So, I’ve been meaning to get my thoughts down about the (now…not so recent) Occupy Oakland Movement, but between a demanding new job, the holidays, and now a bout with Sudden Sensorineural Hearing Loss (see Say, What?) time has eluded me. Despite all these excuses, perhaps my biggest obstacle has been figuring out how to express my sentiments accurately. Call it being stuck in semantics, but perhaps my thoughts, much like the Occupy Movement itself, have not had a clear direction since the beginning.
Working in an office at 15th and Broadway in downtown Oakland, I have had the opportunity to observe the occupy action from the eye of the proverbial storm. However, I am a bit ashamed to admit that it wasn’t until weeks after I’d been reading about the Occupy Oakland camp set up in Oscar Grant Plaza, that I finally took a Saturday afternoon to wander through and talk to some occupiers. What I saw in the camp was remarkable: a mini city, complete with a school, library, first aid station, media tent, printing press, arts and crafts booth, quiet hours, and a kitchen open to just about anyone with an appetite and the patience to wait in line. I saw a remarkably peaceful, and well-run camp, so I was surprised to find it surrounded by police in riot gear only three days later. The beautiful camp I had seen only days earlier had been razed to rubble, while stone-faced PD officers stood by in riot gear fielding the heckling of angry protestors.
I had heard rumors that Mayor Quan and the Oakland PD had plans to dismantle the camp and forcibly remove occupiers, but the response came across as excessive and unwarranted. I was sitting in my office on a Tuesday night when I heard crowds gathering on Broadway. As the crowd grew, it became clear that the occupiers were attempting to re-take their camp. In anticipation of the action, we had sent our high school students home early, and I was able to watch the crowd gather strength from four floors up. Soon the chanting of the demonstrators was drowned out by helicopters and police warnings droning through megaphones to breakup this “unlawful assembly.” It was the sound of (something akin to) gunshots and the smell of tear gas that brought me to the window, iphone in hand to capture this footage:
It is fairly obvious (and did not require the wounding of a young war veteran named Scott Olsen) that the rubber bullets and tear gas canisters hurled into the faces of peaceful demonstrators was entirely uncalled for.
I must have sat for hours watching something reminiscent of a war zone before there was finally enough of a break in the action to leave my office and attempt to drive home. Even on my way out at 10:30 I drove though clouds of tear gas, while protestors leapt over the hood of my car to get out of the line of fire. I crawled into bed, exhausted, but decided to throw the video up on Youtube. At the time, I was unaware of the forced media blackout that would make my video one of the aerial shots of the action. The next day, I woke up to…well…an earthquake, but after that…hundreds of comments and emails from foreign protestors, eager to speak to me about what was happening in Oakland, as well as a friend’s Facebook post that my footage of the action ended up on the New York Times website.
At the time, I wasn’t really sure how to respond. Despite being in the heart of the action for several weeks, I had not been an active participant in the movement, and I certainly didn’t feel I had the credit to speak about the movement. Nonetheless, my conversation with a reporter from a French publication forced me to confront my opinions on the issue as a general Oakland citizen. I couldn’t help but express strong feelings of ambivalence. I have always considered myself an “activist,” working to affect change in my community by putting my talents to use. So, I was excited when I started hearing about the growing Occupy Wall Street movement: a peaceful protest reminiscent of the sit-ins of the Civil Rights era. I was event more excited to see Occupy camps springing up across the nation in solidarity. However, what I also felt was an unclear target, a lack of direction. While I fully believe that not every protest needs to have a clear target–after all, demonstrating is really just an exercise in freedom of speech–I felt that a movement that has attracted as much attention as the occupy movement needs to leverage that public attention for change. What started out as a unified movement, became a network of smaller occupy movements, each with their own local flavor. In Oakland, the struggle was born out of a long history of conflict between Oakland PD and the citizens. With the eyes of the nation on Oakland, some demonstrators became so wrapped-up in the stand-off against the police, that they seemed to have lost sight of any sort of end goal. While I fully support the Occupy Oakland movement, I began to get frustrated when the end goal seemed to be nothing more than setting up a permanent camp in the newly-renamed Oscar Grant Plaza. The Occupy Camp had some teeth to it and was able to grab the nation’s attention and gain momentum for the movement, but it cannot be the movement in and of itself. These were my frustrations at the time I spoke to the writer of this article:
Following the publication of the article, I made a conscious effort to get more involved with the movement. I started to attend evening General Assembly meetings in Oscar Grant Plaza, but was again frustrated with feelings of ambivalence. The meetings were a beautiful demonstration of democratic, collective action, but also a chaos of ineffective voting procedures, LONG speakers lists and distracted (and often unruly…and un-sober crowd members). While my attendance at the general assemblies has dwindled, I have been encouraged to see the movement mature beyond the dying grass of Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant to the Coordinated West Coast Port Shut Down and the foreclosed homes of east Oakland. With such a mass of energy, this movement needs a new direction in Oakland that will generate tangible demands and bring about real change for the residents of Oakland. I cannot say what will come of the movement–although it does seem that the brief “Occupy Lake Merritt” Movement never did catch on…–but I am proud to live in a community with such strong will and voice.