Occupy Oakland’s Turbulent Adolescence, Update

Posted on October 28, 2011

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What I knew as Occupy Oakland is gone now. What’s replaced it could be anything, even the key to revolution in my lifetime, but it will never be what was left behind in the pile of rubble created by police on Tuesday morning.

Managed chaos seems to be the theme that’s taken over the movement since Monday night. What was ostensibly to be the rendezvous for Occupiers at the Main Library at 4pm Tuesday, became the rallying point for a burgeoning and diverse protest, bursting at the seams. Whether or not the large group had already supported OO, were reacting to the brutal multi-agency response, or coming out in general support for the Occupy brand, may never be known. But what’s clear is that the bumbling violence of police created thousands of new Occupy Oakland supporters on Tuesday night.

What that means for Occupy Oakland also isn’t clear. Wednesday night’s GA was a sprawling mass of excited people, well over a thousand, perhaps thousands. On the one hand, it was thrilling—especially for some of the die-hard organizers who had been in on OO from the start—to see the masses of people. But it was easy to feel overwhelmed by the group.  In a certain way, the GA now replicates a few of the most pernicious elements of standard “democracy”, simply because its so difficult to pass any proposals or amendments. The process is open to abuse by the self-centered, who use the mike times for clarification and pro-con on proposals and amendments as their own personal speak-out. The confusing process can be exasperating and some people simply leave or give up, and wander the area, before it’s through.

It’s a small thing, and perhaps nitpicky, but the entire OWS system of communication which had been jettisoned for the majority of the GA at OO, has been forcefully imposed again. It makes you feel like you’re at an AA meeting. And the complexion of the GA has changed as well; while there was some level of diversity during the days of the camp, it seems to have settled back into the standard configuration of the mainstream bay area left.

Despite these issues, its an obviously good thing that OO not only survived, but resumed with mass movement level strength, and a swagger that envisions a functional city-wide shutdown. And I can’t describe the feeling of meeting people again on the field where OO used to stand, of knowing that I’d shared not just a few laughs or a drink, but real work and labor towards a greater purpose. The sense of community remains for those who were part of it.

What I find most interesting about this moment in time, is that its created a gigantic question mark in everyone’s mind about the capacity of mass mobilization to re-write the rules of the debate. Mayor Quan’s whiplash reversal on all of her dictates has been impressive, and the stand-down policy of the OPD is similarly and oddly remarkable. Not to mention, last night’s silencing Quan on the steps of what many would have assumed was her house, city hall.

The new power has made some overly cautious, in order to avoid being stereotyped as aggressive or violent; others foolhardy because they think that pushing the envelope further will lead to more capitulations, and that acts that some have termed ‘violence’ [and I would say are closer to the idea of “symbolic violence”.] can be used in this capacity. It can’t be said that either is wrong or right, right now.

When we arrived for the GA, for example, the green area where the camp had been was fenced off. Initially, the GA crowd was overwhelmingly frightened by the aggressive former OO’ers who made attempts to knock down the fence at the margins. But as they and others took the fence down, with no police response, most people soon accepted that the parameters of order that they’d understood were now hazy at best.

This feeling is what most likely led protesters to move en masse after the GA toward BART, apparently with the idea to travel to the SF Occupy and help protect it from a police raid [although some, I’m sure, had no idea what they were doing]. Police closed 12th street BART, blocking that idea, and the thousand-strong group formed a serpentine march through the city, to the jail, and back again on Broadway where some had boasted that they would take the bridge. Notably, and ironically, it seemed that without police antagonism, the group lost its head of spirit quite early on, and by the time it got to Broadway and 19th, was easily turned around by a confusing message over a police bullhorn about BART now being open. By midnight, 14th and Broadway looked not unlike the sidewalk in front of a just-closed club, with little pockets of conversation, laughter and smoking, but a distinct absence of rage or direct action—protesters filled the streets, but without contention or challenge.

I talked to a couple of the original OO’ers a bit later in the plaza just before I went home. We agreed that there would be something odd and unsatisfying about rebuilding the community of Occupy Oakland in Ogawa. It had all happened so spontaneously, and organically, that it couldn’t be duplicated as a social milieu. And a protest occupation that has the free permission of the local government, loses something in translation—a protest needs to be antagonistic, as the OO was with Mayor Quan and the city, rejecting its capacity to set rules and order, to give permission to occupy. There would either need to be new occupations in more symbolic venues, or the occupation tactic would be discarded completely locally.

The power of OO will now be as a mass movement, symbolically linked to the previous incarnation only, but in no way a recreation of it; that will be the case even if the handful of campers there doubles over the next few days, I think. The center of gravity of the camp was always the lawn, not the ampitheatre home of the GA. The opposite is true now, for better or worse.

Note: About an hour after I wrote this, I was down by Fruitvale Bart running an errand. Some guy asked me for some change, we got into an exchange about how much money I had, wherein we both made assumptions. I assumed that he was apolitical and when Occupy Oakland came up, that he’d spent no time there. He assumed that I was affluent or at least comfortable. After a few moments of contentious wrangling, it became clear that he had spent a lot of time at OO, and had been at the protests at 14th/Broadway on Tuesday night, and had helped down the fence on Wednesday night. He had photos on his phone to prove it, which he showed with no small amount of pride.

This is the beauty that was OO, where two people living in supposedly opposite worlds– partitioned by suspicion, resentment and stereotype–come together with genuine cause and community. We were, for a few sacred and rare moments, on a completely level field of communication. We said so long, until tonight.

Update:
Despite what I wrote, the camp is rebuilding, though it apparently will lack the element that I considered most crucial, the functioning kitchen. Food is currently being served via a soup kitchen tent .  It may be a simple human reaction to sudden change on my part when I say it won’t be the same as it was; obviously, nothing can ever be rebuilt exactly as it was, and the process of rebuilding is its own journey. While some of the people I spoke to were ambivalent about restarting the camp, others were very excited about coming back and starting over, so I wanted to make sure to note that.