From my own perspective, the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective’s first action this last Saturday was a huge success. About 8 Occupiers showed up to sweep and pick up trash, as did about 5 others through the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, the group with whom we partnered. We worked for two hours on St. Andrew’s Plaza, a notoriously nasty little corner park on 32nd and San Pablo in the heart of Ghost Town, and a veritable open-air drug markets most days and nights of the week. I bike down San Pablo Avenue fairly often. This is one of those places where I’m always a little bit relieved to have behind me. And I have to admit, I was apprehensive on the day of the action, walking up there by myself. Would I be the first one there? What would I do if I were? Luckily I wasn’t. Nathan and Alex of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, the group with whom we’d coordinated the day’s action, were already unloading brooms and dust pans and getting to work.
I can take credit for Occupy Brooms’ genesis, though I’ll have to try hard not to take ownership. I started announcing the idea at GA’s a couple weeks ago, and I attended several OO groups normally outside my schedule to bat the idea around a little. I collected e-mails and sent out blasts. I got almost uniformly positive responses. Jade from the Community Outreach Collective, a hugely impressive group that knows a lot about the lay of the Oakland land, set me up with a San Pablo Corridor rep., and at the Brooms Collective’s first planning meeting last Tuesday he told us that he and a few others have been doing clean up at St. Andrew’s every Saturday at 10 AM using city-supplied tools (the city has a store of volunteer equipment, and will sponsor anyone who fills out the paperwork, even OOer’s, ostensibly). Sometimes the Andrews clean up crew has to conduct their work around blatant drug use and prostitutes plying their trade. On Saturday we were a little luckier. Or maybe our numbers were enough. Either way, while we were there the park cleared out, and a porous perimeter established itself on the streets and stoops and doorways surrounding the triangular little park. We had an audience for sure, some of whom seemed less pleased with our presence than others. But nobody became confrontational. Quite the contrary in fact. We were doing good. Our hearts were in the right place, even if most of us were white. St. Andrews isn’t a large park. With 13 brooms, rakes, and dustpans moving it didn’t take long to clear out the layer of debris and broken glass, the hypodermic needles and the milky little zip-loc dime bags. Underneath it all was a surprisingly pleasant little place, with seating and comfortable benches, picnic tables with painted on chess boards, just the right amount of shade provided by the towering Eucalyptus trees, whose smell even overshadowed that of stale alcohol. A KTVU cameraman arrived early in the morning and filmed us going about our business. He interviewed me briefly, and then he left. I can’t imagine that his footage was all that stirring, well hearted as it might have been. A departure from the usual Occupy Oakland headline, and perhaps a bit of a relief to many of our more estranged supporters.
What really got my attention though, what really made me wonder about the merits of this action, was when, about an hour into our efforts, an older couple parked their SUV on 32nd Street, and set up two plastic fold-out picnic tables. Then they took out three large tinfoil catering trays of hot food, with packages of plates, napkins and utensils, and they started serving. A line formed quickly, made up largely of drug addicts with twitchy eyes and dirty hands. The food was gone after maybe fifteen minutes. I spoke with the couple, and apparently they own a print shop down the street. Every now and then they and a few others get together to take food to the square. A small gesture but a real one. An expression of love, free of judgment. And one that was there already. It makes a lot of sense, after all. If you want to give to the needy, this is most certainly as good a place as any.
Now the gears start to work. Now I start to wonder. Here are a few things that happen every weekend already: the San Pablo Corridor Coalition goes down to do street cleaning, people show up to give out food. While Occupy Oaklanders were assisting, the park felt relatively free of threat. Some of the parks more regular denizens mingled with us and shared coffee with us. What was the harm? We weren’t displacing them. We were providing for them. These are Occupiers, Occupying, their specialty. What if we got it all working in concert? What if it all happened at the same time? The free food and the outreach, the concern and the solidarity, all of which is already there, and then add in Occupy Oakland. Add in a few medics providing free medical care. College graduates to provide free tutoring. What if, after each cleaning, from 10 — 12, we could follow with a cook out or a lunch from 12 — 2. Would we still be allowed to feel safe? Maybe, if we told some church groups about the possibility. Maybe, if we got enough numbers. I remember there used to be a similar little park on West Grand and San Pablo Avenue a few years ago. The drug dealers and their customers aren’t there any more, not because they left, but because the city tore the park down. So, the addicts moved up the street. Maybe for St. Andrews we can try a different approach. We’ll surely discuss at our next meeting. For now that’s all we can do. Baby steps, I have to remember. It’s a lot easier to talk, and write, than act.
There are a few other things to take into account as well. I’m not the only one in OO who’s thinking more about ways to engage a broader spectrum of Oakland. While the Outreach committee, and a few others, such as Occupy the Hood, have been thinking about this sort of thing for a while, a larger portion of OOers, including refugees from the disbanded Move-In Committee are following suit, planning a series of cook-outs and speak outs, block parties at prominent parks throughout the city. I wonder how this will work out. I wonder if the right connections can be made. They will have to get Occupy the Hood behind it to have any chance at all (though Occupy the Hood as well, from my reckoning at least, seems to be majority white as well). It’s a little different to add bodies to organizations that are already at work. To bring outsiders, because that is how they will be viewed, to a different area in order to talk about themselves, seems to risk being considered presumptuous. But it’s worth a try. I’m sure that people will be curious to see what we have to say. Occupy Brooms, for its part, and if it survives that long (first challenge being to convert from e-mailing list to list serve: we had 35 names on the e-mail list, but, very frustratingly, only 7 have so far signed up to the Occupy Brooms list serve), will certainly do its best to help.