Interview with Leila from the Kitchen Committee

Posted on January 13, 2012

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A week or so ago, many people were horrified by video of riot-gear clad Oakland police rushing a woman fleeing on a bike, and then beating her as she fell off her bicycle. That woman was Leila, and that bicycle with its trailer has brought countless meals and supplies to Oscar Grant  plaza in the days since the second camp was destroyed. Despite being arrested twice for being in the plaza in the past weeks, and the beating she received just two days earlier, Leila also provided food at the police-ridden pre-dawn commencement of Occupy Oakland’s American Licorice Strike solidarity action several days ago.

Even before the increased brutality and repression of the OPD over the past several weeks, the work of Leila and other kitchen committee diehards like Toby, Marie and Josh, had greatly impressed me. It was another piece of the puzzle in the uniquely strong attachment that Occupy Oakland activists have to their ideals and work, and to nurturing the political space where the movement was born.

Here’s a transcribed interview I did with her several weeks ago. It’s been edited for length and comprehension.

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HR:…how and when did you get involved with Occupy Oakland?

Leila: …so I was actually up north working, when I heard about Occupy Oakland starting, um, I came down a couple of times and sort of…I participated…

HR: when?

Leila: …within the first two weeks of the occupation, So I’d come down for the weekends, and  help, just kind of gather supplies…dumpster, collect donations, bring stuff here and then I’d go…and then I’d leave again, so I was gone for two weeks and then I came a couple of times during that time. And then basically, I…I was kind of just like, it feels really weird being up here working, when all of this shit is happening in my city, I need to just stop working and I need to come down here and be a part of it.

Basically the first day I came down, I got there that evening and I had heard that there was a raid [Oct. 25] and so then I showed up that afternoon and there was a crazy war scene. That morning, they got raided, and then that night at like six pm, we all came to march. This was the beginning for me as far as how intensely I wanted to participate, it really reflected a lot just being…just jumping right in and immediately getting tear gassed. I guess that was the beginning and I’ve been here ever since…

Leila: …the next day we were in camp again…

HR:…did you start working in the kitchen at that time?

Leila: was helping build things and get pallets and brought in some wood chips and then I was like…yeah, picking up food donations and kind of helping, cleaning up where I could. And that’s basically the first week where I tapped into the kitchen a little bit, and then got on some other projects, so it was kind of random. I was also trying to maybe do compost toilets for a while, and I was thinking about that and trying to get people encouraged to do that. I was doing sanitation for a little bit…

HR:…and then pretty quickly you got focused only on kitchen?

Leila: …yeah, cause I just consider the kitchen like a really core place for people to feel loved and protected and supported and it was kind of a big place of community as far as the kitchen crew was concerned. It was really easy to meet people in the kitchen. I found a direct home in the kitchen, really tight family, really beautiful people and it was kind of the core of making things comfortable and beautiful in the camp, as far as  I saw. I felt it was really important for emotional and physical well being, for everyone to support that. So yeah, within that first week I got into the kitchen pretty quickly…

HR: what was the second kitchen like? Was there a philosophy behind the first kitchen that people wanted to duplicate in the second?

Leila: Well, everyone was like, oh, the first camp, the first camp, the first camp was so amazing, oh my god. So I had really no idea what that meant, because when I had visited before I wasn’t really in the kitchen, and so basically that they were cooking there before, that was a big kind of difference. It wasn’t an actual kitchen, it was more like a drop off service center kind of place. We weren’t allowed to cook, and for some reason, we were really adhering to the fire marshal’s will. [We]  never cooked again…some nights we’d like to heat up water or food, but that was super random on the DL, we weren’t cooking all day thru. So basically, what it became was outreach to the community to tap in and participate by cooking elsewhere and bringing hot food. Which I actually think was kind of cool, cause it kind of isolated us a lot less, and a lot more people became aware and figured out how to participate in a really peaceful way, by cooking at their home and bringing food. So instead of us just cooking and us getting donations, we were asking the outer, exterior community to bring love and warmth to people. And I felt like that really helped us a grow a lot, so yeah, the main difference we weren’t cooking, we were doing a lot of outreach and doing a lot of organizing of um, cooked food. And tons of just making the kitchen space more efficient cause things were constantly coming and going, it was a kind of rapid environment…

HR:…How was it different from traditional soup kitchens or even Food not Bombs?

Leila: Even though Food not Bombs invites people to cook, its still an actually, its an isolated process in a lot of ways. And because it was all day, every day, come in and tap in, it was a  lot more participatory. People would eat and then go wash dishes. A lot of people would come and eat a meal, and then they would participate, or then they would offer to serve. Or they’d eat for a week straight without doing anything, and then they’d be hey, this is pretty cool, I’m actually getting into this; how can I help?

HR: Dishes were part of the kitchen?

