Voices From the Field: Reflections on OCCUPY Oakland

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By now if you are following the Occupy Wall Street movement you may be aware of the critical injury two-time Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen sustained two nights ago at a demonstration in Oakland. Footage of the incident from one of the news organizations covering the demonstration has been re-posted on Move-on.org.

As I noted in last week’s blog, I have just returned to Oakland and had intended to go to Occupy Oakland, which is four blocks from my office on Tuesday. My plans were thwarted when, to the shock of many people, the Oakland police moved in on the encampment at 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning.

In a press conference, the spokesperson for the police noted that they had mobilized 200 police for this action. Protestors were given a choice of leaving immediately with their belongings or being arrested. About 30 left and another 75 were arrested. So, 200 cops in full riot gear cleared out maybe 105 protestors. This, in a city that has no money, and a very progressive mayor, Jean Quan.

The protestors were camped at Frank Ogawa Plaza, which is a beautiful and well-used public space in front of city hall, circled by restaurants and other small businesses. Quite a few nonprofits including the East Bay Community Foundation have offices on or near this Plaza and it is a major BART (subway) stop. As with many public spaces, even prior to Occupy Oakland, it was already “occupied” by a dozen homeless people who hung out during the day and slept in doorways and on benches at night.

I went down Tuesday about noon. Barricades had been set up around the Plaza. Behind the barricades stood a phalanx of police in full riot gear.Inside the barricades, city workers dismantled what remained of the encampment. The police stood about two feet apart, their arms dangling above all the stuff they wear around their waist. What remained of the protestors stood on the sidewalk yelling at each other, the police and passersby. I was struck by the sight: a disciplined line of cops: mixed race, almost equal numbers of men and women, facing an unruly but nonviolent crowd of mostly African American young men and women. The 99% turned on each other while the corporate fat-cats we denounce go on about their business.

I went again Wednesday night about 5:30. By then many of the protestors were back, and the mood was somber. Scott Olsen had been wounded. Mayor Quan had shown herself capable of calling for military like intervention, to the shock of her supporters. You could even catch the occasional fume of tear gas. The protestors still trended young, but were majority white. I was very dressed up because I had done a presentation earlier so I wandered around particularly near the TV people. I hoped I would show up on Channel 5 because well dressed people at protests almost never do. (To my knowledge, I did not break that pattern.) I talked with people, patted their dogs (of which there were quite a few) and met several dozen well-dressed older people in the crowd. The Hare Krishnas were serving food and people were making new posters. The police were not in sight, although two helicopters circling overhead drowned out a lot of the commentary.

A little later I talked with a friend of mine who works for Jean Quan and asked what Jean was thinking. She said the first problem with the Occupy encampment is that there is nothing the city can agree to in order to get them to disperse. There are no demands to the city (to me, part of the genius of this movement). Second, people had started to build fires at night for warmth and cooking and we are at the height of fire season. If something had caught fire, the entire camp would have been up in flames in a few minutes and people would have been hurt and killed. (Fire is a very real and scary prospect to Bay Area people who years ago witnessed 1000 homes go up in smoke in one evening). Third, the numbers of people had overwhelmed the public bathrooms and port-a-potties. Fourth, dozens more homeless people had moved to the plaza, drawn by regular hot food and better sleeping conditions. Some fights had broken out. The restaurants on the plaza (which have been largely supportive, even supplying some food and coffee) were beginning to wonder how long this would go on. The Mayor’s office (the Mayor herself is in Washington DC trying to round up federal money for Oakland) thought something terrible could happen and sought to prevent it.

I had a glimmer of sympathy for the City officials. I don’t know why the camping protestors weren’t simply asked not to have fires, and why the city didn’t provide more port-a-potties, or ask the campers to expand their clean up committee to the bathrooms. But I do imagine that those people in charge of public health and public safety have very mixed feelings about any big gathering of angry people. Ironically, though, the most damage was done by those most sworn to protect us: the police.

The Occupy Wall Street movement has sought to have the 99% understand our common identity, but the reality is that in the 99% there are multiple and conflicting identities, motives and needs. For this movement to move to have a more revolutionary impact, those conflicts will have to be explored. Right now they are simply being exploited, and the one group that isn’t really suffering a great deal from OWS is the 1%.