Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Occupation Continues

So I never wrote the Promised Part 3 of my Occupied Oakland blog, but it's still coming. I didn't write it because I've been literally torn up inside about Oakland: a crazy, messed up, beautiful city that is really part of my identity. It seemed like it couldn't get worse after Scott Olsen, the war vet, was nearly killed by a canister of tear gas to the head, and then someone was murdered a few yards from the Occupy Oakland camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza. At first it appeared, and OPD confirmed, that the shooting was completely unrelated to OO: the murder was the cities' 101st murder of the year, and it would be completely thinkable that, based on these numbers, someone would get shot downtown.  But everyone in City government who was on the fence about the movement was quickly off the fence and demanding the removal of the encampment, citing this kind of violence and misuse of police resources.

It was clear to me (and everyone in the world audience, probably), that Occupy Oakland was about to be kicked out.  And I'm also pretty sure that it was clear to everyone that the Occupiers didn't want to go.  Mayor Jean Quan managed to bungle the situation repeatedly- telling the protesters that they could move to a different space, causing one twitterer (?) to write that "We've reached a semantic impasse. You can't just say "Would you guys move your occupation over here please?" That's not an occupation." Recently, she mentioned a conference call with 18 mayors, and the story went viral: Occupiers everywhere have taken this as proof that there is a conspiracy to evict camps in a coordinated manner all over the country.  Members of the City Council held a press conference about OO, saying it had to go, and got shouted down. (I'm still unclear why they chose to hold the presser by Lake Merritt, unamplified, and then why they lost their cool and returned the jeers of the protesters with chants of their own, making buffoons of themselves.)

I'll cut to the chase: I practically didn't sleep until the camp was evicted.  I don't watch the news because it's overwrought and full of half-truths, but it's REALLY hard to turn off twitter, especially when you know some of the people writing, and you've learned to know others, and whose feeds to trust. The problem is, it's a constant influx of information, and of stressful information. I knew Alex had been shot at Occupy Oakland within 2 minutes of it happening (literally), and I can follow along with General Assemblies online.  It was common knowledge that the police were going to raid the camp, and it soon became common knowledge what date (last Monday in the early AM) the police were going to raid, even as the Council and Mayor said "you have to leave immediately" and served eviction notices with no precise time. And I couldn't sleep, because of how poorly the de-occupation went last time. Strangely, this time, the emptying-out of the camp went smoothly, as these things go. About 30 people were arrested, no injuries or use of force incidents were reported, and the park re-opened about 6pm. The Mayor and the Chief and the City Administrator gave a (ridiculous) press conference thanking everyone for a job well done, and said the park would be open for free speech but never for lodging.  Occupiers, including me, met at the Main Library that afternoon, and marched back to Frank Ogawa Plaza, where they were indeed allowed to assemble, though not "lodge" (i.e. camp).

My first inclination was to be proud of the city- the City and the Occupiers- for a peaceful evacuation of FOP.  I agreed with Desley Brooks (and the later Council Members) that the movement was about more than the patch of grass that the Occupiers were Occupying, but had come to see the Cities' mishandling of the situation as a valid enough reason for the Occupiers to keep on Occupying.  Many of the people in the tents at FOP were homeless, or poor, or mentally ill and were receiving services and basic shelter from other Occupiers. There was food at the Plaza, and books, and religious leaders, etc.  There were tents.  And these people, these "others" that no one in the City (capital "C") wanted to see, were camping on City doorstep, en masse. The City claimed that this was unsanitary, and unsafe, and hurting local businesses, but the truth was, many of the people that were living at FOP were people that the City does not want to see, and certainly not as a big group. Homeless people are easier to deal with one at a time, in a doorway, or alley, or somewhere you don't have to see them at all. It's probably true that some big business chose not to sign a lease in downtown Oakland: the camp was unsightly, and homelessness is unsightly. But it's real, and it's part of Oakland.  I couldn't be proud that the solution the City came up with was to disperse the camp via the police. It was great that nobody decided to respond to the 600 police officers in riot gear with violence, as I expected, but that was besides the point: Occupy Oakland has been removed.

I'm sure the City feels it has won: the encampment has gone. But what have they won? They claimed that downtown Oakland was safer before OO, but I disagree. Tons of money was poured into "Old Oakland" a long time ago, but it sits mostly vacant. I wouldn't walk around there at night, but I did on Saturday, because I went down for the march that OO held in solidarity with Egypt.  I did feel safe: there were people around, which generally makes me feel safer. I have never seen downtown Oakland with that number of people on a Saturday night.  The City claims OO is bad for business, calling on the Chamber of Commerce's threats about companies leaving and being destroyed. But the Chamber doesn't represent local businesses, rather, they are a group of people made up of large corporations.

 Perhaps the real question, then, is what has the City lost? Multiple times in the contentious pre-second-eviction City Council meeting, the Mayor and various Council Members described Oakland as a "progressive" city. But it's clear that the City is beholden to large companies, dependent on outdated, fear-driven police tactics, and feeling very threatened by a small group of people trying to change the world. In the meantime, the weakness of the Mayor has been laid out internationally, the City Council has embarrassed themselves, and the already trashed reputation of the police department has done nothing to repair their image.  Meanwhile, campers are temporarily being allowed to stay at Snow Park, a tiny corner park in an upscale neighborhood right by Lake Merritt, but out of view of the politicians, though the Mayor and Chief Jordan have said that this is is only temporary. On Monday I spoke to a feel people who were staying at Snow Park who were clearly transient: they are Occupying because these tents are their permanent dwellings.  The Mayor has mentioned "vouchers" for homeless facilities at the old Army Base, but is this the answer? Or enough of an answer?

Meanwhile, I'm very intrigued by the Occupy movement, at least its incarnation in Oakland. It's far from perfect, but there is definitely something very real going on. I have not been to a General Assembly yet to see the actual proposals in action, but I have gotten a sense of how the proposals are made and how communication works. The encampment, on Saturday before the second coming of the Police, was similar to when I saw it during the General Strike, though less crowded of course. It did not, contrary to rumors, smell like feces or anything else particularly bad.  I did see a joint being rolled, but this must should be taken in context: downtown Oakland is host to Oaksterdam, including a marijuana university. I'm taken with the process, if not entirely by the crowd or the results. 

I spoke with a man when I was down at the library on Monday, who said he stayed around the corner (possibly at Snow Park), and was a little bemused by the whole thing. We watched a young Asian kid, dressed in an emo-punk style, buy two gas masks from a very large white man in his mid-30s, who looked to be making a killing. Two young indie white mid-20s behind us were shaking their heads: "those don't work." My new friend, a black man in his mid-40s, commented that the Occupiers, who he visits every night, were here, but had no idea what was going on here.  They want to get arrested, he said, they want to get teargassed, but what do they know? I agreed, and shared that sentiment. The speeches we were listening to where very passionate and articulate and idealistic. At one point, someone condemned violence and a tall young white man in expensive athletic gear smoking a cigarette muttered loudly that this was a privileged position to take. I looked at him and looked away before arguing with him. My new friend and I talked about how in my neighborhood, far to the East of Lake Merritt, very few people seemed to have heard about OO, or at least care about it. They are even less likely to come out when surrounded by a crowd of people who seem to tempt fate with willingness need to be arrested. For my neighbors, principles may not be worth going to jail for.  That idea sounds foolish.  We compared the situation: people who are there in body, but unclear on the concept, and people totally clear on the concept, and not there in body.  At least in this context, I feel like OO has an excuse: this is a new movement, and one that has potential, and going through growing pains. The City on the other hand, has nothing of the sort.