Occupy Oakland, Day 6: Protests within Protests, Occupations within Occupations

Posted on October 16, 2011

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I was expecting some sort of interesting encounter between Occupy Oakland and the Move On sponsored ‘jobs march’ from Laney College to Ogawa Plaza. As I wrote previously, Move On had planned its march weeks earlier, before Occupy Oakland had begun, and there was some difficulty between the two groups in accommodating both movements. But, like everything else about Occupy, things didn’t turn out the way I thought they would.

Part 1: The Move On March Gathers at Laney College

First, my ideas about the Move On march itself were way off. There was, of course, significant union presence, both institutional and rank and file; no surprise there. But I spoke to several people there who didn’t support Move On at all, seeing it as a vessel for the Democratic party to maintain some kind of legitimacy. And despite the fact that the over-riding theme of the march, as presented by speakers and literature, was “Jobs not Cuts”, there were countless anti-war posters, banners and etcetera.

Preparing to March at Laney College

I spoke to several people there, and they all had negative feelings about Move On. At the most positive end of the spectrum was Peter, a union worker who was broadly supportive of Move On’s message of the day, but had lost faith in Democrats—he hadn’t decided whether to vote in 2012 yet. He was supportive of the Occupy Movement, but believed that they should also be respectful of ongoing efforts by other organizations.

Orlando and Lisa, who were holding a banner for an anti-drug war organization, agreed that Move On was ineffective, though they were generally supportive of all progressive efforts. They had no faith in the electoral process. Lisa pointed out that there were many different tendencies in the crowd that had come specifically for the march, and did not support Move On. She regarded their presence as an “intervention” against the kind of politics espoused by organizations like Move On and by the Democratic party.

Gerald, a union member and former Black Panther, was highly critical of both union efforts and the Democratic party. He would never vote for the Democrats, he said. Unions had weakened themselves by supporting the Democrats, even after shameful capitulations, such as the NLRB act of a few years ago. And union members themselves were certainly not unified—he considered the number of union members who were skeptical of the Democratic party to be a tiny fraction of the whole.

Of course, this is an anecdotal portrait. Its quite possible that at random, I chose people to speak to that were really unrepresentative of the crowd. But I overheard a septuagenarian demonstrator curse about having to sit through a speech from Jean Quan before being able to march. That’s just the feeling that was there; people weren’t there for a business as usual left wing demonstration. Its quite possible that many in the crowd had come to participate in some form of activism on what had come to be billed in the last week as an international day of action for the “99%”. Or that they hadn’t distinguished between mainstream activism like Move On, and the Occupy Oakland community.

Part 2: Who Occupies What at Ogawa Plaza

The Move On sponsored march showed that it could also occupy Ogawa. It entered through the East Side of the plaza, North of the lawn, and proceed to the paving stoned section of Ogawa. The organizers set up on a flatbed in front of some shops on the West East Side of the plaza. In a sense, this negated the agreement that Move On had with the Occupy community; since they didn’t require the use of the amphitheater area, they  no longer required any kind of acquiescence to put on their program.

Marchers Enter Ogawa

Regardless, the march organizers gave a nod of respect and support to Occupy by holding to their agreement—no politicians would speak, nor would any speaker be allowed more than two minutes on the mike. The program would be introduced by Occupied Oakland delegates.

I have a sense that the majority of marchers had no idea about the discussion between the two groups,  nor that there were tensions about who had claim to the Occupy name, and how it should be used. But it was quite clear that the Occupy movement had captured the imagination of the people there. In fact, the most rousing speech, if the crowd’s reaction was any barometer, was given by one of the Occupied community, a fiftiesh former union member, who I’d seen take the mike at the General Assembly a few nights earlier to voice critical warnings about union management. Though Danny Glover’s speech was fine, the anonymous [to me anyway] former rank and file worker really captured the feeling of Occupy and the mood of the crowd. Business as usual protests and progressive movements hadn’t worked, marching from point A to point B and going home was useless, he said; it was time for something new, bold and aggressive like the Occupy movement.

Part 3: At the Front, but not Leading

Through the day, I came to realize that there are several visions of Occupy Oakland living in relative harmony within Ogawa center, and that they’re capable of interacting with outside actors in a way that undercuts the idea of a cohesive group of radicals or anarchists within Occupy. While there certainly are a large of number of people with radical politics and a vision of a more aggressive form of direct action, others are still formulating their ideas of the movement, what direct action means to them, and the form that it will take. And while this is going on, others are attracted to the space in various configurations. There are daytime participants creating ad hoc political salons; at night at the margins of the general assembly others are building community; in the general assembly, various people are creating new forms of communication, social interaction and decision making.

Gerald, who’d been at Occupy every day since its inception, felt that it was becoming more inclusive by the day, and that it was teeming with a large number of people of color. He felt that the movement’s major accomplishment was as a referendum on dissent, and in Oakland’s case, as an open space for Oakland working class, poor and people of color to come together and become politicized. He felt that there was a significant African American presence. “You find out that they hate capitalism, too” he said. Young workers were also coming and spending time there after work. He felt that such people, who’d borne the brunt of capitalist abuses, had the potential to become a significant factor in Occupy Oakland.

I spoke to Okie a bit later, someone I recognized as a regular facilitator at the GA’s. She filled in some of the blanks for me about the origins of the Occupy Oakland. She had heard about the idea rumbling around her network of politically active friends, had come to some meetings at Mosswood Park in the weeks leading up to the Columbus Day event. By attrition, she had been one of the few regulars who came to all the meetings and planned the occupation with a few basic committees.

Novel, Sudden Structures Mirror the Ever Changing Socio-Political Landscape of Occupy Oakland

But its important to note that no one group or set of individuals could control Occupy even if they wanted to, though influence varies, of course. As Okie explained, people were free to break out into their own groups with varying levels of permanence—to plan actions, or to take responsibility for various aspects of the community. The march to the court building and jail on Friday, for example, had its origins in one such group, though it was open to all who wanted to participate. Okie described this as one of the more aggressive actions that she hoped would come to characterize Occupy.

She acknowledged that the General Assemblies did not seem representative of the diversity of the Occupy community. She noted that the People of Color caucus as well as other individuals were doing outreach to communities to bring in more representative local participation. Just like the break out group that led the demonstration, that group was also free to engage in altering the constituency of the community.

That’s the over-riding aspect about the community at Ogawa plaza—which many have rechristened Oscar Grant Plaza. There are so many things going on at Ogawa at any given time, so many interactions and dynamics, that I don’t think anyone can actually say for certain what Occupy Oakland is at any given moment. Nor where the power bases lie—while the GA is certainly the most visible area of decision making, its obvious that its by no means the only one, nor the most influential.

In fact, as I and others observed, all kinds of encounters are going on around the physical space of the GA, that may [consciously or unconsciously] be their own forms of ad hoc decision making bodies. As Gerald observed,  “objective reality” was greater than the subjective views of the activists who had planned the event. I think this view was best summarized earlier in the day when I asked one of the marching band members if they’d be leading the march from Laney to Ogawa. She replied that they’d be at the front, but not leading.

Note: Not thinking clearly, I wrote Day 7. Obviously, it was Day 6, but yesterday was a long day, I guess.