Occupy Oakland General Assembly, Oct.10, 2011
What a difference a year makes.
This time last year, the Occupy Wall Street movement was making noise, taking a stand against corrupt banks and the bailouts they received, as well as foreclosures and layoffs, which left many in the American middle class suddenly on a par with ethnic minorities, the poor and the homeless – who, it must be said, have been dealing with these conditions for decades, if not centuries.
Oct. 10 marks the one-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland.
Although the movement's overall presence has faded, proof that Occupy Oakland is not simply going to go away can be seen during its upcoming one-year anniversary birthday party,
to be held Wednesday, Oct. 10. Planned events include a “chalkupy”
drawing at 14th and Broadway and a BBQ/potluck at Snow Park, scheduled
to feature a slideshow, open mic, presentations on foreclosure defense
and anti-police brutality and an art space.
In the beginning
Occupy Oakland’s first rally, at Frank Ogawa Plaza in the heart of Oakland’s downtown and just a few feet from City Hall, had an energy, which can only be described as revolutionary. Here were the poor, the downtrodden and the social/economic justice activist contingent, joined by teachers, labor organizers and everyday citizens who were pissed off at the direction the country was going in.
Placards and banners with statements upholding the “99%” were everywhere. The vibe was one of solidarity, of common ground being attained through the similarity of people’s experiences. Although there were already rumblings that Occupy Wall Street was primarily a “white” movement, from the outset, that wasn’t the case with Oakland. That first rally contained a diverse demographic; many people of color spoke into megaphones, linking OWS and the banking crisis with hot-button local issues like police brutality and the failure of the legal system to enact justice.
By that night, a tent city was erected, as people camped out in Ogawa Plaza – rechristened in the name of Oscar Grant, the 22 year-old Hayward resident fatally shot by BART police at the Fruitvale Station on New Year’s Day, 2009. There were maybe about 15 or 20 tents that first night. By the next day, there were 35, then 50. Anarchist collectives set up volunteer-run food kitchens; evening General Assemblies drew hundreds of Oaklanders to the downtown, as unamplified speakers mic-checked their way through proposals intended to reclaim democracy for the people.
Those early days of Occupy Oakland were heady. Initially, some city officials seemed to support the movement, even if they weren’t aware of everything that was going on. City Councilwoman Desley Brooks spent a night camping out in the plaza, indicating her support, though other Councilmembers remained initially skeptical. The encampment added infrastructure, such as a library and a kid’s zone; organizers formed subcommittees and led strategy sessions. Meanwhile, the number of tents ballooned, surpassing 100, then 150.
During the day, the encampment was mostly peaceful, with guest speakers including actor-activist Danny Glover and former Black Panther Chief of Staff David Hilliard. There were performances by local musicians, including Boots Riley and Rocker Tee. Screen printers made free posters and hung them on lines to dry out. The evening General Assemblies were well-attended. But following the evening GAs, the vibe shifted and became more of a sketchy party scene. Reports of uncomfortability from nearby businesses began to filter back, as did rumors of drug use, scattered instances of violence, sexual assaults and prostitution. Attempts by the city to work with the Occupiers on coordinating homeless and mental health services were rebuffed; mainstream media outlets were barred from entering the camp without permission – which didn’t stop them from airing stories that were often critical of the campers and the movement.
Something had to give. It finally did on Oct. 25 when the Oakland Police Department raided the camp in the pre-dawn hours, on the orders of City Administrator Deanna Santana and Police Chief Howard Jordan (Mayor Jean Quan was out of town). A few hours after the raid, tents and people’s belongings lay strewn about like the wreckage from a hurricane; a chain-link fence was erected, ostensibly to keep the Occupiers from re-occupying. In actuality, it galvanized the movement.
An Oct. 25 afternoon rally at the Oakland Main Library on 14th Street drew thousands of people. The crowd then marched through the city streets, chanting slogans and waving banners. That march may have marked the first time “Black Bloc” anarchists, some sporting the Guy Fawkes masks - which became the unofficial symbol of the 99 percent - showed up en masse.
As the march headed toward OPD headquarters on Seventh Street, it found its way blocked by police in full riot gear and motorcycle squads. A few minor scuffles ensued; anyone who got too close to the cops or found themselves behind police lines was immediately and forcefully arrested. This only angered the crowd.
