After the Fall of the Tents

The Atlantic

After a rocky few months in the limelight, Occupy Oakland, the occupation at the edge of the movement, is caught between shows of power and acts of grace

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After hundreds of Occupy Oakland protesters were tear-gassed and shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets by riot police on October 25, protesters in Tahrir Square marched to the US embassy in protest. One of their signs read: "Cairo and Oakland are one hand."

At the next Oakland march, a black banner with white writing appeared: "Oakland and Cairo are one fist."

The change reflects the state of Occupy Oakland: a tactical perspective has elbowed to the forefront, leaving others bruised and annoyed along the way. 

"Your open hand can do so much more than your fist," says occupier Laura Long, 29. But it's unclear right now what exactly Occupy Oakland wants to do, because it's unclear right now what and who Occupy Oakland might currently be.

Since the war that took over downtown Oakland that evening in October, Occupy Oakland has struggled with how to spend its political capital, and has lost much of it along the way. Several camp iterations and broken windows later, Oakland's occupiers are at a crossroads now in the movement -- and they aren't interested in sticking together. While the main decision-making body of the group, the general assembly, falters with low attendance, action meetings are growing. A couple weeks ago this disaggregation seemed like a death knell. Now it feels like the movement's best hope. 

The breakup seems necessary after such a passionate escalation in tactics over a relatively short period of time. The period of infatuation and political lust that intensified leading up to the November 2 General Strike ended quickly, and many fell out of love after windows started breaking.

This period of reflection and reconsideration is resulting in a multi-front movement that engages the public with spectacular shows of force at the ports, and with quiet and plausibly deniable ones in the form of smashed locks on empty bank-owned buildings.

In Oakland's occupation there are some hands, and there are some fists.

***

Occupy organizer Krystof Lopaur, 35, worked on the December 12 coordinated West Coast port shutdown, which disrupted port activities up and down the coast and catalyzed solidarity protests across the country. In Oakland, Occupy disrupted and cancelled three of the ILWU workers shifts and blocked trucking in efforts that the port says cost them, workers, and the city of Oakland $4 million. Nearly 4,500 people shut down the Port of Oakland in the evening. Krystof calls the action Occupy Oakland's "second big act" after the November 2nd General Strike and one-shift port shutdown. "And this is where it's at," he says of the future. 

"There's a lot of stuff that we're doing that's interesting. We're kind of probing around for where we're effective," Krystof reflected. "And I think where we're effective is where we get the most pushback." 

The shutdown was a huge show of force by Occupy and union workers that many expected would be met with a huge show of force in return from the police. This sort of confrontation is meant to force the state's hand, to create, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Occupy may be less interested in negotiation, but they are no less interested in creating that crisis. But except for some 6 a.m. baton scuffles, law enforcement presence was minimal, even if the shutdown resulted in the city council's rules committee pushing the city to use "whatever lawful tools" to prevent any future port action. (The resolution did not pass.)  

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The shutdown was grand and visible. It contrasts markedly with the other threads of action that have spun out of Occupy Oakland. Take foreclosure defense, in which occupiers set up camps at or in properties scheduled to be taken over by the banks. The most high-profile effort occurred at 18th and Linden in West Oakland, when a lot owner, Gloria Cobb allowed occupiers to take over the space. It made the local news and seemed like it could become a new and successful tactic for activists. It was a highly visible political symbol, one of Occupy Oakland's last above-ground hurrahs. And it was also one of its greatest failures.

After giving initial lukewarm approval for the occupation, the lot owner Gloria Cobb signed a declaration for the city stating that she wanted them removed. The occupiers left reluctant and angry, with a mix of wounded pride and sincere shame. This was Occupy Oakland's last real stab at a tent encampment. At least they went out loud: the botched foreclosure occupation ended with a dance party in the middle of a West Oakland street at midnight.

Dancing aside, things did not go well. "That's what inspired me to do this," says Iris Brown, 26, as she flips through one of many binders sitting on a shelf in the small warm kitchen of an occupied house in Alameda, each marked with a different zip code. "Watching that play out so badly."

Iris began the Foreclosure Research Action Committee (FRAC) in hopes of intervening on behalf of people in pre-foreclosure using legal means largely outlined under the Tenant Protection Act of 2010, as well as finding empty foreclosed buildings to occupy for full-time residential occupations as well as community centers open to the public and meant to serve the surrounding neighborhood.

The failure of 18th and Linden was not Iris' only motivation, though. Two months ago, the owner of her quaint Alameda house went into default, and sold Iris' lease to a new tenant for a much higher rent. Since she was never properly served with an eviction notice, Iris filed a motion to quash, and is now waiting for her court date before the scheduled February 12 auction of the house. 

"This is what I was going through before I started being involved in all of this," she tells me. "And then I get involved in all of this and people are like, Hey, let's help somebody with foreclosures. And I'm like, Yeah, help me!"

***

The legal strategy Brown is looking to exploit are not of much interest to some others at Occupy Oakland. Organizers like Krystof are skeptical of foreclosure defense as a scalable and wise tactic for the future of the movement. "It's great because it's in line with the tactic of occupation," says Krystof. "The problem is you're intervening in a really personal and individualistic struggle." Squat development, meanwhile, is "kind of like dumpster diving, you know? Living off the scraps of capitalism."

He sees the strength of the future movement lying in a middle ground between blockading capitalism on the wide roads of the Port and occupying quietly, even secretly, in the narrow wood-framed homes of West Oakland. 

"We need to intervene in a readable way in localized workplace struggles," Krystof tells me. "A campaign that will have locally tangible results for people" in the form of improved working conditions and additional hires -- ideally. 

