Occupy Oakland, Day 8: Solving Global Problems in a Downtown Microcosm

Posted on October 18, 2011

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I committed myself to spending a significant amount of time at night at Ogawa yesterday. This meant shedding my documentarian role, and simply participating. That was more difficult than I intended for a couple of reasons. In the first place, I felt awkward in taking up space and time, while not having yet invested any labor or risk in Ogawa [besides a bushel of apples I picked off the tree in the backyard and transported there via bike]. I made a conscious effort to have regular conversations with people and participate, which reminded how much more easy it is to talk to someone when you have the excuse of an interview and have the unspoken privilege of managing the conversation. I had some great conversations with some interesting people, at random, as usual; but I interacted as a human being and not as a historical recording device, so I probably won’t be writing much about those.

One thing I did want to write about was the revolutionary power of the kitchen at Occupy Oakland. At some point, the idea of having a place where people could grab some food while they occupied, developed into the idea of a permanent and round the clock food creating infrastructure, which would hydrate and feed all who came up, regardless of their affiliation with the camp. The camp participants I spoke to remarked in wonder how organic the process had been, and that the idea had not come from anyone person or strategy. In my view, that’s what’s created the incredible diversity of the camp, which now houses a large homeless population, and draws in a large number of local residents–hungry, peckish or simply curious–who then interact with each other and with the activists there. The resulting meeting of minds has been a real joy to witness. I hope I’m not overstating the case, but I truly believe that if Oakland Occupy—and more broadly most of the Occupy Movements—has any value at all its in this capacity of creating a place where the previously apolitical or politically unsophisticated can learn from each other and others, and become politicized without the confines of an ideology/goal or institution.

I spoke to an African woman who happened to be in line with me, and although she didn’t understand the dynamics of the occupy, nor why the police were letting occupiers stay at Ogawa, was nevertheless grateful for the space, because it brought together so many happy, smiling people.

The process of this kind of community-building and attendant politicization, and the harder work of creating and sustaining an ad hoc community based on voluntary work, is its own revolution. Over the years, I’ve noted that there are some very big flaws in our notions of what constitutes political struggle, effective strategies, and ways of interacting with the local and federal governments. Sanctioned and hallowed by time, these have become traditional, rather than effective, and often the equivalent of marching in a circle, yelling and then going home. Before we get down to the brass tacks of how to leverage growing political participation in a previously apolitical populace, I hope this kind of association gets a chance to grow into at least some of its full potential. But in any case, as one person I spoke to yesterday put it, Occupy Oakland had “solved the problem of hunger and homelessness in downtown Oakland.”

That’s not to say there aren’t other problems. A scuffle last night showed the power of confusion and emotion among a very small group to disrupt an entire community, and it brought up serious questions of how to manage a community without state or outside intervention, which is an ongoing and thorny conversation amongst many groups at the encampment from what I’ve gathered. But another way, I think, of looking at it is as the price to pay for taking complete responsibility for one’s community.

In a neighborhood, when people get into serious mess, others often don’t involve themselves. Despite the fact that its their community, they delegate the authority of problem solving to outside professionals who don’t live in the community, or they simply ignore it. Its easier to do that, it depersonalizes issues. But it also shuts people off from each other. Their problem-solving and interpersonal skills decrease as a result. Watching people try to deal with a potential fight last night, was like watching someone rise out of a coma and begin to learn to use their extremities again, of dealing with each other one to one. That is not only a valuable skill, but a cognitive structure worth acquiring. Its difficult, but we’ve gotten used to ignoring the difficulties in our community, or delegating the solutions to others, both locally and nationally.

City Hall Intrudes

Speaking of difficulty. The city has sent a letter to the Occupy Oakland community, asking for a series of concessions with a threat to kick out occupiers by force on Wednesday if the demands aren’t met. A group of occupiers set about to write a response to the letter; the letter was pretty hilarious and basically told the city to screw itself and that there would be no quid pro quo as that would run counter to the philosophy of an occupation. They presented the letter as a resolution to respond to the city. That led to a heated discussion of whether there should be any response at all—the outcome of that was another vote. The General Assembly voted to not respond at all to the letter; although, as it was pointed out to me, that could change tonight in another assembly resolution.

One of the writers of the letter insisted that the purpose of the letter wasn’t as negotiation, but as a message to the city and world about the purpose and nature of the occupation, and the baselessness of the city’s ostensible concerns. I agreed with him, though I was in the minority last night.

I’m not sure what will happen on Wednesday. A small group of occupiers branched out to a Snow Park, a small green area, close to Lake Merritt early this morning, and have begun occupying there. It’s possible that, in the event of losing the struggle to stay at Ogawa, the occupation could continue there or in another place. Occupy Oakland maintains the idea that autonomous actions and movements are encouraged outside of the group—and that includes, I suppose, restarting Occupy Oakland elsewhere, or spreading it out when its gotten to unwieldy, or even starting new kinds of political occupations.

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