Monthly Archives: April 2012

Thinking Global, Acting Local: Occupy the Farm Takes Gill Tract

In my opinion, the Gill Tract takeover, hands down, was the most well-planned, well-executed, and worthwhile action that any segment of Occupy has taken in some time. At least any that I’ve heard of. The weekend prior I was invited to a planning meeting at the home of one of the organizers, attended by perhaps thirty to forty fellow comrades. Supposedly each member of this group was personally connected to at least one of the original organizers. We were all told to keep the action under wraps. This is polar opposite to the strategy taken for the January 28th Move-In Day, which was all about publicity, press releases and flyers. The prevailing wisdom in Occupy seems generally that if you know about it, chances are the cops do too, because, chances are, at least one of those you see around you at any given moment are one of them. At least in this case, the prevailing wisdom stands corrected.

The next Sunday we gathered at the Southern end of Ohlone Park for a pre-march rally, complete with speakers, music, and even a belly dancer (and of course, free food, a reliable constant at every Occupy event). A friend of mine told me that she’d heard a rumor that we were taking a UC Berkeley plot of land, and I assured her, that if this were the case, then I wouldn’t be staying. Only a select few of the core organizers knew our final destination, therefore the rest of us were putting a lot of faith into the strength of their choice. If it was a poor one, than there was a chance that we all could end up spending the weekend in Santa Rita.

The march got started at about one o’clock. And we didn’t head towards the UC. Instead we snaked West and North through residential streets of single-family homes. Comrades on bikes criss-crossed our flanks, helping to divert traffic and direct the march. People came out onto their porches and watched us from their windows. I didn’t see a single cop along the way. Not one.

And when we arrived at Gill Tract, which occupies a generally desolate stretch of San Pablo Avenue in Albany, near enough to the waterfront that you can almost smell saltwater in the air, there was a phalanx of pick-up trucks, flat beds, and 14’ semi’s waiting for us. Some protesters began handing out a thoughtful, well-written and well laid-out information sheet on the plot of land. After some people in the front line broke the fence, they took us in, and as soon as we entered into the tract itself, a vast expanse of shoulder-high weeds and forgotten planting projects, they put us to work. They’d developed a system of arm-bands, green for the gardeners, red for the carpenters, etc., so that we inexperienced urban farmers would know who to turn to for direction. Within an hours time, we’d cleared enough space to begin tilling the soil and setting in the seedlings and infant plant starts. The action was coordinated and methodical, in such stark contrast to the chaotic and ultimately disastrous Move-In Day on January 28th. If nothing else, this action demonstrates the good of a little unashamed leadership.

But of course, that isn’t all that this action demonstrates. If you ask me, this is exactly the direction that Occupy should be taking: that is, actions that are locally relevant, yet systemically significant. Think global, act local. Rather than attempting to manufacture interest in an arbitrarily chosen date (such as the upcoming May Day, which many of us seem more apprehensive about than anything else), we should set our efforts to the small, nearby, worthwhile fights. Identifying those places where the rage under the surface runs deepest, and is only waiting to find an outlet. The Gill Tract fits the bill. Urban farming is huge in the Bay Area. Development, well, that’s huge too, but in far more conflicted and divisive a fashion. The tract had been purchased by UC Berkeley (hence my friend’s relative misinformation), but it is pristine farmland, and over the years has been haphazardly employed for genetic research and small scale grow projects. The next slated project: a Whole Foods supermarket. So, in a word, in this case I believe that even your many average joes will have to agree that we Occupiers here have a pretty good point: the Gill Tract had sat pointlessly vacant for years, and yet in just a few short hours we had put it to productive use, transformed it absolutely, testament to the power of protest and positivity — the wonderful feats that “we the people” can accomplish when we get together and put our mind to it. The Wells Fargo action the other day seems to have been another general success. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak to it personally, but this is welcome news indeed.

Me myself, I had begun to worry a little about our movement. Worried that we were losing direction, that we were pulling off message. The General Assemblies had become increasingly, consistently frustrating — little more than a churning mill for rally after un-related rally. The same faces every week, over and over. Occupy Oakland seemed to be losing the support and patience of the community — I never used to have to work so hard to defend this movement. Increasingly, people were wondering what we were doing, what we were trying to accomplish. I was beginning to wonder the same thing.  But perhaps this is just the direction that Occupy will have to take, where the regional offshoots, Occupy Oakland, Occupy San Francisco, become increasingly irrelevant to the autonomous actions that we can take from within the framework and networks that Occupy has established. After all, without the camps, there is little reason to feel tied down to any particular town or city, but as long as we all keep showing up, keep coming to the meetings, and keep trying, again and again, to support one another, than the possibilities will present themselves. We can go wherever the fight takes us.

So, what next? If I might put forth a modest proposal: more of the same. Well-researched, fully understood local issues with system-wide significance. More foreclosure defense. More bank protests. Perhaps a few of us could take it upon ourselves to learn more about the Goldman Sachs credit swap scam, whereby the city of Oakland has been trapped into paying one of the worst villains in the system millions of dollars a year through financial trickery. Perhaps we could identify a way to inform, and apply the public pressure. We could find out if other cities are facing the same problem. Or, perhaps we could start thinking about education. The teachers union could be an incredibly powerful ally, and with the advent of charter schools and school closures perhaps there’s something there that we could tap into. Perhaps, and this is just a suggestion, we could start thinking about Lakeview Elementary, one of five schools slated for closure at the end of this school year. I remember receiving “Save Lakeview” fliers and petitions long before Occupy started. What could we do with that? We’ve started a free farm. What about a free school? Is that idea outlandish? I wonder. Maybe it is. But perhaps it’s also worth thinking about.

