Monthly Archives: February 2012

Occupy Brooms Collective’s First Action, and the Upcoming Block Party Speak-Outs

A Group called TOLA Conducting Neighborhood Clean Up at St. Andrews Plaza in 2011 — Words Used in Accompanying Article Include "De-Moralized," "Exhausted," and "Relieved"

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.

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Occupy Oakland’s Shifting Winds, and My Transition from Attendee, to Organizer — Coming Soon: the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective

Since January 28th, with the mass arrests, the street battles with the police, and the vandalism of City Hall, there seems to have been something of a wind change within Occupy Oakland. While no one is going so far as to apologize for taking the action, those of us within the Move-In Committee do seem a little bit chastened. Despite the threat for retaliatory action, proclaimed in a press release from which many have since distanced themselves, we will not be attempting another action in the same vein. In a quiet, and somewhat dejected meeting earlier today, we agreed to suspend the committee until further notice. Or until somebody comes up with a better idea.

OO has long been criticized for its tactics, its unashamed radicalism, and its militancy. Its refusal to accommodate the police in any form, or to take any statement by the mayor or the city council or the mainstream media, local and national, at face value. But the internal criticism finally became to strong to ignore, perhaps best evidenced by the formation of a Non-Violence Caucus, which meets weekly to discuss non-violent resistance. People with signs proclaiming “stop the vandalism” began to appear at our GA’s. And then there’s Stand For Oakland, an anti-OO group that held its first rally last weekend, counter to an OO rally occurring at the same time — police in riot gear, not to miss a chance to posture in front of the heavy media coverage, stormed our rally and confiscated our sound equipment, a first — we have used this equipment at each one of our GA’s, unlicensed, for as long as I have been attending.

I for one, particularly after my arrest on January 28th, which I strongly believe to have been unjust, have grown less and less patient with the constant argument surrounding “diversity of tactics.” It has become harder and harder for me to see property damage as violence. I have found myself agreeing, more and more vociferously, with the sentiment that the police are the only ones committing any real acts of violence. This despite the article by Chris Hedges, a well-respected intellectual ally of the Occupy movement, calling the Black Bloc a “Cancer in Occupy.” Among other things, Hedges posits that the anarchists who make up the Black Bloc are against all “liberals” who do not think like them, and are in it only for thrills and infantilistic re-masculanisation. Problematic, writes one rebuttal, because the Black Bloc, like Occupy, is not a monolithic organization, with leaders and edicts and due-paying members, but rather a collection of people who engage in certain tactics, in their case, targeted property destruction and physical resistance to the police. Their politics, like their movement and tactics, vary with each and every person who chooses to dress in black and wear a black bandana across his or her face. The “Fuck the Police” marches still taking place every Saturday are not associated with the Black Bloc in any way, and are, in my increasingly radical opinion, useful in highlighting the real and justified anger within OO at the OPD, whose repression is consistent, direct, and effective, and is not likely to let up until Occupy Oakland has been subdued and crushed.

And yet, despite mine and my comrades anger and frustration, there has been an increase in soul searching, in recognizing the necessity of engaging a community that does in fact seem to be losing patience with us, within which many wonder how we could have expected any different on January 28th. I for one am glad that we took the action. I am glad I participated. Maybe I’m even glad that I got arrested. I got to witness what we were up against first hand. Now I know. And since that weekend, the energy in OO has indeed returned, for people on both sides of the diversity of tactics vs. non-violence debate. It’s back to that old feeling, just after the General Strike in November 2nd — again, events and actions and meetings are moving so fast and constant that if you miss a day you miss a world. There seems a greater awareness of the many differing opinions about us in this city, which we claim as our own, yet with which many of us are so unfamiliar. And while many Oaklanders may support our philosophy, far fewer will involve themselves or their families in actions that carry the risk of harm or arrest or tear-gas. Not to say that they don’t appreciate those of us who will.

It has come time for Occupy Oakland to become a welcoming movement. A place that offers support, and requests it. This does not mean we have to lose our radicalism, we just have to compliment it. I believe that there are a few ways that we could go about doing so, and one potentially important one is through regularly scheduling a series of simple, worthwhile community service projects: neighborhood clean-ups, tutoring services, the offering of free food and basic medical care. In this spirit, and because nobody else was doing it, I decided to spearhead the formation of the Occupy Brooms Collective. Still little more than an idea and an e-mail list, my personal vision, which I will surely have to sacrifice if or when our ranks increase, is of a regularly scheduled series of small scale actions in which Occupy Oakland members, wearing recognizable light blue Occupy vests (light blue being the unofficial “color” of the movement), participate in street cleaning and neighborhood beautification projects throughout the city, in conjunction with supporters, community organizations, and area residents. This can allow us a positive outlet for our energy, and it will force us away from Oscar Grant Plaza. It will take many OO’ers out into a city that could greatly benefit from our presence, and whose support could benefit us in return. It will force us to engage with community members and it will force us to argue with them. We will see that it really isn’t as simple as us vs. the 1%. We will give OO a human face, and we will counter-act the media narrative characterizing us as nihilistic hooligans and thrill seekers. After all, there’s nothing more thrilling than sweeping a sidewalk.

I’ve announced my plan at a few GA’s, collected some e-mails, and started the discussion. The first dilemma: should we request funds from the GA, which is notoriously stingy, or rely on donations and spare parts alone? We shall see. Hopefully we’ll have our first action this weekend, and then another the weekend after that. As a part of my organizing efforts, I’ll have to step up my participation: in addition to the GA’s, I’ll begin attending meetings of Occupy the Hood, and the Community Outreach Collective, two very interesting groups engaging in some very interesting efforts. And of course, I’ll continue to write about all of it as I go.

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Occupy Oakland Rises Up, Part 3

Armchair Radical

Fuel to the Fire

It had been about 22 hours since I was arrested on Broadway. Dublin is about 45 minutes drive from Oakland. They were here to take us home. It would have been a long walk to the BART station without them. I requested that we stop by an In ‘N Out Burger on the way. The faster I forgot what the Santa Rita bologna sandwiches tasted like, the better. I was driven by a couple who I vaguely recognized, and shared the ride with a fellow Occupier who I didn’t.

Then we drove home. They took me back to my apartment, not far from the plaza. One of the first things I did when I walked through the door, after emptying out my backpack, was to check the local news coverage. The first thing I found on the Oakland Tribune’s homepage was an image of a small group of Occupiers burning the American flag. The next, was a picture of Mayor Jean Quan, looking down at the vandalized model of the City Hall. Over 300 people had been arrested along with me in front of the YMCA. About 100 more would be arrested before the night was over. The narrative that the mayor and the council and their allies would push over the next few days was of a group of outside agitators who had targeted Oakland, for use as their “playground.” Ignacio de la Fuente, council representative of the Fruitvale district, went so far to call us domestic terrorists. When I read that statement, I wondered what he would have said to the assertion that arresting 400 people on dubious charges was probably a fantastic way to produce them. I thought of the Earth Liberation Front, the environmentalists who vandalize Hummer dealerships and oil derricks. Classified as the most dangerous domestic terror group in the country, though they’d never caused bodily harm to a single person in all their years of operation. I wondered then at the real danger that Occupy Oakland could end up falling somewhere on the same rubric.

There was a weird sort of energy in me, being back. People in Santa Rita warned about trauma from teargas or beating, or indeed arrest in general. I didn’t feel traumatized. I felt wired. Exhausted and drawn and confused. I couldn’t stay in my apartment. It was too small and it was too quiet and too much had just happened to me. I knew I had to re-charge. I would soon have real world responsibilities to attend to. But I just couldn’t sit down and relax, watch TV or read a book. I couldn’t call up some friend who wasn’t sure about Occupy in the first place. I didn’t want to explain what had just happened. I needed to be around others who knew what I had been through already, who would be just as confused and furious as I was. And when I checked the Occupy Oakland website, I saw that, as luck would have it, the GA which is usually held earlier in the day, was in fact just about to start. I got on my bike and headed for the plaza through the streets of my so-familiar hometown, which had never seemed more alive and proud and dangerous. I found over 250 people seated in the plaza amphitheater in front of the recently vandalized City Hall, and more were arriving. This was the largest GA I’d seen in months. And when the speakers spoke about state repression and police brutality, familiar terms casually employed at nearly every OO assembly and working group, their words reached me in a way they usually didn’t. What’s more, I could hear them reaching others. Spontaneous chants started up in the crowd, while we voted to endorse an upcoming Occupation of San Quentin, and another General Strike on May 1st. A donation basket was passed around for the bail fund. When it completed its circuit, it was stuffed to the brim with crumpled green bills.

