The essence of the current transformation of Occupy Oakland, from a hard-working and misunderstood sudden-cadre of politically-evolving activists, to a broad based popular movement was encapsulated for me by a conversation I recently had with someone who lives in an apartment building at the edge of the plaza. I’ll call him Bill.
I introduced myself to Bill one evening several days before the first iteration of the camp was destroyed by riot police on Tuesday, October 25. I’d seen him seen him sitting there for a while, talking to a man in a security guard uniform, whom I assumed guarded one of the buildings in the plaza. I was curious about what they would they would think about the plaza encampment—two African American men, more than likely working class, who were sitting far enough to the north of the plaza to project their dislike of the community before them.
I wasn’t surprised by their initial responses. The camp was smelly; it was full of homeless people; and rich white kids. They would never accomplish anything this way. No one knew what they wanted, they weren’t articulating anything. And etcetera. Despite this initial sour response, I found that we had many of the same feelings about the economic system we currently live under that emerged after the conversation got going a few minutes later. After the security guard left, I stayed talking to Bill for a good while, and he told me about his year of homelessness, where some bad breaks and a lack of local family support, got him evicted. He lived in a van, at first, which he said wasn’t that bad; it was being on the streets after he lost his van due to parking tickets that was almost impossible to deal with.
We settled on some common points of view; that the system was difficult to define, but that it was hardest on those who lacked family wealth or institutional support. Such people have to reap the worst outcomes of their mistakes, and they face an indifferent economic system that is happy to put them in prison or forget about them on the streets when it is through exploiting them. Still, though he agreed that many of the camp residents were wrestling with some of the same political views borne of personal experience, he thought the camp was an eyesore, and he resented having it so close to his apartment.
I ran into Bill a few days ago, standing at the steps of the encampment, laughing and talking with some others. As he turned to me, he shook my hand warmly. I asked, more joking than anything else, if he’d finally taken a tour of the camp now that it was rebuilding. A tour? He’d been coming to the camp as often as possible since Tuesday. Not only had he been spending large amounts of time in the camp, his entire view of its use and legitimacy had changed; Mayor Quan should come through every day and help clean, he joked. The police should be banned from setting foot anywhere near it.
What had changed? For Bill, I think, like many, it was the brutal destruction by police of the camp that first opened the question in his mind. But, thereafter, that opening let him experience the camp with an open mind, to see the hundred or so ways that the diverse groups and individuals that were the camp interacted with each other and the outside world. The reaction was a two-fold political evolution: the shock of the full naked brutality of a systemically violent system combined with the engagement of a community dedicated to creating a political, cultural and social space that will be the product of a kaleidoscope of views and backgrounds.
Bill could just as well be a stand-in for the city of Oakland as it rallied around the camp. At first, they did so for their own political reasons, and then began to evolve politically as well due to their interaction with the camp. The throngs of people that came to the General Assembly the day after the destruction of the camp dissipated a bit after the first few days, but the incredible outpouring of human beings for yesterdays General Strike—which conservative estimates count in the tens of thousands—indicates that they were, in fact, the tip of the iceberg. And that their emotional connection to the camp is rapidly evolving into acceptance of previously “radical” protest dynamics—non-violent civil disobedience on a large scale, without permit, or permission, with its own agenda, and free of commitments to parties or institutions.
Despite poor reporting from many media outlets, Occupy Oakland’s General Strike was a resounding success that surpassed even the most optimistic expectations of the organizers. Throughout the day, I never grew tired of hearing myself, or others, proclaim how incredible the outpouring was. The intersection of Broadway and 14th became a large open air social and political event, the camp itself was bristling with people. There were times when anyone could have mistaken the camp for a festival event, or county fair.
But at the same time that people milled, sometimes aimlessly around the camp and the streets around the plaza, thousands of others were marching through the city, shutting down banks with non-violent resistant tactics in a well-planned series of events. The mood was emotional, according to one of the protesters I talked to, who said she almost cried at the incredible outpouring of emotion and frustration at the banks. Indeed, some took that emotion to its logical conclusion by breaking a few windows. All that need be said about that is that neither a movement nor police, can control what people do at any given time of their own free will.
While the action at the port was the main event, the camp still had scheduled a General Assembly for 7pm as usual. And that’s really indicative of the nature of the camp at this moment. With a stress on autonomy, the camp creates a series of communities—when all efforts and goals align, the camp moves forward together, but each in his/her own way. The day’s events held myriad events, and the residents of the camp as well as new-found allies and supporters, all invested time and emotion in them vigorously.
Even the migration to the port, some two miles away, was a puzzle of pieces of self-directed groups. Critical Mass, had scheduled their own ride there, as the first wave of, joined by, in a pleasant dichotomy, a bus for the disabled and mobility impaired at another berth behind them. They were the first to hit the berths and hold down the line while the great well of human movement was reigned in, wound and released toward the port.
As usual and in keeping with the narrative of my life, I was in between all of these factions; I was late to the Critical Mass push-off, and a few minutes later had a flat tire. Since I didn’t know if the first wave of walking protesters had left for the scheduled four o’clock wave, or how big the group would be, I decided it would be best to follow the first strike teams on foot. That put me in a sea of teeming cyclery, but in a perfect position to view the on-coming wave of bodies rounding the overpass to the port as the first wave of marchers came in.
Words fail, I was simply moved by the reality of all these people coming down to engage in an ‘illegal’ action that just a week ago would have been considered radical and subversive, but today was filled with happiness, community, respect and love. And the power of such a mobilization to silence and dispel the police, the power of people to write the rules of public space. That’s something I’d never thought I’d see in my lifetime.
I found it almost unbelievable that the subsequent group at five pm joined the others, and that it was as large as the first wave of marchers. Truly, there has not been anything like this in my memory. I don’t think I’ve ever come as close to feeling as if I was experiencing the exact same thing as every single person around me as we walked through the port, leaving hundreds and thousands to block each berth along the way, using a telephone-like version of the human microphone in an effort to deal with the vast numbers of ears in the crowd.
As a final word about the vandalism and police violence that occurred later. The occupation of the Traveler’s building, adjacent to the plaza, was in keeping with the tenets and ideas that have emerged through the GA—that this is not just a Wall Street focused movement. That we are in the process of redefining who are the ninety nine percent, making sure that the homeless and economically dispossessed are invited along to run and be part of the movement. The taking of the Traveler’s building was a brilliant idea—in one fell swoop, the autonomous group that carried it out broadcast that invitation, and noted that one of the movement’s goals is to draw attention to the city’s complicity in the financial meltdown. Not unlike Wall Street, the city has left the public to foot the bill for its bad investments and priorities, promising that it will always have money for militarizing the police, but little else.
If you want to have a feeling of just how big this procession was, take a look at this aerial video from local station KTVU.