Today, I lost my patience with #OO.
Occupy Oakland is news enough to have its own acronymous hashtag – taking up more than three characters will only stifle the flow of news coming out of Frank Ogawa Plaza. (Which I am tired of hearing called “Oscar Grant Plaza.” Yes, Oscar Grant is a tragic symbol of runaway authority and the deadly effect of prejudice and police brutality on the lives of young men of color. But Frank Ogawa was a lifelong Oaklander interned by the government during World War II who later went on to become Oakland City Council’s first Japanese-American member, and although his story is more hopeful than Grant’s, the fundamental issue is that Grant’s oppression need not pre-empt Ogawa’s.) As a socially conscious nonprofit in Oakland, it’s damn near impossible for my workplace to join any conversation that doesn’t revolve around Occupy, even when – and here’s the rub – it doesn’t have a damn thing to do with Occupy.
This reached a bit of an apogee yesterday evening, when a young man was shot and killed at the perimeter of the Occupy site. Immediately the news went apeshit, even though it quickly became apparent that the guy was completely unconnected to Occupy, that this was just another sad consequence of being a young man of color in California’s most dangerous city. Still, people agitated for a connection: the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, opposed to Occupy from the beginning, trumpeted the fact that a murder had NEVER happened on Frank Ogawa Plaza – until now – and this sudden violence must somehow be connected.
I worked in downtown Oakland – one block away from Frank Ogawa – for two years. And about a year ago, a kid was shot and killed around nine PM on the corner of our block. Sure, it wasn’t technically “on” the plaza – it was right across the street. I was working late often then, but one of the partners talked me into going home earlier; he stayed on at the office and heard the shots. I never learned the kid’s actual name but I know his nickname was Purple, because the next morning at the corner where he died the white exterior of the T-Mobile store was scrawled with notes addressed to him, memorializing him, all written in purple marker and all washed away two days later.
I could go on – there are other examples.
But why be pissed at Occupy, if they’re not the ones causing the problem? Well, because “not causing the problem” only goes so far. At a certain point, you’ve gotta be a part of the solution. Put up or shut up.
A lot of ink has been spilled about the Oakland Police Department in the wake of their raid on Occupy, and their actions during the Oakland General Strike on November 2. It is, unquestionably, tragic that Iraq veteran Scott Olsen wound up in critical condition because of police brutality.
But here’s the thing: this is what the OPD does. What’s been looked at and reported on much less is the political reality immediately preceding the raid – the sudden resignation of OPD chief Batts, who cited lack of support from the mayor’s office as the primary reason for his premature departure; the fact that Batts was brought in from Long Beach by the previous mayor to reform the department so that it could avoid going into federal receivership in the wake of its Riders scandal, in which it was revealed that officers beat and framed suspects (of color in West Oakland, natch) routinely. The OPD’s issues go way, way beyond what Occupy has seen, and the fact that Occupy has – in their democratic spirit – chosen to accept continued participation from the Black Block, a small but determined group of largely white, largely out-of-town anarchists and jagoffs who are almost exclusively responsible for any violence arising from the protest itself – well, however humane and wiggly-fingered that may feel during a General Assembly, it’s also fucking things the hell up for those of us who actually LIVE in Oakland.
The problem with the Black Block, and with the resultant shadow cast upon all of Occupy for accepting it, is that their tactics justify a police response. The initial raid on the camp – hundreds of officers showing up at 4 AM in riot gear – gained a lot of public sympathy (as it should have, because: are you effing kidding me, Jean “I was in DC!” Quan and Howard “My first major action as interim police chief will be a massive display of police brutality, because THAT will impress the Department of Justice!” Jordan?). The peaceful general strike had some flaws in its design (namely, failure to get some key stakeholders at the port on board ahead of time), but was also pretty well-received, although that was largely undermined by the fact that the next day’s news reports all included phrases like “but as night fell, things turned violent once again.”
There is a very real and very pressing conversation to be had about police presence in Oakland. It was, in fact, being held before Occupy – Batts’s last council meeting before his resignation was a contentious one, discussing gang injunctions and a citywide youth curfew, and organizations and individuals from East and West Oakland (the two neighborhoods where this is most urgent) attended in droves and spoke. Loudly.
Now? Now all we can talk about is fucking Occupy.
The problems with the Oakland PD have very little to do with how the police treat college-educated white people. These Black Block chuckleheads haven’t just co-opted Occupy’s message; they’ve co-opted the discourse around systemic brutality in the OPD, and more than that, they’re justifying it.
There’s a lot of other issues surrounding the Black Block and their tactics, the mindlessness with which they dole out destruction – Tulley’s Coffee, which is on Frank Ogawa Plaza, allowed Occupiers to use their bathrooms and gave away free coffee during the General Strike. It’s an independent business owned by an Oakland native, a woman of color, and the night of the strike she had her windows busted.
You know how you can really occupy Oakland? Move here. Start a business or a nonprofit here. Put an initiative on the local ballot, volunteer with some local organizations, buy things from local merchants. Showing up from Berkeley and breaking our windows is just being an asshole, and we’ve got enough of those to deal with in our police department as it is.*
But that’s the heart of the matter, really – Occupy is a demonstration, a protest; it’s not a solution. It’s not nothing – and as I said earlier, it’s not the problem – but it’s not an answer, even though the rhetoric around it doesn’t seem to recognize that.
Protests and demonstrations are important. These symbolic actions draw attention and sympathy to a cause and create dialog. But protests also aren’t reality, and that’s where solutions have to live. Crafting some alternative, limited-access utopia – even if the only limit is people’s own acceptance of utopianism – doesn’t actually change a goddamn thing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a commune or a gated community: the principle – and the effect – is the same.
Occupy Oakland is now building a community garden, to establish both its self-sufficiency and its permanence. Well, great, except – how much better spent could those time and resources be on extant community gardens, like City Slickers or People’s Grocery or Phat Beets, programs working in low-income communities to increase access to fresh organic produce regardless of resources? What about all the school gardening programs in Oakland, many of which are struggling just because many schools in Oakland are struggling just because Oakland is struggling, period?
Making change means taking the world as it is and going from there. It means being serious about solutions, acknowledging that perfection is rarely possible, and reaching out to people you’d just as soon avoid because they’re stakeholders in the same issues and nothing’s really going to change if you don’t get those folks on board. Oakland is fucking full of people who spend every goddamn day busting their asses in pursuit of those solutions, and while Occupy initially seemed to catalyze a lot of activism, it threatens now to derail it altogether by insisting on an entrenched “demonstration” with no leadership and no actionable agenda. (Free massages are great and all, but – we just had an Election Day. What are Occupy’s positions on any of the ballot items? I’m not sure, but I know they hate the fuzz!)
There’s a place in every serious, solution-oriented movement for theatrical protest. It makes headlines, it generates dollars, it galvanizes supporters. But ultimately protest is complaint, and there has to be more. Building community, utilizing democratic processes, giving voice to grievance and creating a sustainable alternative economy – these are all admirable, but they’re also just theater until they’re built into reality. Occupy Oakland seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that the violence of the Black Block is the sideshow by which they might look committed in comparison, so that they can be taken seriously. But here’s the truth: other people are doing the hard work, and have been doing it for years. Occupy is the spectacle.
Occupy is the sideshow.
I didn’t participate in the General Strike because my most effective activism is to actually go to my job, and to do it well as I can. I’m hardly the only person who can say that. Occupy isn’t the only game in town, but somehow, we’ve all become hostage to it.
A sideshow can only last so long; at some point, we gotta move on to the main event.
*Not all cops are assholes. A few bad apples, and all that.