If the Occupation movement is about uniting the overwhelming majority of oppressed people against the minority of exploiters, then it’s no wonder that it has taken root and flourished in the city of Oakland. A working-class city built by Asian and Black labor, Oakland has seen median wages fall by $2000 since the recession began; about 40% of the population lives in economic hardship. Meanwhile the city has continued closing schools, shutting down libraries and cutting services, with no end in sight.
So it’s no surprise that hundreds of people came down to take part in the first gathering of Occupy Oakland on October 10. They came with stories of lost jobs, foreclosures and unbearable debt. They came to talk about political corruption, corporate domination, and the ruthless behavior of the Oakland Police Department — a group whose brutality costs the city almost $6 million/year in legal settlement costs.
Some of the people in that crowd decided to stay in the plaza in front of City Hall and set up a permanent encampment, like Occupy activists in other cities. That was the beginning of a whirlwind six weeks; here’s what happened since then:
- October 25: OPD clears out Occupy Oakland in a pre-dawn raid, arresting dozens and seizing tents and everything else in the plaza. Angry occupiers rally in the evening and fight for hours to take back the plaza, being forced back only by heavy use of tear gas and rubber bullets. On this night a police projectile shatters the skull of Scott Olsen, an Occupy San Francisco stalwart and Iraq War veteran.
- October 26: While city officials and police are indecisive about another night of streetfighting, occupiers retake the plaza and establish another encampment. A General Assembly attended by 2,000 people votes overwhelmingly to call for a General Strike.
- November 2: General Strike in Oakland: the first such strike in the United States since 1946 — which also happened in Oakland. Thousands flood downtown during the day, shutting down businesses and marching through town. Tens of thousands march together in the evening to shut down the Port of Oakland, the second-busiest port on the US west coast. Although not exactly a general strike in the traditional sense, this strike impacts production across the city and succeeds at shutting down the port.
- November 3: In the early hours of the next morning, a small group of occupiers seize a downtown building left empty for years due to budget cuts and legal squabbles among property owners. Police retake the building in a violent confrontation; nearly 100 people are arrested, including journalists and passers-by. Police violently assault many of them in the process of arresting them.
- November 14: With aid from nearly a dozen different police and sheriff’s departments OPD dismantles the Occupy encampment again, arresting fewer people but again confiscating all tents and equipment in the plaza. Occupiers return to the plaza the same night but police presence and heavy use of sprinklers in the plaza make it impossible to set up a new encampment.
- November 18: General Assembly calls for a shutdown of all ports on the entire west coast on Dec. 12, in solidarity with the longshore union (ILWU) in their anti-corporate contract battle.
Occupy Oakland has learned many lessons from other occupations around the country, and in turn it has contributed some lessons of its own. There are some of the things that have made Occupy Oakland an inspiration for many others in the Occupy movement:
1. Working class consciousness
Oakland is a proletarian city and this has been reflected in the politics of Occupy Oakland. Leadership and rank-and-file occupiers came from the working class and their views shaped the attitude of the occupation toward labor and business as well as police and government officials. Occupy Oakland has always been clear that the needs of the working class (in organized and unorganized sectors) can’t be subordinated to liberal or middle-class demands.
2. Focus on police brutality
Occupations across the country have displayed a wide range of attitudes in their relationship with police and civil authorities. Oakland’s occupation was unambiguous from its very first day, when hundreds chanted “Fuck the police!” in unison. This was made clear by the occupiers’ decision to change the name the plaza where they were camped to Oscar Grant Plaza, commemorating a young Black man murdered in cold blood by a white BART police officer two years ago.
Deciding that police and ICE were not welcome in Occupy Oakland and that there would be no official cooperation or coordination with law enforcement was not just an expression of righteous anger. It was also informed by an understanding that one function of police violence is to repress political organizing and stifle the free flow of ideas and information. Explicit exclusion of cops from occupied territory was a necessary step for any further liberation.
3. Building an alternative to capitalist America
The Occupy Oakland encampments were more than just campsites. They provided food and clothing to the needy; occupiers tried to collective tasks which are often individualized in our society like childcare, gardening and making art; and they had their own emergent system of government in the General Assemblies, camp meetings and committees. In fact the occupiers may have spent more time building their temporarily liberated space as they did trying to put pressure on the city of Oakland or the corporations and rich elite.
Although that might seem to contradict the message of the occupiers, the tentative steps toward new relationships and new ways of working together was one of the most powerful aspects of Occupy Oakland, and one of the reasons that it was so threatening to the status quo. The powerful institutions in our society put a lot of work into hiding the simple fact that the capitalists and the elite need the labor of the great working population to survive, but the working class doesn’t need those exploiters for anything. Large-scale attempts to create communities and lifeways based around solidarity and equality are deeply frightening for those who hold power today: as we can see by the wave of crackdowns on occupations across the country in recent weeks. This new society — young and primitive as it was — already found a name in the giant banners which proclaimed the Oakland Commune, hoisted before and during the General Strike.
We could mention other important factors which have played a part in the successes of Occupy Oakland, including: the general lack of sectarianism among anti-capitalist groups operating within Occupy Oakland: the significant (although still insufficient) representation of people of color and women in leading roles in the occupation from its beginning; the broad community support for an anti-capitalist progressive message; and the distrust and incompetence between and within City Hall and OPD.
Occupy Oakland is homeless today: like many in Oakland it has been foreclosed on, and it must rely on community support and its own ingenuity to get by. Several recent attempts to re-occupy other spaces around town have failed, but the occupiers have outwitted Mayor Quan and the OPD often enough that the possibility of establishing a new camp shouldn’t be ruled out.
The next major action that Occupy Oakland is building for is the port shutdown on Dec. 12. This is more targeted than the General Strike but much it will involve cooperation on a bigger scale as occupiers from San Diego to Vancouver try to carry out a coordinated action. The success of this shut-down will be a good measure of how much support the movement retains and how much muscle it can muster.
Occupy Oakland also confronts the inevitable challenges of mass activism: political and personal conflicts; burnout and retention; keeping diverse views in the movement while moving forward together. Political struggles around the term “occupy” and the idea of decolonizing the movement go together with debates about whether the strategic focus should remain on setting up camps or shift to somewhere else.
It’s hard to predict exactly what will happen on Dec. 12 and where Occupy Oakland (and the rest of the occupation movement) will go from here. For now the mood is summed up by a popular chant on recent marches:
Evict us and we multiply!
Hella hella occupy!
Tom Attaway is a contingent worker and West Oakland resident who has been participating in Occupy Oakland since it kicked off.Download this piece as a PDF