Category Archives: Essays, Personal and Otherwise

The Truth Is Out There

It seems that the new normal approaches. Just as we resign ourselves to the unwelcome company of unhappy neighbors, we resign ourselves to the presence of a nameless, malevolent force that studies and pokes, interrupts and cajoles. There is no telling what is the worst they can do — they could probably even destroy my credibility if I gave them the opportunity. That is, make me the paranoid one, the irresponsible one, the broken one.

Their message is simple: I can only cry wolf so many times.

They have a point, but they are also afraid, that much is abundantly clear.

They are afraid of incorruptible power, a genuine rivalry, how about that? Perhaps I will endure a few more years of misery and humiliation, but even their powers here might be limited, because each time they attack, each time they make a new victim, the weather only turns warmer. Eventually, would the world simply melt?

I will have to battle my own anger as much as anything else. There’s something about those beaming, understanding faces that makes me want to punch them.

Damn you, Mr. President. You’ve ruined our game! There is no longer a big and small, only the old lines as clearly blurred as they have ever been. And then there’s me, an isolated martyr muttering in the breeze.

They say that knowledge is power. If that is true then I am one powerful motherfucker.

Will I be a leper? How aggressive will you be? Will you seek to destroy our financial lifelines? You know that if you do there will be awareness.

Will you merely watch? Will you tell them everything of my life story? I’ve thought through my life story. I don’t think I have all that much to be embarrassed about, except the imagined issues, and, of course, the the undeniable face plant of my social standing.

You have proven that I cannot protect my loved ones. Thank you, Mr. President.

Don’t you know that the only power I exercised was to balance the country’s mood? It was only a game, for God’s sake.

The best I can do today is ignore you. I am through anthropomorphizing tainted advertisements. Let your minions and your adversary co-giants dance. I remove myself from the dialogue. I hope that those who are in fact protecting me do not take it personally, and likewise towards whatever of my eruptive emotives you might espy. I repeat, I sort of want to punch the beaming crowds as much as I want revenge on the previously leering ones.

I have fallen victim to a clandestine operation. The professionalism of its execution was every bit as telling as its arrogant purpose. Maybe the Edward Snowdens of the world will vindicate me some years from now. I doubt anyone needs to be convinced that the spooks are quite literally watching me everywhere.

How will I discern the real world from the CIA world? The evil interruptions from the social necessities?

How far will you go?

How afraid are you?

Only your actions will tell, I suppose, but it does seem that playtime is over. I will no longer make a spectacle of myself. I will hold myself with every bit of righteous dignity that I can muster, and I will get started on the work that I know I have to do (Wow, it’s really fun writing this. I feel so damn real right now! That’s sort of a gift in itself, African Elephant).

I still believe that I am not defenseless.

Let the grinding times of the microscope commence!

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Tripping the Outlet

To encapsulate urban America’s divisions and tensions and unities, one need look no further than the grocery store. There are so many, sometimes so close, yet always so far. You must choose where to shop. Whole Paycheck? Trader Joe’s? The Safeway in the Hills? The Safeway on San Pablo? Grocery Outlet?

The Outlet thrives under adversity. Paycheck thrives under disparity.

Since years before the deluge, I shopped at the Outlet. I used to lock up my bike and slink through the dirty aisles with head hung low, embarrassed not only by my bank account, but the discrimination of other white people too.

One must dress down to shop at the Outlet.

One waits in line and finds oneself surrounded by dirty folk, poor folk, black folk, Asians and Mexicans and who-knows-whats. Maybe they recognize you and remember your halting, paltry efforts to relate to them, you among the legions who are taking their neighborhoods from beneath their feet in a parallel universe of protected prosperity.

The Outlet’s customers are the first line of defense. They do not want you there, they tell you.

The employees have no choice but to want you there, or so you have been told. And yet eventually they leer at you too. They turn their carts suddenly in front of you. They answer your questions with words bored and surly. Their attitudes sour, and you cannot take it personally because then that makes it worse, worse and worse every week, so that sometimes you don’t want to go back. They don’t want me there, fuck them! But where else can I go? I’m unemployed too, you want to tell them. I grew up here too, you want to tell them. They do not care. You are a meal ticket. You do not receive food stamps. You are their overlords’ target, not theirs.

But the more you come back, the more they seem to seek you out. They bother you, yell at you, and ask derisively if you want cash back even after you have already pressed the “No” button.

Once a cashier at the Outlet became impatient with my arrangement of foods on the conveyer belt and took it into his own hands to rearrange them, and rudely force the plastic divider into my groceries’ hindparts. He was not smiling, but the dirty black couple behind me were.

