Oakland’s Occupy Brooms Collective, Week Three: Community Organizing 101

Occupy Brooms and the San Pablo Corridor Coalition after a hard day's work.

One thing I’ve found, as I’ve worked on launching the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective, is that a degree of community organizing has been necessarily part and parcel of the process. I’ve also found that, in this case, it’s surprisingly easy. All you need is a little persistence and a little effrontery. A little self-righteousness, and I guess you have to enjoy it too. It probably doesn’t hurt if you believe what you’re saying (though that doesn’t seem to stop many politicians). We just finished our third week cleaning up trash down at St. Andrew’s Plaza, a nasty little park on San Pablo Avenue, just south of the Emeryville Border. It’s one of those parks in front of which most regular people would be very unhappy to get a flat tire. During most days and nights it’s teeming with drug use, drug traffic and prostitution, and it helps to make the whole neighborhood around it un-safe. Every time we go out we get smiles and appreciation, and a little bemusement. But not once yet outright hostility, though that’s probably only a matter of time (and our affect on the drug dealers’ profit margins).

To get going at St. Andrew’s, we plugged into a group called the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, which has been going down to that park every Saturday for the last three years. They get their equipment from the City, which supposedly has a near-limitless volunteer tool supply depot (and which actually makes it very easy to access and use them). The SPCC people were more than happy to have Occupy Oakland on board, and each week so far we’ve brought about five to eight Occupiers down to the park, in addition to the SPCC’s usual near-equivalent amount. This is a perfect example of the ease of community organizing, at least when it comes to Occupy Oakland. Most of the time it seems like 90% of the work’s already been done for us, and all it takes is speaking with the right people and calling the right phone numbers. After that, the Occupy Oakland name pretty much speaks for itself. For good or ill. Everybody pays attention when OO comes to town, and in most cases everybody knows that the media won’t be far behind. I guess after that it’s just up to us not to embarrass ourselves.

Which, sad to say, is going to be a growing concern going forward. Nobody should be arrested on an OO Brooms action, in my opinion, and nobody should have to get in shouting matches. We are there to do a good, and to demonstrate our ability to do a good. Providing services for free, inclusively and with community involvement, should be radical enough. But it seems like every day something else happens with OO that needs to be explained or defended. In-fighting of the worst kind (which, thank the Gods, did not receive any kind of mainstream media attention). A few days ago a woman was harassed, assaulted, and robbed at a protest outside of a Wells Fargo branch on Piedmont Avenue, because she spoke up about her grievances about OO and our tactics. She was surrounded and punched and her wallet was taken from her purse, and a Barack Obama pin from her shirt. Three protesters were arrested and charged with robbery and committing a hate crime, because they made derogatory remarks about her perceived sexuality. Right now the story is number two on the Oakland Tribune’s most read stories section on its website. An absolute gift to OO’s enemies, that is impossible to refute, but can only be acknowledged. [Note: After writing this piece, I have since spoken to OO'ers who say that the hate crime charges are hugely trumped up and the robbery charges fraudulent — while the former sounds plausible to me I remain skeptical about the latter — according to one of the protesters' lawyers, they only used the sexually derogatory term after the woman had used a racial slur against them]. There is a real fury in some elements of Occupy Oakland that is absolutely unpredictable and uncontrollable. While it’s terrible, and can be genuinely frightening, I can’t help but find it a little beautiful as well, at least in its purity, in its inability to be anything but what it is. In a lot of ways, and for a lot of people, Oakland is a very ugly place. Any movement that honestly represents it will necessarily be a little ugly itself.

So far the Occupy Brooms people are generally of a less confrontational bent. It’s hard to find occasion to get in hand to hand confrontation when you’re sweeping up a street. Thank God. But if we are to have a real impact, we will have to bring in more people, and we will have to start taking more risks. And it may be difficult to keep things from spinning off the rails.

A lot of our members are really excited about establishing a community garden, for instance. Okay, this doesn’t sound so bad. There are already dozens of community gardens around the city, and a lot of them are largely volunteer-staffed. But then the first thing a lot of people are going to ask is “can we set up tents?” My own answer would be a resounding “No!” A community garden. A COMMUNITY garden, will be, well, in the community, with neighbors with families and children. They should not be forced to live with the fear of tear gas or unruly rallies going on into the night. But I believe these issues can be worked out as we go. I don’t think it will be too hard to make people respect a few ground rules, to make this action a little different. And one of the benefits of community gardens, is that everybody likes working in them. And another good thing, apparently there are about 15 vacant lots in West Oakland, which would be ideal for the purpose. They have been effectively abandoned by their owners, and the city would be only too happy to have somebody take it off their hands. One of them is right next door to the home of Alex, a SPCC board member who has been instrumental in getting us to work at St. Andrew’s and other nearby cleaning sites. The space is in the heart of West Oakland. It’s residential, and it’s quiet. There will be plenty of people to serve, and we would help to bring the whole area up just a little. If we do it right, it would be perfect. There are planning meetings upcoming. Further developments forthcoming.