A showdown at Eighth and Washington foreshadowed the events of later that night. A group of about five or six riot cops found themselves surrounded by an angry crowd, yelling epithets and confronting the armed, armored officers face-to-face. From the back of the crowd, a hand extended. In a fluid motion, the hand threw a bottle filled with blue paint at the officers. The paint splattered all over the uniform and helmet of one officer. The police reacted by jabbing those closest to them with nightsticks. Without any warning, a loud boom filled the air, followed by a swirling cloud of mix of capsicum and tear gas. Suddenly, the street was awash with acrid smoke. People ran in all directions as the embattled cops rejoined the main line of officers waiting at Seventh Street. An OPD officer in a megaphone then declared unlawful assembly.
The remains of the crowd gathered at 14th and Broadway, where it remained through the night. Riot cops, including officers summoned via mutual aid, guarded the plaza with shotguns loaded with crowd control munitions – from flash-bangs to tear gas to rubber bullets.
Several more clashes between police and protestors took place, resulting in more tear gas being fired into her crowd on at least three occasions and more than 100 arrests. An Iraqi war vet named Scott Olsen was hit in the head by a tear-gas canister fired at point-blank range and suffered a severe head injury, which left him comatose. News of the attack and video footage from citizen journalists was reported around the world.
The next day, Oct. 26, Occupy Oakland retook the plaza.
The next major action happened Nov. 2, when Occupy Oakland, aided by militant labor activists and teachers, staged a General Strike and shut down the Port of Oakland, after a day of actions during which several banks had their windows broken. The daytime rally, centered around 14th and Broadway, drew tens of thousands of people – as many as 50,000 by some accounts. Legendary activist Angela Davis spoke, as did Oakland rapper Mistah FAB. The port march drew an estimated 30,000. At that point, it seemed like Occupy was well on its way to gaining some serious political leverage.
All that changed in a matter of hours. That evening, a splinter group of Occupiers – some say they were Black Bloc anarchists, other say agent provocateurs – set a dumpster on fire, appearing to intentionally provoke a showdown with OPD, who had not intervened during the port shutdown. Another group attempted to occupy a vacant building in the downtown area and were removed, forcefully, by police. Still others engaged in widespread vandalism and property damage, using fire extinguishers to paint anarchist slogans on Burger King and Rite Aid and smashing the windows of the Cathedral building on 16th Street.
The next day
Volunteers assisted in cleaning up graffiti from Ogawa Plaza and Tully’s coffee shop, but the damage had been done.
Occupy Oakland never regained the level of public support it had at about 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2, when the port shutdown was announced.
A group of City Councilmembers spoke out against Occupy, urging the clearing of the camp, while newspapers quoted the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce as saying that Occupy had had a detrimental effect on local business – a claim later disputed by an the Occupy Oakland Local Business Liaison, which surveyed more than 100 local business and found different results.
A murder in broad daylight of an 18 year-old known as “Alex,” who had been sleeping in a tent in the plaza, was blamed on Occupy by city officials and dutifully reported in the media. But witness statements indicated the death may have been the result of mistaken identity, possibly caused by beef between rival West Oakland neighborhoods, which just happened to spill over into the Occupy camp.
On Nov. 14, the camp was again cleared out by a police raid. This time, it would not be retaken. Another camp, at Snow Park, was cleared a few days later.
Without a central focal point, the GAs lost momentum. Local residents’ attendance faltered. A few abortive actions followed: several attempts to occupy foreclosed homes; a brief claiming of an empty lot at 18th and Telegraph; and a failed takeover of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center on Jan. 28 - or J28, as Occupiers called it - which resulted in an almost comical standoff with OPD in from of the Oakland Museum, punctuated by volleys of tear gas being fired into a small group using metal or plastic shields and homemade barricades who had attempted to advance on the police line.
Over the winter of 2011 and spring 2012, Occupy attempted to rally its troops with weekly “FTP” (F--k the Police) marches, as their supporters continued to dwindle. Committees continued to meet and organize actions around foreclosures - lending support to nonprofit organizations like Justa Causa and ACCE - but by then, many Occupy insiders were lamenting the demise of the movement.
