Tag Archives: Oakland Rise Up

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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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 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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