A few thoughts on Occupy Oakland

I went to Occupy Oakland last night for the celebration of their one-month anniversary. What was supposed to be a party with music, dancing, and cake, turned out to be a candlelight vigil. A young man was shot to death earlier in the day in the same plaza as the camp. And although the shooting apparently had nothing to do with the Occupy movement — an instance of neighborhood violence common in Oakland — the crowd showed profound sympathy for the victim and his family. After a couple of visiting union leaders and a clergy representative said a few words, we had a period of silence for the vigil. As I paced the perimeter of Frank Ogawa Plaza, carrying a candle in a paper cup, I had some time to observe the camp and contemplate its role.

It was a tumultuous day for the Bay Area Occupy movement. The previous night, a large demonstration in Berkeley followed when police beat UC Berkeley students with batons for trying to establish their own Occupation. In the afternoon, some Oakland City Council members and business leaders held a press conference about a mile from the Occupy Oakland camp to call for its removal. Occupy supporters showed up and shouted down the speakers. At the same time, Mayor Quan visited and the camp and, in an apparent change of heart 2 weeks after her last reversal, told the Occupiers they would have to leave.

The Mayor and other detractors uniformly say that they agree with Occupy’s message, and that they support free speech, but that sleeping in the plaza is causing the problems. It is a “safety hazard” and attracts the wrong element, hurting downtown businesses. They have a point. Oakland’s struggling downtown businesses are not helped by tear-gas raids, broken windows, or (additional) multitudes of homeless people.

From my own observations, the people at Occupy Oakland are not generally people you would want hanging out around outside your downtown sandwich shop or clothing store. But these are the people you would want to band with, post apocalypse. They are capable, practical people, with a diverse set of skills, able to take a small patch of mud and create all the elements of a functioning community: food service, with an elaborate pantry and kitchen; education, with the library and daily classes and trainings; government, with the General Assemblies and committee system; health care, with medics and the medic tent; entertainment, with the music tent and its ceaseless drum circle; and well-being, with their daily scheduled yoga and meditation. Some of these are also like the people you’d be stuck with, post-apocalypse: crazy people, mentally damaged by the apocalyptic trauma; leachers, looking out for themselves; and fringe types, who survived the doom because they were holed-up somewhere far from people and now they aren’t very well socialized.

But let’s set aside for a moment the question of ills wrought by Occupy Oakland’s choice of location. (Yes, one thing Occupy Wall Street has going for it is that no one cares about hurting the business of the adjacent megabanks.) One Oakland business leader had wondered bitterly to the press why protesters always choose 14th & Broadway to demonstrate when the rich people are all elsewhere. Here is the answer: the symbolism can not be beat. City Hall towers over Frank Ogawa Plaza, all white stone and columns, much like any capital building in Sacramento or Washington, looking every bit the seat of power that it was designed to be. Glass office buildings bear down on other sides and traffic lumbers by on Broadway, downtown’s central drag. A person standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza feels small and humbled. But a crowd standing in Frank Ogawa Plaza knows that everyone in all those window can see them — in fact, can’t ignore them — and feels empowered.

If I were Mayor Quan, I would look out the window of my mayoral office at the 180-tent encampment below and I would be afraid. Not afraid for my personal safety, but surely for my political future. I would be afraid because this ragtag bunch of unemployed kids has twice the proportion of public support that I do. I would be afraid because this scruffy homeless encampment can rally 10,000 to march on a week’s notice [3]. I would be afraid because every move I make would be scrutinized by the populist hoard below, each of them hungry for a reason to protest.

I don’t have a better answer than anyone else about how we can turn the Occupy movement into real change. But this is my feeling: When the President of the United States looks out his window at the masses and feels fear, when congressmen look down the Capital steps at the demonstrations below and feel fear, that is when we will get the change we’re looking for.

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