The Future of Occupy Oakland
Like so many others, I now feel that the window is opening once again. And I would like to squeeze myself through it. But we must be careful; the gap is still narrow, and if we look closely, we can see that the window frame itself is more like a mouth of shards.
– AK Thompson, Black Bloc, White Riot
From Port Shutdowns, to Rough Waters, to Paddling through the Doldrums
In a series of recent articles from both mainstream and ‘alternative’ media sources many writers have taken to somberly proclaiming (or righteously celebrating, depending on where you look) the death of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Here in Oakland, an article published by the Bay of Rage collective entitled “Occupy Oakland Is Dead. Love Live the Oakland Commune” similarly eulogizes the death of the (Occupy) Oakland Commune. The authors list several explanations for the death of Occupy Oakland, shoveling blame upon the recuperation efforts of non-profits and liberal organizations, the stifling maneuvers of trade union bureaucrats, but primarily the Oakland Police Department and other state military apparatuses for their concerted attacks on physical encampments across the country and their partially successful attempts to isolate militant tendencies from the broader social movement. These points are certainly not without merit.
The importance of the encampment was, as these authors emphasize, crucial to the visibility of the antagonist force of the Oakland Commune and provided a vital conduit through which ideas, bodies, and resources could meet and produce activities such as the November 2nd General Strike, the December 12th West Coast Port Shutdown, and several attempts to seize empty or foreclosed properties. The counterinsurgency operations managed by the Oakland Police Department, Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI, and aided greatly by local and national mainstream media outlets, have also proved to be particularly effective in undermining the hard fought relationships forged between radicals and the communities in which they reside or work within, while also ensnaring many with ‘Stay Away Orders’ or frivolous criminal cases. The authors also correctly assess, though understate, the disastrous effects of the apparent split between Decolonize Oakland and Occupy Oakland, a rift which has resulted in numerous public and private political struggles that directly impacted the events of May Day as well as other organizing projects across the East Bay.
This popular narrative of defeat which claims that we have simply been outmaneuvered by our enemies is not only empirically false, it glosses over the ways in which we have undermined ourselves. It would serve us well to acknowledge the ways in which sectarianism, unprincipled personal attacks, opportunism and conscious withdrawal have contributed to our current state. Failure to do will not only limit our ability to learn from our mistakes, but will also drastically affect the way we organize and act in present and future situations.
Symptoms of Illness
In trying to make sense of the dwindling numbers at recent demonstrations, committee meetings, and the Oakland General Assembly, to such a point that it no longer formally meets and the movement has lost its ability to make decisions or create new committees, we must look back critically and honestly about the last nine months. A large part of what we are seeing is the ebb and flow of the movement. It is normal for a movement to go through stages, in between which things may look disjointed or stuck in a hopeless decline. Both at the macro-level of how we collectively think about movement “success” and also at the micro-level of individual choice and interpersonal conflict things are a lot more complex. As we sketch below, there is a tremendous amount of important, radical work going on that despite the fact that many are resigned to a state of mourning.
The events of May Day and overwhelming police response are seen by many as representing the final nail in the coffin of Occupy Oakland. Most of us knew going into May 1st that the action would be a lot smaller than the Port Shutdowns for various reasons. This was not aided by the fact that the May Day Assembly spent weeks in conflict with other organizers about a permit for Oscar Grant Plaza, or planning a shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge that never materialized, rather than doing mass outreach. In the end it is not even clear that better planning and outreach would have made that much of a difference. May 1st, like the failed January 28th occupation of the Kaiser Convention Center, was an example of the pitfalls of chasing large street actions and using the numbers of participants as a barometer for the health of the movement. This is not to say that these things are not important. However, we need to understand that the success of large actions such as the November 2nd and December 12th Port Shutdowns are based upon a number of important factors and, in Oakland, were unique in that they were galvanized by the evictions of the camps and sparked by the deployment of a tactic of policing that, although nothing new to survivors of daily state-sponsored terrorism, spurred thousands to take to streets, and greatly changed the terrain of struggle, for a time. From the beginning, Occupy Oakland seemed to have learned some of the lessons of the alter-globalization movement from the onset, only to eventually forget them. Where the alter-globalization movement in the U.S. consisted almost entirely of big summit demonstrations with little local organizing or connection to the working class, the Occupy in Oakland was, from the beginning, rooted in local issues like opposition to the gang injunctions, fighting school closures and solidarity with workers in struggle. However, we ended up gauging our effectiveness and health as a movement by our ability to pull off these dramatic mass actions (similar to the alter-globalization summits) rather than paying attention to, lending energy to, and struggling to improve ongoing actions like the Occupy Oakland BBQs that consistently draw out hundreds in every part of Oakland, or the Occupy AC-Transit campaign that is uniting bus drivers and passengers to collectively fight, not only against the further privatization of the bus system, but for free transportation for the poor and working class. There are plenty of examples of the ongoing grassroots work we are doing below. Occupy Oakland is not dead, nor has not failed as a movement; rather, Occupy Oakland has failed to properly define and evaluate success as a movement.