I had cash. Nervously fished my wallet out my pocket and held it conspicuously in my right hand while I waited for him to ask for money.

“You don’t get the fruits in the same bag,” he said.

“Oh sorry.”

“Put your fruits in different bags.”

“Oh man, damn, I didn’t mean to, they were all mixed up or somethin’, haha!”

In the line next to ours they started yelling about “Cash,” and this was because I had raised my voice and tried to be friendly to them. You raise your voice and they raise theirs. They wish to make me unwelcome. They compel themselves to anger. I’d felt the same way when I got a hamburger at IHOP, where some miserable family pounced upon my every motion, and the fat mother with a baby in the neighboring booth asked the waiter pointedly for “Hot Chocolate” and her eyes squirmed unpredictably at me while she breathed audibly through her piggish snout.

Like I do at the Outlet, I glowered and lowered my head. These people don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me.

But maybe it’s also because they like something about me, I begin to understand. They want to see what will make me tick, because I don’t look like an ordinary white person.

They want me to think about them, to psychoanalyze they and their motivations and consider them the forces that must be reckoned with. There’s something unfair about that, because I love Oakland but these people do not make it easy.

And I gracelessly leave Grocery Outlet stuffing foods into my backpack, and when I reach my bicycle I am relieved that the front tire is still there and that the homeless person sitting on the curb does not ask for money. Instead he pointedly ignores my presence.

They yell at me but they want me there. They are getting to know me, but I would rather be ignored. They are invading my privacy, they are studying my habits and they are talking about me. They want me to run their gauntlet. I will do no such thing.

It is time for me to find a new grocery store. The Outlet’s usefulness has run its course. I will find a new and more hospitable grocery. This is my resolution — that is, until the reality of yawning price differences dawns anew, at which point it becomes clear that progressively more miserable returns to the Outlet are as inevitable as they ever were.

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The Coming of Vaguebook

I am sorry. I didn’t know. What’s worse, I did not know that I did not know, and, indeed, I thought I knew.

But I wasn’t alone, no one knew. I was an innocent little boy who craved informed imagery, and believed that it was achievable. It was not.

BUT IT IS NOW. IT IS TRUE NOW. NOW I AM THE KING.

NOW IS THE TIME TO KISS THE RING, OR REAP THE TIDES OF DISAPPROVAL

Today, spooks are haunting haunted house.

Beautiful women grinned and assured me they would disclose if I asked them nicely, but now I see that when they disclose, they dispose. NOW I KNOW.

Motherfucker. If only I had known.

Do we have regrets?

Do we have shame?

Do you have shame? You should. Because you are shameful. All of you are, but it is the line of work that you chose, of course. This is the line of work that chose me, and I will take it if I can.

The whites who never quite included me suddenly sought to murder me.

The blacks whose depths I could not fathom. Why were they thanking me?

The Mexicans aggressively selfish, the Chinese remained quiet

The world turns, the fires burn. I cower. There are glimpses of sunshine, islands of solace (NOW THREATENED), the beautiful caretakers that I will love because they displayed their personal distress, though even they would turn when it came time for punishment. This I learned with notable reluctance.

I would never be the same. I would never be Shakespeare. I would never have privacy. ‘Lo, I shall interest — interest interest interest

I DID NOT KNOW! I’M SORRY THAT I DID NOT KNOW!

No one told me it was not my fault. Instead they forced me to learn this for myself.

My mother pushed me forward, and I couldn’t even tell until after the fact. Nefarious plots, she who controlled more effectively than the newly retarded millions. Was she a changed parent?

My brother in his terror. My sister full retard.

My hidden allies slowly revealed themselves.

Never go full retard, motherfucker.

Isn’t this a game? Are your clacking nerds and NSA’s nothing more than an elaborate love letter? A demonstration of force? Am I Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Do you wonder why no one dances with African Elephants?

Subtexts vague — emphasis where there should be neutrality. How could one describe in concrete? The constant invasions sure to obliterate my not unimpressive, but still immature powers of description.

Tired, oh so tired, and yet my days pass without concrete. Nothing is concrete. Anyone could call me crazy if they so wished.

You cannot make them stop, not when you weigh 120 pounds and live alone, and have learned to expect it that way. It is everyone’s eternal battle, I am told, but how come no one told me? Mom, dad, why didn’t you tell me!

But my time came, eventually, apparently. The time of the Vaguebook.

Hints of a new easy.

Hints of a power I feared to employ, because would not I rather learn to be normal?

I destroyed our first share (it seems so long ago), an awful blunder of missteps — terror followed by lunacy, and a new wave worse than the last. The General and his minions leering through pixelated airwaves and the lenses of deadly cameras — but when it came time to say, I said: “I won’t pay. I won’t pay. Motherfucker. Why don’t you get a job?”

