A radical fidelity worth fighting for
10 October 2011—indefinite
Oscar Grant Plaza, Oakland, California
19 October 2011
Exhilaratingly, after ten days, there is so much that can be written about Occupy Oakland that many people could fill many volumes. I hope people do, to record a fraction of its experiences that have exceeded all initial expectations. It is for this reason that I am moved to attempt a necessarily partial account at this time, amid its unceasing developments, to capture some of what has happened thus far and what might be seized upon to continue forth.
I am focusing on the crucial first day as a center of study, because its founding character proliferated in all subsequent developments. A tremendous amount of effort preceded and constituted the first day. Initial organizers held frequent, open, and publicized planning meetings in the preceding week and made numerous important decisions. The occupation would be realized in Frank Ogawa Plaza: tactically sound, its accessible location in Downtown Oakland (a concentrated open space) is politically significant. The site of City Hall and of the rioting on January 7, 2009 in response to the killing of Oscar Grant by Bay Area Rapid Transit police on New Year’s Day 2009, this space produced powerful local anti-police violence activism in the national spotlight. Organizers decided that the plaza would be renamed Oscar Grant Plaza on the first day of occupation, connecting the occupation with Oscar Grant activism. They chose Indigenous People’s Day, the reclamation of Columbus Day, October 10, as the founding day to make explicit the occupation of the Ohlone land by the city of Oakland. The conjunction of the Oscar Grant and Ohlone movements established that the occupation would not be confined to the expression of any one movement and encouraged a spirit of cooperation across political commitments. Organizers decided on one demand: that people come. Just as the occupation was initially defined by those willing to put in the most effort in the preliminary planning, the occupation when underway would be constituted by the heterogeneity of efforts put into it and not be disabled by a dominating simplification of concerns.
Organizers decided on a strong anti-police stance, taking a practical lesson from the innumerable police raids upon other occupations encouraged by relaxed or actively collaborative relationships with the police on the part of occupations--the argument in Oakland insists as much as possible on the occupation’s existence rather than easily cede that power to the state. The occupation connects numerous local movements with anti-police sentiments: the movement against Oakland’s impending gang injunctions, the Californian prison hunger strikes for better conditions, the movements against recent Bay Area police violence on public transit services, the anti-austerity and public education movements that regularly clashed with police in demonstrations, as well as with communities that experience police harassment regularly. The connections with local movements established that the occupation would not be an imposed replication of the Occupy trend in Oakland solely founded on the politically-indeterminate popular abstractions such as “We are the 99%,” but would be founded with forceful politics rooted in addressing urgent local problems.
The call went out with these characteristics and drew hundreds of people on the founding day. A rally was convened and the preliminary organizers’ founding gestures of the renaming of the plaza for Oscar Grant, solidarity with the Ohlone people, and its anti-police stance were reiterated. The organizers presented frameworks for the occupation’s infrastructure, planned in advance of the first day, including committees for security, to materially constitute the occupation’s anti-police stance with patrols against police raids and serve to resolve internal conflicts and reimagine the impulsive recourse to state forces; food, essential for extended sustainability; facilitation, to run daily General Assemblies for the occupation’s maintenance, development, and decision making; media, to aid the dissemination and representation of the occupation’s activities, most crucially on the occupation’s primary public front, its website; and numerous committees for the occupation’s cultural development, including an events committee and a free school operating as an information conduit for autonomous workshops. The Raheim Brown Free School, named after the youth killed by Oakland police in January, further raised the occupation’s local political signification. Organizers emphasized the permeability of all these committees and the invitation and necessity for people to contribute and constitute them, with planning meetings to convene immediately after the rally.
A lengthy open mic for general announcements and expressions followed the committee announcements. People immediately took it upon themselves to organize elements that had not been covered by the preliminary organizers, for instance, initiating plans to build compostable toilets. As expected from an open mic, I was not in unproblematic agreement or enthusiasm about all of the heterogeneous commitments expressed, but I was moved by the fact of the passionate heterogeneity in that it encouraged a political sensibility capable of understanding contradiction and messiness against the familiar overwhelming encouragement of a willfully narrow sensibility, a simplified discourse. Furthermore, I was amazed at the radicalism of participants I did not know so strongly and diversely existed in Oakland, with overt anti-capitalist, even communist, and anti-police sentiments, stemming from lived experiences, with frequent invocations of Oakland’s radical history, especially the Black Panthers. Many people stayed around long after the rally’s end, immediately getting involved in developing the committees and committing to maintain the occupation by camping out and staying the night. Many expected a police confrontation on the first night. The police did try to enter the camp that night, but those present were able to articulate enough affective antagonism to chant the police out, and they did not persist or return. After the founding day’s positive and forceful community expression, it would have signified poorly for the city to have deployed the forces needed to repress the committed participants.
On the second day, there was an exponential development of infrastructure, including food operations being massively expanded from an influx of food and labor and the Raheim Brown Free School being augmented with a library and organizations of workshops, as well as plenty of people bringing their own activities to the plaza: painting and playing music, and occupying the space with tents. The Oakland Teacher’s Union bought portable toilets. The occupation enabled the rarest of situations in which efforts could be contributed unalienated, unmediated through a separate authority, and made immediately manifest in the situation’s enrichment. Immediate benefits healed people’s alienated relations. People immediately talked and helped one another and provided the most preferable environment available to many without the privilege of better situations, including providing excellent meals to the homeless and anyone else in need. The anti-police founding stance set the terms for intense and enriching debates, but the practical insistences by anti-police proponents seem to have established the occupation’s culture against the abstractly moralistic police sympathizers. The occupation’s empowering structure was quickly developed upon by the massive and heterogeneous efforts of diverse individuals and groups, which have continued unceasingly in the subsequent days including a total filling of the plaza’s space with over 200 tents.
The second day also saw the first General Assembly, which founded a process conducive to the occupation’s community-controlled, unalienated development. General Assemblies would consist of report backs from committees about autonomous projects seeking participation, a forum for the expression and cultivation of concerns, and the site for making Occupy Oakland-endorsed proposals requiring 90% consensus of participants present. The high percentage consensus requirement encouraged that only the most thoughtful and important proposals would be endorsed, disallowing imposed ideological takeovers, and empowered the importance of the occupation’s cultural cultivation toward both passing endorsements and formulating autonomous actions. The first several General Assemblies were difficult experiences, refining in an ad hoc manner an initially messier set of procedures, but essential elements were present from the start. The facilitators’ committee encouraged perpetual permeability to empower anyone moved to contribute to shaping the General Assembly’s process. Important proposals that passed through this process include a statement of solidarity with Occupy Wall Street against the police violence on October 14, solidarity with the California hunger strike, solidarity with all California workers’ strikes, and the first collectively endorsed anti-capitalist march to occur on Saturday, October 22. Autonomously, several hundred dollars were raised to aid the arrested at Occupy Wall Street on October 14, and a powerful anti-capitalist march was executed on October 13, flexing the occupation’s power in the face of the state rather than simply waiting to be acted upon.
In the unceasing recomposition of the occupation’s heterogeneous culture enabling radical concentrations executed both autonomously and through endorsement, participants need to continue to insist affectively and materially on autonomy from the state to continue the occupation’s unalienated efforts, unmediated through state permission. Internal concerns need to be solved through community power while resisting the tempting recourse of replicating authoritative law. The occupation’s character will continue to be what participants constitute it as: it’s a radical fidelity worth fighting for.