Me, I’m just glad that my group’s getting off the ground. I love it. I really do. I enjoy debate and I enjoy coming up with ideas. I enjoy convincing people that I’m right, and I enjoy finding common ground in a productive fashion. But what I’m really looking forward to is trying my hand at our first big action, which we just today decided to implement. March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day, where, traditionally, there are speak-outs and education seminars, and children in public schools everywhere learn about the life of the famed labor leader. Perfect. We intend to do the full court OO press. Print flyers, generate a GA proposal, hold specialized meetings, and organize logistics. Get it on the OO events calendar. Past the surely endless discussions, the controversies, the generating of statements and press releases, the politicking and the arguing, deciding which projects to embark upon may be our hardest task. Because there is no lack of work to be done, and that’s to put it mildly. There are no city-employed litter pickers in the city. There is no lack of pollution, anywhere. Alex has 20 potted trees in his back yard that we can plant. We can clean up St. Andrew’s, like we always do. We can get some people to work establishing the community garden. And we can see what else comes forward. Tomorrow I’m meeting with some people from the Western Service Worker’s Association. They apparently canvass neighborhoods on a regular basis. Pastor Rainey, at the church down the street from St. Andrew’s, might have some ideas as well. We’ll need to find connections in the communities to move forward, people who live nearby who can take the lead and tell us where to go. Somehow, based on my experiences so far, I don’t think that this is going to be very hard.

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9 thoughts on “Oakland’s Occupy Brooms Collective, Week Three: Community Organizing 101

  1. katy says:

    yup, never a dull moment with OO. Any more news on the Piedmont Ave. thing? I don’t know anything about it. The end of the month city wide clean-up should be great, though. Lot’s of interest in the garden but we need to check on the toxicity of the ground and any dangers from it.

  2. antalpolony says:

    Just what I wrote above. They’re contesting the charges in court. I’m looking forward to giving the clean-up day a try.

    • katy says:

      Actually, I know very little about it, just a short article on Saturday in Chronicle. Its hard for me to believe it happened during an OO action because there was no mention of that in what I read, and there would have been, and, also, OO’s are good at diffusing stupid situations amongst their own. and this sounds pretty stupid.

      • antalpolony says:

        I spoke to a few people at the GA who said that the charges were bullshit. The hate crime one, in retrospect, does sound that way, but I’m not really sure how somebody could make up a robbery charge. I guess I’ll just keep an open mind.

  3. boog washington says:

    I think that if cleaning up parks in West Oakland makes you feel better about yourself then maybe it is a worthwhile use of your time. Just realize where that desire comes from and the people who actually benefit from your actions. I wouldn’t glibly say that those involved in your group are non-confrontational; unless you think that gentrification is just good capitalism (as if such thing existed) helping ‘clean up’ our streets and make them more appealing for real estate speculation. I wonder how much property your SPCC board members own in the areas that you are ‘cleaning up’; don’t mistake, your volunteered time and work is of great value to them. I hope that the areas in which you are setting up your community gardens are declared public space. Otherwise, they just become pretty little holding chips until the real estate goes up. Whoever actually owns the land can clear cut your garden and sell the plot. Again, you become merely a stooge for gentrification. If you are going to play that game you might as well get paid too. Community gardens benefit no one if the community isn’t involved, interested in having one, and then sustaining it. Do you live in the neighborhood that you are starting this garden? I’m sure you have support from within the community already. I know that your heart is in the right place and wanting to help but maybe that help should be directed towards effecting equality. Maybe get involved with the ‘occupy our homes’ if you want to serve the community. There is a reason the police force is militarizing and gassing OO protesters and not your Brooms Collective; OO poses a threat to a corrupt system, you are simply the lowly house servant.

    • antalpolony says:

      I think you bring up a very valid point. I don’t live in that community, but I did grow up there. I do want very much to keep OO Brooms from becoming a tool for gentrification, and I absolutely agree that the only way to do that is to make inclusivity the primary focus of our work. I’ll need to find out more details about the community garden lot. I believe it has been declared public space, but I don’t want to stand by that statement absolutely. But if we are to be involved with it, I imagine that Occupy’s adherence to absolute democracy will be hugely instrumental to anything that is affected there. I don’t think that we are stooges for gentrification. yes, most of us are white, but we are not working “for” anybody. As somebody who grew up in West Oakland, i do believe that our actions at that park are valuable to the neighborhood around us. We are careful not to exclude anybody from using the park, though of course our presence might deter overt drug use and prostitution, for instance.

    • antalpolony says:

      And yes, I do agree that occupy our homes is absolutely an essential part of OO, and I’m so glad to see it getting off the ground. I also think that there are already a lot of people doing that work, while many OOers have failed to get out and experience and engage in the city in which they are protesting. This has opened the movement up to a lot of criticism. And yes, there is a reason the police force is not gassing us: we aren’t breaking any laws. I don’t think that means we aren’t radical, by any stretch of the imagination. It is just a different application of efforts, all in the interest of solidarity, and most certainly NOT gentrification.

      • antalpolony says:

        And of course not to say that OOers are always breaking laws and provoking the police. But I don’t think that the police or the power structures attacking us means that our efforts are any less valuable. If we are to stay in Oakland, and not have the entire city turn against us, we’re going to have to make more of an effort to work with them.

  4. [...] Brooms Collective has been  meeting Saturday mornings at 9 AM or 10 AM for a year now at a tiny park at 32nd and San Pablo in Oakland. [...]

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