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A Report from the Sidelines of Oakland

The Classroom at the End of the Occupation

by CLIFTON ROSS

Oakland.

The first tweet from the Occupy Oakland had gone out just a few minutes before three and we managed to make it to the plaza in about half an hour. When my wife Marcy and I arrived at Frank Ogawa Plaza, now redubbed, “Oscar Grant Plaza, the flimsy barricades, some consisting of milk crates, had already been installed in preparation for the police attack. The occupiers, most with bandanas or scarves covering their faces as some sort of protection or guard for anonymity, worked as if directed, though there was no one directing.  It soon became clear that this was a problem. This was, in a sense, THE problem. After two weeks occupying the plaza, the “leadership” wasn’t leading; the unity of cause wasn’t a unity of action, and the occupation was now facing a very highly disciplined, well-armed, uniform and uniformed force, organized in a strict hierarchy to move as one body with a very specific objective. It was the Spanish Civil War in miniature and this pathetic last stand of anarchists against a professional military force would end similarly, a fact that was obvious beforehand, at least obvious to many, despite all the bravado of a group carrying black flags and hidden behind hoodies and scarves and the frankly ridiculous barricades, two-feet high in places.

The eviction had been pending since the end of last week when the Occupiers had gotten notice from the city. I’d camped there one night and been returning fairly regularly from the first day on, but just as early Christians could only put off doing the housework in anticipation of the return of the Savior for so long, I took nearly a week off from the Revolution to catch up on my own housework and tasks.  It’s not an odd comparison, nor am I being cheeky or sarcastic to describe what has been going on now for over a month a “revolution.”  There is a distinctly millenarian character to the Occupy movement and the gatherings of people in small spaces are reminiscent, if only to me, of the Christians gathering on rooftops to await the return of Jesus.

The problem here is we aren’t exactly clear what the occupiers are awaiting. As they build their barricades, it’s clear they’re defending territory, but why they’ve taken it, and the purpose to which they’ve turned it isn’t altogether clear beyond this: the desire to build a utopia, a village, where the homeless can eat and be treated humanely; where people can gather and share experiences, meals, and a struggle for a small, temporarily liberated space; where new forms of organization can be discussed, agreed upon by a mass of strangers and then implemented until the next assembly when results can be considered and decisions reconsidered; a place free of the repressive forces of the state, especially the police, especially in this dark time of life in a national security state; a place where not only could another possible world be discussed, as in the string of social forums over the past decade, but where it could actually be practiced, if only for a moment.

This was all clear to me as I stood before the entrance of Oscar Grant Plaza, soon to be transformed again into Frank Ogawa Plaza. Over the entrance hung the banner that had been there for probably a week: “Oakland Commune.” But it was no time to sadly reflect on the brief millennial flash of hope illuminating this dark time, because someone was calling people to the north side of the plaza.

There, people were gathered discussing whether or not to have a meeting. One woman cried, “Mike check” and the people responded “Mike check!” She did that three times, which is the way to call attention and implement the people’s microphone. “Everyone here tonight” she cried out, and the people repeated, “Everyone Here Tonight,” “Is committed to nonviolent resistance, right?” and a few people repeated her words, while a gaggle of anarchists in black hoodies, black scarves covering their faces, and black flags in their hands, dissented. Then a young African American man spoke. “Is everybody here ready to get their asses whooped by the pigs?” A few people shouted affirmatively. He asked it again and then again before someone else began calling on the gathering of twenty-five or so of us. The young African American came down from the steps and sat on a bench. He addressed those of us nearby.

“Reason I’m asking that is ‘cause these barricades. They be inviting the cops to whoop our asses. So if you don’t want your asses whooped, you best take them down. And I know how them pigs can be. They beat my little brother so bad last year that his left hand still shakes like this.” He demonstrated with a shaking left hand. “His hand shake so bad he has to write with his right hand — and he’s left handed. These pigs ain’t nothing to mess with.”

That’s when we heard the first siren and the lights of headlights and spotlights flared and reflected off the windows of the tall buildings of downtown Oakland.

“They’re coming!” someone yelled from near Broadway on the south side of the plaza. People came running down the alley back to the plaza and we all came around to the entrance of the plaza to see they’d blocked off Broadway. Lines of police marched toward us like giant ants and then looking down Broadway I noticed they were coming from the opposite direction, too. They were also approaching from up 14th Street. In fact, they were converging from every direction on the Oscar Grant Plaza with its flimsy barricades from behind which the occupiers watched their approach.

Marcy and I crossed the street to get behind the police line and avoided getting in their pincer maneuver.  The spotlights went up as helicopters circled overhead and a policeman announced over a megaphone that they would be moving in to arrest people who were illegally camped in the plaza. The lines inched forward and then suddenly there was an explosion and an enormous cloud of smoke went up and  drifted slowly across the street toward us. It was tear gas and we began running away from it, choking and gagging, a group of twenty or thirty people who were taping or photographing the police action. We went a block away then half a dozen of us circled back and returned to the plaza.

When we got back to 14th Street, the police were already at work, demolishing the little village. They threw the tents and tarps and everything from the kitchen onto the sidewalk as police on motorcycles rode up and down the street to keep us away from the plaza and onto the sidewalk of the other side of the street.  Marcy and I eventually made our way down to the northwest corner of the plaza where we recorded the line of police moving like army ants over the tents that disappeared under their boots. Then they marched the arrested occupiers, bound with white plastic handcuffs, to the waiting vans. The whole process took perhaps half an hour, at most forty-five minutes, to complete.  We taped the demonstrators passing. Another woman beside us asked demonstrators their names as the police walked them to the vans. One youth yelled, “My name is the People! We are the f—ing 99%!”

Standing beside us all this time on the corner was an African American man in his early thirties. He mentioned a couple of times that his “Ten by twelve by seventy-eight” was in there, pointing to the plaza. “My tent,” he said, shaking his head. I asked him if I could interview him. He agreed.

His name was Maurice Porter and he was homeless. “This is a place where everyone comes together and we (homeless) actually feel like someone. It’s like they take from the poor and give to the rich. Me, I’m on SSI. We haven’t got a cost of living [increase] in three years. But who’s getting the money? The rich folks,” he said, then motioning to the line of police behind us, “and these guys here. And how much money do you think they’re paying for this, to take us out of our comfort zone, [these police from] Vacaville, Fremont, Hayward. But what do they do for the homeless? Did anyone come from the city to donate anything while we were in there? No one. We had donations from all the business around here donating, but no one from the city gave anything.”

I asked Maurice what life was like for him in the “Oakland Commune” and he laughed. “It was peaceful. There was a lot of harmony. We were united.” Was it a “commune?” He laughed again, “yes it was. It was a commune. Exactly. I came here seven days ago exactly and there were people from other cities, and other states who sat with us and broke bread with us and it felt real good. Real good. And now… this is a very sad moment.”

Maurice’s story wasn’t unusual. In fact, it was all too normal in this moment, in this city, in this nation. He could have been telling my own story if just a few things had been different in my life: He’d been homeless for four months after living in a transitional home. His unsigned money orders for his bills were in his car, and his car had been stolen. Then he’d had a run-in with a vicious dog… Before all that he’d been a full time student at Merritt College in Community Social Services. “I’ll get back to school. I’ll get back as soon as I can get on my feet. But this is what disrupts youngster’s lives,” he said, pointing to the line of the police and waving his arm at the plaza, “they grab them, they incarcerate them, they get them in the system, then they’re f___ed. I learned that a long time ago: they lock you in, then you’re locked. And when they approach you, the first thing they ask is ‘are you on probation or on parole,’ instead of ‘what’s your name, sir.’ I mean, that’s how they address you out here. But you know what?” Here he points to the police, “they’re just a paycheck away from the same thing. A while back they were talking of cutting police pay. Can you imagine how they felt then? But [now] they want to f__ with the homeless, and they weren’t that far from it. From a low paying security job. But they want to f__ with the homeless. They want to break you, break you, break you – instead of helping the homeless. We’re the 99%. I guess they’re with the 1%. We’ll leave it at that.”

