Monthly Archives: March 2012

OOBrooms and the Market Street Community Garden Coming Soon

The proposed site for a community garden/safe space — a drunk driver caught in the unfortunate weather made short work of the fence the night before our second meeting — Oakland represent.

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.

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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