If there was one general, overall emotion that I felt there, in the crowd, and in myself, it was of defiance. We had been wronged. They had tried to take us down with brute force. They were trying to scare us. But we were still there. More of us than had been in a long time, and we were all fucking pissed. We wanted to tell them that we weren’t going anywhere. We wanted to give them one, giant, collective “fuck you.” In fact, that’s exactly what we did to the four cops standing nervously in front of City Hall’s doors. I am not a rabid anti-capitalist. I do not condone vandalism or inciting confrontations. But I do not like what they tried to do to us. We have grievances, and they will be heard. Many will wonder where the Occupy Movement, and the Occupy Oakland movement, because it is probably worthwhile to distinguish between the two, will go from here. If we will be drawn into a tit for tat with the police, lose our way and lose our support. That is a fair question. But, if I may say so, it is something of an amazing thing that this question is even being asked. In this, Occupy has already had a victory. Now that the right questions are being asked, we must decide how best to answer them. How best to survive and grow and avoid being put down.  So, in a word, what will happen next is truly anyone’s guess.

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Occupy Oakland Rises Up, Part 2

Night and Day in Santa Rita

Since I was near the edge of the sidewalk, and closest to the riot lines, I was one of the first to be arrested. There were over 330 people behind me, cornered in front of the YMCA. Shortly after they put the zip ties on me, sat me down on the pavement and put my backpack on my legs, there was a melee in the crowd, and I saw a vague blur of a red-sweatered protester pulled forward and dog-piled by dark blue and plastic helmets. I saw flying black-gloved fists, and I never saw the offending person clearly.

The crying, at least, had pretty much stopped. I had gone out of my way to be civil, to show that I was no threat. I’d never been arrested before, and I had not come to Move-In Day expecting to be arrested. I knew that it was a risk, and I knew that some people surely would, but I mostly believed that those who are arrested are at least partly complicit in the event. Me I had too many things to worry about. The draw that Occupy Oakland exercises over me is strong, and it grows stronger all the time. But I have yet to completely turn my back on the professional world. For the last eight or nine months, I’ve more or less been living as a kind of freelance writer, but I have been looking for full-time work. In fact, just before this action, I might have landed one. My first day was on Monday. Therefore I trusted my own good judgment enough to listen to my instincts when it seemed like shit was getting crazy, to remove myself before I became a party to them. If people started breaking things, I would move away. If people started fighting the police, I would disassociate myself. When the march got too small, I would leave. I would not participate in a fuck the police march. I would go through the action content in the knowledge that I had done nothing wrong.

Which is why I was so fucking angry that, despite all I’d done to stay on the right side, to not do anything worse than anybody else, I was one of the first to be arrested. The OPD had just attempted to put down an entire demonstration, indiscriminately. That was not fucking right. No matter what some of my comrades had done in the past.

So, caught somewhere between fear, shock, and self-righteousness, as the police went about their business, I followed their instructions to the letter, but I couldn’t help but bait them. I could see that they weren’t going to be cruel with me. They could tell I wasn’t one of the “bad ones.” Oh man how sweet it would have been to oh so subtlely prove them wrong. Yes, I have an address, and a bank account, and a fledgling career. But I was not one of them. I was one of the Occupiers. They would not get any sympathy from me. The fire was coming into my eyes. Yeah, I was pissed off. I was really fucking pissed off. Where did they get the right? It was strange to feel so personal an anger at the state. It’s foreign to those like myself, who spent their lives looking on the police as protectors, if problematic ones. I am white, and I am not poor. I grew up in Oakland. I saw what they did to others, but, at least most of the time, I’ve found myself safe in the assurance that it was people like me who their system had been built to protect and serve. Now, the dynamic had shifted. Now, indeed, they were the adversaries, and that’s how they saw me — or, at least, that’s how they saw the movement with which I so closely identify. They were arresting me for no reason that I could easily figure. I was experiencing now what so many down at the plaza had been experiencing every day, and, I suppose, what so many black and brown and poor and homeless people do too. It was not a good feeling. It’s alienating, it’s infuriating, and it’s very scary. Because now, there’s nobody you can call. When the police are the wrongdoers, you can’t exactly call the police on them. You wonder if it’s too late, if you have crossed a line and if there’s no turning back. Or you wonder where exactly that line is, and just how far you will be allowed to push it. You know one thing for sure: you do not want to be told what to do, to be told that what you feel or think is wrong, to be told to be something other than who you are. But that’s just what they were doing. So when the officer “assigned” to me (each arrestee had an officer or two who followed them through processing, right there on the sidewalk on laptops set up on folded out plastic tables) appeared to be friendly, to wish to distance herself from the faceless images of Occupy police brutality we see on the television, I was a little less than accommodating. I did not miss a chance to bait her. I even got her to give me candy out of my backpack (I discovered somewhere in the process that they had to do what you say in terms of your personal property. She followed many a useless directive during our time together).

