identifiable goal, allowed farmers to escape some of the antagonisms generated by locals in other occupations. In the first place, many neighbors had been sick of fighting with UC about the eye-sore in their community for years. Early on, I took on the task of clearing weeds on the outside of the fence. I was approached by at least a dozen neighbors over the next few days, thanking me for taking care of the blighted looking property. UC uses only a small portion of the available land, leaving the rest fallow and overgrown, hemmed in by a rotting and rusted hulk of a chain-link fence.

Other members of the community had been trying to get UC to share the land for sustainable agricultural projects for years, only to run up against the Regents preference for enriching corporations over the communities their growing real estate empire abuts. Still others resented the intrusion of UC into their daily lives; one neighbor I talked to was bitter about the large population that UC had inserted into his community, and the fact that the Regents pay no property taxes.

It was not surprising then, that some of the bottom-liners were, in fact, community residents, living just a block or two from the area. But the Farm would have been quite a different milieu if it had not been for the intact community that inhabited it from the start. A distinct children’s garden, for example, had not been part of the original vision for the Farm, and it’s quite likely that it would not have emerged organically. It was rather, an artifact from the OGP Occupation, transplanted thematically to provide some protection and visibility for the permaculture garden on the West side of the farm which was slated for the UC’s corn research in May.

The “Lady Bug Patch” did some of the same heavy-lifting in community outreach and narrative-writing. The Farm was always envisioned as being family friendly, but nothing could have been as effective in that regard as creating a mini-farm in which children and their parents would have undisputed ownership over, and which was highly visible from the elementary school and street.

Organic community buy-in produced a beneficial side-effect at Albany City Hall, just a stone’s throw from the last cultivated row on the Farm on San Pablo Avenue. Without lobbying, and with no sacrifice of principles, city council members threw their lot in with activists, at least symbolically, by promising to find a way to prevent the sale of the south tract to Whole Foods. Albany police had a hands-off policy that made them all but invisible, despite the fact that the police station is right across the street of the Northern end of the Tract. At least one UC researcher visiting the tract, sided with the occupiers, despite the UC’s attempts to imply his research would be halted by the activists. His op-ed in a local paper laid out some of the same arguments for taking over the land as many of the most radical anti-Regents activists had in the past years. All of these factors at once produced a vibrant, positive, stable community of the kind that existed unspoiled at OGP only in tragically brief, though wonderful, bursts.

Ironically, the threat of police repression added a potent accelerant to this formation of community. Indeed, there would have been no need for the society provided by the camp at the Farm without it. The sense of community-building and solidarity became even more pronounced as the deadline for UC’s cultivation of research corn crops loomed and UCPD began turning well-known screws.

The siege began with the placement of concrete barriers at the various gates surrounding the tract. This meant that although Farmers could still enter and exit the Tract with a simple hop over the modest fencing or by entering the ajar but guarded West End gate, food, materials and, of course, water for the crops, would now be difficult to get into the site. A few days later, the University ostensibly barred anyone from entering the Tract, though they were allowed to leave as they wished. UCPD became more obnoxious with dispersal orders, at one point making the long trek to the children’s garden at the northwest end of the Tract, where they threatened parents and children with their daily monotone speech about the possibility of being charged with trespass. Inexorably, the UCPD presence in the Farm became constant and daily.

Despite the ultimate raid that shut down the Farm, none of these measures dampened enthusiasm for the farm, nor support for it. Indeed, the sense of community only grew stronger. Farmers built a ladder and slide over the San Pablo gate that solved the problem of access. Families used the slide in full view of the police only a few feet away, in a whimsical nod to a new radicalism in the community.

Neighbors that had been bringing water to nourish the crops continued to do so even after the concrete barriers were placed, forming bucket brigades with farmers from large water containers outside, to those near the cultivated rows. Food was passed from hand to hand over the sharp tops of the fence. Farmers and supporters hopped back and forth over the fence to do their daily work. These were people of all ages and economic situations, supporting each other communally in full view of, and despite, UCPD’s assurances that anyone that did so would face trespass charges.

As the supermoon waned in the night sky, farmers continued to sleep in the camp in tents and under the stars. They never stopped nurturing the planted crops, they continued to fill the empty rows with new starts–“farming under siege” as one of the bottom-liners put it. Neighbors even offered their driveways and garages for the storage of tools when raid seemed imminent. The sense of community, built from the focused labor of cultivation and the creation of a societal and community network necessary to support it was one of the unintended side-effects of the Farm occupation, and it only grew stronger in the face of repression.

It made Farmers bolder and braver in the face of an impending UC raid and created something people felt invested in fighting for. Much more than a farm or a camp, and not dependent on static points in space and time, GTO created a politicized cloud society that has outlasted the ephemeral occupation of the Gill Tract.

