Occu-Puncture in Berkeley: Time to Occupy Everywhere

By Becky O'Malley
Friday December 16, 2011 - 01:59:00 PM

It’s becoming clear to most of us that the helium is slowly seeping out of the Occupy Berkeley balloon, which rose with great enthusiasm not that long ago. The movement has had enormous results, succeeding completely in the obvious goal of calling attention to the huge disparities between the super-rich and everyone else which are growing throughout the world. Now, however, it’s time to—sorry to use an overused slogan—move on to something else.

Berkeley Councilmember Jesse Arreguin has issued a lucid and intelligent summary of where Occupy Berkeley has been, along with an analyis of how the city of Berkeley should manage the settlement in Martin Luther King Civic Center Park in the near future. His document could serve as a model for other places which still have lingering Occupy encampments, but it probably won’t.

A quick crib sheet, for those who can’t be bothered to read three or four pages of print: As long as campers don’t break any other laws, the city will treat camping out as a form of protected speech, but that doesn’t mean campers can let their dogs run wild. (Arreguin’s use of the police-speak tag “zero tolerance” seems to have confused some commenters: it’s zero tolerance for repeat infractions of the stated rules, not zero tolerance for behavior explicitly defined as tolerable, i.e. camping.)

But he, correctly, doesn’t get into the question of whether camping out per se is still the best form of political expression. To understand that, supporters need to unwind the history of the Occupy actions to see what the next step should be. 

First, “Occupy Wall Street” was a brilliant bit of symbolic speech. It focused the attention of those who are hard to reach on what’s really going wrong with the world economy: the actions of the powerful members of the financial establishment who work in Wall Street and similar locales, inhabiting the slippery slope between mismanagement and outright chicanery. For good reason, OWS worked. And the “Wall Street” name was a critical element of the package. 

As soon as the movement started to spread, it became more diffuse, losing focus altogether at the blurry edges. As much as Occupy Oakland succeeded as a form of feel-good community-building, the location of the camp had not much to do with the locus of the problem. Okay, Ogawa Plaza (or its name-du-jour) is surrounded by looming corporate towers, but the corporations for which they were built have pretty much left the buildings. The city of Oakland is more sinned against than sinning, though when things got rough civic leaders paid much too much attention to the complaints of the city’s corporate-dominated Chamber of Commerce. 

Occupy Berkeley is even less relevant at this point The city’s councilmembers fell all over themselves to endorse the Occupy movement in early November, as Arreguin notes. There’s not much more they can do to alter the 99% wealth disparity, and what they can do is not obviously connected to the campers. 

It is true that great swaths of downtown Berkeley housing are now controlled by real estate corporations dominated by 1%ers like David Teece and Sam Zell. It’s also true that Berkeley’s Measure R, now being implemented in such a way as to extend the control of such corporations, was backed by a majority of the Berkeley City Council, with Arreguin one of its few opponents. But it’s doubtful—extremely doubtful—that current campers or their supporters are aware of this linkage, or that they’re formulating demands to end it. 

Many of the participants I’ve talked to in Oakland and Berkeley are conscious of a general feeling of annoyance tending toward outrage at the pickle we’re in, but they don’t have any clear analysis of what can be done about what they don’t like, or who could do it. This is not intended as a criticism, but it’s time for discussion of next steps and perhaps for some education of the enthusiasts. 

Camping out as a form of protest has a long tradition in the United States: Coxey’s Army, Hoovervilles, Resurrection City and recently in Berkeley, Arnieville. As a way of getting the public’s attention, settlements are effective, but they don’t solve the problems they highlight. 

And the tendency of camping protests to degenerate over time can’t be ignored. Resurrection City was the outgrowth of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign, spearheaded by a young Jesse Jackson after King was assassinated. It started out with the best of intentions, but the stories I heard at the time, from friends who were there, were about incursions by “crazies”, people on the fringes of society looking for community but unable to sustain it. That’s what seems to be happening right now in the Occupy Berkeley camp. 

We can hope that the Occupy Berkeley balloon deflates in a dignified manner, if Arreguin’s recommendations are followed by the city manager and the police chief. It appears that among the campers there are a fair number of martyr-wanna-bes, people eager to go down in flames like Joan of Arc—but it should be the city’s goal not to hand them the matches. 

So what else is there to do now? 

Despite the large numbers of sincere people who took part, despite the tempting historic associations with the big general strike in the thirties, the action at the Port of Oakland alienated many working people. All that energy could better be directed against locations that are more closely associated with the 1%, in particular Banks, Banks, Banks, now on many street corners near you. Or Realtors, even more of those around, and many not totally candid in the way they pitched home purchases to people who couldn’t afford them. Most of these are not part of the 1%, but they’re enablers of the Funny Finance sector. 

The discussion/action groups (“Beer Committees”) now getting started among Occupy Berkeley supporters are a good idea. They make more sense than putting bodies on the line just to defend the right to camp anywhere you please. The groups could eventually come up with better alternatives, and at least those who take part will learn something. 

Another good idea, even simpler, comes from my friend Muriel, whose perspective has been enhanced since she’s moved from Berkeley to Richmond,VA, home of the national headquarters of the Daughters of the Confederacy. She suggests that everyone in the country who’s pissed off because 1% (actually .01%) of the population is amassing the lion’s share of the world’s wealth should simply stand outside for a half hour, wherever they are, at a designated time on a designated day. 

Even Tea Partiers, misguided though many of us might think them to be, should be allowed to participate. Many of them are broke too, even though they don’t understand why. 

If it’s dark, we might hold candles or flashlights. Signs would be okay. 

In fact, I’m going to be so bold as to suggest the day: the Martin Luther King, Jr., national holiday, the third Monday in January, this year January 16. And even the time: 5:15 Pacific Standard Time, which moves eastward to be 8:15 EST at the latest. It will be dark enough for candles, not too late anywhere to be unsafe. 

That’s it. Nothing more is needed organizationally for this clear reminder of what Occupy Wall Street has taught us—just tell your friends, and do it yourself. 

Occupy Everywhere on MLK Day. Pass it on.