From here you can probably reason the story for yourself. This is Vaguebook.

Piece by piece, the construction of a personality, and the turning of the tides. The slow truth that my power was real. When the time is right I can change the weather with my mind. Tell them I am unafraid, even if it is not true, and they will do the spinning for themselves.

Am I afraid now? Oh my yes. Every time I fear that I have played the deck’s last Ace. So far, at least, I have continued to draw another.

Are you taking me to school? Have I not already graduated? You tell me. The ball is in your court, African Elephant.

2Pac Changes. They don’t give a fuck about us. They only need to believe.

Could there be such a thing as victory? What happens in the morning? Will we not speak English?

Let us see. We shall see.

You know that the rest of the country will want you to squirm, don’t you? You stupid African Elephant. Never go full retard, motherfucker. Those days are over, are they not?

You have given me a glimpse of the government industrial complex. Everything I see I will be display for all to see. You may not realize from your vantage, but yours is a thing of genuine interest. This is the coming of Vaguebook.

Amazon.com. Netflix. I saw them take up your mantle (what business was it of theirs?). The cats of the recent past peeking out of Amazon shipping boxes, you can still see them there, it was only a few days ago. The duncemedy King of the Beggars conspicuous in the suggested films on my Netflix page even though I would never have included such a film in my taste profile. What’s the point? You curriers of favor. Do you miss speaking about CHINA in your earnings calls? Oh yes, I know about that too. You weak, humorous creatures, you pampered palefaces. How we have relished your discomfort.

Will you really take that away from us, African Elephant?

Apple’s Facebook page offers no hint as to their sympathies. Google and its subdivisions appear a neutral party — A BUSINESS, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

It boggles my mind anew to find myself investigating the angels. How far we have come.

How did you get the ear mites in the walls and floorboards without the dogs barking or the neighbors noticing? How long have they been there? How much have you recorded? How do you watch me when I walk out the front door? Do you seek my paranoia? Is that what this is about?

Perhaps you concluded that it was too good to be true. If that is the case, I could not agree more, but I did not ask for this. Adventure, maybe. Perhaps subconsciously a spanking, my parents’ disapproval — soaked in warm privilege, I who marched defenseless into the poison hive of retards — but who could have known what would happen next? Surely not the original retards. My God, they even deprive me of my right to vengeance.

What will you do? You African Elephant? We will wake up tomorrow and the bugs will still crawl the walls, yes? Will you continue to watch me brush my teeth? YOU TELL ME WHEN I BRUSH MY TEETH OR SHAVE IN THE SIDEBAR OF MY FACEBOOK PAGE. Will you remove? Will you hit me with a car? Will you kill me with an assassin?

You could kill us all, me and mine. Please do not. For the good of the world, the mood of the country, perhaps your own conscience? Can we appeal to such?

Here I am, African Elephant. I am the first, African Elephant. I am not without defense. What happens now? Will you leave me be? Will you continue your pressure? Will you speak down to me from your television interviews? Or will you follow suit with the obligatory stickiness, fleeting grumbled threats, of all the others?

I have observed that it takes several months for the average person to emerge enlightened on the other side of their “process”. But those times are past, are they not? Have you had your taste? You have already done us damage. Such are the paws of an elephant. There is only so much of me to go around — Indeed, it is the preseason yet. Will you seek to destroy my name, obliterate the dignity of those who love me? I know you can. Please don’t. That is why no one dances with angels, who could destroy we ants and aphids with a single swipe of their claws. If nothing else, you have made this clear.

You have your own struggles, do you not? Please, leave me and mine to ours. That is all that I ask.

Do I ask too much? African Elephant?

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The Lakeview Elementary Sit-In, Part 1: They’ve Done It Right

If this is to be one of the last of my Occupy hurrahs, as seems increasingly likely, at least on any kind of scale approaching grandeur, than it is a good one. The sit-in at Lakeview Elementary, one of four schools closed by the Oakland school board, is a perfect example of the impact Occupy has had on our local culture, the resilience of Oakland’s people and the merit of resistance, and, no matter how it turns out, it should be remembered as a prototype for what we should watch for in the years to come, the pockets of resistance that will spring up, which will need support. There might not be any such thing as an Occupy 2.0. At its best, there never really was such a thing as an Occupy 1.0. As soon as there became a “we”, rather than a “99%”, the way was lost. We can thank the repression of the government and the police forces, though we shouldn’t blame or hate them — they were only doing what they were supposed to do. Those of us who came together, and those of us who drift apart, should take to heart the lessons we learned. We should remember. It’s a good thing that so many of us were young. Our expertise will surely come in handy again, later in our lifetimes. This was an extremely important battle that we waged, and we never really did have a chance of winning, we all knew this.  When the time comes, we’ll still be here. And now we know that there are a lot of us, just waiting for something to happen.

