Occupying Berkeley and Oakland on a Fine Saturday in October

By Becky O'Malley
Sunday October 16, 2011 - 08:16:00 PM

Both Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland for generations have celebrated what’s called “the marching season”, a time of the year beginning around Easter when various groups stage parades to commemorate dates and causes that they consider significant. Here in the United States, October has often been our “marching season”—some of the best protests decrying the first (or was it the second?) Gulf War were in October, as I recall.

This year is no exception. Yesterday’s various Occupy events in Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay, though serious in purpose, had an almost festive air consistent with the fine weather and earnest camaraderie of the participants. If you kept moving, it was possible to enjoy a good cross section of the available color at various locales. 

Occupy Berkeley had been grouping and re-grouping with ever-changing times and locales for almost a week. Checking in at the plaza in front of the downtown Bank of America at noon, the time and place announced on at least one Internet venue, we discovered that one contingent was already on the move, but about a hundred people were still there listening to speakers with a variety of axes to grind. Spotted in the crowd were one Berkeley City Councilmember (the ever vigilant Kriss Worthington), two former Daily Planet reporters hung with cameras, one former law school classmate who said she was just back from the 50th anniversary celebration of either SNCC or the Freedom Riders or both, and a good assortment of fresh-faced young folk who looked like they were students.  

Noteworthy: most of the young were of European descent, even though close to half of the UC Berkeley student body could be considered Asian or Asian-American. I saw no young African-Americans, though a few of their elders were there, including reportedly Berkeley Councilmember Max Anderson. (I missed him.) 

A posted sign announced that there would be a rally of some sort in Civic Center Park at 2:30, so I ducked out for a bit to have coffee with a friend at the Farmer’s Market next to the park. We’ve been to a variety of events like these over the years, most notably going to D.C. in a vicious sleet storm to protest G.W. Bush’s theft of his first “election”—fat lot of good that did. But we were game to keep up the effort by joining the next event, though the title of Phil Ochs’ song (I Ain’t Marching Any More) lingers in memory. 

And thanks to modern modes of transport I even made it to Oakland by 3:30, just in time to hear Danny Glover working the crowd up to a fine frenzy. It was an odd assortment of edgy youth and grizzled age, obviously happy to be there together on such a fine day. The Occupy contingent, who had been there for a couple of days, were joined by Danny and assorted politicians, union leaders and their troops who walked over from a long-planned “Jobs not Cuts” rally at Laney College which was coincidentally timed to back Obama’s American Jobs Act.  

It was a pretty big crowd, probably in the thousands, as well as I could tell from my vantage point at the northwest side of what is now called Ogawa Plaza, a concrete amphitheatre which replaces the green triangle which used to be in front of the Oakland City Hall. Like many jolly Oakland events, the mix here was thoroughly, emphatically and enthusiastically multi-racial and multi-ethnic. 

The first person I knew that I ran into was the other friend with whom I went to the Bush inaugural fiasco—talk about addictive personalities, all three of us. Several others there I recognized as Berkeleyans who have not yet joined any of the Occupy Berkeley events—people who tend to self-identify more with Democratic Party power brokers than with the raggle-taggle band who have been the most persistent participants in the Occupy arena.  

I spotted a woman rumored to have once been a member of Line of March, an Oakland based Maoist organization founded in 1970, chumming up with a now-rightish Berkeley Democratic politician. Fashions come and go, but the avant-garde remains the same. 

As I was leaving I came across an old acquaintance, a union organizer and for a long time a stalwart of the old left, though of late a leader of the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club instead. He said he’d been putting together the union rally for at least six weeks, but had been working especially hard in the last couple of days reconciling the two strains which came together that day at Ogawa Plaza.  

“Oh, so you were representing The Establishment this time?” I teased.  

“You have to get the right dialectic between spontaneity and structure,” he said, only half joking. He said that he’d spent a long time in the encampment the night before, and “when you’re dealing with a group of anarchists it’s easy for a few Trots to take over.” 

Note for younger readers: that would be Trotskyists, though what that epithet means in the modern context is not easy to decipher. Per Wikipedia, Trotsky’s “politics differed sharply from those of Stalinism, most prominently in opposing Socialism in One Country, which he argued was a break with proletarian internationalism, and in his belief in what he argued was a more authentic dictatorship of the proletariat based on working-class self-emancipation and mass democracy, rather than the unaccountable bureaucracy he saw as having developed after Lenin's death.” 

Hmm, yes. Well, we came back in the evening to check out an enthusiastic report from a center-left-leaning friend about the excellent organization and spirit which she saw when she visited the camp that afternoon.  

We got there just in time to observe the nightly meeting—not sure if it was a “General Assembly” or just notes to inhabitants. This nascent revolution, everywhere, is currently more about process than about product, but the Oakland process wasn’t as elegantly choreographed as its Berkeley or Wall Street counterparts. There were no Trotskyist leanings, in fact no leanings of any kind, in evidence. 

In Oakland there was a real loudspeaker instead of the call-and-response substitute made famous by Occupy Wall Street and imitated to indifferent effect in Berkeley. It echoed back from the concrete bleachers, and anyone who had anything to say lined up and waited for a turn at the mike. Most of what we heard in three-quarters of an hour was announcements: a lot about conflict resolution, food, medical aid and the like.  

There was only one “proposal” on the agenda for discussion—from the DJs who were planning to put on a big dance party for the inhabitants that evening. They wanted the quiet hour deadline, normally midnight, to be pushed out to 2 a.m. in honor of the party. 

A few half-hearted speakers spoke pro and con. Straw votes based on a show of hands were requested, though they were hard to count in the dark. Finally the woman who’d held the microphone for most of the time we were there announced that the proposal had failed because it didn’t get 90% support, which seemed to be that night’s version of consensus, notably hard to achieve.  

There were no other proposals made before we left. A request for adoption of a list of demands never made it to the agenda, but was scheduled for a committee meeting on Sunday. 

The camp last night, coupled with today’s reports of the dedication of the Martin Luther King memorial, reminded me of Resurrection City, an encampment of poor people and friends set up in D.C. in May of 1968, an outgrowth of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign for an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor, which he was working on when he was assassinated. That one lasted for not much more than a month before it was shut down by the authorities. The Economic Bill of Rights was never passed. 

Some press reports say that 1400 cities around the world took up the Occupy banner over the weekend, so maybe this time the outcome will be different. Or perhaps, though the parties might be better, the consequences will be the same. We’ll have to wait and see. Poor people all over the world are in a lot more trouble than they were in 1968, a year when we thought there was plenty of trouble to go around.