“I’m on a Boat!”: Occupy Oakland Navigates in Unknown Waters

Posted on November 17, 2011


A weird energy enveloped the plaza on the last night of Occupy Oakland 2.0. The infrastructure of the community was quickly deconstructing, for one thing. The kitchen had been partially dismantled to save key components for the future. Largely abandoned, it had stopped serving food. Police foot patrols were symbolically inching their way toward the camp, parking cars on the north side of the plaza, walking a beat in a tight band around the perimeter. More than that, I personally felt a strange disconnect; I described the sensation to someone as a sort of Babel effect. Everyone seemed to be missing each other—though I stress that was just my experience.

Partly to escape the disjointed transformation, I volunteered for a cop-watch run on my bike to see if police were massing anywhere in the vicinity. But when I returned, everyone at the camp already knew that the police were ready to go at the Coliseum—it was being twittered left and right, there was live video of it on youtube. I had wasted my time; in any case, I knew the cops had massed at Coliseum last time and they were likely to again. Really, many of us were sort of milling around for a majority of the late night, not sure what we should be doing, or how we should be thinking about the future of the camp and the movement. Even a party billed as “Occupacolypse” had fizzled earlier.

I’m on a boat

But things changed as the night wore on into Monday’s early morning. “I’m on a boat”—the odd call and response meme that had emerged a few nights earlier—seems to best characterize the dynamic. There’s not too much to the “I’m on a Boat” phenomenon–every few minutes, like a geyser, someone in the crowd yells out the phrase, and here and there, ten feet away or around the corner, someone else cries out, “I’m on a boat” to the confusion of everyone not in on the joke.

Though admittedly senseless, the term and its dynamic crystallized for me the Occupy Oakland experience. Here, people begin doing things collectively, sometimes those things seem to have one set of meanings and associations, or they don’t seem to make any sense at all; little by little, they create their own meanings, ways of looking at things that hadn’t existed before. They become important because no one sought to route them into familiar and secure terrain, because they emerged organically. What’s created is new, perhaps not immediately recognizable to outsiders to the process–and so that much more powerful.

As the night wore on, and it became clear that the police would raid, people seemed to collect around the north end of the park. I found this also to be particularly representative of Occupy Oakland’s dynamic. The amphitheatre, which houses the General Assembly, was abandoned, dark and cold. People had gathered at this end, close to the relocated library, because that’s where a set of flood lights had been set up; there was music, banter, life.

An impromptu human mic check began and people finally started throwing out ideas and suggestions for how to deal with what was to come. Keep in mind that this all took less than half an hour. In that time, the entire debate of “property destruction” versus “non-violent civil disobedience” was resolved to a great extent by several decisions accepted collectively. In the first place, from past experience, campers knew that it would be impossible to actually defend the camp in any more but the most symbolic fashion. The interfaith tent, for example, had planned a night of civil disobedience and to be arrested during the destruction of the camp. Given that such action would be symbolic, those who wanted to engage in other types of actions were urged to do so in groups at the intersection of 14th and Broadway.

A proposal which had a similar idea of separation of “time and space” when discussing tactics, failed hours earlier. But now the concepts embedded within it were accepted without trouble by people on both sides of the argument. From a flagging set of disjointed groups, the camp united again with purpose—medics and new medic volunteers began passing out vinegar laden masks, and little bags of vinegar, to cut tear gas, if used. Veteran advice was human-micked, along with expressions of solidarity, support, and even love. People embraced; and though there was a feeling of tragic loss in the air, and the great question of whether we could overcome this and continue remained, it wasn’t a funeral, but a wake.

Some union members made good on their promise to support the camp, perhaps a hundred or so defenders came out at about two or so in the morning. A picket, which continued in one form or another until the early morning, ensued. But like almost everything about Occupy Oakland, things did not proceed as envisioned. The police had been tamed, their brutality kept in check—their humiliating and costly exposure as violent, ugly bullies forced the city to tamp down their response. Ironically, the police response to Occupy Oakland on Monday morning stood in stark contrast to the brutal repression experienced by others throughout the coordinated four-day weekend of attacks nationwide.

As the police cordon broke in the early morning hours, and the picket and protests on 14th and Broadway thinned, I headed home, exhausted and not particularly enthused about the future. As per usual, the call had been made to regroup in front of the library at 4pm, and I did so again with just a few hours sleep.

Through its conduit of local media, police had warned that they would be out in full force, but that means something quite different this week than it did two weeks ago.When the new group of campers and their allies left the library rally to march back up fourteenth street and return to the plaza, police stayed out of the way. Two lonely-looking police officials walked briskly in front of the crowd—really, it looked like they were trying to get out of the way more often than not, staying ahead of a group that made it clear they neither feared, nor respected their authority.

Evicted on Monday Morning, Headed Back to Plaza on Monday Evening

Just like last time, the GA was reconvened, and the message was sent that Occupy Oakland was back in business. Actions were planned for Saturday, November 19. But the question of “what next” remained.

The Boat Sails

After the first destruction of the camp, I predicted that it would not grow back, which seems pretty dumb in retrospect. So I’ll not make any grand predictions this time around. It does seem daunting, though. Packs of police are guarding the plaza day and night, the city is regular hosing down the field area and amphitheatre, so that it provides an inhospitable terrain for reforming the community. But there were many stalwart campers who had never given up and continued to make plans. I ran into Shake early Monday morning, and he was already making a pretty good case for an alpha site at 19th and Telegraph. Indeed, he and two others presented it as a proposal at last night’s GA designed to take the energy of Saturday’s action and transfer it to occupying the new camp-site. It passed overwhelmingly.

But that’s not the end of things. Discussion has evolved over the past days—hours, really. There are many ideas of how OO should reconstitute and grow. It has been re-envisioned as a running multitude of occupations; from building to shut-down public building; plaza to park; as a roaming herd of occupiers taking over streets on their way fortify other occupations; and even, an admittedly difficult retaking of the plaza. Some of these ideas, like hit-and-run occupations at key sites, have already emerged. Bank of America was briefly occupied yesterday, and a tent was even pitched. And there are others, like Running Wolf, a camp fixture, who, rather than give up the occupation, climbed a tree, made a platform and continued to Occupy Oakland in a tree-sit where he remains as of this writing. As always, no one is lying in wait for some nebulous authority to approve. They’ve gone ahead and begun to work.

To me, this course-multitude only highlights Occupy Oakland’s most important role as a referendum on what is politically possible—one that continues to include an increasingly vast network of participants every day. No one thought the camp would come back two weeks ago; it did and then created the most decisively victorious political assembly and action in recent history seven days later. What comes next over the horizon is truly anyone’s guess.

So, as with many evolutions of the last thirty days, though the “I’m on a Boat” meming may have started out as an act of stress-relieving nonsense, relayed from one participant to another and echoed by bemused on-lookers [like me],  it has nevertheless become a useful metaphor for the Occupy Oakland movement as it enters its second month of life. Navigating treacherous waters as if the city streets and institutions were an uncharted ocean, OO continues to sail, despite hull-breaches and storms, etching a new social and political map of Oakland and the world along the way.

–and yes, I know that the ‘I’m on a Boat’ thing is from a Saturday Night Live skit. I still have no idea how its come to be an echo, bouncing from node to node at the General Assembly and plaza. Anyone is free to add its origin in that regard to the historical record in my comments section.