It’s probably safe to say that the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective has moved onto phase two. That is, facilitating and planning a new idea that organically grew out of our collective efforts, and might even have more interest than the original. That is, a community garden. It wasn’t my idea, and apparently it’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while, but which the energy behind Occupy Oakland may well be able to take credit for actually sparking. Another thing I love about Occupy. Since everything moves at lightning speed, everything has a sense of urgency, and there’s a sense, true or not, that if you don’t follow through with your idea immediately or sooner, then somebody else will go ahead and beat you to the punch. There’s always a sense of (sometimes) friendly, but (usually) healthy competition. More often than not we can move on from there, with only limited damage to egos or concepts.
In this case though, the competition came from an entity outside of Occupy, that is, the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, which has been active in West Oakland for years, and a man named Alex Miller-Cole, who has been a well-known community organizer for just as long, and is running for city council in 2012. OOBrooms couldn’t have had so many satisfying successes already if it weren’t for them, and they too have benefited from our presence. A conflict of some kind was inevitable, but I believe that it has not led to any lasting problems. Hopefully, this is what the roots of a beautiful friendship look like.
Last weekend after our clean-up at St. Andrew’s Park on 32nd and San Pablo, we followed up with a BBQ at a vacant lot on 28th and Market, the proposed sight for the new garden. The lot is one of a handful of like spaces that have been vacant and classified as blighted for long enough to be officially owned by no one. Not even the city, which, strapped for cash as it is, would be only too happy to pass custodial responsibilities on to other willing parties. Mr. Miller-Cole is a well-known presence in this neighborhood, and the BBQ was a thing of beauty. Occupy Oaklanders rubbing shoulders with real community members! All of us discussing neighborhood issues and how best to accommodate our differing agendas and passionate beliefs, making sure always to keep the interests of the garden and the community first and front most. Like the Occupy medics say, the first rule should be to do no harm. It seemed that we were all in agreement on this point. We took stack, took notes, and exchanged e-mail addresses. A new list serve was born (there are already too many to keep track of), and the page-long e-mail correspondences commenced. Now, after each clean-up at 10AM Saturdays on San Pablo, we will follow up with planning meetings at 28h and Market at 12:00. Tempers will flare and egos will be bruised. All in the game.
In fact, the first such conflict probably already came to pass: after the meeting last weekend, in my capacity as e-mail facilitator, I sent out an e-mail proposing the agenda of next weekend’s meeting. Proposing a few points of discussion and the formation of possible subcommittees to distribute the work. A few hours later, Alex Miller-Cole responded, effectively shutting the agenda down, stating, among other things, that he didn’t want any outside groups to be taking over the decision-making process, to be making gains from a community, which is already too familiar with the “come to good, stay to do well,” self-interested do-gooder mentality. Defensiveness crops on both sides, and many Occupiers responded apologetically, making it clear that we too do not wish to overstep our bounds. Because, after all, it’s the truth, we should not be there to commandeer, we should be there to help and to support, and Alex and the SPc2 should be respected for the hard work they’ve put in over so long a period before Occupy even existed (which, of course, hasn’t been that long at all — OWS celebrated its 6 month anniversary just yesterday, when over 500 protesters temporarily re-took Zuccotti Park, leading to the predictable stories of police brutality, and the just as predictable calls for solidarity and anti-police protests — the familiar, and necessary controversy cropping up all over again. Some things will probably never change, and, if you ask me, they probably shouldn’t).
We met again yesterday, the Broomers and the SPc2, and it became a little clearer what Alex had in mind for the garden: specifically, a place where the neighborhood kids can be explicitly included — a playground and a safe after-school place, coupled with the garden in some manner or other. It remains to be seen what this will look like and how it will come about, but it is radically different from what most of us had in mind. Next week we will meet to determine what form participatory democracy will take here, with more weight given to community members and local kids than to outsiders or Occupiers. The week after we will canvass the neighborhood with flyers, and the week after that we will hold our first “Share It,” where we will generate and vote on ideas. It is clear that the Market Street Garden (as I’ve been calling it until we come up with a better name) will not be an “Occupy” garden. But it will be a chance for Occupy to help in something that will be lasting and appreciated, and may become a model for like establishments elsewhere in the city, perhaps at another vacant lot. This will be a learning experience for all of us. I for one feel extraordinarily privileged to be a part of it.