Tag Archives: Occupy Brooms Collective

Oakland’s Occupy Brooms Collective, Week Three: Community Organizing 101

Occupy Brooms and the San Pablo Corridor Coalition after a hard day's work.

One thing I’ve found, as I’ve worked on launching the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective, is that a degree of community organizing has been necessarily part and parcel of the process. I’ve also found that, in this case, it’s surprisingly easy. All you need is a little persistence and a little effrontery. A little self-righteousness, and I guess you have to enjoy it too. It probably doesn’t hurt if you believe what you’re saying (though that doesn’t seem to stop many politicians). We just finished our third week cleaning up trash down at St. Andrew’s Plaza, a nasty little park on San Pablo Avenue, just south of the Emeryville Border. It’s one of those parks in front of which most regular people would be very unhappy to get a flat tire. During most days and nights it’s teeming with drug use, drug traffic and prostitution, and it helps to make the whole neighborhood around it un-safe. Every time we go out we get smiles and appreciation, and a little bemusement. But not once yet outright hostility, though that’s probably only a matter of time (and our affect on the drug dealers’ profit margins).

To get going at St. Andrew’s, we plugged into a group called the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, which has been going down to that park every Saturday for the last three years. They get their equipment from the City, which supposedly has a near-limitless volunteer tool supply depot (and which actually makes it very easy to access and use them). The SPCC people were more than happy to have Occupy Oakland on board, and each week so far we’ve brought about five to eight Occupiers down to the park, in addition to the SPCC’s usual near-equivalent amount. This is a perfect example of the ease of community organizing, at least when it comes to Occupy Oakland. Most of the time it seems like 90% of the work’s already been done for us, and all it takes is speaking with the right people and calling the right phone numbers. After that, the Occupy Oakland name pretty much speaks for itself. For good or ill. Everybody pays attention when OO comes to town, and in most cases everybody knows that the media won’t be far behind. I guess after that it’s just up to us not to embarrass ourselves.

Which, sad to say, is going to be a growing concern going forward. Nobody should be arrested on an OO Brooms action, in my opinion, and nobody should have to get in shouting matches. We are there to do a good, and to demonstrate our ability to do a good. Providing services for free, inclusively and with community involvement, should be radical enough. But it seems like every day something else happens with OO that needs to be explained or defended. In-fighting of the worst kind (which, thank the Gods, did not receive any kind of mainstream media attention). A few days ago a woman was harassed, assaulted, and robbed at a protest outside of a Wells Fargo branch on Piedmont Avenue, because she spoke up about her grievances about OO and our tactics. She was surrounded and punched and her wallet was taken from her purse, and a Barack Obama pin from her shirt. Three protesters were arrested and charged with robbery and committing a hate crime, because they made derogatory remarks about her perceived sexuality. Right now the story is number two on the Oakland Tribune’s most read stories section on its website. An absolute gift to OO’s enemies, that is impossible to refute, but can only be acknowledged. [Note: After writing this piece, I have since spoken to OO’ers who say that the hate crime charges are hugely trumped up and the robbery charges fraudulent — while the former sounds plausible to me I remain skeptical about the latter — according to one of the protesters’ lawyers, they only used the sexually derogatory term after the woman had used a racial slur against them]. There is a real fury in some elements of Occupy Oakland that is absolutely unpredictable and uncontrollable. While it’s terrible, and can be genuinely frightening, I can’t help but find it a little beautiful as well, at least in its purity, in its inability to be anything but what it is. In a lot of ways, and for a lot of people, Oakland is a very ugly place. Any movement that honestly represents it will necessarily be a little ugly itself.

So far the Occupy Brooms people are generally of a less confrontational bent. It’s hard to find occasion to get in hand to hand confrontation when you’re sweeping up a street. Thank God. But if we are to have a real impact, we will have to bring in more people, and we will have to start taking more risks. And it may be difficult to keep things from spinning off the rails.