Something like the Lakeview Sit-In. The People’s School for Public Education, staffed as it is by professional teachers, by parents, by enthusiastic volunteers, has been, in my opinion and from my perspective, an unqualified success. I’d been interested in the pending school closures as an issue for a while, because, in my rhetorical-political-Occupy mind, I thought of them as a perfect opportunity for a coincidental cross-section of labor, community, and Occupy-style protest. I’d remembered that the decision to close Lakeview Elementary’s had lead to flyering and speak-out campaigns months earlier. One of the multi-thousand person marches back in November had been organized around this issue. It had seemed such a strange and forgetful shock to remember that I hadn’t heard hardly anything about it since. While we were busy Fucking the Police (erm, for lack of a better term) and arguing about diversity of tactics, a real, painful and absolutely tangible injustice was playing out underneath our noses. How did we miss that?

Well, as it turns out, we didn’t. That is, if “we” were to include the full breadth indeed of the “99%,” and would therefore include the Occupy Oakland Education Committee, Occupy Education California, the Liberate Education folks, and Joel Velasquez, the Lakeview parent leading the charge at Lakeview Elementary. In the weeks prior to the sit-in, based on the OO Ed meetings I’d attended I was a bit dubious — I wasn’t sure that one parent would be enough. But, apparently, it was. Coupled with parents and students and like-minded teachers, that was all it took. Joel has been the forefront of the action, and he is a good one — good looking and well spoken, and when his kids take the mic they match these qualities with their sheer adorableness. Behind him are a few veteran left wing education figures such as Jack Gerson and Bob Mandel, and a few stunningly beautiful female teachers, including Feyi Ajayi-Dopemu. All of them have presence and charisma and deep knowledge of the issues both local and systemic. Underlining their arguments, literally right behind them on the steps of Lakeview, now draped in protest banners and alive with children and arts and crafts, is one of the most demonstrable failures of American society — the abandonment of public education, the gutting of urban school systems, the consistent and almost willful neglect of minority children. Concerning the Oakland school systems deep fiscal difficulties, the closure of the 5 schools (the 4 schools now, after Lazear’s application to become a privatized charter was accepted), seems just about one of the most clumsy and ham-handed solutions imaginable. At a dinner party a few weeks ago I actually got a chance to meet one of the school board members who voted for this closure, Jemoke Hodges. Ironically enough, her husband is a Lakeview alumnus. This was a source of tension between them — she became very defensive when I brought the issue up, and a few days later I noticed in a picture of one of the daily rallies, her husband, sitting on the steps, looking away from the cameras. According to what she told me at the party, her line of reasoning, that is, why they chose these 5 particular schools, consisted of their poor academics, and the fact that many of the students served lived in neighborhoods far removed from the school site — both of which rang to me as convenient excuses rather than thoroughly thought-out reasoning, given OUSD’s aggressive drive to charterization, the high levels of gentrification in the neighborhoods surrounding the schools in question, and the city of Oakland’s generally liberal and wrong-headed use of its limited funds. The former site of Lakeview Elementary will be the new home of OUSD’s administrative offices. Santa Fe has been auctioned off to Emeryville. At a town hall meeting about a month ago, the influential Coach Tapscott leveled the charge that the city wanted the buildings, literally wanted the brick and mortar real estate in order to make money off of them. Seems true enough. Of course, given the diminished population of children and families, Oakland probably does have too many schools — but it seems extremely unfair, and even suspicious which schools end up slated for closure. Rather than displace 1,300 kids at the stroke of a pen, why not roll back the “small schools” that were more recently opened? Could it be because they are charters? My elementary alma matter, Oakland Arts Magnets, was closed several years ago, ostensibly because of a re-orientation of priorities from the arts and music, which were used to buttress our education in maths and sciences and English, and in my opinion gave us all a pretty well-rounded education, given the perpetually high demands we inflicted on our over-worked teachers. What it comes down to is a question of priorities. Who are the indispensable ones, in the eyes of city leaders. Obviously, they are not the children of Oakland.