Occupy Oakland’s Brooms Collective Meets City Politics: Maybe It Was Inevitable

I’ve dreaded writing this post for some time now, but I guess if I want to keep up how I’ve been keeping up, I’ll have to get it over with. Grab the bull by the horns, as it were. In writing on Occupy Oakland, I’d intended to relate little more than my own perspective, experiences, opinions and observations about a movement that reached me in my core. I expected that my own story would serve to further illuminate the inner workings of the Occupy movement. I hoped to keep myself out of the posts as much as possible. But after becoming involved with organizing Occupy Oakland’s Brooms Collective, this has become increasingly difficult, and from now on I might have to start putting myself a little bit closer to center stage (or center blog post) than I would normally feel comfortable with.

So, here goes:

I mentioned earlier that I hoped to grab the bull by the horns. In many ways, this is exactly what one Alex Miller-Cole has done — in this case the bull being Occupy Oakland, and the toreador a long-time community organizer, a 2012 candidate for Oakland’s third city council district, and a so far instrumental player in Brooms Collective actions. As we’ve worked with Alex the last few weeks, I’ve come to respect him as a man of pragmatism and action, who sees the ends and knows how to reach them. He seems liked and trusted by his neighbors and his friends. We at the Brooms Collective have always been aware that we were working with a candidate for office, but I for one was less worried about that dreaded word “co-option” than some of my fellow OO’ers might be. So far, in my opinion, the work has justified itself. I am not ashamed of our role in general outreach for the Occupy Movement — one of our primary goals is to help OO’s name and do good in the community, two essential parts of building a lasting movement anywhere. If you ask me, we should be looking for common ground with as many people as possible, and there are many people who can be valuable to us who shouldn’t be discounted because they have differing political philosophies. I imagine that for anybody running for public office, engaging with Occupy Oakland is a surefire way to gain attention and court controversy. So while Mr. Miller-Cole has surely taken something of a risk by grappling with so dangerous a wild card, he has always made sure we know who’s in charge, that, as mostly non-residents, we are not the ones calling the shots when we work in his neighborhood (a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree). He’s taken an important role in decision-making and meeting facilitation, and he’s bank-rolled our small barbecues and events. But, perhaps in anticipation of further changes to come, and perhaps in effort to head off that bull before it runs out of control, he just recently went a step further: he offered me a job working for his campaign.

Volunteer to start, with possibility for pay later (I am currently working full-time in a temp position that will terminate some time in late May to mid June). I will help out in the office, weigh in on policy meetings, stick up for my beliefs, and fundraise. I will even attend fundraisers. In fact, I’ve already attended two of them, full of practiced smooth-talkers, all of them with an agenda and a purpose that they know well how to conceal. To call myself out of my depth would be a gross understatement. Somehow, I have stumbled upon the periphery of the world where the true power brokers dwell. Where lives are made and broken and set to the side depending on the whims of the winds that blow.

So, what am I doing here? I couldn’t say exactly. Alex might want me for my writing skills or my organizing abilities. And also, perhaps, as an anchor into Occupy Oakland. And by this I am actually most intrigued. Occupy Oakland should be influencing our political system. It’s just another sign that we’re having an effect. And furthermore, I don’t believe that I’m being facetious when I say that we’ve been a huge help to him: in supporting his weekly clean-ups of a notorious drug park at 32nd and San Pablo, where he is also planning to hold a BBQ lunch next Saturday, effectively, if only briefly, making this hell-hole of a place safe to walk through and even enjoy; In establishing a community garden and safe space at a blighted lot at 28th and Market, one of a handful of such properties throughout the city, whose property taxes have gone unpaid for long enough to put ownership into question, thusly, in my opinion, making them prime Occupy targets. We have helped him by increasing his numbers and drawing media attention. He has helped us with substantive, original projects, with as many Occupiers as un-affiliated community members working alongside each other. My point in saying all this is to head off what criticism I am worried that my group and I might receive. My point is, I don’t think this is co-option, I think this is pragmatism. I think this is a chance for us to do a lot of good, and help our movement in the process.

When my current job terminates, I will be able to throw myself whole-heartedly into Occupying and into Alex’s campaign, and I very much look forward to doing both. I think that if we do this right, this could be a fantastic opportunity for Occupy Oakland. A chance to participate in creating something permanent. The Market Street Garden could, perhaps, be a model for Occupy’s free breakfast program: the Black Panthers’ hugely popular program, which J. Edgar Hoover at the time called the greatest threat to internal American security. That is, the ability to consistently provide a service that is needed, in the name of solidarity and community and a vision of a better world. We will gain positive exposure, and we will make allies. I, for one, will do my best to represent Occupy Oakland honestly, forthrightly and fearlessly whenever I get the chance.

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