It took about an hour and a half for them to finish filling out the paperwork, to take my picture, to throw my backpack into a big armored truck, and to load me onto the prisoner transfer bus. There were two more waiting on the block. By the end of the night, they would end up putting an AC Transit commuter bus to use for the same purpose. Everything inside the bus was metal. The bench, the gratings, the plates covering the windows, so that we could see out, but nobody outside could see in. The zip ties on my wrist were tight, but not too tight. I didn’t lose circulation, as I’ve heard others did, but I had to keep shifting my weight forward and back. It was getting cold, so I closed the window. Had to stand up to do so.

The crowd in front of the YMCA was still thick and chanting. At one point they started singing “YMCA”.

The bus was divided into three sections by metal grating. They filled all three sections with protesters, to per metal bench. There wasn’t much talking on the bus. There was some, but it was limited, it was subdued, shocked and angry. When the bus driver came on, he told us to “keep quiet. We’re going to North County, but if you do anything to piss me off, I’m taking this bus all the way out to Santa Rita.” This shut us up. I’m not sure that many of us knew what he meant. I know I didn’t, though the name Santa Rita rang an associate bell — one of those awful places, like San Quentin or Sing Sing, a societal black hole where I wouldn’t last a day beyond the protection of a locked cell door. None of us wanted to go there. The guard knew it. Otherwise he probably would have been “Mic checked” until his head exploded. Instead, we talked among ourselves, quietly. One of the girls in the back started singing. This was surprisingly comforting. I suppose we were all scared. But after we found out that North County was only in downtown Oakland, and our bus had long since gotten on Interstate 580, it was clear that the bus driver had lied to us. Indeed, we soon saw the signs for Dublin, and, not long after, we passed through a checkpoint, and another stone sign, proclaiming this to be Santa Rita, a sprawling tan pink cement complex, surrounded by doubled cyclone fences ringed with concertina barbed wire. Floodlights spaced at intervals, recalling government camps and Guantanamo Bay. But I couldn’t see much out the windows. I was hunched forward because of the zip ties and the position of my arms.

The driver pulled to a stop, and unapologetically informed us that we’d arrived at Santa Rita. He warned us that “This is a large jail, and it’s more beurocratic than North County, so this is gonna take a while.” A few minutes later they started taking us off, reading our names out from a clipboard, lining us up against the side of the bus, and then marching us ten at a time into the jail, a timeless world of buzzing white fluorescent lights that run 24 hours a day. Even from the beginning, with the driver’s casually coercive lie, there was a palpable difference in the air around Santa Rita. A deadening sense of oppression for oppression’s sake. Unlike the OPD officers, who, after they’d subdued us, retained a veneer of amiability or at least cordial professionalism, Santa Rita’s prison guards showed no care whatsoever towards pretenses of civility. They made us move fast, and they made it clear in their eyes that they didn’t want to see an attitude, of any kind. They insulted us, and they would not be rushed. There was the feeling that punishment could arrive swift and arbitrary and unexpected. That they would be doing us a favor to do their jobs right.

Lined up now against a dirty white cement hallway, one of them clipped the zip tie off my wrists. He took my wallet and filled out a property sheet. They told us to follow blue lines on the ground and they told us not to talk. They marched us into a holding cell, me and about 10 other young men, the genders of course kept separate. We sat down and looked at each other, with a sort of embarrassment. One of us said, a little uselessly: “We should all be aware that it’s possible that our conversations are being recorded.” We nodded sagely. Though of course the truth was that no one here had any idea what was happening, or what to expect. We didn’t know if we were charged, and we might not even really have been clear what “Being charged” meant. We had seen people beaten, and rumors circulated that some of those that had been caught at the YMCA were being accused of burglary. The OPD officers had assured us off-handedly that we would get home before they would. But we had also heard stories of Occupiers detained for days. We knew that there would be no love for us here. We’d been arrested on a Saturday, and we assured each other that they could only hold you 24 hours without charge, but those are 24 business hours, so we could well be here until midnight on Monday, if the Santa Rita prison guards so decided. It wouldn’t turn out that way. As it turned out, all of the protesters arrested at the Y were ferried to Santa Rita, and together we occupied (for lack of a better word) nearly their entire temporary holding facilities. The cell I was in first was positioned just to the right of the entrance. All night, a steady parade of protesters, young people, middle aged people, men and women, were lined up one by one and frisked. They handed over their belts and their jewelry and the laces from their shoes, then they were taken out of sight. One after the other. Very few of them I recognized. Sometimes they waved at us when they caught me and my cellmates looking. More often than not they just looked embarrassed.