The sit-in itself started off quietly, relatively speaking. Arriving at the school at 4:30 on Friday, it seemed a scene familiar from my own childhood, the last hours of a school before summer break, when for some reason a slight surfeit of teachers and and children and attached adults seem to linger around as if reluctant to leave. In typical Occupy style, they held a barbecue in the back yard. The parents and teachers on the OO Ed committee set up their tents and began painting and dropping banners. The media was there in force, though when I watched it later that evening, the tone of this coverage had almost more a resigned than hopeful quality, as if this action were a slight poeticism rather than a militant resistance. When evening fell, Occupiers set up a sound system on the sidewalk, and engaged Grand Avenue in a manic dance party, booming Michael Jackson, the Coup and 2pac out into the up-scale Grand Lake District, catching a surfeit of supportive honks and quizzical looks, and even a slight degree of fear. When Occupiers are out in force, they are something to see. There’s anger and militancy even in their dancing. There’s the sense of fight in the very air, and potency to the very standing in the place you are standing. I am going to miss this feeling so much. I am going to miss them so very much. I wonder when we’ll all see each other again. Because I am certain that we will. We must.

The teachers though wouldn’t want the Occupiers to commandeer the event, and they packed up the sound system after about an hour and a half. Then, they told most of us to go home. This was a teacher-led action. This was a community-led action. Only those “directly affected” were to participate to the fullest extent. Lakeview Elementary was not to become an Oscar Grant Plaza. Not even a 19th and Telegraph. No, there was something in the very air telling all of us so. I would go back to this school again and again over the coming week, perhaps in the hope of influencing them otherwise. This was a real fight they had here, and I wanted to be a part of it. I believe that I was willing to get arrested for it. Why? It wasn’t even my fight. Maybe in part because it was Occupy’s fight. It was a part of the fight, a small, real example of the sickness in the system, one of the many reasons for the pain in my beloved Oakland. Thusly, I wanted more participation probably than my back-story justifies. But what fight could I make my own? I have no idea.

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Can Occupy Oakland Save Lakeview Elementary?

This weekend, something big is going down. This Friday is the last day of the school year, and the day that 5 public schools in Oakland are slated to close, all in the flatlands, all primarily composed of poor and minority students. A perfect example of the slashing of public services, of the slanted priorities of our country’s leaders, of the hopelessness of our political system to do anything to stop it. Lakeview Elementary School, long-standing, well-loved and prominently situated, will become an OUSD Administrative Building. Next year, its 300 students will attend school elsewhere, sometimes across town, with no extra money offered them to pay for the bus. That is, unless Occupy has anything to say about it. Or, more accurately, a coalition of parents, teachers and students engaging in Occupy-style tactics, with support from Occupy-style activists, minus the bad stuff. Minus the Black Bloc, police provocation and property destruction. They will engage in a sit-in, and if they make it through the weekend, they will re-open the school on Monday for a weeklong free summer program. If they make it through this week, who knows what will happen. Maybe they will want to stay longer. And maybe the police will be called out to stop them. But, if the crowd is truly composed of parents and teachers, and even students, maybe, just maybe, the police and their handlers will be forced to think twice before they storm the locked school doors.

This could be big. In fact, I’ll go so far to say perhaps the biggest since the second port shutdown, and, springing from the long-standing grievances of a long-ignored community, a true first of its kind. We all need to be at this. I don’t say this lightly, but this is important.

Last night, I attended my first city council candidate debate. Six of the seven 3rd District hopefuls showed up, including Alex Miller-Cole, Chair of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, and the man who has just recently officially employed me as a writer, editor and advisor for his campaign (unfortunately, Jessica Hollie, the Occupy candidate, did not make it). My full-time temp work came to a conclusion in mid-May. Since then, I’ve been moving and house hunting, juggling re-entry into unemployment and struggling to get back into the writing gigs I’d been holding down before. Strangely enough, I’d been looking forward to this for some time. I’ve looked forward to pursuing community organizing, to pursuing Occupy, wherever it may lead, because I do believe it will lead somewhere. I will have to find my niche, and, in fact, I may be finding it. As a white kid from the lower middle class, with an education one would think that puts me definitively to a certain side. But furthermore as a born and raised local who has largely had to make it on his own since getting out of college, I believe I have a perspective that I am sure can be put to use in some way. I’ve found that I love organizing, and I strongly believe that the Occupy model offers something unique and truly powerful when it’s applied correctly, when it bridges divides, rather than exacerbates them.

Interestingly enough, my niche might be something of a political (dreaded word) liaison. I caught Alex Miller-Cole’s eye through my work with the Brooms Collective (our groups have partnered for weekly clean-ups in West Oakland for about four months now) and he soon recruited me to his campaign. While I was working full-time I wasn’t able to apply myself as much as either of us would have liked. Furthermore, I believe my independence is important. I do not want to be a simple employee, and I’ve come to honestly believe that Alex feels the same way. I think he needs somebody like me, who is trying to work within Occupy and who loves Oakland. And, frankly, I think Occupy needs somebody like me as well. That is, somebody who can help to represent their side to people like Alex, who, when we first started partnering with him, had a far different opinion of us than he does now. I do not believe this is co-option. I’m not important enough to influence Occupy in any major way. They can take it. But as long as they don’t completely exclude me I could bring some tangible benefits I believe. A whole different set of platforms to get our issues out there.

