Occupy Oakland: Hugs Are Also an Option

Posted on October 24, 2011

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Sunday Salsa at Occupy Oakland

On a warm Sunday afternoon in Ogawa plaza, there’s a salsa class going on. Just a few feet away, a labor organizer is giving a workshop on the Occupy movements and the labor rank and file. Little kids are given space to play and express themselves creatively in the children’s tent. Across the camp by the kitchen, people are eating, talking, smiling. Conversations break out spontaneously between strangers who are happy to take advantage of the camp’s loosened social rules. Oakland residents have come looking for ways to volunteer, to be a part of this weird bloom of activity and existence that goes far beyond the original idea of “Occupy”.

Kids at Risk...of being paid attention to

In all, its clear, that Ogawa Plaza is used by more people in the community, in more diverse ways than ever before.

There are problems, as right wing pundits point out. While in a rational world, it would only necessitate pointing out that these critics are the very people who regularly advocate bombing and destroying other countries for merely looking at the US the wrong way, their criticism is paralleled in mainstream media headlines that emphasize the idea that people who take drugs, have criminal records or are otherwise unsavory are not denied entry into the camp, so long as they are willing to peacefully co-exist.

The people who reject that agreement can create problems and they usually emerge at night. But these problems always existed in downtown Oakland. If anything, the Occupy space has provided a space where others can mediate the conflicts that arise, and where ideas of how to de-escalate conflict can be broached and improved upon.

Last night, for instance, the camp faced multiple conflicts. All involved hurt feelings or perceived crossed lines but none were substantive, and most importantly, none required jail, violence, or the threat of violence for resolution. What I find most valuable about even these admittedly frustrating burps of conflict is that they involve people in the issues that affect their lives and they give people a chance to ask questions about how they handle aggression, and what the goal of stopping such problems is, or should be.

One example: a man obviously jacked up on stimulants, and perhaps also mentally ill, wandered into the camp. At first, people hoped that he would simply wander off the same way he came in, but he lingered, spouting neologisms and emitting hyper-active anxiety. A few campers decided that they would escort him out, but in doing so, I think, prolonged the problem by being overly aggressive about it and making it personal.

I had a brief but contentious conversation with one of these campers about how the issue had been resolved. He genuinely thought that his was the best way, and given the slowness to respond by myself and others, I can’t blame him for thinking that. It’s not clear whether simply talking to the man would have made him leave.

After the camper I was talking to left, the hyper one returned into the plaza. But just as he was making his way back to the steps from the entrance, he was intercepted by another camper. At first, we simply thought that this was one of the handful of homeless people who sleep in the plaza, but outside the community. But as we watched and prepared to deal with the hyper-man again, a curious thing happened. The two hugged, and the hyper-man turned and abruptly left.

The other camper came over to our group, and when I asked him what had happened, he simply said, “I just listened to him.”

There are problems at the camp; there’s misogyny, homophobia, racism, aggression. In short, everything that existed around Ogawa is still there today, it’s not yet a utopia. But the difference is that now people have the opportunity to confront problems head on and innovate on ways to deal with them.

Note: At some point in the night, as well, a man was prevented from committing suicide by Occupy Oakland campers/protesters. As I keep saying, OO has solved far more problems in the area, than its caused.