Part 1: Talking to People Doesn’t Really Make Things Clearer, But it is Interesting
From about half a dozen tents set up on Monday night, the grassy area of Frank Ogawa Center is now completely covered in tents, too many to accurately count. I was astonished, actually, at how quickly the community had grown. There was a fully functioning mess hall and kitchen, which I’m told serves food round the clock, an information desk and porta-potties courtesy of a donation by some local unions, and a children’s tent.
I’d had some initial prejudices about Occupy Oakland. I saw the first day as a re-run of the regular demonstrations I had been a part of in this very square for years now, with similar organizations represented; people from what can almost be described as a caste of political activists, and a lack of substantive class and race representation. At the same time, I thought that the open structure of Occupy lends itself to a snowballing kind of diversity, with no real safeguards against a majority representation of working class and people of color from the neighborhoods surrounding Ogawa.
Since my hopefulness for the budding movement was based on rapid change and a complete replacement of the matrix of the organization—from relatively privileged political organizers to members of Oakland communities—I wanted to see if my initial perception was still holding. Since one of the things that’s bothered me about Occupy coverage, both mainstream and alt, has been the attempt to assign either diversity or hippie/loser status on the basis of a few interviews, I’ll state right here that the people I talked to aren’t representative of anyone but themselves—they’ve given me no insight into the composition of the community at Ogawa in general.
I did want to interview people of color and people out of their twenties, and so those are the people I sought out for the most part. I will say that its obvious that the space has drawn the area’s surrounding homeless population and that during waking hours, attracts a great number of curious local people and passers-by. Some haven’t even heard about Occupy before they happened upon Ogawa by chance.
The Occupy events were only a faint buzzing in the background for Oscar, an unemployed construction worker in his late thirties who I found sitting enjoying the warm day on the steps of the plaza in front of the city hall building. He’d heard of them, but tuned them out and admitted he didn’t really pay attention to news. Hungry and a bit drunk, he’d walked by at two in the morning, surprised to see the kitchen open and a cook making flap jacks. Oscar is living with friends, so the idea of escaping a full house and staying with the Ogawa community for the night was appealing. Though he didn’t think that there were very many people there in the same position as he, he did feel very welcome and at home.
Oscar had been out of work since the housing crisis began three years ago. Though he considered Occupy Oakland a good start, he was skeptical about whether the system could be changed at all. He wasn’t sure if he would stay another night, though I did see him there later after sunset setting up a tent.
The space had attracted some homeless people as well who seemed to have a mixture of practical and political reasons for being there. Kali, who was in his late thirties, boasted that he’d been the first person at Occupy Oakland; he’d been sleeping on a park bench on Broadway in front of the park on Sunday night anyway. He told me that he was homeless by choice, as a reaction to having spent most of his adult life in prison. This echoed a comment by another person I spoke to, who went by the name of Truth, who also claimed his homelessness was a personal choice.
To a certain extent, I saw this as political bravado, of a kind no different than any activist explaining the philosophical basis of their lifestyle. But one issue kept bubbling up from various people I spoke to, especially those who were out of work or homeless: and this was the idea that even having a job was not a solution to the problems facing our society. Kali had come to feel that the pursuit of money was at the foundation of life’s problems—greed and accumulation were inherently negative, and were bound to result in a dysfunctional society.
As Truth put it, he had made his choice on a subconscious level by the time he was old enough to do simple addition, watching his mother work, sometimes at two jobs, to keep her family above water at the Acorn projects in West Oakland. He’d tried holding down a job and a place to live, but realized that looking at a paycheck that was a little over two hundred dollars a week, that the struggle to stay above water would be constant. He also found the hierarchies and competition of the workplace to be ultimately negating.
Demarco, a young man from East Oakland who’d recently lost his job as a security guard, echoed these feelings, as well. He’d been fired from his job of four years, he said, because his employer did not want him accumulating pension time and other benefits—the employer had been seeking a pretext, and eventually constructed one. He felt that his union, SEIU, had let him down, giving him a run-around of 800 numbers and unanswered calls, and leaving him alone to defend himself against his employer in arbitration. He saw this as a betrayal of what the union had told him it was there to do, and the reason that he paid his dues.