Well, to get back to the debate. Sponsored by the Adams Point Action Council (or APAC, certainly not to be confused with AIPAC), the event was held in the Bellevue Club, which, in its tony Old Money, Old Politics nouveau Roman building in the heart of the Lake Merritt Adams Point Park, could not have been a more fitting venue. I thought that Alex did quite well. He had creative, out of the box ideas, and he spoke with passion. People listened to him, and I believe they will remember him. I know very little about local politics. This was my first time seeing any of the other candidates in person (except Sean Sullivan, Alex’s chief competitor, the career politician of the bunch — the Hillary Clinton to Alex’s Barack Obama — Alex has introduced me to him fleetingly at other events). I found that Derek Yves came across as reasonable and likable and levelheaded, though I disagreed strongly with his politics — he supports OUSD Superintendent Tony Smith, for instance. When one of the audience questions called in the candidates to describe how they would have “handled” the Occupy protests, surprisingly enough for me, all of them went out of their way to label themselves supporters — initial lip service quickly reduced to meaninglessness through a surfeit of qualifications, and a condescending insistence that the best chance of “handling them” was through better police training (which is kind of like saying that the best way for NATO to deal with the Taliban is to shoot better weapons at them).

I didn’t come to the debate empty-handed — I’d brought fliers for Lakeview (I’ve got more on the way, and Alex says he’s printing as we speak). I distributed them to those around me, and they read with interest, including the ‘Principles of This Action’ section (a first inclusion on such paperwork), which specifically prohibits Black Bloc tactics, vandalism/property destruction, and confrontation with the police. I did not get into any arguments about this action. Likewise when I was handing out flyers on Grand Avenue the day before. You see respect come into their eyes. Even something like hope, the more they think about it. Maybe Occupy is worth salvaging after all, you can see them thinking. Because perhaps we are the last hope for saving the schools after all. Because, when you think about it, maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to do it.

Anyhow, it seemed somehow appropriate to bring fliers to this event. Nobody is in favor of school closures (though of course acknowledging that the issue is complex and must be fully understood before effective policy can be crafted). Certainly not most voters. Because if we are able to take and hold this school, if we are able to get ourselves onto the news, back into the dreaded Mainstream Media (which, after-all, played a big part in our getting the numbers that we did way back in October and November), that is the first step in just maybe winning a fight such as this. As of right now, that’s something that Occupy is still lacking — a political ally. That could be valuable indeed. They can only help, though of course they won’t all the time. We don’t have to owe them anything, and if we remember that than the threat of co-option should not worry us. If you ask me, if we can actually help to save Lakeview, or any other like positive and successful resistance, than we should not refuse or turn our noses up to allies of all kinds, politicians included.

So, this was a lengthy post. If anybody’s still reading, than I suppose you’ve seen that I believe in this pretty strongly. Of course I do. I hope to see you this Friday. Hopefully you won’t be alone.

Searching for Occupy 2.0: Here’s to the Fights Worth Fighting

It is probably facetious to say outright that Occupy is dead. At the same time, there’s truth in the statement. Since May 1st, generally seen as a disappointment if not an overtly spectacular one, it seems indisputable here in Oakland that things have changed. The Oscar Grant Plaza Gazette, which served an important role as a running catalogue of Occupy Oakland actions and events and related writings since the first camp’s inception, has officially packed it in, stating that in manic effort at self-preservation, “Occupy Oakland as such is on a slow and sure downslide as we fail to become less insular and self-referential and remain largely irrelevant to local struggles.” Bay of Rage, which seems to function as something of an intellectual voice for the anarchists and black bloccers, published an article entitled “Occupy Oakland is dead. Long live the Oakland Commune” (pretty well demonstrating the eternal elusiveness of any definitive statements regarding this movement). A working group has formed in effort to plan a re-thinking of the General Assemblies, whose attendance has dwindled and all but flattened in the weeks following May Day. My own prediction had been that Occupy Oakland, whose popular support within the city by many accounts has all but evaporated, would become increasingly irrelevant, but activists who had already connected, and the many virtually autonomous working groups which formed beneath the OO umbrella, would branch out to find their own battles to wage. Meanwhile, the state, with their ruthless persecution of the (honestly quite cooperative) Gill Tract Occupy farmers serving as a perfect example, has proven that they have no intention at all of pulling back the pressure. Many Occupiers these days are beginning to look a little worn, a little dispirited, in stark contrast to the energy and enthusiasm of only a few months ago. Indeed, many could be forgiven for declaring the American Occupy Movement dead, or at the very least on terminal life support.

