Here are a few thought I’ve had about Occupy Oakland, courtesy of a relative outsider:
Occupy is a good thing. I’m convinced of this. It has inspired people around the country, myself included (obviously). It’s only been a little over two months now, but its become one of the most closely followed stories online and in the news, this despite a relatively hostile reception by many in the mainstream media. Its messiness is either an asset or an ultimate limitation, I have yet to decide. In this way it is completely different from the Tea Party, with its now almost total co-option by the right wing establishment (which, as all Americans really should know, is far more powerful than the left wing establishment, if there even is such a thing). I would go so far to say that Occupy has given a voice to the left wing that wasn’t there before at all. Who would have advocated a Bank Transfer day before Occupy came along? What Democratic politician would have even dared to mention such a thing? Bernie Sanders? Nancy Pelosi? Obama? Please. Occupy has provided a platform for a range of ideas and opinions, and the ones that catch on within it are tried and tested by a strict, earnest and maybe naive adherence to direct Democracy. When it comes to influencing elections, proposing legislation, or dictating policy, maybe they won’t be the most effective organization out there. But as a means to pressure the politicians, and put an answering cry to the larger forces at which so many of us feel we are at the mercy, there could be no better. They have a strength the anti-Iraq War movement didn’t — they are of the times. The Anti-Warrers seemed to be trying to re-live the anti-Vietnam movement. The doomsday scenarios they predicted should the invasion go through, and the incessant parallels they drew between the two very different invasions, turned out to be ultimately somewhat fraudulent, and when the war simply proceeded as planned, the protests faded away and never came back. I can’t imagine Occupy doing the same thing, because, for one thing, what would define their movement’s success or failure?
In fact, Occupy’s success in the eyes of many might depend on the very strength of the democracy they criticize — can the political system adapt to them? Will it feel that it has to? Can Washington pass laws to relieve mortgages or student debt, or enhance the drive for regulation, or raise taxes that will address the needs of the so-called 99%? The fact that Barack Obama is speaking about Occupiers favorably is a good thing, as far as it goes, though good luck convincing any of the protesters of this. And while the Mayor of Oakland is no Hozni Mubarak, her probably inevitable ouster may give credence to Occupy’s overall effectiveness. As of now, Occupy is a pressure group, pure and simple. If someone up there starts to relieve the pressure, I believe that many of the Occupiers will start packing it up. But that’s a very big “if.” I suppose it hasn’t been since FDR was in office that this sort of pressure was relieved. It’s hard for me to imagine how such a thing could even happen, but then again, a few months ago it would’ve been just as hard for me to believe that Occupy could happen, that the events that have unfolded in downtown Oakland and in cities across the country could actually come about.
If you ask me, it’s been far too long that Americans have gone without getting this kind of angry. About rampant wealth inequality and the runaway influence of the few, the ineffectiveness of our political system. “They got bailed out! We got sold out!” What a powerful message. Who would disagree with that? According to the polls, only about a quarter of the population. Finally, somebody on the news who isn’t grumbling about raising taxes and class warfare. The innocence and honesty of the young people’s cry of frustration is hard to dismiss, and next to the police, the banks, and the hostile media, they hold the moral high ground. In my opinion, the moral high ground is of paramount importance.
Which is why Occupy Oakland may represent an important front in this fight, and one that, despite its ugliness, is in fact well worth fighting for.
I suppose there is a risk in writing about this while the issue is still so very much alive and subject to almost daily change (which could also be said about my opinions on it). At first I was all for our little downtown camp, nasty and seedy and truly volatile as it is. If anything I was impressed by this element. I expected to find a collection of hipsters and gutter punks with tattoos and a snarky attitude. Instead I found a reflection of a part of Oakland that indeed has some genuine grievances. Then, after the General Strike descended into rioting, tear gas, broken windows and stupidly juvenile graffiti, I became sadly sure that, as just about every player in the local news media was saying, the situation had gotten out of hand. The camp had to go. It was harming business. It was scaring away visitors. It was dragging the city down. Drug addicts and robbers had sought refuge there. Gangsters were taking advantage of its police-free borders. The protesters intimidated journalists, and they were worse than Occupiers in other cities. They refused to negotiate with poor Jean Quan, caught so obviously unawares by the shockingly vitriolic anger that had so suddenly erupted. The woman had the misfortune of being caught by a storm. And a perfectly Oakland storm at that. One which perhaps no one could have seen coming.
Oakland is very much its own city, and a surprisingly peculiar one. It’s not New York and it’s not San Francisco. It has no financial district to speak of, and the only major corporation headquartered here is Kaiser. None of the those responsible for bringing the country to its knees can be found here. Oakland is not a major city. No, it is just another troubled, mid-sized town, a California St. Louis, a West Coast New Orleans. At least, that seems to be the general impression of most who have never been here. But of course that’s a gross generalization, largely based on the city’s past, its crime rate, and a general tinge of unconscious racism. Oakland is not a Detroit or a Camden or a Compton. It isn’t a monolithic, hopeless and abandoned ghetto. It is economically, socially, and racially diverse, and it boasts a long and proud history of activism and defiance that has even met with some success. Oakland birthed the Black Panthers, which in turn birthed the nationwide school lunch program. Oakland is in the Bay Area, but it is the Radical to San Francisco’s Liberal. It’s the crazy one, and its politics have been forged and tested in the misery, poverty and desperation of the unashamedly downtrodden. Drug use is rampant. While some parts of the city are thriving, others have seen an epidemic of foreclosures. The police have a highly checkered relationship with the community. Corruption might not be a problem, Oakland is too wealthy for that, but excessive force most certainly is. And the tent camp that is now sprawling out in front of City Hall, on what was once a pristeen and quite attractive plaza with the eponymous oak tree in its center, has come to incorporate all of those ills. The people staying there truly are a diverse crowd. There are radicals, there are college students, and there are what appear to be average working joes. There are proto Black Panthers, homeless people, and white Black Bloccers, many of whom are indeed from out of town (as if that were atypical of Oakland or California — how many people were actually born in the California city they live in?). Supposedly, there are even gangsters setting up shop in the plaza, just as they always have.
