Avoiding the PR Trap at 19th & Telegraph [w/audio of 11-18-11 GA]

Posted on November 19, 2011

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When I heard about the 19th/Telegraph location as a possible new camp site, I was skeptical. The issue of residential neighborhood was foremost on my mind, although I actually didn’t think the school—Oakland School for the Arts—would have a problem. Kids spend almost all of their time IN a school, not in the neighborhood around it. That’s why there are schools in crime-ridden neighborhoods with large homeless populations and drug traffic that still attract kids, and don’t make their parents faint every morning. Schools have security and police patrols, the children have supervision, most have closed campuses.

My worry was the idea that some number of residents, no matter how small, who didn’t like the idea of the encampment would have their voices amplified by local media—they’ve been mostly disinterested in the content of anything, and focused only on what they can make appear to be conflict or sensation. To wit, ABC 7 had a field day with the fact that a few people who claimed to be residents of the neighborhood heckled a press conference put on by some organizers yesterday. Not one word from the press conference actually appeared in the news segment; the OO activist who led the presser claims that the media turned their cameras off whenever people from the public expressed positive views.

As the day wore on, other people I know involved with Occupy Oakland became worried about the new encampment. Of course, there’s nothing about the encampment itself that merits more worry than the surrounding area. Oakland’s 101st murder occurred in the plaza adjacent to the encampment—every one of those other 100 murders occurred somewhere in Oakland, too. Beyond some petty theft, fights were usually broken up. Though drug and alcohol use exist, just as they do in the homes and communities of millions of non-campers, they are no less a problem for the neighborhood surrounding the school. Indeed, police reports in that area create the impression that public drunkenness, drug use, theft and physical violence exist at epidemic levels in the immediate vicinity of the school.

The worry for some in Occupy Oakland is two-fold. One, that the media and city will be able to use any level of resistance to the camp by community residents as a way of cleaving the movement–using the 99% meme as the blade–and reinforcing the idea that protesters are a group with separate interests, values and life profiles from “everyday” people.  And two, that should any calamity actually happen nearby the camp, campers and the movement will be forced to shoulder the blame, as they have with the murder I just mentioned and police violence that’s now left two peaceful demonstrators in intensive care [and this was nicely represented by many concerned parents who ironically blamed protesters for the actions of police against bystanders]. I took on this concern as well, especially since the school administrators were already sending out their first salvos.

But I was also on the fence. I trusted the people who had brought the proposal out to have thought of these things. I don’t think that an occupation should be asking area residents if its okay to camp, because there’s no process for doing that, and regardless, few would probably say its okay. People like the fact that occupations are happening, some even claim to be thrilled as the administrators of the school and [supposedly] students there did. Still, they also seem to want the camps to go somewhere else, and seem perfectly content with having them disappear if they can’t, despite their fervent support for them.

And I really disliked the two-pronged dishonest, but nevertheless effective, arguments that were coming from the school. As one person involved there put it when I mentioned that bars surround the school already, OO was different in that it happened during the day and students would be able to see it from the windows. See what? Good question. I suppose the debauchery that the person saying this imagined happened daily at the camp and wanted to shield the imagined young tender eyes from. Several seconds later, the same person argued that these kids were supportive of the camp but nevertheless, rejected the encampment for tactical and PR reasons. These school children had become mass movement tactical experts overnight; they were polled in a class and had no end of “smart” reasons why the move would be a PR disaster. One imagines the main reason would be because the school itself and neighborhood would be constantly demonizing the camp with elements from this person’s first argument.

What became clear to me as the day wore on was something much bigger and more important than whether Occupy Oakland chooses to camp in the space at 19th and Telegraph. I went from being ready to back a third a proposal calling off the new encampment to an angry opponent of a similar proposal—even angrier by the time of the GA.

There were various reasons. As I said, the arguments against the move were based on hysterical caricatures of the encampment; to vote against the move simply because these constructs are effectively used against Occupy Oakland, would be in a way to give them power, and accept them as true. Accepting ourselves as not worthy of co-existing along “real people” kids, parents, etcetera, is the death of this movement. Children have been an incredible force in all the organizational aspects of Occupy, and of course, the OO children’s tent was for Children! For decades, the political mainstream argued that gay people, women and people of color had to wait for equality, because “some” people wouldn’t tolerate their full participation in society, and that the PR war would be too hard to fight. Thankfully, quite a few people never listened to them and continued to offend the sensibilities of the general public with the reality that “different” people are humans also.

