An Argument for Unsound Acts and Unrealistic Expectations: The Lakeview School Occupation’s End Run Around Conventional Wisdom

Posted on July 18, 2012

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On June 15, an Oakland coalition of educators, parents and activists moved forward with a plan to occupy a recently closed elementary school as a protest against a recent wave of closures. They had little chance of lasting the night; their funds were non existent, they lacked active public support and had few bodies. Against all odds, and contrary to every expectation and strategy of the group itself,  the occupation endured for three weeks and was on the verge of creating a political epicenter when it was finally shut down by OUSD police.

 

On a hot June day, an odd-fellow’s club of education activists, local organizers and Occupiers held a contentious meeting in a muggy second-floor room of a  Marxist library at the intersection of Berkeley and Oakland. At issue was an idea that had been posed and reposed, scuttled and resurrected again and again since the cruel and bizarre vote by the Oakland Unified School District to close five local elementary schools to save two million dollars and balance its budget. Taking a cue from the successes of the Occupy movement and actions across the developing world,  activists had long considered the possibility of occupying a shuttered school or library as a protest both against city-wide austerity logic and the closures themselves. One thorny problem remained: actually doing it.

Many obstacles loomed. No one could predict the tone or caliber of the police response. OUSD, like many school districts in the US, has its own police force, which was expected to intervene instead of the city’s police department. That held positives and negatives—the OUSD Campus Police is small but not beyond using force, as in the killing of Raheim Brown by OUSD officer Bahrin Bhatt. Activists were also concerned that the occupation would be perceived as an Occupy Oakland action, immediately triggering the kind of vicious OPD response that had accompanied actions like J28.

Public and community support were far from guaranteed. Education activists with extensive roots in both the activist community and the school closure struggle had repeatedly run into the problem of passive support. Parents, teachers and members of the community had supported a long fight against the school closures. Despite enthusiasm expressed at school district meetings and over the phone, equivalent bodies were hard to come by at actions and protests. None of this was unique to this particular field of activism—throughout the last nine months of reinvigorated Occupy demonstrations, passive support had been a confounding norm for activists fumbling in the darkened public sphere. Such support rarely augured success, and in fact, seemed to be the herald of poor turnout and failure.

Then came the issue of tactics, and all the problematic history the discourse carries with it. How does one hold on to an occupation? Should there be a zero tolerance, confrontational stance with police? Can police and protesters negotiate—especially when facing a small, idiosyncratic police force with a narrow mandate? Is an occupation reliant on numbers? On tenacity? On the sheer hubris of simply doing it? And, in the final analysis, would an occupation actually help to reverse the closures at all?

The frustrated group sweating and arguing in the humid little room filled with volumes of anti-capitalist treatise had taken all of this into account, and was at an impasse. In the end, the reality that a committed pair of parents had vowed to undertake the occupation by themselves, with or without the committee’s support, turned the key. Few members of the group could sit idly by in that case, and they voted to support as a committee what they would have supported without hesitation as individuals.

Looking back on the successful three week occupation of the Lakeview school and grounds and the wildly triumphant “people’s school” curriculum that emerged from the decisions made at that tumultuous meeting, it’s difficult to believe that at every subsequent step, uncertainty and insecurity fed conservative decisions to abort an extended occupation. Organizers balked at entering the building on the first “barbecue” day of the action, pitching their tents to a space on the grounds by the children’s playground. Subsequent meetings began planning for the failure of even this modest grounds-only occupation, which organizers assumed would come at the hands of police by the close of the first weekend. That Monday, teachers and employees would return to clean out their desks and rooms for the permanent closure of the school, and organizers predicted that the district would not tolerate their presence for the process. The focus of the action, then, would be an attempt at entering the building by parents and children, backed by activists, followed by a subsequent reconvergence strategy that would be unpacked over several weeks following the foreseen failure.