Alongside our inability to replicate large, spectacular street actions, the shrinking attendance at the General Assembly, to the point where it no longer functions because of our inability to meet quorum, is another symptom of poor health that needs to be examined contextually. Our General Assemblies, which were never more than 200 people, with a few exceptions, saw attendance slowly decline, starting as early as late December. We went from four G.A.s every week to two, started losing quorum on Wednesdays in the Winter which we never regained. Our Sunday GA did not have quorum for over a month after May Day and now ceases to exist. The winter weather, the lack of a camp, spotty facilitation, poor sound, and a physically less than ideal meeting space at 19th and Telegraph all played a role in this. A slew of sectarian and unprincipled attacks against several visible organizers, baseless and slanderous accusations of racism, and even provocative attempts to publicly denounce other as terrorists due either to personal conflict or ethnic heritage, played a clear role as well. When that “terrorist” accusation was called out at the General Assembly, Decolonize Oakland published another attack on Occupy Oakland. They argued that by addressing the accusation as unprincipled, undisciplined and racist, the General Assembly was like a lynch mob, since a couple of the accusers happened to be people of color.
The accusation of racism was levied again at the Re-imagining the GA, by someone who had, from his tree-sit in Oscar Grant Plaza, swore and screamed at the entire General Assembly, for weeks in the Fall, complaining that we had not given him any money. Weeks later, he only made a proposal for funds after taking out a permit for Oscar Grant Plaza behind the back of the G.A. and the broader movement, a permit that would be used as a pretext to raid the Plaza in December and January, resulting in Kali Johnson ending up in prison for 2 years. Kali was arrested for possession of a blanket, a violation of the permit. He was denied psychiatric medication in jail, was assaulted by guards and charged with assaulting a corrections officers. He recently took a plea deal and is serving two years in prison. We have a great number of people from outside and inside the movement continuously levying body blows, that slow us down, aid to our burning out, and help facilitate the loss of people on the edges of the movement that want to hear about action and strategy not personal feuds and ego-driven sectarianism.
Beyond this long list of problematic behaviors that drove wedges between organizers and aided the creation of an atmosphere characterized by hostility and inwardness, we might add several other points. From the onset, there was very little effort to publicize the G.A. or the work of Occupy Oakland outside of the movement itself. The G.A.’s, particularly in the beginning, were far too long and we also could have been more clear on what the role and function of the G.A. was. Conscious efforts to expand the movement are taking place in our organizing and the BBQs, and there is hope that a new General Assembly will emerge soon, shaped by the people that have been putting their heart and energy into thus far.
“Zombie Occupy” Continues to Munch on the Capitalist Vampires
At first glance one is tempted to agree that, in the face of these serious challenges, Occupy Oakland (and the broader Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S.) has indeed experienced a death, of sorts. But is this analysis entirely accurate? Is Occupy Oakland, as a decentralized amalgamation of social and economic struggles that in fact arose prior to the establishment of the first camp (see the Oscar Grant Movement and the UC/CSU school occupations, for example) and continued on through May Day, decomposing, as the authors would have it? As a physical encampment for itself – yes, absolutely. As a popular meme or fashionable brand – to a certain extent, perhaps. We most certainly have, for the time being, lost our capacity to engage in large-scale militant tactics, such as the attempt to reclaim the camp after the first eviction or the January 28th Move-In Day (#J28). But beyond the life of the encampments as well as the exciting and vital militant demonstrations, crucial organizing work continues as we will show later.
It is our position then, that the sentiments expressed in articles such as the one published by the Bay of Rage collective are both inaccurate and premature. We would like to emphasize the refrain, “Don’t mourn, organize (and attack!)” and encourage those who helped build and maintain the encampments, spent tireless hours in committee and affinity group meetings, and put both their bodies and lives at risk to orchestrate attacks against agents of the state and private property to continue the difficult day-to-day, long-term organizing that created the brief ruptures through which we became able to produce a significant, dangerous antagonist force capable of destabilizing flows of capital and the various forms of social domination imposed by the state and other governmental apparatuses.