Things appeared to go from bad to worse on May Day 2012, when months of quiet organizing around a labor march by immigrant and undocumented workers turned into a disaster. The day started out with an “anti-gentrification march,” which somehow missed targeting the Uptown apartments recently built by upscale developer Forest City and instead turned its attentions to locally-owned businesses like the Bittersweet Café and Rudy’s Can’t Fail restaurant.
An “anti-patriarchy” march against Child Protective Services was somewhat more effective as a protest statement.
If J28 was Occupy’s version of the charge of the Light Brigade, May 1 was its Waterloo.
That day, the annual march of undocumented workers from Fruitvale BART to Ogawa Plaza was disrupted by a large contingent of masked Black Bloc anarchists, who insisted on joining the undocumenteds. Fearful of confrontations with police and/or violence, many of the undocumenteds refused to march alongside the anarchists; instead of the 2,000 people who had began the march, less than 1,000 made it to 14th and Broadway and a large portion of those folks left soon after – dashing rumored plans to retake Ogawa Plaza.
For some who had still been holding on to the idea that Occupy would triumphantly re-emerge, like a phoenix, May Day 2012 seemed like the last nail in the coffin. Initially, Occupy enjoyed the support of a large number of Oakland residents and people from nearby cities who resonated with the 99 percent meme. But the inability of Occupy to disavow the sometimes-violent “diversity of tactics” approach favored by Black Bloc ideologues eventually turned many of those supporters - notably, the teachers and labor organizers - off.
People of color, who had been engaged in activist movements in Oakland since the Black Panther heyday of the ‘60s, were off put by the decision not to rename the movement “Decolonize Oakland” – which was put to a vote by a GA but fell short of the 90 percent approval needed to pass the proposal. Some became resentful of the influx of out of town “Occupy tourists.” Others didn’t agree with the vandalism and property damage. The lack of internal organization within a movement that prided itself on being leaderless and its inability to admit, much less take accountability, for its mistakes, also were factors in the dissolution of the movement’s popular support.
Still, a look at Occupy’s effect on Oakland’s political landscape shows it accomplished several things. There is little doubt Occupy accelerated the pace of police reform: An ACLU lawsuit noted numerous violations in OPD’s use of force policy during the protests; the police’s poor performance was also cited by Federal Monitor Thelton Henderson as a factor in moving forward toward placing the department under receivership. Furthermore, Occupy brought the battle against foreclosures, which had been previously waged by low-profile, but hardworking nonprofit organizations, into the public spotlight. Moreover, dozens of citizen journalists who cut their teeth in the Occupy movement have begun assembling hundreds of hours of video footage into documentaries and mini-documentaries - the impact of which could be felt for years to come.
Perhaps most interestingly, Occupy also highlighted the inherent dysfunction of Oakland’s political leadership.
Mayor Quan felt the heat from both sides: liberals bashed her for allowing the raid on the encampment, while conservatives branded her as too lenient for allowing the Occupiers to return. The City Council had an inability to come to consensus on Occupy - some members put forth a resolution of support, while others, including one-time camper Brooks, held press conferences decrying it. Both the police chief and the City Administrator were besmirched by a report by an outside agency, which was highly critical of OPD’s overzealous response to the protests. Meanwhile, OPD’s Internal Affairs Department had to outsource their investigations to an outside agency due to conflicts of interest and being overwhelmed by the sheer number of complaints.
It seems unlikely that Occupy Oakland will ever regain the level of popular support it once had. Yet it would be a mistake to call the movement dead in the water.
While the encampment is long gone, the conditions Occupy was protesting in the first place still remain. Oakland remains deeply affected by foreclosures, for one thing. And police accountability has become even more of a concern, if that were even possible, given the ongoing controversy over the death of Alan Blueford at the hands of police – which has seen Occupy-identified protestors come out in droves to support Blueford’s family at recent City Council meetings.
While Wednesday's birthday party may be more of a reminiscence than a militant action, organizers are planning more extensive activities on Oct. 25, the first anniversary of the wounding of Olsen.
See OL's Occupy coverage at http://oaklandlocal.com/occupy