It was a decent plan that made sense. Using the attempted occupation as an energy aggregator, the action would shift into a full-scale picket of the very narrow driveway which movers would need to access for the decomposition of the school and its rebirth as an administrative center for OUSD bureaucrats. Despite the same low probability of generating turnout, the secondary plan had in its favor a very low threshold of bodies to achieve efficacy. And it was for more likely than an effective occupation of the school, which was, at that moment,  in the realm of the fantastical.

With the plan in hand, the occupiers prepared for what they considered to be the inevitable 4 am raid on Sunday morning. The expectation was bolstered by an OUSD SMS text to teachers, leaked to the organizers, warning employees away from the building on the first day of their clean up days for “security reasons”. But something seemingly miraculous happened instead. There was no raid at 4 am. The fall-back assumption that the raid would be at the beginning of business hours also turned out to be unfounded. The teachers and activists began setting up for the first day of their “People’s School,” a foundational pillar of the action which would represent the activists’ conception of a social justice curriculum, freed from the creativity-sapping confines of the traditional American grammar school. Having survived the weekend and Monday morning, jubilant occupiers began to prepare their first morning’s People’s School.

Their joy was short-lived. OUSD police, led, incredibly, by officer Bhatt, entered the school-grounds at the last minute before class began, emerging in sinister fashion from the gated overpass that connects the neighborhood over highway 580, backed-up by OPD. Giving out specious leaflets which claimed that all who received them were now banned from the site for thirty days—without trial or even arrest—the officers then entered the school building. A parent who had already committed to a civil disobedience arrest went ahead with his plan, which was to attempt to enter the school in full view of media, and be arrested in the attempt. But as the parent opened the front door and entered the school, there were no police to be found. Despite the fact that they could have easily routed the nascent occupation by merely staying in the building, police had inexplicably left—apparently their only assigned duty for the day, posting bogus notices throughout the building, was accomplished.

Others followed into the halls of the school once the door had been set wide open. The People’s School, which had been moved across the street to Splash Pad park, was relocated to the classroom of one of the teachers participating in the action, along with a dozen children whose parents had consented to their participation in it, despite the civil disobedience involved. A boisterous and altogether singular class was held; local mainstream media drones were agog and falling over one another to get interviews and come into the building. The morning was an unprecedented, unexpected, energizing success.

But by the end of the day, again, conventional wisdom-based strategy reared its head. Despite the fluke win, it was argued, the building could never be held. No one should stay in the building, nor should any attempt be made to hold onto it. There could be no win against police repression, nor could unstructured arrests do anything but harm the attempt to save the school. Again, the idea of the picket was revived with an added reconvergence march to  OUSD superintendent Tony Smith’s home. Strategy was based around expected failures, with a focus on a ‘graceful exit’, i.e., leaving the building and grounds voluntarily. Again, sound logic based on conventional wisdom; no one could deny the power of police to decisively crush such occupations, nor the likelihood of a routing happening within a day or two.

And again, the conventional wisdom proved unfounded. Some Lakeview activists slept in the building that night regardless, and were there to contest the presence of the police on subsequent days. Nothing that those activists did was in any serious way a “building defense” but had the building been empty  police could have taken it that day and cut off the activists’ access with the investment of just one or two officers.  The choice to defend the indefensible—which was tolerated at best as a waste of time and resources—maintained what would become the most powerful catalyst of the occupation, the building itself. Indeed, had the classes for the People’s School been held in Splash Pad Park across the street, it’s unlikely that they would have generated the level of excitement and energy around the Lakeview school action. Holding a social justice curriculum in an occupied public elementary school slated for closure is a hard act to top.