Leila: The dishes were so important, and its kind of crazy because the whole time I never washed a dish. I was always going over there, like hey, can I relieve you? Should I was dishes? I have a half an hour. And they’re like, no, no, no I’m cool, you do what you’re doing, I got this. I’m totally into this.

HR: When the kitchen was over there [pointing to corner of Broadway and Fourteenth] during the first encampment, I used to love washing dishes over there, cause that was like the most public part of the camp, and so you would wash dishes and you would hear conversations and people would come in and out of the plaza, and you would just be doing something with your hands, and this whole mental thing…

Leila: I actually love washing dishes, but I never picked up a plate to wash. Because no one would ever let me. That was kind of adorable, and then a lot of people would come in and serve for a couple of hours and that was really great.

HR: Was it the same people every day? Or a shifting group?

Leila: No, it was shifting. There were about fifteen consistent servers and then there were completely random people, and then people at the camp that I would see all the time and then they finally came and tapped in and they really enjoyed it. So it was kind of really fluctuating, there was probably about like six solid kitchen people.

HR: You said, there was something special about the way the kitchen involved people when we were talking earlier.

Leila:  I just think its given people a really direct way to show their love and appreciation and its something that we’re kind of closed off to, and that we have trouble expressing, because we’re not allowed to express it. Or you’re a weirdo if you try to show people love in a lot of ways. It created this environment, where it was really trusting and people were really welcome to show their love, by giving, you know, feeding each other. Its a big thing. Actually I was just talking to someone about how now, like going anywhere you say hi to everyone, you look them in the face…I was definitely already kind of like that. But its only pushed me farther into this open space of…I’m completely able and willing to love you and nourish you. So I think it gave a lot of people that opportunity to do so. When we were serving people, they’re just like I love you, thank you so much. This is beautiful.

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A conversation on the problems and differences of the 10th and Mandela House leads to some commentary on difficult people in the second camp, and the difference between occupying an open space and a building:

Leila: I felt that there was about ten percent of the people [at the camp] that were a bit destructive and difficult to deal with, and I think that a smaller percentage of the ten percent were able to work through their issues and were able to help out and step into the kitchen and do productive things for the camp, but you’re still going to get, I mean, its a raw environment and you’re going to get those people that we don’t have the energy to figure out. I was willing to be around that in this open space, because its a raw environment and its a big pot of everything that is fucked up in this society and I think its really important for it to be out in the open, we’re like oh yeah, yeah, we’re feeding crazies, because there are crazies here in our city. And there are violent people in our city. The camp was productive, but I think it needed to be really raw and beautiful in that way…

People in the camp really wanted to be here because, you’re camping out in a raw space and its cold and its a little uncomfortable and its a little sticky. So, most of the people that were camping here were down for one reason or another. They were down to be present and they were down to participate, even if it just meant that their service was camping and being present.

HR: What do you think of the action to occupy an abandoned building? Do you see working in both the plaza and the building at the same time?

Leila: I do, but it really depends on what happens with the building, I definitely want to. I’m also working on a lot of garden projects, and there’s a lot of side projects and weird shit I’m sort of assisting people in. And I want to support the plaza, and I think there are a lot of cooks that help here too, so if I disappeared, I don’t necessarily feel that it would be the end of the world…

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Leila was one of the primary people who spearheaded a GA passed action after the second raid, to create a monument garden symbolic of the philosophy of the cam. The garden was destroyed only hours after it was built.

HR: What was the philosophy behind the garden project here in the plaza after the second camp was destroyed?

Leila: This is basically a central space for symbolic communication, I view the plaza as just like a way to show the world what we should be doing, what we have the right to do and what we’re willing to do. There was a fantastic plan of making this entire space an edible garden for providing food. So I think symbolically its really significant to have it in the center of your city.

HR: Was it an act of civil disobedience?

Leila: It basically was, because we knew it was going to be torn up. I didn’t know how soon and I thought I would be able to protect it,  but what happened is that I ran up just as they were destroying most of the boxes and I sat next to that last little bit.

HR: I remember seeing some of that on a live feed. You were really upset.

Leila: Well, it sucks cause I was actually in communication with public works at the time. I had talked to a cop the day of that action day that we did it. And I was like, if you guys want to discuss anything, have a dialogue, if you want to tear it down, please contact me first, so we can move it or decide what we want to do without you guys just completely being disrespectful to the community. This is very peaceful. So I had open dialogues with a lot of different people, so I just felt really fucking shat on, because I had actually made an attempt. And actually, that was the day where I was like, fuck communication. These people [police and city administration] are not looking out for me at all. I was completely open to all of it. I was just like, it’s pretty obvious: if they don’t want to listen to me, they don’t want to listen to anyone.

HR: Do you feel like it radicalized you?

Leila:  Yeah, a lot. It’s just this little garden box. If they really feel like it shouldn’t be here, they’re going to call me, we’re going to work it out.