Even so, Demarco felt that his precarious position might not be worth fighting for anyway. It seemed that he would always be fighting for a job he was bound to lose, falling behind, and then spending another few years catching up, only to repeat the cycle. There was a problem in society of solidarity, according to Demarco. People hoped to escape the worst situations, and so focused on their own well-being. It was an illusion he thought, since everyone would eventually find themselves in those circumstances.
Demarco had only been at Ogawa for a few hours. He was curious about the Occupy movement, and felt that it embodied some of his feelings about economic and political problems he was experiencing. He was already excited, and considering the next step, which would be to spend the night.
When I asked Demarco if he felt that his race and class experience was represented at Ogawa, his answer was equivocal. Though he’d seen many black people at the event and had been talking to people who were unemployed and/or homeless, he responded that there still weren’t enough black people at Ogawa, but that in his mind race and class were artificial separations.
The issue of representation was also a consideration for Jack Bryson, though he was careful in dealing with it. Foremost, he was excited and positive about Ogawa and felt that only good things could come of it; he rejected some criticism as being a “crab in the bucket”. Bryson had become politicized when his sons witnessed the killing of their friend Oscar Grant at the hands of police at a BART station. Before that, he said, he’d been asleep, engrossed in work and other issues, and unconcerned with politics.
After his experience with organizers and activists in the Justice for Oscar Grant activism, he felt that all political movements were connected. Bryson had been active at the prisoner strike at Pelican Bay prison when Occupy Oakland had been organized; but he had heard about it from some of the people that he’d been involved with in the Oscar Grant organizing, who were also involved in Occupy.
Bryson had joined the POC group which had formed through the General Assembly to address issues of people of color. For many people of color, Bryson said, there was a concern about losing their own representation and having white people speaking for them. Though he had a lot of respect for the white organizers he’d met over the years, he said it was clear that different experiences create different priorities and concerns. Many middle class whites had only become concerned about the economy when their own economic well-being became as precarious as it had already been for communities of color for years—he called this, “the shackle being on the other foot.”
White people were also sometimes oblivious to the dangers faced by people of color who entered the justice system as a result of activism—what could mean a citation for a young white person, could mean jail time or expensive bond for a non-white activist. Regardless, he still felt as if Ogawa would ultimately become a watershed moment, and that it had inspired a new sense of political activism not just in the US, but around the world.
As I said, my conversations don’t tell us much about the composition of the group. There are apparently over one hundred tents by now—people were struggling to find an unclaimed spot to set up as night fell on Thursday. There’s just too many people at Ogawa, interacting in to free-form a way to understand the social dynamics, at least in the short term.
But the question remains of whether diversity of participation is actually being felt in the decision making process at the General Assemblies. From what I could tell, I would say that the answer to that is not very encouraging. Kali, for example, told me that he’d been listening in on some of the GA’s. He told me that he’d gotten an ironic laugh out of discussions he’d overheard at a prison writing workshop at Ogawa. When I asked him why he didn’t speak up so that people could learn from his experience—that is, really know what a prisoner might want to get out of an exchange—he dismissed the idea.
I think this is indicative that the political process, as its presented by activists, can be intimidating and seem like “something they do”, and not for the non-activist.
While I was at the GA that night, I saw some disturbing signs of where that kind of feeling may emerge from as well. There was a system set up for communication amongst the group to foster participation which I thought was quite ambitious and laudable—it was meant, especially, to avoid heckling and other kinds of negative reactions which can stifle emerging voices. But there was heckling coming from the upper rows of the amphitheater around city hall, anyway and it was one hundred percent white, young and male. It seemed pretty typical of what I’d heard for many years now, based on ideas not being perfect enough, or informed enough—not down enough with the revolution. At one point the facilitator had to ask people to stop heckling and booing, but these people ignored the request. I stress they were a tiny fraction. But they made their presence felt enough so that people who were still getting their political sea legs would think twice about sharing their opinion or representing their group at the mike.
