Oakland: Incubator for Meaningful Local Politics

Oakland, California.

The New York Times Magazine’s recent feature on Oakland — “the last refuge of radical America”— seemed to have one overriding purpose: to convince the rest of the nation that Oakland’s uniquely strong social movements are a quirk with no relevance to the rest of America. Don’t try this at home. Reporter Jonathan Mahler and his editor seemed to be operating under a directive to undermine any notion that the Occupy Movement’s specific trajectory in this West Coast city can provide models for politics elsewhere.

Instead, Mahler and the Times depict a city paralyzed by dysfunctional politicians and activists, a sort of zoo in which the loony remainders of a broken American Left are allowed to play amidst the wreckage of a post-industrial economy. The Occupy Movement is caricatured as a brawling child interested only in irrational running street battles with the police. Gentrification, the further impoverishment of the city’s working class, and displacement of its Black, Latino, and Asian communities is inevitable, we are told. Get used to it.

Locally Mahler’s article has been given the birdcage treatment. It’s such an obviously sloppy and uninformed rant to most of us who live in Oakland or who have carefully studied the region’s politics. The downside is that because it was printed in the Times’ Magazine, the glossy paper doesn’t work well even for cleaning up pet waste. The other downside, the serious one, is that the Times’ coverage may have been somewhat effective in its political purpose on the national level. Many readers unfamiliar with Oakland or the Bay Area have probably accepted the narrative about kooky radicals and the city they’re tearing apart from the inside even as capital radically transforms parts of it into a bobo paradise.

Davey D, an Oakland-based journalist and deeply informed commentator on the city’s political scene penned an excellent response to Mahler’s article just days after its publication. According to Davey D, the New York Times article, “in no way describes what people are all about here in Oakland. It diminishes the true grind that organizers put in day-in and day-out to improve their community and better this city. Those who take direct action in the face of oppression do so because they have little or no choice. It’s not something to be romanticized, it’s not a game, even if this writer came across a few individuals who thought it was.”

Davey D goes on to describe the big omission from Mahler’s piece, the lack of any information or analysis about the major preexisting social movement in Oakland through which Occupy and any current political mobilizations must be understood: the Oscar Grant Rebellion. It’s an almost criminal omission from the Times’ feature coverage of Oakland because without understanding the conflict between Oakland’s flatland communities and the police department, and how the Oakland Police Department is at the center of virtually every problem the city confronts, from debt to economic under-development, one simply can’t make sense of the what’s going on here.

So Mahler and the Times, in their laziness, their cynicism, or perhaps it was a malevolent desire to slander genuinely radical political struggles, took the easy route, and wrote a fantasy story designed to lead readers to one conclusion: Oakland is a place where crazy people with quaint 20th Century ideologies do things that have no meaning or application to politics elsewhere. Neoliberal urban transformation is unstoppable.

Another informed and responsible writer based in the East Bay, Alex Schafran, responded to Mahler’s article by calling it a “hit piece,” as in an assassination attempt. “Mahler is profoundly uninterested in understanding Oakland, or even in truly understanding his surface goal, which is to explain the vitality of Occupy and various forms of ‘radical’ street protest in Oakland,” writes Schafran. “Mahler, like far too many people who write about cities, is simply using Oakland to make a broader argument about politics and society.” “Mahler sees those who would dream of a more equal city as fools,” concludes Schafran about the Times’ coverage.

Back in October of last year my impression of Occupy Oakland was that while it was certainly a local manifestation of the Occupy Wall Street movement and was running with some of its slogans and energy, Oaklanders had dispensed with distant targets like Wall Street and Washington from the very start, focusing instead on the problems it could actually address. As I reported for CounterPunch then: “from the very beginning Occupy Oakland took a radical stance and localized the terms of struggle. At the first rally cries of ‘fuck the police’ peppered comments equally critical of local government and powerful Bay Area corporations which have pressed harmful budget cuts upon Oaklanders”.

Occupy Oakland was never about the boring liberal politics of advocating for change from the federal government or other distant forces that could only be appealed to with signs and slogans and moral suasion. For those who have taken part in it, Oakland’s most recent wave of protests was always about taking direct action to confront the immediate and real problems Oaklanders are facing, not just because of the financial crisis, but because of decades of disinvestment, police militarization, and austerity measures imposed by local politicians. Oaklanders were contesting the shut down schools, shuttered libraries, derelict parks, and the policies that have left much of the city in a state of disrepair.

This week a group of activist reopened a former library in a flatlands neighborhood off International Boulevard in Oakland’s sprawling east, in just another local direct action that will otherwise escape national attention. Naming it the “Victor Martinez People’s Library,” the building’s new tenants quickly cleaned graffiti from the walls and removed piles of garbage that had accumulated on the site after years of illegal dumping on the derelict city property. The activists, who didn’t say they were part of Occupy Oakland, although some familiar faces were peppered amongst the group, released a statement:

“If you live in this community, we only ask that you think about how you can use this building. Name it anything you like. Purpose it to any goal that benefits the community—library, social or political neighborhood center. The grounds can even be used for a community garden, where we can grow healthy food in a food desert neighborhood. All we ask is that you keep it out of the hands of a city which will only seal the fence and doors again, turning the space back into an aggregator of the city’s trash and a dark hole in the middle of an embattled community. The doors here are opened. And there are many other simply waiting to be.”