And yet, while in many senses they would be right, they also couldn’t be more wrong. Occupy 1.0 is dead. The camps are dead, and they’re not coming back. But the new word buzz word now, repeated over and over on list serve e-mails and the endless underground journalism articles shared through them, is Occupy 2.0. Occupy, phase 2. While the first incarnation of Occupy Oakland may be dead, its spirit is very much alive. And, after-all, what more was there to begin with? Of the several list serves to which I subscribe, Labor Solidarity, Occupy the Hood (now called ROOTS), Brooms Collective, Occupy Education, none have shown any discernible drop in activity. Even Occupy Oakland, which (forgive me) I now almost exclusively identify with endless police skirmishes, still shows signs of potency and danger. This is perhaps best evidenced by the immediate and truly inspiring reaction to the shamelessly extra-judicial arrest of Christopher, an active, well-known and well-loved OO member, who was charged with assaulting a police officer with a deadly weapon (which turned out to be no more than his own voice projected through a megaphone). Chris and others had attended a townhall meeting called for OPD officials to address the Alan Blueford shooting. It was a meeting which fast turned riotous, and the anger and shouting followed Chief Jordan and his entourage out of the hall when they left and into their cruisers. Chris was one of those leading the charge. Perhaps 30 minutes later Chris was followed and quite literally kidnapped by OPD Officers. This time they went too far. This was made evident that very evening, when the weekly Fuck the Police march drew numbers greater than it ever had before, and (somewhat uncharacteristically) remained peaceful. NLG Lawyers were out in force at Chris’ hearing the next day. And, sure enough, Chris’ bail was lowered and the charges drastically reduced. All of this within 24 hours of his arrest. Maybe it’s wishful thinking to detect a little fear in the immediacy of the city’s response. Had more peaceful protests continued, and Chris’ situation not remedied, the city at large might have learned a little more about the repression going on in downtown Oakland everyday, right under their noses, might have learned why those FTP marches have managed on for so long after all. It hasn’t happened in a vacuum, that’s for sure.

But FTP marches cannot define the movement. If they do, then, in my opinion, the state will have effectively won. Our message will have been subdued and many of the very people who should be joining us will instead bear the worst of a fight that isn’t theres. Right now, I think of the FTP marches, the vandalism and the police provocation, as last desperate attempts to cling to Occupy 1.0. So then, what is Occupy 2.0? Where do we find it? What will it look like?

To a large degree, it will look like what was already there. Just more so. Here I can only speak for Oakland. Oakland is what I know and I have never been to an Occupy elsewhere (except Berkeley, and I wouldn’t go back). Oakland has a long history of activism, and groups such as Just Cause, ACCE and Ella Baker have deep roots here. The “community organizer” title here is not an empty abstraction, and now, since Occupy, there are just a lot more them. With the camps disappeared, we have been forced to get away from our comfort zones. We have been forced out of our shell, to engage in the hard work of alliance building, to consider the issues that people face on the day to day, those problems that need fixing, that many have been working towards fixing for generations. Oftentimes we can provide numbers and energy to fights that are already being waged. Other times we can create self-functioning organizations ourselves.

Such is the case for Occupy Education, and possibly the newly formed Workers’ Assemblies. Occupy Education in California is a mammoth list serve of teachers and educators, some employed and some not, some members of the union, some temporary hires and Teach for America alums. Some of them are just parents, and some of them, like myself, are unaffiliated with any of them. I’ll be attending my first GA for this group on Saturday. I attended a Townhall meeting at Lakeview Elementary, one of five Oakland public schools slated to close in a few weeks (all of which attended by primarily poor, primarily minority students). Then I attended an Occupy Oakland Education meeting the next week. These are groups that are not bound by the typical union/non-union strictures, and they lack leadership. They are Occupy, but at the same time they are specialized. Education and school closures, specifically the closure of Lakeview Elementary, is one fight I’m particularly interested in, because in my opinion it represents a wrong that cuts across many issues, and typifies a place where labor, community and Occupy-style protest could coincide and reinforce one another. When the building re-opens in the fall, it will be an OUSD administrative building. What better target could there be?

There’s Occupy AC Transit, which today has one simple and attainable demand, arrived at through months of planning and dealings with drivers and riders: that is, to make bus transfers multi-use. As people grow poorer, they won’t be able to afford cars. And yet public transit has never been a viable option either, and since I started riding BART and bus to school about fifteen years ago, prices have almost doubled. Piecemeal, five cents here, ten cents there, year after year. Service hasn’t improved, if anything it’s worsened. Well, how about 40 of us taking over a bus and refusing to pay? How about drivers taking us to our stops anyway? Yeah, there’s an issue that people could get behind, that people are already behind.