A lot of our members are really excited about establishing a community garden, for instance. Okay, this doesn’t sound so bad. There are already dozens of community gardens around the city, and a lot of them are largely volunteer-staffed. But then the first thing a lot of people are going to ask is “can we set up tents?” My own answer would be a resounding “No!” A community garden. A COMMUNITY garden, will be, well, in the community, with neighbors with families and children. They should not be forced to live with the fear of tear gas or unruly rallies going on into the night. But I believe these issues can be worked out as we go. I don’t think it will be too hard to make people respect a few ground rules, to make this action a little different. And one of the benefits of community gardens, is that everybody likes working in them. And another good thing, apparently there are about 15 vacant lots in West Oakland, which would be ideal for the purpose. They have been effectively abandoned by their owners, and the city would be only too happy to have somebody take it off their hands. One of them is right next door to the home of Alex, a SPCC board member who has been instrumental in getting us to work at St. Andrew’s and other nearby cleaning sites. The space is in the heart of West Oakland. It’s residential, and it’s quiet. There will be plenty of people to serve, and we would help to bring the whole area up just a little. If we do it right, it would be perfect. There are planning meetings upcoming. Further developments forthcoming.

Me, I’m just glad that my group’s getting off the ground. I love it. I really do. I enjoy debate and I enjoy coming up with ideas. I enjoy convincing people that I’m right, and I enjoy finding common ground in a productive fashion. But what I’m really looking forward to is trying my hand at our first big action, which we just today decided to implement. March 31st is Cesar Chavez Day, where, traditionally, there are speak-outs and education seminars, and children in public schools everywhere learn about the life of the famed labor leader. Perfect. We intend to do the full court OO press. Print flyers, generate a GA proposal, hold specialized meetings, and organize logistics. Get it on the OO events calendar. Past the surely endless discussions, the controversies, the generating of statements and press releases, the politicking and the arguing, deciding which projects to embark upon may be our hardest task. Because there is no lack of work to be done, and that’s to put it mildly. There are no city-employed litter pickers in the city. There is no lack of pollution, anywhere. Alex has 20 potted trees in his back yard that we can plant. We can clean up St. Andrew’s, like we always do. We can get some people to work establishing the community garden. And we can see what else comes forward. Tomorrow I’m meeting with some people from the Western Service Worker’s Association. They apparently canvass neighborhoods on a regular basis. Pastor Rainey, at the church down the street from St. Andrew’s, might have some ideas as well. We’ll need to find connections in the communities to move forward, people who live nearby who can take the lead and tell us where to go. Somehow, based on my experiences so far, I don’t think that this is going to be very hard.

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Occupy Brooms Collective’s First Action, and the Upcoming Block Party Speak-Outs

A Group called TOLA Conducting Neighborhood Clean Up at St. Andrews Plaza in 2011 — Words Used in Accompanying Article Include "De-Moralized," "Exhausted," and "Relieved"

From my own perspective, the Occupy Oakland Brooms Collective’s first action this last Saturday was a huge success. About 8 Occupiers showed up to sweep and pick up trash, as did about 5 others through the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, the group with whom we partnered. We worked for two hours on St. Andrew’s Plaza, a notoriously nasty little corner park on 32nd and San Pablo in the heart of Ghost Town, and a veritable open-air drug markets most days and nights of the week. I bike down San Pablo Avenue fairly often. This is one of those places where I’m always a little bit relieved to have behind me. And I have to admit, I was apprehensive on the day of the action, walking up there by myself. Would I be the first one there? What would I do if I were? Luckily I wasn’t. Nathan and Alex of the San Pablo Corridor Coalition, the group with whom we’d coordinated the day’s action, were already unloading brooms and dust pans and getting to work.

