Occupy Oakland will go down as one of the most controversial populist movements in history. One of Occupy’s first acts, before it even officially became a thing, was to unofficially rename Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza after Oscar Grant, the 22 year-old Hayward resident killed by a BART cop two years earlier. While the renaming was intended to show solidarity with the social justice, police accountability, and racial equality activists who had protested Grant’s death and shooter Johannes Mehserle’s legal proceedings for some 21 months, organizers neglected to get the blessing of the Grant family. Some people of color found the tribute condescending – a foreshadowing of the deep division which was to take place among POC activists and Occupiers.
Like a stage play, the saga of Occupy Oakland comprises three acts: the first being the establish- ment of the encampment, leading up to the OPD raid on Oct. 25. The second act commences with the Occupy response to the raid and a groundswell of popular support, which peaks with a General Strike and march on the Port of Oakland, and ends with the second clearing of the encampment by police. The third act begins on a high note, with a second, successful shutdown of the Port, then traverses a downward spiral toward the self-imploding actions of May Day.
Part comedy, part tragedy, and part drama, Occupy at its best was pure street theater, an idealistic, precociously progressive, utopian quasi-society which nearly ushered in a return to hippie anti-authoritarian counterculture, yet in the end proved completely unsustainable. At its nadir, however, it resembled a predictable and tired rehashing of anarchists vs. cops memes modeled after Eastern European uprisings and Seattle’s WTO clashes.
Act 1: A vision for a new democracy emerges
Occupy began on October 10, 2011 , with a rally in the Plaza that attracted a crowd of about 2,000. Labor union members, teachers, and healthcare workers bolstered an audience of curious, liberal-leaning John and Martha Q. Publics, along with a fair smattering of disenfranchised Americans—some of whom had lost their jobs, others their houses, and still others, their life savings. Because this was Oakland, the audience was more diverse and multicultural than its NY counterpart and had a basic understanding of issues like foreclosure and economic inequality.
Within hours of the first rally, a food station was established, to be followed in short succession by a kid’s area, library, media tent, and medical tent. Later that evening, as light mists of precipitation fell, Occupy would hold its first General Assembly establishing its democracy by consensus model and microphone-less call-and response speaker format, which always began with the words, ‘mic check.’
By the conclusion of the first GA, a few tents had already been set up. More came later that night, and still more the following day. Within a 24-hour period, some fifty tents dotted the Plaza’s grassy plateau.
The first few days of Occupy were heady, even idyllic. The tent city swelled to 150 tents and there was a constant stream of activity within the Plaza, anchored by the food table, which served up as many as 1,000 meals a day. Speakers, live performers, activities and workshops lent a sense of purpose. Local broadcast media soon made its presence known, if not embraced. None of the Occupiers were particularly media-savvy, and folks tended to see the TV cameras as extensions of corporate spin factories, the very embodiment of 1%-fueled hubris.
Occupy’s presence brought scores of residents into the downtown area to hear what was being said at GAs or to listen to speakers ranging from Danny Glover to the three American travelers recently freed from detention in Iran. Some nearby bars and restaurants experienced a surge in business (though others complained business was down), and downtown no longer felt dead. The camp became a real community and was a pleasant place to hang out during the day. Late at night, the vibe turned a little sketchier, with late-night raves and rumors of drug use.
Initially, the city of Oakland was supportive of the Occupy camp, or at least the mayor and some of the Council were. But city staff and Alameda County officials dispatched to negotiate with Occupy organizers were rebuffed; health services, the fire department, the mainstream media, and OPD were all denied access into the camp, although that didn’t stop TV crews from covering the open-air spectacle. Like Garbo, the Occupiers wanted to be left alone, but they also wanted our attention. Occupy’s media team seemed more intent on self-documentation than coordinating press coverage; PR communiqués were posted on OO’s website and not distributed to press outlets, which meant they were often summarily ignored.
The camp continued to grow, being populated by increasing numbers of homeless people, some of whom were mentally ill and/or had substance abuse issues. Rumors began to circulate about an imminent raid by OPD, which took place on Oct. 25, during the wee hours of the morning. OPD used water cannons — and, unconfirmed reports say, a sonic weapon called an L-RAD– to rouse the camp, before evicting tent city occupants by force, making more than 100 arrests. But that initial show of physical tactics was nothing like what was to come.
Act II: After the Raid
The raid, the first real flashpoint on Occupy’s event horizon, altered the dynamic of the movement for better and for worse. The morning after, the Plaza seemed desolate and forlorn, with tents and belongings strewn everywhere, and a chain-link fence in place. Undeterred, organizers arranged for a rally at the main library, announcing a march through the streets. It was at this rally that the first “Black Bloc” anarchists were spotted – dressed in black, sporting bandanas or Guy Fawkes masks.
The march in the afternoon of Oct. 25 was a sign of things to come. It was at this time that the Occupiers first encountered OPD en masse. A considerable police presence, including the infamous “Tango Team,” blocked the march from heading toward OPD headquarters and the first skirmishes came at 8th and Washington. After a few arrests, mainly of people who confronted officers directly, OPD found themselves surrounded by an angry, yelling mob which hurled both epithets and paint at them. In response, they set off tear gas, though without first declaring unlawful assembly as required by law.
After the march, Occupiers returned to Ogawa plaza. That became ground zero for a chaotic stand-off between protestors and a task force of officers from police departments around the Bay. Tear gas was fired at least three times; war veteran Scott Olsen was struck in the head by a thrown canister, in seeming violation of OPD’s crowd-control policies. Subsequent marches headed down to the Snow Park area, where about 3,000 people had gathered. Boots Riley addressed the crowd with a megaphone. Helicopters circled over head and TV news carried the feed live. Returning to the Plaza, protestors attempted to storm the 12th St. BART and were met by a wall of police.
On the afternoon of Oct. 26, City leaders held a press conference where Mayor Quan revealed it had been City Administrator Deanna Santana and police chief Howard Jordan who had given the order to raid the camp. That night, thousands attended a vigil for Olsen. Sometime during the night, Occupiers stormed the chain-link fence and reclaimed the plaza, miraculously, it seemed, without further incident by OPD.
By the next morning, the encampment was back. OO organizers wasted no time re-establishing the kid zone and food kiosk and feeding hungry people. The nightly GAs drew as many as 1,000 people. Meanwhile, OPD’s overzealous actions had become an international news story, and OO’s public support swelled. Filmmaker Michael Moore gave a speech in Ogawa Plaza; Egyptian protestors marched from Tahrir Square to the US Embassy in support of OO.
With their momentum surging, OO organizers, backed by teachers and labor unions, announced plans for a general strike, to be held Nov. 2. The day of the strike, tens of thousands of people gathered around 14th and Broadway. During afternoon protest marches, the windows of several banks and Whole Foods were broken. The march itself drew somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 people, and encountered no opposition as it blockaded the port entrance, preventing trucks from coming or going. The feeling was triumphant as the vanguard of the march reached the Port against the backdrop of a golden sunset; at that moment, it seemed like the 99% had won, and there was nothing Occupy couldn’t accomplish. Spontaneous dancing broke out.
Yet before all the marchers had even made it back from the Port, a breakaway group launched what the Black Bloc called ‘diversity of tactics’: setting dumpsters on fire, spraying anarchist graffiti, breaking windows in downtown businesses, and unsuccessfully attempting to occupy a vacant building. Resultant clashes between protestors and police resulted in more than 100 arrests, and charges of excessive force by OPD.
Occupy’s trajectory began to tilt downward after that. The mass support never again reached the level of the General Strike/first Port march, though GAs continued to draw hundreds of people. As the business community came out against Occupy, city government remained divided, with some Council members arguing for closure of the camp and others pushing for a resolution in support of OO. More and more anarchists, many of them from out of town, began to populate GAs as wedges of division between hardcore anarchists and more moderate 99% supporters began to widen. A resolution advocating nonviolent tactics was withdrawn. There were reports of fights and allegations of sexual assaults at the camp.
On November 10, a 25-year old man known as “Alex”, who had been staying at the encampment, was shot and killed at the Plaza, though the motive for the shooting and the persons responsible remain unclear. The day after the murder, police issued eviction notices; two days later, the camp was again cleared by police.
Act III: Diminishing Returns
On December 12, civil rights legend Angela Davis, Riley, and other speakers appeared at the Plaza, comparing Occupy to the Civil Rights movement and rallying support for a “West Coast Port shutdown” in support of longshore workers and in conjunction with planned actions in Long Beach and Seattle. The shutdown, which again drew thousands of people, was announced as a success. Somewhat less successful were weekly “FTP” (F*** the Police) marches.
Without the encampment as a focal point, the message of Occupy began to drift. Anger against what many saw as excessive actions by police fueled anarchists and extremists. Attendance at GAs began to falter. Oakland residents began to tire of bickering among factions and the drain of city resources around a movement that began to seem unorganized and aimless. Internal division began to fester among Occupy supporters. An attempt to occupy a vacant lot on 18th street following a march for education lasted one day. Other attempts to occupy foreclosed properties were quickly halted by police.
After a break, Occupy returned on January 28, a day announced as “Move-in Day,” and attempted to take over the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center. A large crowd marched through the Laney College grounds, followed by police. More cops, armed with tear-gas-equipped shotguns, were waiting in front of the building. When a black-clad anarchist attempted to pull the chain link fence in front of the HJK down, police opened fire. Much of the crowd scattered; those that remained seemingly had no back-up plan.
A standoff ensued on Oak Street, where protestors equipped with plastic or metal shields faced off with riot police in front of the Oakland Museum. The phalanx of Occupiers began to advance on the police, coming within 20 yards before a fusillade of tear gas and flash-bangs was unleashed. Unlawful assembly was declared, and several arrests were made. About 400 protestors, including several credentialed members of the media, were “kettled” by OPD in front of the YMCA and arrested. Later that night, City Hall was broken into and vandalized.
After the failure of what came to be known as J28, Occupy Oakland laid low for a couple months, with the exception of the ongoing FTP marches. By then, the support of teachers, labor, and most of the general population had waned considerably. The next major action came on May Day, which for years had been a day on which undocumented laborers marched for workers’ rights. May Day started out with an “anti-gentrification march” which puzzlingly attempted to storm Rudy’s Can’t Fail Café and the Bittersweet Café, two locally-owned businesses, while ignoring more obvious symbols of gentrification like the Uptown Apartments.
A large group of Black Bloc anarchists staged at San Antonio Park and attempted to join the undocu- mented march, but many of the immigrant workers refused to associate with the anarchists. The march started out with 3,000 people in the Fruitvale, but was scarcely 1,000 strong by the time it reached the Plaza. The Black Bloc’s actions were loudly criticized, and seemed to represent the nail in Occupy’s coffin.
The May Day march was the last major action attempted by OO, whose supporters had dwindled from tens of thousands to the hundreds. A coda took place in August 2012, when about 100-200 FTP marchers disrupted the monthly First Friday gathering, breaking the windows of the Obama campaign headquarters.
Occupy Oakland was most successful in bringing renewed attention to issues like foreclosures, homelessness, and economic inequity in the financial services industry, which non-profit organizations like ACCE, Causa Justa and the Greenlining Coalition had been working on for years. Unlike its parent movement, Occupy Wall Street, OO’s focus on police brutality made the need for reform and greater accountability, which attorneys Jim Chanin and John Burris and organizations like PUEBLO had also been working on for years, impossible to ignore. Occupy also changed the media dialogue around anti-capitalist protests: mainstream outlets began to do more nuanced reporting following Oct. 25’s confrontation, while independent journalists, livestreamers, Tweeters and bloggers became a primary source of information and news.
Where OO was most unsuccessful was in developing a platform beyond protest– which may have been a corollary of its refusal to negotiate with city officials, not to mention its inability to reach consensus among its supporters. Occupy may have also affected people’s perceptions of the effectiveness of city government: according to a recent poll commissioned by the Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, only 27% of those polled feel Oakland is headed in the right direction, not a single elected official received a favorable rating of 50% or higher citywide, and the City Council received a 75% negative approval rating overall.
The legacy of OO is difficult to assess, because public opinion over the movement fluctuated so drastically, yet its impact can be measured through the following outcomes:
· Oakland Tribune reporter Sean Maher, who covered Occupy, is now Mayor Quan’s Press Secretary.
· The ACLU filed a successful lawsuit against OPD for violating use of force statutes and was awarded $1m in damages on behalf of protestors.
· The judge in the Negotiated Settlement Agreement cited OPD’s handling of OO protests in a critical report, which led to the early retirement of Police Chief Jordan.
· The Oakland City Council announced an anti-graffiti ordinance, and attempted to ban protestors from carrying shields.
· The OO website and various committees continue to be active.
· Foreclosures continue to impact Oakland.
Read all of Oakland Local’s coverage of the two-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland: