Like a lot of folks, my first reaction to the Occupy Wall Street protests – which began on September 17th, over a month ago – was dubious. While I agree with their concerns over income inequality and the failure of policymakers and law enforcement to hold Wall Street accountable for its role in the financial crisis, the language of occupation, and the vague strategy and early lack of focus left me ambivalent.
As time has passed, Occupy Wall Street (and similar efforts in hundreds of cities around the world) have drawn in expertise from organized labor and have transformed this effort from what seemed like a feckless gathering into the sort of metanarrative that Van Jones eloquently urged liberals to create at last summer’s Netroots Nation.
Over the weekend, I visited the folks at Occupy Oakland. Oakland is not Wall Street, of course, and I’d joked before that Oakland really ought to be occupying someone else, not being occupied. Oakland, to put it simply, is the 99%.
What I found was an experiment in building community, and a vigorous protest on behalf of Oakland and its citizens. The city plaza being occupied had been renamed after Oscar Grant, a young black man who was shot in the back during his arrest a couple years back, and whose killer was given a laughably short sentence. His death had spurred protests, many of which resulted in rioting and violence, often in and around the same plaza now being occupied. The Occupy community was vigorously nonviolent, a quiet, polite tent city where about 200 people lived, with a kitchen that served the Occupiers and other hungry folks, a first aid tent, a supply tent with water and spare blankets and other necessaries, an area for children to play under adult supervision, and an arts and crafts area.
This little girl had been painting in the arts and crafts tent, and I caught her as she was cleaning up and picking up some plastic flowers that had been donated to the camp.
The main purpose of the arts and crafts area was signmaking, I gather. Signs of various sorts were lay all around the periphery of the camp, left their in anticipation of future protests. Near the arts and crafts tent, a series of signs that others had painted were drying, including my own favorite, urging (at the upper left): “Octopi Oakland.”
But it wasn’t just about protest. We entered the camp at lunch time, so the kitchen was busy, and I’d guess that at least a quarter of the folks being fed weren’t Occupiers, just folks from the area who were homeless or otherwise going hungry. We may not have the public bread lines of the Depression, but the economic crisis has left a lot of people scrambling for their next meal, and the kitchens in Occupy camps may be doing more direct good on that front than almost anyone.
Near the kitchen there was a poetry slam under way, and in an amphitheater at the center of the park, a group of Native American women were talking about how their experiences and those of their people could inform the Occupy movement (including urging them to drop the language of occupation, which understandably turns off Native Americans). After they finished speaking, there was a polite and thoughtful discussion which branched off from their talk into the various other concerns of the protesters.
This woman was listening to the conversation as she put the finishing touches on her large banner. Her theme is fairly traditional, but perfectly expresses the attitude and accomplishments of the Occupy movement.
Apparently this peaceful experiment in democracy was raided by the Oakland police, who swept in at 4 am. Apparently using toxic gas, grenades, and rubber bullets, they arrested dozens, confiscated tents, sleeping bags, and other gear, and cleaned out the park. Occupy Oakland organizers insist they’ll be back, but this makes Oakland’s response one of the most aggressive assaults on the Occupy movement in the country. In a city with epic crime rates and genuine, deep-seated problems, I have a hard time seeing how a peaceful protest deserves this level of police response, apparently involving multiple police agencies coordinating the assault.
Is this really a threat deserving of such a response?
I mean, this is a group so polite that someone made a sign to request that folks smoke a little farther from the tents, signing it “asthmatic occupier.” Honestly, not the foremost threat facing Oakland. The mayor and other city officials have previously expressed sympathy with Occupy Oakland, and I simply cannot see how this outcome makes any sense.