Monday, November 21, 2011

General Assembly at Occupy Oakland

Crazy busy lately.
Last Wednesday evening we drove over to Oakland with some friends to witness and participate in an Occupy Oakland General Assembly. This was held at the Frank Ogawa Plaza where just a couple of days before the police had cleared out the encampment and arrested about 30 peaceful protesters, including our friend Jeremy (he blogs about his experiences if you'd like to read a first-hand account).

Jeremy has been very involved with the movement for about a month, so we waited and went at a time when he knew it would be peaceful and safe for the kids. We walked a few blocks over to the Plaza in front of the Oakland City Center and discovered small groups of people already there, but no crowds at first.
The park itself used to have grass, but all of the grass was bulldozed off after police broke up the encampment and the dirt had been heavily watered and irrigated to turn the park into a mudbath to discourage people from sitting or camping again. People came anyway and eventually gathered in the small concrete amphitheater in front of city hall. When there were several hundred people accumulated they began the meeting.
It was an interesting exercise in very direct democracy; the group had several leaders come forward who are organizing different parts of the movement, and they made many announcements about where marches are happening, how to learn methods for peaceful resistance, forming task forces for things like publications and community liasons. It's plain that many people involved have experience with dealing with organizing, and crowds, and legal issues.

There was no PA system, so the crowd used the 'human microphone' method: the speaker would say a phrase, pause, and the crowd would repeat the phrase to amplify the words. It worked surprisingly well, and it had a sort of calming and unifying effect on the crowd, as well as acting as a way of controlling rowdy, disruptive elements. There were homeless people, there were people with mental issues and drug dealers there, as is usual in downtown Oakland. Downtown Oakland has a high number of homeless people (many of them are veterans having a hard time). There are many people of color who live in the neighborhood and view it as their turf. But overall there was an atmosphere of friendly tolerance among the people in the crowd. Several people who probably normally get treated with fear or wary avoidance were allowed to speak to the crowd and given an opportunity to say their piece. People were respectful and listened and repeated their words just as they did for other speakers. It was a touching example of respect for all the kinds of people who were there.

I admit I was surprised at how peaceful and respectful the entire assembly was; there are a lot of well-educated people involved in organizing various groups within this movement, at least in the Oakland movement. Which is saying something, considering how rough Oakland can be. There was a wide variety of ages, ethnicities and economic levels present in this crowd, which was fitting when you consider the variety and and number of different kinds of people who make up this amorphous 99%.
This was direct democracy in action: every person there got to listen to the proposals and then vote on whether to do it or modify it. There was a vote on a statement to be released to the media; through voting they decided to reword it to be less incendiary and after rewording, the people there approved it with a 90% majority vote. They approved on a date to march, and various other things to remain in solidarity with the other Occupy cities. There seems to be increasingly more communication between the movements of the various cities than earlier, and coordinating 'wintrerizing' the movement so it can continue through the cold months in other ways than camping.
The Oakland people are not going to be camping again at the Plaza location, at least not for awhile. The only person still encamped there is 20 feet up in a tree, and Zachary Running Wolf has no plans to come down any time soon. We spoke to him and wished him well; he's become a sort of symbol and mascot for the Occupy Oakland people. He's a long time protester, experienced with tree-sitting and many past protest movements. I guess the police just didn't want to bother trying to drag him down out of the tree; the police nearby were studiously ignoring him as well as everyone else.
There was another camp over at Snow Park, but that has also been cleared out by police in just the last day or so. But one of the interesting things is that the movement seems to be going ground-less; not exactly underground but into the ether, with the help of modern cell phones and internet technology. We'll see what happens. Winter is quickly becoming an issue, especially on the East Coast, so people are looking for ways to take it all indoors and keep momentum going through various internet media. It's become clear that internet and cell phone communication between protesters and organizers is vital to organizing. It's also pretty clear that city and government forces are coordinating between cities to clear out camps and protesters at the same times. This may be partly to prevent groups of protesters from migrating between areas in support, as the Oakland protesters did for San Francisco that same night we were there; many had gone across the Bay to San Francisco to help support the San Francisco movement, which was being raided by the police there about the same time we were holding the General Assembly meeting. This migration of support explained the relatively few number of people present in Oakland, though with several hundred people there it was still enough for a quorum.