By 5pm the new Victor Martinez Library was bustling with dozens of people, many of them young activists, the sorts derided by the New York Times for their idealism and dreams of a more equitable city. Handfuls of neighbors trickled in and out of the building curiously looking over the scene, chatting with the library’s liberators who were busying themselves with sweeping and other chores. Children from nearby houses ran in and out of the library and its yard. A mother and her two daughters who lived in a house nearby shyly told me they’d like to see the reopened library become a place for children to safely gather and play. There is no park or playground close by; the neighborhood around Miller Avenue and International instead is dotted with auto shops, industrial supply warehouses, apartment buildings, and dangerously busy streets.

A man standing out front is busy giving an impromptu lecture about the building’s history. “During the Chicano movement in the early 1970s this was closed as a library, so the community took it over and turned it into a school,” said Jose Rivera, a Richmond resident who grew up in the neighborhood. “Between roughly 1973 and 1988 or 89 this was one of the community schools, Emiliano Zapata Street Acadamy, that was created by the movement to educate our youth. People know all about the history of the Black Panthers and the anti-war movement in Oakland, but there was also a powerful Chicano movement that made changes here.”

Rivera, a scholar of the Chicano movement in Oakland, is carrying copies of articles, maps, and other documents he’s researched that provide some insights into the neighborhood’s past, and specifically the old library’s role in previous social movements. A San Francisco Examiner article from May 12, 1982 he hands me describes the Street Academy as “an experimental school,” and the direct product of the Chicano movement’s direct action-oriented politics. Classes discussed current events affecting their communities and made studies relevant to the troubles confronting youth.

“In a basement one recent day civics teacher Bernard Stringer led a spirited discussion on the Immigration and Naturalization Service,” reads the Examiner piece.

“‘What did the INS do this week?’ Stringer asked, his voice booming out at his nine eager students.”
“‘They were swooping down,’ said one of his students referring to the recent INS roundup of [undocumented immigrants].’”

“‘What were they swooping down for?’ asked Stringer.”

“‘Because people had jobs but they didn’t have their green cards,’ the students replied.”

Countering recent ICE raids against workers in Berkeley, and raids targeting the Mexican and Central American communities of East Oakland has been a major focus of activists in the Bay Area, just another important part of Oakland’s current politics that was omitted from the recent Times’ coverage.

When the Emiliano Zapata Street Acadamy moved away to its current location, the building at 1449 Miller Street was more or less abandoned by the city. It had successfully incubated a community school that still exists, but the 1990s and 2000s was a decade in which the old Carnegie Library sat mostly empty, its façade falling apart, and the grounds around it accumulating trash.

To an outsider unfamiliar with Oakland’s history the building’s newest incarnation as the Victor Martinez People’s Library could seem like just another direct action carried out by Occupy Movement activists, but couched in Oakland’s long and productive history of social movements it’s obviously something more. There’s continuity in the struggle to save and reopen libraries as a means of improving neighborhoods and empowering communities.

Upon leaving the library last night I approached three young men standing on the corner across from the scene who were passing a blunt around and surveying the scene. “How long do you think this will last?” I asked them.
“I hope it last forever,” said one of them with an earnestness that surprised me. “We need a library in this neighborhood. The closest one is way out in Fruitvale, the Cesar Chavez branch, or else you have to go all the way downtown.”

Another one of the youngsters said with equal seriousness, “a book can save a life.”

“So you guys think this can succeed, the community will use it?”

They nodded their heads affirmatively and pointed at a little boy rolling past the new library on his scooter.

“The city spends all their money on cops and they don’t have any left over to run things like this,” one of them said.
It was an observation also noted by one of the activists earlier in the day. “Larry Reid, chair of the council said he’d rather have cut libraries and other services two years ago, rather than lay off police officers,” said the organizer in front of the new library.

Indeed, Reid told the San Francisco Chronicle recently that he and his fellow city councilors “could have made cuts in other areas without laying off 80 police officers,” but concluded that “the political will was not there”.

Just before midnight last evening the Oakland police swooped in. Evicting the activists the cops boarded up the Victor Martinez People’s Library. In less than 24 hours this place has been transformed from an abandoned Carnegie library into a busy community center, and back into a “dark hole in the middle of an embattled community.”

But in taking it over, even if it was a brief occupation, the building has been transformed into a potent symbol of political conflict and priorities, stemming back to the Chicano movement’s efforts to create a more just and equitable city, revived by a current crop of activists.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and author who lives and works in Oakland, CA. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press.


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Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at http://darwinbondgraham.wordpress.com/