No, I’m not simply being late to the party – I know that Occupy Wall Street celebrated its one-year anniversary some weeks ago with a glorious 135 or so arrests in New York and a smattering of media attention. But today, October 10th, marks the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland -- the most notorious and widely controversial “Occupy” of the nation. And, in spite of all of its many challenges and inadequacies, the one closest to my heart.
A year ago, Occupy Oakland started as a dozen or two dozen folks sleeping in a park – which is nothing much to shake a stick at, believe me, because people sleeping in parks is hardly news in downtown Oakland. And as far as political activities go, I’ve attended dozens of actions with more organization, more arrests, more media, more puppets and far wittier banners. But somehow, in a matter of months, Occupy Oakland became a driving force that helped sweep this apathetic nation off its feet.
A little pinpoint of light that became a spark, and then a movement. Like a wildfire. Like falling in love.
Falling in love is about making a connection – and Occupy did that, it made the connection between the unemployed steel workers and the students drowning in debt and homeowners facing foreclosure in the face of nation-wide corporate bailouts.
Falling in love is about giving up the inertia of a disheartened life and opening to passion -- with all the delights and risks that anything that truly transformative holds.
The delights and risks of transformation seemed more tangible in Occupy Oakland than anywhere else on the Occupy map – it quickly showed itself to be a dynamic microcosm of the whole, as the whole was being inexorably, violently squashed by the powers that be.
I remember one particularly accurate Daily Show moment, where Jon Stewart does his “daily round up” of all of the Occupy protests, set against idyllic easter-parade sweet music, finally “landing” on images of the General Strike on November 2nd, 2011. They literally look like pictures of ‘Nam under heavy artillery: hazy with tear gas, people scattering everywhere in terror, the sky lit from above by helicopter spotlights. That was the night that ex-marine Scott Olsen suffered a devastating head injury from a tear gas canister – the first infamous veteran to be wounded in the harsh police crack down on the Occupy protests here, but not the last.
“OAKLAND? What the FUCK is happening in OAKLAND?” Stewart cries out in mock-surprise. His flippant question was one echoed a thousand times in the coming months as the crowds of protestors, the brutality of the police, and the desperation of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan all grew in equal proportions.
I’m not sure that any of us involved in Occupy Oakland last year ever truly understood what the fuck was happening here – not the protestors, or the police, and certainly not the city government. We were swept up in a perfect storm of racial tensions, political ideologue and intrigue, passionate emotion, and a collective history of injustice and violence. In the midst of it all, the Occupiers tried to organize together and the city (possibly due to pressure from the Department of Homeland security) did everything in its power to stop them.
Sometimes it worked, at least for a little while. I still remember the moment that I first walked into the beautiful commune in Oscar Grant plaza, with free food and medical services and childcare for anyone who wanted it amidst a vibrant pageant of nylon camping tents. Occupy Oakland, more than being any one thing, was motley crew of sub-communities, from the People of Color Caucus to the Women’s Bloc to the Children’s Garden to the medic collective and groups of unionized and non-unionized workers alike, from truckers and nurses to domestic workers. Perhaps one of the brightest lights of Occupy Oakland, the Interfaith Tent brought together leaders of different faiths to lead services to help heal the trauma the community was facing, speak out against oppression, and provide caring, grounded energy to a group of people rapidly spiraling into chaos. (At some points, the “Interfaith Tent” was downsized to an “Interfaith Umbrella” as OPD discovered and /or created very specific laws to justify their repeated attempts and the methods use to shut down the Occupation).
When I think of that moment – the beautiful blue sky above, tents of every color, a pathway made of reclaimed wooden pallets leading beneath sprawling oak branches that shield children from the sun, the smell of food in the air, and the voices of people from across Oakland’s wide demographic spectrum – it still brings tears to my eyes. In spite of many intense moments that had more airplay and retweets, when I think of Occupy Oakland, that is what I think about. I think of the promise.
While inspired by Wall Street protestors in New York’s Zuccotti park, Occupy Oakland quickly made a name for itself as something uniquely West Coast and specifically Oaklandish. Occupy Oakland was unwelcoming to police presence from the start, in solidarity with communities that suffer at the hands of its notorious police force; early on, occupiers dubbed the plaza they had taken in downtown “Oscar Grant Plaza,” in honor of the young man shot by Bart police on New Year’s Day in 2009. In a city where schools are increasingly over capacity and understaffed, activists rallied around teachers and schoolchildren facing school closures and held marches, sit-ins, and teach-ins in support. When the media started quoting business owners and police sergeants more than activists, they created their own media complete with local celebrity bloggers and livestreamists, which quickly gained traction in the techno-savvy Bay Area. They shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest port in the richest nation in the world, not once, but twice – a feat local activists had often attempted over the years, and failed nearly just as often.