This work continues in groups such as the Foreclosure Defense, Anti-Repression, Oakland Occupy Patriarchy, Occupy AC Transit, Labor Solidarity, anti-police violence organizing and People’s Community Medics committees. From our perspective, building organization and capacity to create ongoing assemblies and actions to resist capital and apparatuses of social control within Oakland communities are necessary in order to sustain us in what will inevitably be a protracted struggle with no certain end. What follows is a brief overview of the ongoing struggles in which Occupy Oakland is currently active. It is our hope that by illuminating these examples we will show that the work that created and sustained Occupy Oakland has not ceased, that it has, in fact, intensified and permeated further into the social fabric of the city of Oakland. Furthermore, it is our intent that this article opens up a broader conversation about how these struggles might be enlarged and strengthened as well as strategically connected with other developing fields of conflict.
Occupy AC – Transit
For several months now Occupy AC-Transit has been developing and initiating a long-term campaign to fight back against deplorable worker conditions and steadily rising transit fares. This campaign, according to organizers, is at least in part informed by the ‘autoreduction’ movements of 1970s Italy and will, ideally, culminate in the securing of free transportation services for those who most rely upon them, not just those who ride in from the middle-class suburbs of Emeryville. By helping to facilitate the unification of the riders and drivers through steady outreach to bus drivers and passengers, organizers are attempting to forge the type of working class power that can effectively disrupt and undermine the profiteering efforts of the AC Transit Board of Directors as well as seize and make readily available free transportation services so many depend upon.
Foreclosure Defense Group
The Foreclosure Defense Group (FDG) has waged numerous battles to prevent financial institutions such as Bank of America and Chase Bank from evicting Oakland residents from their homes – most notably in the case of Ms. Katie, a 77-year-old retired postal worker and grandmother. In an effort to move beyond struggles concerning isolated individuals, the group has partnered with the East Bay Solidarity Network (EBSOL) and other housing groups in order to build a coalition and campaign focused on seeding self-sustaining neighborhood assemblies to address self defense and housing needs.
Oakland Occupy Patriarchy
Over the past couple of months Oakland Occupy Patriarchy (OOP) members have, in addition to facilitating a community speak-out in East Oakland, organized two contentious demonstrations against the Child Protective Services (CPS) offices on May Day 2012, largely in response to the persistent targeting of single mothers of color who had attended Occupy Oakland events, as well as the H.E.A.T. Watch Conference, an anti-sex trafficking summit sponsored by several local and federal law enforcement agencies held in Downtown Oakland. A recent fundraiser co-sponsored by Queers Strapped and OOP, ‘Strapped,’ sought to raise money to facilitate self-defense instruction for individuals in the wake of the recent murder of Brandy Martell and other trans folks nationwide.
Worker’s Assembly / Assembly of the Unemployed
The Workers’ Assembly (WA) is a broad coalition that includes member of the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity (OOLS) and other labor organizations that will meet regularly in an effort to collectively respond to and support the workplace struggles of willing groups and/or individuals.
The Assembly of the Unemployed (AU) is another broad coalition in the process of organization and will first convene in early August 2012. The AU will seek to organize around the conditions unemployed and underemployed people face; not just joblessness, but lack of quality healthcare, emergency medical response and housing, as well as police violence and hunger. Through the voluntary communization of resources and knowledge, such as skill workshops and the establishment of a community survival programs, the Assembly of the Unemployed looks to ease some of the physical and economic burdens of unemployed or underemployed life while also confronting the forces and conditions of their dispossession.
People’s Community Medics
While the People’s Community Medics (PCM) is not officially a project or committee of Occupy Oakland many of the organizers, the majority of whom are African-American women who had connections with Occupy and some other participants in Occupy Oakland, have been active well before and throughout the life of the Occupy movement, particularly in the areas of anti-police and anti-racist struggle. The group exists to equip individuals with actual medical survival skills relevant to the conditions of their daily lives: gunshot wounds, seizures, and other situations that the Red Cross does not train for, to help save lives in neighborhoods where ambulances regularly take over an hour to respond.
For anyone who has been active throughout the existence of Occupy Oakland and most certainly if one has been arrested at any related action since October 2011, The Anti-Repression Committee (ARC) hardly needs any introduction. The ARC continues to support organizers and activists who are targeted by the state and actively works to develop strategies to confront and resist the state’s repressive tactics, such as the infamous ‘Stay Away Orders’ and, as of late, the #J28 snitch campaign led by Caesar Basa of the OPD Major Crimes Division. The ARC has been working in conjunction with Occupy Legal (OL) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) to provide ongoing jail, court and bail support, as well as political education regarding surveillance and counterinsurgency.