In one sense, the detractors are right. Beyond the purely political and the first-to-arrive protesters, the camp has indeed become a magnet for some of the worst, in a city and a neighborhood that has many of them to go around. Now they’re causing mayhem and getting attention. These are not people who are easily pushed around, even on a normal day. But now that they’ve got Occupy’s wind at their backs, they’ve become a front page story. A truly formidable new player in the local, and even, thanks to the police’s heavy-handed reaction, national discussion. The police tried to get rid of them once. They failed. They tried to hem in the general lawlessness after the General Strike. Again they failed. Each time they do, injuries are inflicted on both sides, precious state and city funds are lost paying the officers’ overtime, more property is damaged than may have been otherwise, and shocking, documented accounts of police brutality result. The police and the city are weakened. And the protest goes on. Apparently, they can take a little teargassing and rubber bullets. God bless them.
And I mean that. I hate them for giving themselves a bad name, and for making the Occupy movement look bad. But I love them for standing up for themselves. I love them for actually, possibly, becoming a force to truly be reckoned with. A real, honest to God uprising. Who could gainsay that? Where could it possibly be more needed than in Oakland, where the divisions are so entrenched, where the misery is so concentrated, where the wealth gap is so very unnecessarily glaring?
That’s what I meant by “perfect storm.” Perhaps Occupy’s message was bound to resonate most strongly in the Bay Area. But Berkeley and San Francisco and San Jose all have their protests, yet none have the volatility of Oakland. And as such, none have the notoriety. So far, few in the country do, save the founder on Wall Street. Oakland’s camp has become the bad boy of Occupations. They’re surely in for worse to come, perhaps any day now, as the police have just yesterday issued a fresh round of eviction notices. But, as Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.” Sure, it’s far too early in the game to say it’s gone that far, but this sequence is not necessarily applicable only in broad terms. Each time the police fight the camp, the Occupiers are going to win, perhaps especially if the police win: one reason the General Strike’s ensuing violence was so unfortunate was because the Strike itself and the march on the ports had been successful. On that particular day, the Occupiers had the upper hand. They had the numbers, and look how they used it — though, in fact, the more I read about it, the more I wonder if it weren’t the police who precipitated the street fights in the first place.
The powers that be really have a problem here. Because the campers are breaking the law. No doubt about it. And when mayors have to start leaving office, as Jean Quan may well, than it’s only a hop skip and a jump from a congressperson, a senator, or a governor. If Oakland police can’t handle it, they’ll have to call in the National Guard. But what if the National Guard can’t handle it? Can they really be seen beating college students with sticks or shooting them with tear gas cannisters? Will we have another Kent State? What if the protest camps just come back again? What if there are more marches? And even if, Occupy Oakland is brought down, thanks to a large and demonstrative show of force leading to injuries and maybe even deaths, with its members arrested and its supporters intimidated, what happens next? What effect would that have on the nationwide electorate? Can the stupidity of the American viewing public be relied upon to accept whatever bullshit story Fox News comes up with? Or will something else, something, dare I say, democratic result? Because maybe crackdowns of that sort might suddenly become necessary at Occupy camps around the country. Maybe Oakland’s example will become a calling card. Wouldn’t that be a sight to see?
Really, it makes me proud to live in Oakland. It gives me hope for America. It comes as a breath of fresh air when until a few months ago I was all but convinced that the Tea Party was the only answer our stupid populace could come up with.
It is an interesting time to live in. Who can predict what is going to happen?
I wish the Occupiers the best (even as a small part of me, the pessimistic, aspiring novelist part of me, expects, and maybe even hopes, that they will fail, if only so that my developing, semi-apocalyptic view of my country can be validated). I will help them where and when I can. Oakland is my town. If we are afraid of the what the camp may show us, we have no one to blame but ourselves, for our own willingness to ignore those things until they were literally camped out on our doorstep. Me for my part, I seek to accept my city for what it is, and I will choose not to be fooled by intimations that this camp does not reflect Oakland, with the violence and division and justifiable anger that so many here live with every day. No, I will choose to side with those who want to at least try to make things better, because it seems clear now that the conventional methods have not worked.
So to all those out there sleeping in those parks and marching on the streets, braving lines of riot police and the scorn of the public, God speed. And if they shut you down, as they’ve been threatening for weeks, and seem likely to do in the coming days, maybe even tonight, I very much hope that you find some way to come back. And I don’t think I’m alone in doing so.
[I wrote this essay between November 14th and November 15th, and the camp was taken down the next night, this time it seems like for good — other Occupy camps around the country were soon taken down following Oakland’s model. I took these photos on the day of the General Strike, 11/2/11, and during the march to shut down the Port of Oakland that evening.]