"It's kind of like a home defense, but you're not intervening on behalf of an individual -- you're intervening on behalf of a core of people there," he says. "I think that will re-radicalize the labor movement."

The labor movement has not, especially as of late, seemed terribly interested in Occupy's radical overtures. Many of the rank and file may be "nodding back" as Krystof says, but union leadership is decidedly not.

Occupy Oakland says they shut down the Port in solidarity with struggling ILWU longshoremen in Longview, Washington in their ongoing fight against predatory grain shipper EGT, as well as the non-unionized truckers at the Port, many of whom lost wages due to the shutdown on December 12.

"But it was also on our own behalf, because we're saying fuck you [to the state]: you coordinated attacks on us, we're going to respond."

"We were shooting for spectacular because we basically wanted to say that the movement's still relevant," says Krystof. For all the logistics involved in shutting down the three Port shifts -- keeping the picket lines strong by dispensing information and material support over those 24 hours -- those people powered efforts had one high-minded purpose.

"All occupy actions need to be symbols," Krystof insists. An action "has to be visible, and it has to have a political message as well. The camp's no good unless it's in people's faces and unless the state can't tolerate it." 


***

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Teaching people how to fight foreclosures may be symbolic, but it's not legible to the public. It is not a grand symbol of what can be accomplished with people power. Instead, the process is a struggle, a paperwork battle to find, as Iris defines them, "loopholes."

Back in her kitchen, Iris flips to the page she was looking for. "Here we go. [She owes] $930,000 for a $281,000 house. She's 79 years old, she's on social security. How do they rationalize that? Well, it's Wachovia." Brown successfully helped the homeowner's daughter with a five-year lease for the property, which the bank should honor to stave off the scheduled March sale of the house.

These binders are the fruits of the FRAC labor. They contain massive amounts of data on foreclosed and soon-to-be foreclosed homes across Oakland, meticulously compiled from public and private sources. "We are a centralized resource for information on foreclosures," says Iris. "And I know that I'm not at risk because I'm providing information and that's still in this country perfectly legal."

FRAC's efforts have helped not only individuals looking for buildings to occupy, but also local non-profits seeking individuals in pre-foreclosure needing assistance. 

"The system we're trying to build is all about making it scalable," Iris tells me, and it's all born out of her reading at the community law center and trial and error at the courthouse. That system is being tested in two occupied houses at 10th and Mandela in West Oakland. Occupiers quietly establish tenancy by setting up utility bills and making repairs to the properties. "But then not so quietly, whenever we actually move in, we march to the house and feed the neighborhood," says Iris. 

Interestingly, Brown is working with Occupy Oakland's infamous Tactical Action Committee (TAC), a ubiquitous and passionate group of direct-action-minded young men who dress in camouflage army jackets and are living in one of the occupied houses at 10th and Mandela. In fact, they are the same group behind the botched encampment at 18th and Linden.

These occupations have not been without incident. Iris spends much of her time mediating disagreements between TAC members. There's been fighting, and stealing. Recently someone brought a dog to one of the 10th and Mandela houses, the "Appletree House," resulting in a feces-smeared mess that no one wants to clean up. Sometimes it has been to the group's advantage that their actions have not been in the limelight.

But that's not the plan for the future. "We don't want just squats -- we want libraries and we want schools and we want breakfast programs. We want social services," Iris tells me. She wants to enlist the TAC to help individuals in the neighborhood who need extra care -- bring in newspapers, take out garbage. She wants to earn political capital instead of taking it by force.

"We want to make the public fall in love with us." 

The public was once in love with Occupy Oakland; after October 25, the whole world was indeed watching. While Occupy Wall Street took place on the movie-ready stage of Manhattan, Occupy Oakland took on an economically depressed city with a long history of police brutality, civil unrest and radical political struggle. This history is unique to Oakland, but these conditions are similar to many other post-recession American cities. Many people looked to Oakland and saw a reality they recognized.

Without the love of the people, without the popularity and the masses, it's just a bunch of activists talking to each other.

"Our overconfidence and impatience will be our downfall," says Leo Ritz-Barr, 21, an Occupy Oakland events committee organizer. "And we've seen that happen before."

But that doesn't mean ruling out shows of power by the movement. Rather, occupiers have to find ways to bring the the adventurists and the coalition builders together to create institutional support for the movement. "We have two hands, right?" Ritz-Barr asks. "You can't have one or the other -- you need both."

***

Since the nationwide crackdown on occupation encampments over the past month, there's been talk that the Occupy movement is headed underground. In Oakland, even if occupiers cannot agree on how best to act, it seems the movement is actually reaching out and opening up to the broader community.

But the loss of the camps still puts these actions and that public relations effort at risk. In some ways, the movement is a little too decentralized for its own good. Without an open public physical space, there is no way for new people to plug in. Squatted buildings present a possible solution, a new kind of commons, but they're slow and difficult to form and to hold. They may be better as conceptual tools than organizational nodes. "It's a problem, and one we really need to solve," Krystof says, shaking his head a little.

The four weekly general assemblies are now small and often dysfunctional. Security concerns and internal splits have sent other group meetings into private spaces, where they're inaccessible for those not in the know. "We don't have meetings. We just do things," Brown snaps. "We act, we don't meet." 

Add up all those spin-offs and those groups combined greatly outnumber the general assembly, in which they mostly don't participate. Occupy Oakland's future depends on its ability to maintain this multi-front war while making broader efforts to truly include the people it claims to fight for. 

"If you want to bring down the system, you don't want it to crash down on top of everyone," says occupier Laura Long. "We can't just be a movement, we have to be a whole life."

Image: 1. IndyBay 2. Reuters. 3. Reuters.






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