Moreover, the claim that Occupy Oakland will bring some new kind of nefarious element to the block is fallacious and unproductive. The difference between the social problems that develop inside the camp and the one’s that fester around the camp, is that those in the camp are dealt with. The one’s outside the camp are ignored, people turn their backs, or call police and forget all about them. Or they accept that as normal, or as alright when some people do it–[drinking in a bar, then wandering around streets drunk]–and criminal when others do–[drinking on a sidewalk, and wandering around streets drunk].

Indeed, if OO is to be painted as a haven for drug use and crime, then that will be nothing new to the area around 19th and Telegraph. Crime and alcohol use are endemic to this neighborhood and the one around Frank Ogawa plaza—some of this public drug and alcohol use comes from people with very little money and with no homes. But a lot of it also comes from middle and upper middle class people wandering around the neighborhood at night from one bar to another.

To pretend that children don’t know what happens at the Uptown at night, or have never seen staggering herds of partiers moving through the city streets on weekend evening is dishonest in the extreme. What is it that kid’s can’t handle? The image of people drinking? Or the reality that drugs and alcohol use can lead to addiction and other social problems? The bar is the more obvious target of that ire; of course, because the alcohol abuse there is from the affluent, no complaints are made.

What really sealed the deal for me, however, was the GA last night. Though some in the school contingent had been involved in OO for weeks and their concerns were as genuine as the others that I knew, there were quite clearly others who had never been at a GA and knew nothing of the process. Moreover, they had no respect for the facilitator or the rules, yelling, hooting, hollering, heckling. Yes, literally acting like an unmonitored class of high school children. Complaints were based on a hodge podge of constructed memes and ignorance; quite clearly they wanted the occupiers assembled there to admit that they weren’t fit to be present around the children of these people and to apologize for the affrontery of bringing this movement–which everyone claims to support–a few blocks closer to their view. And they really thought that this moral steamroller would work.

I talked to many people at the GA who actually backed their proposal but were furious at the obnoxious pearl clutching and moralizing; for me this was crystallized by the director’s remark that “childhood is a state of grace”. Its a kind of statement so vague and loaded that it is regularly used for a dozen heinous purposes quite easily, including excluding whatever marginalized group society hates most at any given time from having contact with [certain] children or even being in the line of sight of children. And, of course, that’s exactly how that argument was being used.

Though these strangers constituted a little more than half of the assembled GA, the consensus process guaranteed that they would lose their bid. And, of course, even though the facilitator made constant pleas of invitation for them to stay and become part of the process at this GA and others—and even, against all logic, sought to subvert the GA rules for their benefit—most of them quickly cleared out after their needs had been met with not even the slightest notion of how this made their claims to support and be involved in the movement appear. I’ve been involved with this GA process from day 3, and rarely encountered a more classless group in the amphitheatre. I’m not exaggerating. Even the “angry white male” contingent that regularly shoots down speakers and ideas obnoxiously, often stays till all the proposals are voted on, not just those they like.

I’m unsure of what will occur today. There’s a good chance the encampment will fail anyway. Its also likely that the encampment will only last through the week, and that the kids from the school, who will be on break for the next nine days, won’t even see it. Oscar Grant Plaza could live again. Any number of things. Whatever happens, nothing legitimates accepting the OSA’s narrative. There have been many children at the camp—on November 2nd, there were hundreds. They’re all still happy and sane, to my knowledge.

Rather than something people need to shield their children’s eyes away from, the camp is probably the most educational experience a child of any age could have, as more than one actual supporter and participant of the camp declared last night on the stage. Its also a radical process of education for adults, like me, as well. I’ve learned more in this month, than in all of my years of so-called activism. I’ve learned that short-sighted devotion to “tactical” and “PR” considerations and ideas of what’s possible, would have aborted this movement weeks ago.  Faith in our capacity to change people’s minds about political resistance BY DOING IT, is the very life’s blood of the Occupy movements. Asking for permission to resist is the mistake, and even when adults put a school full of children in the way of their arguments, it should be rejected.

Occupied Oakland Tribune has a take on last night’s GA, as well.

An audio recording of the first portion of this contentious GA can be found here. Download or play on the site. The proposal to rescind the encampment at 19th & Telegraph begins at 01:12:00