I was in Santa Rita for about 20 hours altogether. I got some sleep. When there were only 11 of us to a cell, we could all comfortably (relatively) stretch out on the cement floor or the small cement aperture bench that ringed the walls. We could close our eyes, use our clothes or our shoes or our arms for pillows, and wrap ourselves as tightly as possible against the relative chill. The guards gave us “lunch” for dinner and for breakfast, two sheets of bologna and two squares of wheat bread, with a cup, an orange, and two or three quarter-sized cream cookies. They did not answer any of our questions, except when they wanted to increase our confusion. One of the female guards assured us repeatedly that we were going to be here for a long time, and once or twice ominously told us to get ready to “go to jail.” As the neighboring cells filled with Occupiers, we could sometimes hear them chanting, calling for medical help or their phone call or just in plain frustration. Some of the long-term prisoners were tasked with mopping the hallway floors. They peered threateningly in through the wire-hatched windows, muttering and shaking their heads (except for one, who seemed in a good mood and who I’ve heard a lot of Occupiers since speak about favorably, if only as precious proof that the prisoners were “down” with us too).

Me, my best memories were of my first group of cellmates. We were together I believe for the longest period of time, though time was a pretty meaningless concept in there, where there is no clocks or sunlight. Them I could take. We shared with each other our stories of arrest and our feelings of indignation. We realized our collective solidarity, how here and now, we all truly were in exactly the same boat. We understood each other’s stresses, and we explained them to each other.

But when they started cycling us in and out of the cells in groups, apparently at random, this increased my stress a bit. First they took us out to have our mug shots taken (second time that night, first by the OPD), and to print and attach plastic identification bracelets to our wrists, with our picture and our name and a string of nonsensical numbers. In my picture, I stare back at the camera with wide and angry eyes and wild hair. The sort of picture that would be perfectly at home on the 6 o’clock news. Just another as if unintentional reduction, a de-humanization. We all become no more important than the bracelet on our wrists, recognizable, and lumped in with all the others who have been deemed enemies of society.

They took us back to our room after that. We’d been in four hours at least, and we’d only just been fully processed. It was clear our long night was far from over. We watched out the cell window as similar groups of our comrades were brought through the same procedures. Each time we heard the jingling keys on the guards hips as they walked towards us, we all perked up a little bit. Hope that we would be released, that we would receive some unexpected kindness. We were always disappointed.

Every now and then our fellows down the hall would break out into the uniform chants that Occupiers everywhere are famous for. The one we heard several times was: “We need help! We need help!” Apparently this was for a prisoner who had fallen ill. Once the rumor was it was for diabetic medicine. Once for HIV medication. Both times they were reportedly denied treatment. Since we weren’t prisoners charged with any specific crime, we were not allowed access to the Santa Rita medics. Our comrades would just have to wait.

Some time later, a group of us was taken out again, about six of us as I remember, and we were taken to a different holding cell, more crowded than the last, and with mostly unfamiliar faces. We tried to keep the smiles and good cheers going, but it had grown more difficult. I found it harder to stomach these new cellmates, to keep the solidarity full and frontmost. We’d already said all there was to say in our previous group, and these guys had probably done the same, yet our new group hadn’t gone through the experience of saying it to each other. So we were in the same boat, but we had no familiarity. When minor annoyances or irritations reared their head, it was that much harder to just keep on talking, because everything had already been said. I can see how Malcolm X and Mumia call being in prison reductive: the longer I stayed, the more I felt the ruthless imperative to me and myself and myself alone. I wanted somewhere to sit, so I had to make a little room on the concrete bench. I was forced to entertain the possibility that I would be here for a while. That maybe I would be shuffled out of this cell again. Maybe even cast down with the real lawbreakers, the long-timers, where I would be forced to adapt as best I could, where I would really have to see how tough or broken I could be.

