Occupy Oakland Day 11: From Crisis Comes Dancing, Beatboxing, Resolve, Community

Posted on October 21, 2011


I planned for a leisurely but fulfilling evening of washing dishes at Occupy Oakland last night. I’d enjoyed doing that the night before, feeling the hum of activity around the O-O kitchen and welcoming center, sharing impromptu conversations with people as they brought their dirty dishes and cookware up, watching over the city street before me. Such was the faith I’d begun to have in the solid foundation of the organization, that I’ve unconsciously begun to think of it as a permanent place to experience that sadly scarce commodity called community.

Two things happened as soon as I arrived; there was apparently a short and minor earthquake, and the city’s notice to vacate came. This was the second missive from the city, and it carried with it a strong suggestion that eviction would occur at 10 pm. As it was already past 8pm, an emergency General Assembly was called to discuss how the issue would be dealt with. Overwhelmingly, people were prepared to confront police peacefully, but resolutely, to prevent the eradication of the camp.

What began as a frenetic and almost panicked response, gave way to an elated mood at the General Assembly, and inevitably [and annoyingly from my view], an impromptu brief dance party triggered by the incessant cry of “Michael Jackson” from a local eccentric that had happened upon the GA. By the end of the meeting, no one was truly worried about the impending eviction, though they still took the city’s threat seriously. A combination of analysis of the notice and the city’s actions to date, along with the reassurance of solidarity, and people were back to what has become daily life in the camp. After the GA, rappers and beat-boxers took to the mike in a freestyle concert, the kitchen reopened [and much later served the best mac and cheese ever made by mortal hands].

The city’s ostensible pre-occupation with safety and sanitation would be understandable if it really seemed as if this was a universal concern. But the strength of its arguments for dissolving the important intentional political community that has grown up at Ogawa are pretty weak for anyone familiar with Downtown Oakland, West Oakland, Dogtown, Ghostown, etc—the sight of drying human feces, urine, rats and other vermin is mundane and common in these areas and others and there is no shortage of violence off the steps of the O-O community. Many low-income apartment buildings just blocks away from city hall are dilapidated and dirty, neglected by their owners and by the city.

But when the fact that hundreds of people are living at Ogawa is taken into account, the impact on the area has been remarkably mild. As has been noted, Ogawa’s rat problem has been ongoing for years. From what I’ve seen the rat infestation is mostly focused on the area directly in front of city hall, and there seems to be no reason that I can think of that would interrupt the city’s vector management efforts. And if there were, I have no doubt that the occupiers would easily accommodate them.

The reality is that many of the issues on Jean Quan’s own mayoral platform are taken very seriously at O-O. Rather than wait for the city council to allocate funds, or for police to show up with their potential for misunderstanding issues and using physical and/or deadly force, the Occupy community has organized committees and efforts to handle these issues themselves. Crime is taken seriously, with an emphasis on prevention and conflict resolution. Youth are given direction, activity and education and access to a well stocked library and workshops. The kitchen abides by rigorous sanitation protocols [and i have to admit, I was surprised by this], garbage and compost are separated and removed regularly, dishes are washed round the clock.

Cleaning up One’s Own Backyard

Occupy Oakland endeavors every day to keep its community clean and healthy. That’s more than can be said for Oakland’s mayor:

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan acknowledged Thursday that she had failed to clear her hills property of overgrown ivy and brush, days after a resident showed up at a City Council meeting with photos of her home and called her the “Queen of Residential Blight.”

The comments by the resident, Ken Pratt, came during a hearing Tuesday of the Oakland City Council on the issue of city building inspectors’ alleged mistreatment of property owners for blight citations with excessive fines and liens.

Pratt showed eight photos of Quan’s property and complained that the mayor was receiving special treatment because her property was allowed to remain blighted while other property owners were being cited.

This isn’t about health or safety. The city is worried about the precedent that Occupy Oakland is setting, the idea that dissent is not only for those who understand how to work within the system and negotiate its hierarchies; that it’s not only what can be fit into a church auditorium, institutional union hall or community center. Dissent can be organic, fluid, and it can come from those very people who have spent their lives unaware of the political basis for the social misfortunes they experience. What scares the city more than anything, I think, is that the “rabble” will become politicized, and that it will begin to notice the city’s corruption, hypocrisy and endemic problems as well as those of Wall Street.

[Full disclosure, I got up in front of the GA and made a fool of myself with a verklempt and awkward ode to the beauty of the community that has grown there. Anyone who reads what I’ve written, shouldn’t find that surprising.]