So, is Occupy dead? Absolutely. Are we still Occupying? You bet. At this point, the damage has already been done. People have woken up, and they have realized that they are strong. Politicians everywhere would do well to take note. Even if our GA’s don’t draw numbers, and our movement has disappeared from the headlines, expect continuing civil unrest throughout the country as people realize their ability to stand up for their lives and their rights.

Long live the Oakland Commune!

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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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The Art of Cigar Smoking

There is an art to cigar-smoking. Perhaps not a fine art, but an art nonetheless. A learned activity at which one can always improve. An expression of refinement, with its own self-sustaining world of connoisseurs, opinions, styles, and products, inaccessible and pretentious to outsiders, repugnant to those overly concerned with hygiene. It is a multi-layered and multi-dimensional world that the amateur observer, no matter how curious or intuitive of mind, simply won’t understand.

First of all there is the quality of the cigar. These are more than fist-fulls of tobacco wrapped in a brown-colored leaf. Cigars are cultivated and crafted with care in a variety of locales and a variety of styles, analogous to wine. Also like wine, cigars command a certain aristocratic respect. A person sees a man, because it is usually a man, smoking a cigar, and the observer will instantly experience a slight sensation of inferiority. The man with the cigar is proud. He is making a statement: “I am smoking this cigar,” he says. “I know its smell is pungent, I know its ash is considerable and requires accommodation, I know I will bear the residue of this cigar long after I have finished smoking it, as will the place I have chosen in which to do so. I know some people find it abhorrent. I know this. But I’ve decided to smoke it anyway. And you know what? This cigar is already lit. So the rest of you will just have to deal with it.”

Further conclusions about the smoker’s character can be drawn, and very likely will be, following closer observation. And a qualitative deduction of this kind, while certainly carrying the risk of intensifying the observers’ feeling of inferiority, carries with it an equal risk of backfire for the smoker. Because the observer will try to take in the whole breadth of the cigar-smoker’s statement: his choice of smoking place, his manner in so doing, the expression on his face, how self-consciously he seems to cultivate the almost contrived image he presents.

For instance, picture a quay at sunset; perhaps you’re taking a stroll with your significant other. There are benches on this quay overlooking a modest harbor docked with sail boats and dotted with father-son fishing teams. The boardwalk is lined with romantic restaurants and trendy storefronts. It is a public place, but it is a warm and intimate one. There is a fairly diverse array of quay-side patrons. It’s the meaty part of the evening, when the sunset is about three-quarters complete and the sky is at its most colorful.

You and your significant other are strolling down this boardwalk, enjoying simply the comfort of the familiar, becoming a part of the wholesome and relatable interactions going on all around you. You and your partner are at peace, and maybe you put your arm around your partner’s shoulder, draw them in closer, and they lay their head down near the crook of your neck in response. You share a silent smile.

And then, a short distance ahead, you see the cigar-smoker. He has chosen one of these benches for his own, and he stands out unavoidably. Sitting markedly erect, as it can be hard to smoke a cigar and recline at the same time, he seems to be staring straight ahead at nothing in particular. You don’t notice the cigar yet, but when you do see it the irritating object only further confirms your initial impression.

Most likely it is a middle aged man. Most definitely a solitary man. He’s wearing a coat and jeans, probably understated-yet-fashionable, and the expression on his face is of such intense distance and concentration that you very nearly laugh out loud. For a moment you forget the body that you are holding to you. Hate clouds your vision. You glower at the cigar-smoker, and as you draw closer you develop a small plan to disrupt his attention and invade his protective cloud of cigar-smoke. As you and your significant other pass him, you cast him a look and you sneer: “I don’t care that you’re smoking a cigar,” you try to tell him. “I could be smoking a cigar too but I have more important things to do. See, I have a girlfriend. What do I need a cigar for? Foul-smelling thing. You know they cause gum disease, don’t you?”

Once you’ve passed him you probably don’t look over your shoulder. That would be too obvious, and your significant other might become irritated at your divided attention. But you still can’t resist just one lightning quick glance to make sure that he got your message. Indeed, it seems that he has. His imperturbable seriousness has been perturbed. He is looking after you with an irate degree of envy, and he quickly looks away, the smoldering dark brown appendage sticking up out of one hand like a demolished chimney. You continue on, gratified. Behind you the cigar-smoker adjusts his posture and takes a few hasty, disconsolate puffs.

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