While there was substantial representation of the groups by people of color at the mic after the break out groups, I don’t think that that representation was indicative of the general participation at the GA from what I saw. The GA was overwhelmingly white and young, and seemed by hook or by crook to have weeded out the kinds of people I had spoken to earlier. That’s for many reasons I’m sure, but something that the GA should be considering with great seriousness.
Part 2: The General Assembly Deals with Move On’s Move In
That’s not to say that the GA functioned poorly. In fact, it was quite heartening to behold the meeting. As I said, I’m still not sure of the protocols, but it did seem dedicated to consensus and toward building it, even if it was frustrating or time-consuming.
In a previous post, I mentioned the danger of co-optation from groups like Move On, and Van Jones’ Rebuild the Dream organization. As I wrote, shortly after arriving at Ogawa on Monday, I was handed a flier for a march from Laney to Ogawa put on by those organizations and several other community groups and unions that was scheduled for Saturday October 15. This was also of great concern to many at the GA, who felt various emotions from deep ambivalence to outright hostility to the groups. Many expressed concern about the danger of being co-opted, or of being used as a prop by politicians and organizational management. A lot of this antagonism was based on the Ogawa group’s rejection of electoral politics—that was a somewhat unanimous feeling if the crowd’s reactions were any gauge. To be clear, it turns out that Move On planned the event over a month ago, long before the Occupy’s had started.
To the Move On coalition’s credit, it sent out two representatives to explain the coalitions view, their needs and to try to come to some accommodation with the Occupy group, which they claimed to support.An older African American organizer explained that many rank and file union members and activists were representing their own organizing efforts, and not necessarily those of the organizations. She stressed that the Ogawa group and such organizers had goals and methods in common. This was echoed by a speaker from Occupy, who stressed that the members of the groups and the union did not necessarily line up behind the national level organizations or their hierarchy and that Occupy was meant to represent the rank and file of organizations, not exclude them.
The resolutions before the group were primarily concerned about how to give access to Move On without undermining the independence of the Ogawa group, and whether or not to allow politicians and other speakers unfettered access to the mike. There was a wide range of responses by spokespeople of the break out groups, who took to the mic after discussion to express the GA’s views. Some were entirely antagonistic to Move On and unions, and wanted to lay down the law to them. Others felt similarly, but explained that the only way for the group to enforce its will would be aggression, which would end up in physical violence. It was also noted that in such a situation, the only way to stop individuals from Move On from doing as they saw fit, would be through intimidation and violence, and that therefore it was important to come to an accommodation.
I was impressed by the GA’s commitment to hammering out the situation fairly and in a representative way. Though it obviously was not smooth; the resolutions before the group concerning Move On had to be constantly re-explained, and sometimes confusion reigned, followed by annoying heckling and cat-calling. In the end, the group decided to accede to the Move On coalition’s event, but to apply the standards of communication to speakers as if they were individuals in the group—no longer than two minutes on the mike, be they Danny Glover, Union representative or politician.
One of the speakers representing Move On, Charles Davidson, was someone I had interviewed in April at US Uncut tax day demonstration. I remembered that at that time he expressed frustration at the national Move On organization, and was dissatisfied with some of their capitulations and their retreat on US wars and occupations.
I asked him via email if he had a statement about the issue. Davidson wrote that the march was focused on budget cuts on health care, social programs and infrastructure, and in pressuring congress to create jobs and address the housing crisis. Davidson also stressed that he did not trust the Democratic party, and that he didn’t support Move On’s alliances with the party in general, but that he did support certain progressive Democrats such as Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich. He also stressed that there were many Move On members who’d been involved in political activism for years, and that the Occupy movement should try to embrace, rather than alienate them and the union-members that would be involved in the event.
That being said, he did echo Move On’s line, shared for the most part by the organizations and unions involved, that the fight was mainly focused on Republicans in the house. This is the main bone of contention with a majority of Occupy, in that it wants to remain free of any kind of party affiliation or electoral participation.
The GA finally decided to allow speakers from the event to only speak for two minutes, and that there would be rebuttal from the Occupy group. We’ll see how this works out on Saturday.