Occupy Oakland spent a month in December of 2011 wrestling the idea of formally changing its name to Decolonize Oakland. Supporters of the proposal argued this move would express solidarity with the Chochenyo Ohlone and other Native American rights activists opposed to the term “occupy.” Many activists in the Occupy Oakland community had also taken part in actions designed to protect sacred indigenous land in nearby Vallejo, where city planners originally okayed the development of Glen Cove but eventually caved due to pressure from local tribes and their allies. Other activists feared such a move would further fractionalize the Occupy Movement, which across the country was suffering growing pains as it tried to organize 99% of the American population while also facing increasingly brutal municipal oppression.
The proposal was eventually rejected by the General Assembly. For me, that day marked the beginning of the end -- though I didn’t know it at the time. It was the last General Assembly that I attended. The American Autumn was over.
Winter came, with its constant rain and gray skies, and holiday gatherings heralding in the new year – an election year, more specifically. Dinner party conversations shifted from occupations to nominations. The credit cards that I had allowed to build up over months of working very little so that I could occupy and write started to send me notices in pink envelopes. My withered garden, which had been terribly neglected, gave me dirty looks every time I walked past it on my way to the front door.
But with all ends come new beginnings. It isn’t that I don’t understand the frustration, the disheartenment, the “Where did Occupy Oakland go?” I know those feelings and thoughts, and I’m certainly not immune to them – in some ways, they cut me to the quick even more deeply than my friends who, although interested, never made it out into the streets or a general assembly. In those moments, right after Where did Occupy Oakland go? comes the next question: Where should Occupy Oakland go? What’s next?
I’ve done my time in Occupy – sat through the endless general assemblies held hostage by the one crazy person who won’t shut up, been tear gassed and arrested, been “found” by the movement’s beauty and grace and lost to betrayal in the same day. As I look back at it all, what interests me most is the deep yearning I felt beneath the jubilance and chaos and righteous cries for justice. That yearning isn’t a sign of the failings that doom our work -- its the magic thread that leads to the heart of this work – which, beyond tents and protests and all the rest – is what the powers-that-be that rely on an apathetic American public fear the most. If we get there, I think we’ll finally understand what the fuck was really happening in Oakland – and what is still happening, beneath the currents of election-year politics.
Occupy Oakland showed us, in a concentrated, bite-sized for the media way, all that is the most desperate and the most beautiful in our culture: the veterans without their promised benefits, the homeless addicts, the laid off school teachers. We saw people living together, in public spaces they had reclaimed as the commons, planting gardens to feed themselves and helping save one another’s homes by putting themselves at risk of violence and arrest. We saw the savage means that the government, police forces, and corporations were willing to resort to in order to protect their interests and also the impunity with which they do it.
We fought amongst ourselves and undermined those willing to step into leadership. We made grandiose agreements amongst ourselves and then broke many of them. We sat in silence with prayer and loving-compassion, and we descended into anger and violence.
For me, what I came to see most of all is that there is something beautiful and immanently possible that wants to be born, right now, during this time of worldwide planetary destruction and human suffering. There is a rising of love, power, and hope springing up all around the globe – and it is this rising tide that we are yearning for, because we feel it just beyond our fingers and taste the first hints of it on our lips -- elusive and ephemeral, but ever so slightly less so, when we were in the streets with Occupy Oakland. We catch glimpses of it on tumblr and twitter, when our over-critical rational minds have been hypnotized into a stupor by too much time on the internet. Occupy is not the name of this upwelling of wisdom and connection – it is simply one spring that feeds something much larger, and it may return in the form that stormed the nation last year, or it may not. There are many other springs, and many other names. Joanna Macy calls it the Great Turning. Martin Luther King called it the Beloved Community. Given that it's 2012, it might even be what the ancient Mayans were referring to in "the end of the long count,"or what the acidic hippies called the Age of Aquarius.
I don’t care what we call it – I just don’t want to go back to the old days, when the only choices the American public entertained were those on preprinted menus presented to us by corporate-controlled media and corporate-controlled politicians: democrats or republicans, capitalism or communism, Nike or New Balance. I don’t want to fall into the sleepy days of inertia and despair. Last year in Oakland, I saw that we are a people that are capable of passion, empowerment, and cooperation in spite of heartbreaking differences– and it turned me on. Now, on the anniversary of Occupy Oakland, I find that I am still quite ready to follow the path of justice and passion and see where it goes -- and my guess is that I’m not alone. Not by a long shot.