This new group of about 15 of us was inexplicably taken out and returned to the cell I’d just vacated, T-11. This was good, because T-11 had a more interesting vantage point, and it was larger. But just a few hours later, the door opened again, and 11 more protesters were funneled inside, many of them my fellows from the original cell. 26 of us now in a 10 X 10 room, with a single toilet. At first I was glad to see them, but this didn’t last long. Except for the cement bench on the walls, it was now standing room only, though some did gamely attempt to stretch out on the floor in the midst of the shuffling feet. Now more than ever, it was me and me alone. I couldn’t hold a conversation. I kept wondering how many more I would have. I lowered my head and pulled up my hood. I tried to clear my mind. Sometimes I drifted off to sleep. I have no idea for how long.

My only consistent diversion was the bracelet on my wrist. The familiar face there looking back at me. My face. But not me. A person who looked like me, but seemed to lack the compassion and good nature that I usually strive for. There was something different about my eyes, which people tell me are intense under normal circumstances. Now there was a paranoia in them and a wariness. A strong element of distrust and anger. I was changed, I could see it. And yet I had done nothing wrong. My anger was justified, and in this case my very country, the government, the state, the police, and the Santa Rita prison guards, were the focus. It’s a strange thing to feel a personal anger towards your own country. In this way, Santa Rita was a radicalizing experience.

Some time later (because remember time was meaningless), we heard the jingling keys again. A guard appeared, bearing a clipboard. He opened the door to the cell opposite ours, and selected about 8 girls and lined them up along the wall. We checked. They were already wearing bracelets. He took them off, following the blue line on the floor. We waited, and we waited, and we waited, but the girls didn’t come back. We knew that speculation was pointless, but it was also inevitable. The girls could have been taken to a different cell, they could have been taken to general population, or they could have been taken to Bagram airbase for all we knew. They could have been subjected to yet another bureaucratic hoop to jump through. Or, they could have been taken out. And, as luck would have it, the next jingling key steps of the guards ended at the door of our cell. All 26 of us looked up as he opened the door, and we took a step back. I was in the back of the room, sitting on the bench, so I couldn’t see him. He started reading out names. Told them to line up on the wall. He read about eight names, and mine was the last one on the list: “Aentael Palohny!” he called out. Of course I wouldn’t correct his pronunciation. In fact I thanked him, twice, as I walked out. Then I hated myself for doing so.

Indeed, it soon became clear that we had been chosen. We were going home. They marched us out to another room, this one separated by yet another set of metal bars, from an evidence locker, a desk with a guard at work behind it, phones and papers on the desk, and drawers and boxes and office machinery behind him. One by one, he called us up, and gave us back our stuff. Our shoelaces and our belts and whatever we’d had in our pockets. He didn’t miss an opportunity to speak down to us, but here we could actually hold our heads a little higher. When it was my turn, and he saw that I was from Oakland, he asked me if I was born there and I said yes, and he said, funny, cause one of the officers wrote down that you were from elsewhere. In response I said: “Well, then one of the officers was wrong.” The guard frowned, and gave me back my wallet, my shoelaces, and my belt. When I sat down on the floor and started to lace up my shoes, he yelled: “Hey!” he said, “Take it outside, okay.” I stood up, and I tried to follow his orders sarcastically, but I was also afraid. I also wondered for a moment, if I refused his orders, or if he perceived that I was, would I end up right back where I had just come from. And I didn’t want that. I didn’t want that.

I went out the front door and I laced up my shoes, then I walked ascended a staircase, and found the front doors of Santa Rita. And there was a crowd of supporters waiting outside. They were cheering and applauding, and the sun was shining and the air felt so good, so good, and I smiled, and it was a real smile and it felt good. I thanked them, and oh man, did I mean it. Entered back into the real world, where, in fact, time had continued to move, where people had been thinking about us, even in our seclusion. Solidarity. Fuel to the fire. These motherfuckers didn’t know what they had started by doing what they had done.

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Occupy Oakland Rises Up, Part 1

Move-In Day

I’d been hoping that it would be the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center from the beginning. This is a beautiful, historic building on the lake’s south shore, whose only reason for vacancy is former mayor Jerry Brown’s unsuccessful attempt to sell it. Occupy Oakland’s taking Henry J. Kaiser would have changed the landscape of the city, and would have highlighted the so poorly concealed rift between the needs of the city, and the ability of the city to meet them. That in itself would have been a worthy statement. If only it had worked out that way.