Part 3: an Occupy continuum of cloud communities

In all, the Farm and the camp lasted three weeks—coincidentally, about the same amount of time as the Oscar Grant Plaza camp–before UCPD finally closed down the burgeoning commune. Despite the loss of the social systems that thrived in the camp, and the uncertain fate of the cultivation that it created, the Farm as an ideal and model of Occupation can be seen from many vantage points as a success, and as a possible route for the future of the Occupy movement.

The structure of an Occupation is inherently politicizing. Individuals, some for the first time, experience the joy and hardship of creating an intentional community, of maintaining peace and security without violence or police, of creating a food production and sanitation system, of urban planning. The initial power of the Occupy movement then, was not only in its extra-legal character and its break from electoral politics and non profit industrial complex. The process itself was more than the sum of its parts, it was a role-play of self-actualization that revealed the limitations of capitalism to sustain the bodies and souls of human beings.

The endless donations of food, tents money and other resources, for example, illuminate the reality that there is no scarcity of resources in the city of Oakland. The fulfillment of sharing and consensus driven process of production reveals the emptiness and limitations of traditional top-down, for-profit systems. Discussions about how to create security without calling the police, reveal the convenient choices that communities make instead of engaging their most problematic members. The process of sharing the preparation of food, the disposal of it, the cleaning of the wares used to prepare it and the planning necessary to continue it, reveal the loss of fundamental human relationships, altered by Westernized consumption.

Despite all of these socially transforming processes, the original Occupations were born with a fatal flaw. Perhaps it was fundamentally necessary for the Occupy movement to enter life without demands of any kind to draw in any as diverse a grouping of people as possible, and to prevent the kind of campaign-based routing into democratic stables that’s typical to sudden popular outbursts. But the lack of issue-driven focus eventually caused some support to erode, a reality reflected in the fact that downtown is a commercial center without a community, and thus, with no central issue to direct action to. Though nothing can excuse the city and police repression that has created the daunting barriers toward rebuilding Occupy 1.0, much of the enthusiasm necessary to combat it has withered in the narrative-vacuum that was necessary for the creation of Oscar Grant Plaza.

The Tract Occupation, then, can be seen as a viable model of Occupy 2.0—embodied by a series of ongoing issue-driven occupations, created and maintained by a core group of Occupiers but nurturing an ever-growing cloud community of new Occupiers awakened to the political potential of mass mobilization through the process of Occupation.

The repercussions are obvious for a diversity of focused, currently campaign-anchored issues languishing in electoral-based and institutional politics. And the advantages of such Occupations are enormous and obvious. Much like the Gill Tract, the spectacle of issue-driven Occupation creates a weeks-long and layered discourse on what were previously campaign driven politics. A very public contest for space allows a diverse set of voices on issues like land use and public education, creating a 3-d map of the social, political and cultural impact of any societal sector.

GTO opened up the issues of genetically modified crops,; publicly funded research; the conversion of public lands into private ones for profit by insular state consortiums like the Regents; the necessity of affordable public education;  the viability of urban farming, amongst others. This makes issue-driven Occupation a routine interrogation of the entire system, not just one aspect of it.

If Occupation politicizes and radicalizes, then taking this catalyzing process, and introducing it via practical applications for institutional problems in communities is a meta-outreach; it draws in communities and hurls them into an accelerated program of political education and activism with tangible benefits. The Occupy cloud communities that are thus built are extra-territorial and pan-sector, recycling a bubbling and diverse political community across the imaginable spectrum of social experience into the next Occupation and carrying entire paradigmatic working groups—like the Kitchen Committee and Children’s Village—fully formed and amplified along with them.

Issue-driven Occupation can also encourage participants to re-imagine the construction of the societal component they’re focused on, be it education, food production, or workplace. Working toward solutions for complex social problems that may, in the current context have limited scope—such as saving a school, or unionizing a workplace—such activists also teach themselves and each other about the endless possibilities for recreating equitable and affirming processes for their lives, recasting consumerist processes into more human and humane forms.

Issue-based victories—no matter their size—emerging from such Occupations may be an invaluable aggregator of action. As communities finally take their issues beyond the realm of electoral and institutional politics, Occupiers will begin to see the radicalization of the mainstream they’ve hoped for as they’ve looked out from their tents and easy-ups, waiting for the surrounding communities to embrace their movement. Despite the current proliferation of pronouncements on the death of Occupy, this political tool still contains the possibility of reigniting a new movement as powerful as the original one that spread from New York to Oakland. And we already have everything we need in place to make it happen.

*a version of this essay will appear in the forthcoming AK Press book, “We Are Many: Reflections on Movement Strategy, from Occupation to Liberation” (September 2012)

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