Over the last month or so, I have become increasingly involved with Occupy Oakland (while trying my hardest to keep up with the rest of life’s inconvenient responsibilities, many of which, unfortunately, are far less involving than OO). The other day, I for the first time witnessed a confrontation with the police, thankfully free of riot shields and pepper spray. And it was an undeniable victory. Small, but undeniable. As you may well know already, the police of late have been applying an unprecedented amount of pressure on OO wherever it may manifest, be it the 24-hour vigil holders, or people on the plaza who have fixed an umbrella into the ground. The infractions are often petty, yet ruthlessly enforced. In some cases the police seem to have targeted specific protesters. In lock up, there have been stories of individuals deprived of bathrooms, food, first aid, and their phone call. OO, of course, has not taken all of this lying down, and over the last two weeks, there have been several “Fuck the Police” Marches“, disembarking from 14th and Broadway and usually terminating at or near the police station. These have resulted in several arrests, and some property damage to police vehicles and the area about the police station. A lot of people don’t agree with these marches, and think them unproductive or pointless. But given what has been going on, I for one find them understandable at least, if something of a double-edged sword. While they risk scaring away some outsiders, I think they also help the movement as a whole retain its radical edge, and help us all not to be intimidated. Some fear that the larger public will come to define OO based on its relationship with the police, but I for one don’t think that that’s likely, and think it would be counter-productive to try too hard to stop the marches even if I felt otherwise.
So, at the GA on Sunday, we were getting ready to vote on the agenda’s first proposal, when a “comrade” walked into the center of the space and cut off the facilitators, saying that a man was being arrested at the edge of the plaza for a charge that had already been dismissed. He told us there was only three of them. Other than that, he didn’t have to say much. Slowly at first, with some showing far more enthusiasm than others, we stood up and started towards the 14th Street side of the plaza, where, indeed, three uniformed police officers had encircled a man sitting on the steps with his head bowed. We were about 100 strong. We surrounded the officers. A few of the long-timers and stalwarts stepped to the front of the crowd to shout into their faces. One person brought out his laptop and started reading legal code to them. When the crowd started chanting “Pigs go home! Pigs go home!” you could see the officers growing nervous.
Me, I’m not used to seeing police officers nervous, and I started getting a little nervous myself, started thinking of all those pepper spray and baton stories, and I started to wonder what these guys had on those ridiculously over-stocked utility belts. The police were not attempting to speak with anyone or to clear a path, but they were calling on their radios. A few more OPD cars swerved off of Broadway and pulled up. The backup. Now I really was worried.
But instead of whipping out the tear gas, they got back into their car, parked and surrounded on the 14th Street sidewalk, and left the young man on the plaza steps. After a few members started telling us to “let them leave, let them leave,” we cleared a path, and the car slowly and carefully rolled past. We gave a general cheer, and then, after being reminded that we still had some voting to do, we returned to the plaza steps and the meeting continued (almost) as if nothing had happened.
That was a victory. Small, but undeniable. Perhaps it is testament to how far this movement has gone already that, upstanding citizen that I am, I would ever consider such a statement. But the repression that the Occupy Movement has met with, here in Oakland and around the country, is unprecedented and truly heinous. At a certain point it becomes hard not to buy into a kind of siege mentality. At this point the police seem to be making a concerted effort to bring the protest movement down. Of course, the police aren’t the real problem. But they are its most obvious manifestation, and we will have to survive them if we are ever to accomplish anything else.
There will, no doubt, be more repression to come. And one particularly contentious action, the taking of a large building, termed Move-In Day and the Oakland Rise Up Festival, which is to occur on January 28th and 29th, at an as yet undisclosed location, could very well be the next flashpoint. Taking a building is a truly radical step. We are all scrambling now to pull it off as well as we can. Honestly, and though I am absolutely going to give it my all in an effort to prove otherwise, I’m not sure that this action will be a success — that is, that we will be able to hold the building long-term. We might not have given ourselves enough time to prepare, and the original proposers might not have fully appreciated the spectrum of challenges the action would face. This is a direct strike to the face of the political, financial, and law enforcement forces that are arrayed against the Occupy movement, and they will likely do everything in their power to see that it doesn’t come to pass. This is property, that magical term. Taking it for our own is illegal even under the most generous of interpretations. But, at the same time, when thousands of buildings across the city are vacant, and tens of thousands more are homeless, who cares? What good is that building doing? And furthermore, if any Occupation can pull something like this off, it’s Oakland’s. We have proven that much. It will take a lot of numbers, and it will take a lot of outreach, but it can happen. The more people show up, the less likely it is there will be a police action. The Occupy movement is stronger here in Oakland than it is perhaps anywhere else in the country. This is partly because Oakland already has so deep and proud a history of civic activism. If Occupy can tap into that, can make the people of Oakland, all the people of Oakland, including residents of Fruitvale, West Oakland, the Burges, and the hills, see this movement as a resource, a uniquely Oakland opportunity to fight for their own self-empowerment, than I believe even the city council may come to see our use. Think about it. It takes only 30 people to stop an illegal foreclosure. How many would it take to stop a school closure? To highlight a vital service cut? To hamper draconian raids by ICE? Occupy Oakland provides a place where we can stand together, in the truest sense of the word, such a rarity in this hugely divided city. Now, imagine if we had a building, with a reception area, offices, speaking areas, bathrooms, a kitchen, tables, chairs and windows. Man. If we had that there’d be no stopping us.