This was the first action with Occupy Oakland that I spent a lot of time and effort on. I was on the Outreach and Messaging subcommittees, which meant I spent a lot of time arguing, and dealing with language and political vocabulary. It often seems like everything in OO is an argument or a battle, but this action was especially contentious. It highlighted splits between those who advocated a pure form of “non-violence”, and those who held the line for a “diversity of tactics.” Meanwhile, tensions between OO and the police continued to intensify, as those Occupiers holding the 24 hour vigil at the plaza were systematically targeted and repressed, and each Saturday up to 100 protesters held “Fuck the Police” marches in response. The manic energy, anger and passion within OO always seems on the brink of spinning itself apart. And yet, at least so far, somehow the protest keeps on, and people keep showing up. Though, in recent months, in sadly dwindling numbers.

After about a month of planning, flyering, press conferences, and controversial press releases (threatening retaliatory action against the city, a stance many OOers disagreed with), the big day came. At noon on January 28th, the crowd was small, but by 1:30, the North side of the plaza was packed. When we took to the street, we blocked all four lanes and the sidewalks for at least three blocks. The sound truck played punk and hip-hop alternately. We snaked through downtown, and from what I could see, we were peaceful. There was music, and an upbeat atmosphere, a feeling of power and elation. It felt like it had on November 2nd, the final march of the general strike, when we had numbers and support and good will. We didn’t even seem to stop that much traffic — but this was partly because we were flanked and trailed by a handful of motorcycle cops, who kept their distance, and helped motorists to do the same. I didn’t see any greater police presence downtown, not until we were within blocks of the Convention Center.

But there they were, at 10th and Oak Streets, waiting in front of the museum, as if they had been there the whole time. Instead of charging them, we circled around and cut through the Laney College campus. But when we tried to go up onto 10th, the police lines had arrived ahead of us. At one passageway by the Laney tennis courts, a few of the shield-bearing protesters, approached the police line, up to within striking distance. But neither side struck, and after a few minutes the protesters pulled back (in an extra touch of surrealism, the tennis players kept on playing the whole time, and didn’t even stop to watch). We decided to go around, and cut through a short bit of construction onto the passage connecting the lake’s shores.

This is where the first tear gas was thrown, while we faced off with the police across the construction zone, after one Sergeant Batista declared our march an “unlawful assembly.” This was the only time I heard unlawful assembly declared, though the police made no arrests here. The passageway connects to 14th and 12th streets, and the police had also charged down from 12th Street, and there was a fracas there, which I could barely see. We took flight onto 14th Street.

When we turned down Oak, back towards the convention center, the police were there again, and when the front line of protesters approached, they fired more tear gas, at 10th and Oak, between the Oakland Museum and a block of apartment buildings. The wind was against them, though, and most of the gas didn’t reach the protesters. We retreated down 12th, and with some confusion and frustration, decided to go back to Oscar Grant Plaza to re-assemble and decide on our next step.

There was a sense of elation, at the sheer numbers and positive energy in the crowd, but there was also frustration, and anger. I for one was disappointed. I was surprised that the police had stood up to us. I’d expected that they wouldn’t stand up to the whole march, that they’d let us take the building for the weekend at least. It seemed a break from their usual, effective formula: wait until the numbers dwindle and the more mainstream citizens go home, and then swoop in and evict under cover of early morning dark. With all these people now idling at the Plaza, it was clear that the day was far from over. The planners had assured us that, should the primary target prove unattainable, there were contingency buildings in mind. Surely we would march on these. At about 6:00 that evening, we set off again, to do just that.

There was something different about this march from the beginning. Something more aimless and emotional. We started down Telegraph Avenue, and then took a right at 16th Street. The natural assumption was that we were marching on the Travelers Aid building, which had been briefly, and unsuccessfully, occupied the night of the general strike. But we passed by. There was a small crew of workers inside, putting up boards, though whether it was because of them that we didn’t enter, or because the Travelers Aid building wasn’t the intended target at all, I don’t know. We turned onto San Pablo Avenue, and began marching West, drawing further from downtown. We turned again at Grand, entering into the Uptown condo developments. I was getting tired. I was wondering what we were doing. But I stuck with it. I don’t know why. I didn’t want the day to be over, I suppose it was simple as that.