As we walked away and tried to circle back around to our car to go home, I thought of the first night of the occupation. It had been raining and the concrete of the amphitheater where the first general assembly of the occupation was being held was still wet. Speakers were coming up to the microphone, but they weren’t the usual suspects with their political rhetoric or star-status, brought in for speeches to “entertain” or educate the faithful. These were people from the community, like the young African American from 105th Avenue and International who talked about what it was like to grow up in the ghetto, suffer hunger, buy a hamburger at McDonalds but “not be good enough to get a job there.”  “I go to Laney [College] and they tell me I’m too stupid [to succeed].” The statistics are available and widely known, of 80% unemployment among black youth in East Oakland, but it’s another thing to hear the story from the victim himself.

Suddenly, that night in the crowd I saw someone I knew. Ordinarily, in a political demonstration. a majority of the faces would be familiar: here I was relieved to see few familiar faces since that told me that a whole new force of people had joined the movement, had, in fact, created a new movement. I walked over to Michael, and said hi. He invited me to sit down.

Michael is an ex-student of mine from Berkeley City College. He’d taken an English class with me a couple of semesters back and now he was on a “field trip” in an English class at Laney College. He was going to have to write a paper about this experience so he asked if he could interview me. I agreed and when he asked what I thought about what was happening this is what I told him.

“Remember at the beginning of the semester I told the class that if anyone was there to get an education, they were in the wrong place? I mentioned there was a library around the corner where they could get an education, and there were plenty of coffee shops in Berkeley where they could discuss what they learned from books in the library. But this, Michael, this is the real classroom. This is where education really takes place.” And I told him about the young man from 105th Avenue and International. That young man had become my teacher this night.

Now on Franklin, as we walked back to our car with another ex-student I ran into during the police attack, I decided that’s why they couldn’t let Frank Ogawa Plaza be turned into the Oakland Commune on Oscar Grant Plaza: we would begin to educate each other. I would begin to hear Maurice’s story and identify with it, and even empathize with it. It would then become “our” story. And then “I” would become “We,” and then it would be all over for the 1%.

I got a call from a friend this morning after I returned home and had a chance to take a nap. My friend had been to Frank Ogawa Plaza later in the morning and he described it as “leveled.”  “It’s all gone,” he told me. “And maybe, just maybe, the police saved the occupiers from themselves,” he added.  I asked him him how.

“Well, the occupiers were saved from trying to figure out the next step. After all, where does this movement go from here? If their objective is only to occupy a space, well, that can only be temporary anyway. “

Over the past month I’d mused on that same dilemma I felt this movement faces. If the point of Occupying is only to occupy, what happens when you no longer occupy? Eventually, whether it be from necessity driven by need, or inclement weather, or, in this and an increasing number of cases, by police, you have to forfeit a space. Does that then mean your movement has lost, has ended? Will the Occupy movement be able to transcend locale, a chosen space, and take up a vocation? I could think of a very good one, listening to the young man from 105th Avenue, Maurice, and considering what my two ex-students are facing when they’ll be forced to go on to four-year colleges and take on student loans and enter a life of involuntary servitude, “locked in,” to use Maurice’s image, to enormous debt with prospects only of low-paying jobs and accruing interest on a loan that will never be forgiven in a system that knows no forgiveness.

Clearly we need to have an ongoing people’s assembly, a multiversity where we can get a real education in the important things of life: learning from each other’s lives and experiences, deepening our empathy, building solidarity and the “harmony and unity” about which Maurice spoke.  Perhaps it’s time for the occupiers to realize their role as teachers and students and build a movement where they can get, and give, a real education. Maybe this isn’t The Revolution. Maybe OWS and Occupy Oakland and all the other occupations are just the classrooms where we can begin to practice for that final moment when, and if, we’re finally able to shift power back to us, the 99%.

Clifton Ross is the author of “Translations from Silence”  (2009 Freedom Voices Publications), a collection of poetry that won Oakland Pen’s Josephine Miles Award for Literary Excellence in 2010. His first feature-length film, “Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out” came out in 2008 with PM Press, Oakland.