I can take credit for Occupy Brooms’ genesis, though I’ll have to try hard not to take ownership. I started announcing the idea at GA’s a couple weeks ago, and I attended several OO groups normally outside my schedule to bat the idea around a little. I collected e-mails and sent out blasts. I got almost uniformly positive responses. Jade from the Community Outreach Collective, a hugely impressive group that knows a lot about the lay of the Oakland land, set me up with a San Pablo Corridor rep., and at the Brooms Collective’s first planning meeting last Tuesday he told us that he and a few others have been doing clean up at St. Andrew’s every Saturday at 10 AM using city-supplied tools (the city has a store of volunteer equipment, and will sponsor anyone who fills out the paperwork, even OOer’s, ostensibly). Sometimes the Andrews clean up crew has to conduct their work around blatant drug use and prostitutes plying their trade. On Saturday we were a little luckier. Or maybe our numbers were enough. Either way, while we were there the park cleared out, and a porous perimeter established itself on the streets and stoops and doorways surrounding the triangular little park. We had an audience for sure, some of whom seemed less pleased with our presence than others. But nobody became confrontational. Quite the contrary in fact. We were doing good. Our hearts were in the right place, even if most of us were white. St. Andrews isn’t a large park. With 13 brooms, rakes, and dustpans moving it didn’t take long to clear out the layer of debris and broken glass, the hypodermic needles and the milky little zip-loc dime bags. Underneath it all was a surprisingly pleasant little place, with seating and comfortable benches, picnic tables with painted on chess boards, just the right amount of shade provided by the towering Eucalyptus trees, whose smell even overshadowed that of stale alcohol. A KTVU cameraman arrived early in the morning and filmed us going about our business. He interviewed me briefly, and then he left. I can’t imagine that his footage was all that stirring, well hearted as it might have been. A departure from the usual Occupy Oakland headline, and perhaps a bit of a relief to many of our more estranged supporters.

What really got my attention though, what really made me wonder about the merits of this action, was when, about an hour into our efforts, an older couple parked their SUV on 32nd Street, and set up two plastic fold-out picnic tables. Then they took out three large tinfoil catering trays of hot food, with packages of plates, napkins and utensils, and they started serving. A line formed quickly, made up largely of drug addicts with twitchy eyes and dirty hands. The food was gone after maybe fifteen minutes. I spoke with the couple, and apparently they own a print shop down the street. Every now and then they and a few others get together to take food to the square. A small gesture but a real one. An expression of love, free of judgment. And one that was there already. It makes a lot of sense, after all. If you want to give to the needy, this is most certainly as good a place as any.

Now the gears start to work. Now I start to wonder. Here are a few things that happen every weekend already: the San Pablo Corridor Coalition goes down to do street cleaning, people show up to give out food. While Occupy Oaklanders were assisting, the park felt relatively free of threat. Some of the parks more regular denizens mingled with us and shared coffee with us. What was the harm? We weren’t displacing them. We were providing for them. These are Occupiers, Occupying, their specialty. What if we got it all working in concert? What if it all happened at the same time? The free food and the outreach, the concern and the solidarity, all of which is already there, and then add in Occupy Oakland. Add in a few medics providing free medical care. College graduates to provide free tutoring. What if, after each cleaning, from 10 — 12, we could follow with a cook out or a lunch from 12 — 2. Would we still be allowed to feel safe? Maybe, if we told some church groups about the possibility. Maybe, if we got enough numbers. I remember there used to be a similar little park on West Grand and San Pablo Avenue a few years ago. The drug dealers and their customers aren’t there any more, not because they left, but because the city tore the park down. So, the addicts moved up the street. Maybe for St. Andrews we can try a different approach. We’ll surely discuss at our next meeting. For now that’s all we can do. Baby steps, I have to remember. It’s a lot easier to talk, and write, than act.

There are a few other things to take into account as well. I’m not the only one in OO who’s thinking more about ways to engage a broader spectrum of Oakland. While the Outreach committee, and a few others, such as Occupy the Hood, have been thinking about this sort of thing for a while, a larger portion of OOers, including refugees from the disbanded Move-In Committee are following suit, planning a series of cook-outs and speak outs, block parties at prominent parks throughout the city. I wonder how this will work out. I wonder if the right connections can be made. They will have to get Occupy the Hood behind it to have any chance at all (though Occupy the Hood as well, from my reckoning at least, seems to be majority white as well). It’s a little different to add bodies to organizations that are already at work. To bring outsiders, because that is how they will be viewed, to a different area in order to talk about themselves, seems to risk being considered presumptuous. But it’s worth a try. I’m sure that people will be curious to see what we have to say. Occupy Brooms, for its part, and if it survives that long (first challenge being to convert from e-mailing list to list serve: we had 35 names on the e-mail list, but, very frustratingly, only 7 have so far signed up to the Occupy Brooms list serve), will certainly do its best to help.

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