I admit I had to overcome fears about safety. Turned out the fears were more appropriately directed at the police and not at the homeless people or the drug dealers who may have been around. Everyone was polite and friendly to us and the boys. Except the cops. There were police around, standing around the perimeter of the park. They did not smile or make eye contact or acknowledge us at any time, despite Riley saying a tentative hello to a few of them as we walked by within a couple of feet of them. It did not endear them to me and it really made Riley question why they were so mean looking. I had always taught my kids they could go up to a cop if they were in trouble to seek help, but we had to explain that under these circumstances it wouldn't be a good idea. It shook the boys a bit, I think. I felt with solid certainty that if we got mugged or were in trouble right in front of those cops by any kind of assailant, that those cops standing on the perimeter would not have helped us.

People will question why in the world I would take my kids to such an event, but the fact was that Riley really wanted to go; he was enthralled at the whole process and loved feeling like his vote counted, that he had a say in what was decided. He jumped in and helped hand out posters to the crowd. He was interested in the process and it's hard to think of a more direct lesson about trying to create change in your society. He knew on a gut level that his vote was counted and could be the deciding vote. And I have to confess that I have never in all my years of responsibly voting in elections ever felt that way. Casey, predictably, was much more bored with the whole process, but even he was impressed that everyone got a vote, even a little kid like himself, and he paid attention and listened, realizing that his vote would help decide when and where hundreds of people would be marching and what their message would be.

I've heard many people ask and wonder what the heck the whole message of the Occupy Movement is; it seems so amorphous and disorganized. I said much the same myself only a month or so ago. But as my wise friend Greg eloquently said:

"I think it might be asking a lot to expect such a nascent organic movement to enumerate a clear set of goals so soon. I also think it's a mistake to believe the anti-war movement during Vietnam had clear goals--especially at the beginning.

It just takes a while for spontaneous movements like this to move beyond the inarticulate frustration period. Then they develop some coherent goals, and then come up with some policy objectives. The problem is coherent goals and policy objectives are dull hard work, and right now people just want to stand up on their hind legs and howl. And good for them for doing it.

They'll get down to the grunt work later; let's just be glad folks are sounding their barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world (I don't think Whitman would object to that)."

It really looks like there are many well educated, intelligent people within the movements who are starting to do that dull hard work. And I'm glad the boys and I have a chance to see it begin, though  it's frightening to see other protest situations turn ugly so close to home and heart and realize there may be a lot more violence coming. And I will be very careful about what I take the boys to, Mom, don't worry.


  1. yeh, just don't take the boys to a UC campus protest anytime soon!

    I admire your courage to go and check it out and expose the boys. I've been wanting to go - maybe to San Jose, but I have been sick for so long I just couldn't imagine having the energy for it. Nevertheless, I'm glad folks like you are taking opportunities to be there on the ground and tell us what its like. Thank you.

  2. I'm proud of you and Paul for taking them, and very glad they got exposed to such things. Small amounts of risk, yes, but worthwhile in this case.

    Good for you, and Imm glad their votes counted, we could do worse than listen to thhe voices of kids like those boys.

    Proud auntie and sister.

  3. Just a quick correction for clarity at the top, I think: Frank Ogawa Plaza (Justin Herman Plaza is in San Francisco, not far from the Occupy SF encampment).

  4. Ah, right, thank you Joey! Fixed now. I think I just got the two names mixed up in my head since there was a lot of talk about both plazas.

  5. I'm very proud of you for going.

    I hate the feeling that if I went to one of these things that I'd be in actual danger from the police. Getting arrested in my situation, especially by an unsympathetic police department such as Oakland or Sac County, could be scary at best, fatal at worst (I wish I was exaggerating that.)

    The fact that I have to be afraid, and that I'm no longer the only one that does, depresses me more than anything.

  6. Well done. I think it's important that your kids learn what's important.

    I am to this day disappointed that the church I grew up going to in the civil rights era never talked about or supported civil rights. I'm willing to bet there were people around involved in working for civil rights, but I didn't know they were at the time.

    Bardiac (I can't make the google account response thing work)