But there, among the tall apartment buildings of the Uptown development, the cops came back. Down 21st Street in a riot line. We turned right on Williams towards the park on Telegraph and 19th, the development’s central square. This seemed a good idea. There were a lot of exit points, and there was a field. I hadn’t expected the field to be fenced off. It hadn’t been fenced off a few days ago. But it was now. I won’t speculate. And as we entered into the square just south of the field, we saw another line of police, coming up 19th Street from the West, and then another, coming from the East. That made three lines of police. When a few protesters tried to take down the fence surrounding the field, the police rushed them, knocked some of them down, and the rest of them back. We backed onto the square, something of a combination playground and meeting space, with swings, benches, and a large chunk of statue and abstract art. Now we were trapped. We milled around. We were no longer a march, we were a crowd. I started towards one of the perimeters, which approached a line of police on 21st Street. I got near the front. My general strategy throughout the day was to approach near to the line, but not too near, and to stay to the side. My camera had run out of batteries earlier that day, but I wanted to see what was going on, even if I didn’t want to be on the front line myself. I wanted to contribute my calm and my level head, and I wanted to see who hit first. Earlier I’d seen protesters throw bottles and rocks, but I’d seen the police fire rubber bullets and tear gas first. And I’d seen people bulled under by charging lines of masked police, taken down like deers on a train track. The power differential is awesome and terrifying. Even with our numbers, we didn’t stand a chance.

The tear gas went off again, and this surprised me also. I’d was speaking with a woman who said she was an independent journalist, and she told me that, now that they had us trapped, most likely they would start to let us go little by little until the crowd had dispersed and the threat was somewhat neutralized. But, mid-conversation, the tear gas went off, and she disappeared with what seemed the learned self-preservation of a journalist. People started running. Some of us, myself included, started yelling: “don’t run! Don’t run!” But the panic was thick. We were trapped and we were under assault, and we could smell tear gas, and it’s cloying and painful and it sticks in your throat even at a long distance. I hope that everyone in the apartments around us had their windows closed. Those who I’d seen standing on their stairs, watching us, had disappeared.

Some protesters charged the fenced off field again, and, miraculously, this time the police didn’t stop them, and the fence went down. We ran across the field, cheering, and attacked the fence on the other side, forming a thicker line this time, grabbing the poles and rocking forward and backward with all our weight. The fence came down, and we were on Telegraph, and there were no police around us. We’d gotten out. But now we were angry. Now we were shook up. What had just happened? What had they just tried to do? This was the first time I’d heard the term “kettle”. Had they really just tried to trap over 400 people? There was something terrifying in the thought. The police had become an adversary, not merely an impediment. They were out to get us. And indeed, as the march continued now, aimlessly down Telegraph, a line of OPD stalked behind us. Who had trained them to do this? When had their bosses determined that such training was necessary? They were better equipped and they were more skilled. They had ever advantage in experience and no how and intent. But, then again, after this night, a lot of us protesters know a little more about what to expect too.

The march had changed again. Now it was anger and fear alone. Some of the masked marchers were picking up chunks of concrete. One of the marchers said into his megaphone: “Okay, now this is a fuck the police march.” The rhetoric I heard all around me was no longer about the building, or about the 99%, or about fairness or equality or the corruption of the system. It was about the police. Fuck the police. That’s what we said now. I said it too. I was into it too. But I wasn’t. What the hell had just happened to us? Had that really happened? I couldn’t just leave now. I knew that much. Though I also hadn’t thought too hard about what I was getting into by staying.

Because, inevitably, only a few blocks later, this time on Broadway, between 24th and 23rd, a block dominated by the YMCA on one side, and an unbroken line of vacant business space on the other, we saw the police again, coming down Broadway towards us. When we turned around, the line that had been following us was still there. White vans were pulling up behind them, and more police were getting out and joining their fellows. A line of plastic facemasks and batons and rifles, some of them pointed at us. Some protesters started scrambling over a fence. The police charged, and the rest of us retreated. According to stories I heard later, those guys got away. Another group had taken the steps on the YMCA, and were pressed up to the glass doors. I’ve learned later, from first hand account and from videos such as the one above, that the employees inside opened the door and let in about 70 people, many of whom escaped out the back. At the time, I thought the protesters had forced the door, and this had been the last straw. It turns out this was giving the police too much credit. But, whatever the specifics, as soon as that door was open, the police charged again and slammed into the crowd like a fist hitting water, and the crowd broke apart and fell down the steps onto the sidewalk. From the other side, the two riot lines had met and were now forming a semi-circle, pressing us up onto the sidewalk against the YMCA, a thick and dense crowd. There were screams. A girl next to me was crying, saying that she’d been punched in the face, and she had the broken glasses to prove it. Some people were asking the police to let them go, were practically begging. The officers gave little response. It was at this point that I heard a policeman on a megaphone tell us that we were all under arrest.

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