Justice for Alan Blueford
Several members of Occupy Oakland have helped to form a coalition to address the recent murder of Alan Blueford, a high-school senior who was recently shot and killed by the OPD, as well to build a broad movement against ongoing police terrorism. Individuals are working directly with the Blueford family in order to put pressure on the City and the Police, who have consistently lied to the family and the public. Several marches and protests have already taken place, with more to follow this Summer.
The End of Infancy is Not Death: Entering the Next Phase
Despite all of the vibrant ongoing organizing, we are still at a point where we could either put our heads together and regroup, or retreat back into the radical fiefdoms we were in this time last year. Our problems go deeper than self-doubt, burn-out, and a non-functioning G.A. We currently have a school occupation underway, started by a committee of Occupy Oakland, and largely kept going by various committees and members of Occupy Oakland, that has deliberately chosen to not call itself “Occupy.” The Re-imaging the G.A. event that took place two weeks ago and will meet again July 14th, drew its attendance mostly from people who did not attend G.A.s regularly and who were not and are not involved in organizing. The tone of the event was far less radical, its structure far less democratic, and its key organizers made up largely of people who have either consistently attacked Occupy Oakland from outside the movement, or people who have played highly divisive roles within it.
The re-establishment of the General Assembly on July 15, that is being discussed by Occupy Oakland Committees right now, will be central to strengthening the movement, protecting it, and keeping it alive and cohesive as we try to transition the movement to its next stage. By lowering quorum to 50, we can preserve the integrity of G.A. decisions while making the G.A. functional again. We run a serious risk of co-optation and fragmentation without a legitimate political center and decision-making body. While the structure of the G.A. was not a primary reason for the slide in attendance, improved amplification (so that everyone at the G.A. can hear what is being said), more outreach for the G.A., as well as potentially having 10 minute, rotating committee presentations, so that people get a fuller sense of what committees are doing, a better understanding of the analysis and strategy behind them, and a clearer sense of how they could get involved, are some of the things we could do to make the G.A. more interesting, more relevant to people, and more politically effective.
What made Occupy Oakland what it has been was the prior experience of many involved, but more importantly the radical ethics and principles taken up by most of its participants. We never allowed cops to come in our camps, we never asked for a permit for the park, and we consistently refused dialogue with bureaucrats and politicians. We never entertained being led or manipulated by non-profits, peace police, or people who work for the Mayor. These ethics and principles didn’t die with the camp evictions. When opportunities like the violent first camp raid presented themselves we took advantage of them. For months we have intitiated several grassroots efforts, with the expressed intent to be more than a protest movement, but a catalyst for the toppling of structures of power of this city. The anti-capitalist and anti-police sentiment that marks some of the best sectors of various Occupys around the country is the norm in Oakland. But a problem is emerging in which those who had previously been relegated to the sideline, after failing to get Occupy Oakland to condemn militance, are now attempting to pin the decline of Occupy Oakland on its use of miltancy. It is crucial that the same radical organizers and militants who helped imagine and create the events of the nine months reinvest themselves, so to speak, lest the very real threat of the liberalization or disintegration of Occupy Oakland come to fruition.
The things that draw peoples’ attention to Oakland, what makes Occupy Oakland what it is, is the uncompromising radical politics and militancy that has been the basis for every success we have had. The fact that we have become momentarily and organizationally un-centered does not change this. We also understand that our success is rooted in connecting with working class people in the city, rather than pandering to those on the liberal Left. The movement needs to grow. The movement needs to seriously address the lingering questions of race and whiteness. That is not done by adopting the ineffectual rhetoric or strategies of non-profits and it should not mean that we adopt liberal, tokenizing identity politics. From our experiences of talking to hundreds of working class people in East and West Oakland, our problem is not that people don’t support Occupy. On the contrary, most still enthusiastically support our efforts. However, they don’t know us, they don’t know what we are trying to do, and they don’t know how to get involved. We need to pull ourselves together and get to know the city. We need to help foster organization and self-organization around the work that many of us are engaged with, from foreclosure defense, anti-police violence, to the struggles of precarious labor and the conditions of the unemployed.
We feel comfortable with the not-so-bold claim that Occupy Oakland is very much alive. The only eulogy we are interested in listening to is the one we are going to write for city hall, the OPD, and every other boss in the city of Oakland.
C.H. Acheron is a student and an organizer in the East Bay area.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mikeking0101(at)gmail.com.