Still, there was great reluctance to proceed with a full-scale occupation of the building. For days, the group did not hold steering committee meetings in the building, nor use any of its facilities. That changed over time, as the siren call of a quiet meeting space with electrical outputs and lights first brought them into the auditorium adjacent to the front door, and eventually deeper into the building to the third floor former library space [empty for years because of under-funding]. The empty library became the occupation’s headquarters, providing infrastructure, stability and a perch for watching the playground  police had used to access the grounds

All of these experiences inexorably led activists to embrace their occupation. With that acceptance came a concurrent acknowledgement of the discursive and geographic value of the process that was occurring. Talking points were amplified to take the action beyond the confines of a local fight against the school board and put it squarely in the more universal anti-austerity discourse. With the realization that the Lakeview Sit-In was a full-fledged occupation, with all the dynamism and politicization that that entails, came the parallel goal of making the site a geographic epicenter for the aggregation of local political efforts—a second generation Occupy. Several Occupy Oakland committees and related groups began having their meetings on the grounds, including an ad hoc support network for the Blueford family, OO’s barbecue Committee, the East Bay Solidarity Network and others.

It was not an easy transition—organizers felt that the building and grounds had to be an absolutely neutral and safe space for children during class hours, which affected the nascent “camp” openness. Likewise, the range of people who would be “asked” to camp at the action was very narrow, based on vetting through personal networks   (and not on antagonism towards any group, as some believed). But all of these limits were in flux and being openly discussed. The organizers of the action had turned their attention outward, toward aggregating community. The dinner table was moved to the sidewalk in front of the school in order to draw the community into the action. And a Sunday community meal and event that drew well over a hundred attendants was held in the penultimate days of the Sit-In; it was the start of what would have been regular Sunday night community meals and events on the grounds and in the school. A micro-radio station and community free library were even in the works.

In short, the Lakeview Sit-In, despite the best efforts of conventional wisdom and well-worn logic, was on the verge of the same kind of burgeoning, unpredictable and near-magical catalyzing energy that had accompanied the open occupations that dominated the country’s political landscape last fall. And with a few more days, it’s quite possible that it could have attracted the kind of community and unity that could have protected it from a police raid for a great deal of time longer. Sadly, that was not the case.

The experience of the Lakeview Sit-In, however, provides some instructive lessons in how to evaluate strategy and planning within the context of an unpredictable field of maddeningly complex possibilities. Activists—that is real activists, not institutional drones on a mission for the non-profit industrial complex—don’t have money, nor power, nor even experienced leadership. Especially in the current period, they start out with very little real effective community support outside of Facebook likes and ephemeral enthusiasms expressed in honkings on the way to work by well-meaning people focused on other things. Thus situated in a world of bruising powerhouse institutions that have at their disposal mighty media Wurlitzers; militarized police forces; Byzantine pastiches of free speech debilitating laws; and a pliant justice system, activists often aim for the most likely and, thus, in these terms, least effective outcome.

Arguing the merits of such strategies based on an acceptance of relative impotence is not as important as the acknowledgement of what today’s unfettered activists do have going for them. Activists do have the power to take initiative, to trespass into situations that conventional wisdom claims are untenable, of doing the unthinkable, of treading forcefully into predictable failure. By doing so, they tap into the one power route left to people everywhere—the power to defy the expectations of city governments and police forces, who rely on the fear and doubt of those they police and subjugate. While difficult to believe, such establishments are not actually ready nor prepared for the eventualities that they so carefully plan against. The spectacle of the planning itself is the deterrent–the curtain that obscures the little man behind the bluster.

This is no idle speculation, nor is the Lakeview Sit-In the first time this dynamic has been in full public view. Few expected the rush to Tahrir Square to be any different than countless routed demonstrations before it, nor the first tents at Oscar Grant Plaza on the evening of October 10, 2011 to last the night. When the first iteration of OGP was routed and an unforeseen and even larger group of occupiers returned to find the grass fenced off, no one supported the first trailblazers who began taking down the chainlink—until they succeeded in tearing it down. No one expected the camp to return at OGP until it’s blunt intrusion into reality and the subsequent historic port shutdown reordered the conception of what is possible.

There are no guarantees, of course. But if the mass movements have any chance at all, this gap between reality and uncertainty is exactly where their power emerges from.

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