Let me just say I’m skeptical about the possibility of mass movements in the US for various reasons. I’ve approached the “Occupy” movements with that skepticism intact. I’m heartened and excited about some of the things I’ve seen, no doubt; especially the new cognitive construct of decentralized organization and decision making, and the focus on process, rather than immediately on goals. Nonetheless, I’m also concerned about some other things. I know I’m in the minority, but the 99% appellation bothers me. A significant number of this percentage keep voting us into wars and some of those feed on every bubble that comes their way, regardless of the consequences. It also disregards the complicity of Americans in the way our system works, especially within the last ten years of war.
The composition of the movements—at least as I’ve seen them—are also problematic. As many people note with some amount of hopefulness, they’re not as monotone as they could be. But there is still as yet, a disconnect with the large numbers of people in urban areas who are most affected by these issues—poor and working class people, who in cities tend to be people of color. I’ve lived in Oakland for the last ten years continuously and I’m fairly confident in saying there was little if any representation from the area around Ogawa center. City Hall abuts West Oakland, a neighborhood that once burst forth with minority home ownership, but in the last decade has been the site of a critical failure of infrastructure. It just seems to be like locals and these Occupy movements really just miss each other.
I’m also concerned that organizations like Move On dot Org and larger unions will co opt the energy of the movement for their own purposes, sucking dry momentum and diverting towards meaningless institutional reform which will they will christen victory as they ask everyone to go home. They won’t do this by participating, but by commandeering the public stage and pretending to be interlocutors for the “99%” to the establishment. In fact, someone was handing out leaflets for a Move On march scheduled for Saturday, that will begin at Laney College and will be led by Danny Glover to Ogawa Center.
But my experience at Occupy Oakland has altered these concerns slightly. I no longer see the power of the occupy dynamic as a national movement, but rather as residing in parallel within every city in which it has sprung up. That is each one of these cities has the capacity to foment change on a national level, while also focusing efforts on the local level, and inspiring and re-inspiring each other. And its in that context in which I’ll describe what I saw today on the first day of Occupy Oakland.
I was expecting the turn out to be small, especially because it was raining, but there were several hundred people there by four pm when I arrived. It looked like a typical rally at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland, except that the police presence was minimal.
People tried the mic-check technique for a while, but as megaphones weren’t banned, and because mic-check simply wasn’t audible, they turned back to the traditional bullhorn.
There was some milling around for an hour or so, but eventually the agglomeration coalesced and moved to the speaking area at the center where the general assembly would be formed.
One of the first orders of business, was the break out groups. I saw evidence later on that night that the groups had formed and were hitting the ground running when I spoke to some people that had formed the medical break out group. One of those people I spoke to had been a field organizer for Barack Obama, who was now, to say the least, disillusioned with the product of his presidency. Though he had not yet completely given up on Obama, he said he was frustrated with his policy failures, the lost potential of health care reform, and the assassination of US citizen Anwar Al Awlaki last week.
Like others I spoke to, he confirmed that there was no stated goal to the demonstrations. But unlike other demonstrations I’ve read about in the past month, the people I spoke to seemed less interested in creating a larger movement, and more focused on drawing attention to the “Occupy” movement. More than one person I spoke to mentioned the word “solidarity” in relation to New York and the other Occupy cities.
Also unlike the ostensible origin of the New York Occupy event, where people apparently came together without knowing one another and with no known institutional ties, I definitely got the idea that Occupy Oakland was much more activist driven and inspired, and that these activists had institutional ties, which makes sense I guess. As many people I spoke to noted, however, the open structure created a situation that made its own leaders, and people were assuming roles independently for the most part. This also implies that there is a limit to the potential for co-optation, even when the organization is more centralized as Occupy Oakland’s appears to have been. Kevin Goztola wrote about this being the case in New York, and I get the impression that it’s a happy side effect of the Occupy idea. The participants really did want to give themselves over to the Occupy model, to distribute responsibility and agency, and to really share in an empowered community of impromptu activists. The urge to dominate seems to be undermined by the very nature of Occupy. In a sense, the people there were a community of organizers from various institutions and groups who had formed the backbone of the event, but what happened in the aftermath of meeting at Frank Ogawa Place for the most part took on a life of its own by design.
As night fell, there was really not much to do but honor how seriously the people who’d made the decision to stay the duration were. They organized themselves—and were organized. And as the tents went up one after the other, it was clear that they had staked their claim and were staying the duration.
The atmosphere was infectious and, to be honest, I didn’t want to leave, if only to see how things would mature over the next few hours and into the morning. As I said, I remain for the most part skeptical, while also relieved that I can still find this particular moment in time exciting and full of promise.
Here’s the Occupy Oakland website: