Friday, November 4, 2011

2011-11-04 "Occupy Oakland – the Oakland Commune" by Wendi Maxwell
(Wendi Maxwell looks behind the two-dimensional news stories to find the real motivations of the California Bay Area's radicals. Maxwell is a former policy maker for California adult literacy projects.)
Note: Sources for this article include the ongoing coverage from the San Francisco Chronicle, first-person narratives from, coverage from Al-Jazeera, and conversations with members of the Oakland Commune.
What if the Occupy movement is not just about holding demonstrations in public places? What if its real impact is the ability to empower and unite communities to identify their own problems, propose their own solutions, and take matters into their own hands? Meet the Oakland Commune.

 Oakland – Radical Politics -
 Oakland, birthplace of the Black Panthers, has a long history of radical activism. It’s no wonder then, that the Occupy Oakland movement has a different flavor than the original Occupy Wall Street.  Occupy Oakland takes the term “occupation” literally. As an Occupy Oakland rally poster articulates:
 "We live in a world where unemployment and staggering levels of debt are the new normal, where poverty and homelessness are met by police violence and incarceration. The entire global economy is broken, and politicians in the US and elsewhere remain powerless to do anything about it. It’s time to take power into our own hands, to occupy the spaces from which we have been excluded and reclaim everything that has been stolen from us.”
Banners at Occupy Oakland say “Occupy Everything.” An occupation challenges ownership of the space involved, and by taking control of the space, changes its usage. When foreign governments occupy a country after a war, they take control of the territory and change the rules. Occupy Oakland is taking control of the public plaza next to the Oakland City Hall. (Photo left: First Amendment Torn, by David Id, IndyBay)
In two weeks, it has changed from an open plaza where downtown workers take coffee breaks and homeless people sleep at night, to a miniature city inhabited and managed by hundreds of activists. The fledgling city boasts food and shelter, childcare, discussion groups, first aid stations, and even a media room powered by bicycle-driven generators. A weekly print “zine” – The Occupation Times – is issued every week.

Oakland Commune -
The newly named Oakland Commune at one time numbered up to 150 tents, with evening gatherings of up to 3000 people in the downtown plaza opposite City Hall. (As of this writing, the downtown plaza has been “retaken” by the occupiers after having been leveled by police, and is actually larger than before the raid.) Oakland City Council, while professing sympathy with the occupiers, expressed concerns about public health issues.
To address the issue, on Day Two a labor coalition contacted by the demonstrators supplied porta-potties – something new and much-needed for the homeless people previously living in the plaza. The Council was concerned about outdoor fires for cooking; protestors arranged with a neighboring church to start using their kitchen.
Vacillating between supportive tolerance and irritation, City Hall soon had new complaints – there were more rats in the plaza than when only the homeless had lived there. Protestors took their success as an excuse to party, and police were concerned about things getting out of hand. Efforts at self-policing became violent. Finally the City issued an eviction notice to clear the plaza of all temporary structures. Oakland Commune ignored it.
A pre-dawn police raid on the plaza backfired. Oakland police called in reinforcements from around the Bay Area. 500 police armed with full riot gear fired tear gas, stun grenades, rubber bullets, and bean bags into the crowd in the plaza and the surrounding streets. Activists from throughout the Bay Area were alerted and swarmed downtown Oakland. Scott Olsen, a decorated 23 year old Marine, survived two tours of duty in Iraq, but had the misfortune to attend the Oakland protest with other Iraq Veterans Against the War. Today he remains in a nearby hospital after receiving a fractured skull from a blow by a stun grenade. When protestors tried to help him, police fired another canister into the crowd. (Photo left: "Carrying Scott Olsen Off," by Jane Finneburgh, IndyBay.
The price tag for the police action is estimated at upwards of $1 million (before lawsuits). Protestors say this would have cleaned up a lot of rats and fed a lot of hungry people. Nationally, television news has asked what’s going on in Oakland. Oakland City Council will vote this week on a plan to “collaborate with protestors.”

Why Don’t You Work Within the System?
Traditional news stories show a basic misunderstanding of the young adults driving the Oakland protest. “Where are the leaders? Where are the spokespeople? Where is the list of demands?” And implicit in the questions is an underlying concern - “Which political party will they support?”
Although many of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrators across the country will undoubtedly develop legislative platforms and work with legislators to pass reform bills, the Oakland Commune shows no signs of engaging in political dialogue with anyone currently in political power or anyone seeking traditional political power. When asked to articulate their platform, one occupier responded, ”We don’t have talking points. We’re not an ad agency.”
Twenty and thirty year old disenfranchised young adults do not live in the same world as middle aged adults. Stories in the papers describe the lack of jobs, the crushing student debt, the fact that most young adults live in communal settings because they cannot afford apartments of their own. What the stories miss is that this is the entire life experience for these young adults. While middle aged adults long for the good old days and hold out faith that things will “get back to normal”, young adults have not experienced “normal”, and know that history does not run backwards. Dysfunction is the new normal. The Emperor wears no clothes.
 And if you know that the Emperor and all his friends are lying to you, you’re certainly not going to vote for any of them in the next election.

 Direct Democracy -
 What will you do instead? You’ll do what Americans have been doing for our entire history. Take things into your own hands and do it yourself. You won’t issue press releases. Instead you’ll take to the streets and get to work.
 If the City of Oakland closes schools (the school district voted to close five schools the day of the raid), you hold classes in the downtown plaza. If libraries are under threat (14 of 16 were scheduled to be closed this summer, but reprieved at the last minute), you begin with a free library in the Oakland Commune. If democracy is railroaded by two major parties and your voice is not heard, you hold a General Assembly where everyone is free to speak.
 The evening after the raid, Oakland Commune’s General Assembly saw 3,000 people assemble. Because the City does not allow a public address system, speakers use a bullhorn, speaking phrase by phrase, with the audience repeating the speech – like a litany – for those in the back of the crowd. The Assembly continued on into the night, but everyone who wanted to speak had a turn.
In the end, the Assembly proposed a specific action – declaring a general strike for November 2. Near midnight, the 1600 people still remaining broke into discussion groups of 20 to 30 to explore the ramifications. A vote was held. 1484 voted in favor of the resolution, 77 abstained and 46 voted against it, passing the proposal at 96.9 percent. (The General Assembly operates on a modified consensus process that requires 90 percent agreement.)
Contrast this unanimity against the partisanship in Congress and you can understand why young people long for “non-heirarchical decision making” and shy away from engaging in dialogue with anyone in power.

What’s next for Oakland Commune?
The General Strike marked the first concerted action by Oakland Commune. Local unions and labor leaders issued statements in support of the November strike. Crowd estimates for the strike range from 5,000 (police estimate) to 10,000 (SF Chronicle) to 20,000 ( online estimate). Protestors blocked entry to the Port of Oakland – the fifth largest in the US - and the Port cancelled the 7 pm workshift, officially closing for the night.
General Strikes are rare in US history. According to Peter Cole, professor of history at Western Illinois University, “The last one was in 1946, when more than 100,000 workers struck in, yes, Oakland.”
The General Strike from Oakland Commune set the tone for what they hope will be a resurgence in neighborhood activism. Early reports from the General Strike support this theme of neighborhood resurgence, with a “Family Brigade” of parents and children marching during the day, and strong participation from teachers, nurses, and public employees.
Occupy Oakland’s Strike resolution reads in part,
“While we are calling for a general strike, we are also calling for much more. People who organize out of their neighborhoods, schools, community organizations, affinity groups, workplaces and families are encouraged to self organize in a way that allows them to participate in shutting down the city in whatever manner they are comfortable with and capable of.”
“The whole world is watching Oakland. Let’s show them what is possible.”
The General Strike at first seemed a fulfillment of the proclamation. Around midnight however, the peaceful day dissolved into disruption, with clashes between protestors and police. Riot-clad police again swarmed downtown Oakland, setting off teargas, flash grenades and as-yet-unidentified projectiles. 76 men and 25 women were arrested. Both police and protestors suffered injuries. Oakland continues to simmer, and the nation continues to watch. (Photo left:  "Post Strike Teargas," by Noah Berger) 

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