Occupy Oakland: the View from Berkeley

By Becky O'Malley
Friday February 03, 2012 - 09:12:00 AM

You gotta love Berkeley.

There we were, sitting outside at the Farmers’ Market despite the cold foggy weather, enjoying cappuccini from Blue Bottle and biscotti from Phoenix Pastrificio after buying our organic Brussels sprouts produced by Swanton Farms with United Farm Workers union labor, discussing the future of Occupy Oakland. Before going to the market, I’d posted an excellent thoughtful essay on the topic from my old friend Osha Neumann, which raised many points that people like us need to think about.

And then, as sometimes happens with al fresco coffee conversations, a passerby chimed in.

“Me, I’m the 98%,” he asserted.

What’s the 98%?

“There’s the 1% who have all the money, the 98% like me who work for a living, and the 1% who don’t need to work and just want to make trouble.” (Paraphrased: no notebook at hand to transcribe exactly.)

I looked over his physical presentation. His claim to working class status checked out.

AT&T logo jacket? Check. Communications Workers of America arm patch? Check? Tools dangling from belt? Check. Watch cap? Check. Handlebar mustache? Check. And I remembered seeing him park his motorcycle as we came in.

He told us he was a telephone lineman, recently transferred to the night shift as an alternative to a pay cut, who has been employed for many years by the company which has answered to a long succession of corporate acronyms. He had a bunch of sarcastic translations of these various initials, all of them too colorful for a family publication like this one.

He’s resentful, deeply resentful, about what the latest claimants to the Occupy Oakland name have done, supposedly on his behalf. 

It’s not, he said, that he doesn’t know that working people like him are getting screwed by the system. He appreciated Occupy Wall Street. But he’s contemptuous of those who seem to think that running amok in the streets of Oakland will fix anything,. 

He knows better. And he persuaded me to agree—not that it was hard for him to do. 

It’s time, and past time, for people who seriously want to do something about economic inequity to disavow the tactics of the self-centered young white men (with occasional women) who form what’s commonly known as the Black Bloc. 

The Black Bloc, sometimes self-styled anarchists, seem to think that it’s mucho macho to smash children’s art exhibits and break windows of small businesses This just in: it’s not. It’s the action of cowardly bullies. 

These guys, dressed all in black with their faces covered, remind me of nothing so much as the Ku Klux Klan, who dressed instead in white and wore pointed hoods instead of ski masks, but also claimed to speak for the common folk in their heyday. The KKK came from the right flank while the Black Bloc seems to come from the left, but at a distance they’re approximately indistinguishable. 

There’s even an argument, made by some who remember Cointelpro, that among their number might be agents provocateurs, planted there by opponents in order to make Occupy look bad. Others have wondered aloud who paid for the Black Bloc’s expense-appearing battle gear: big new metal trash cans cut in half, battering shields made of new corrugated metal and new wood, two-way radios etc. 

And what to make of their claim that they’re praiseworthy because all they’re trying to do is take back public space? There’s a logical error in this whole line of chat, and it applies to more than just the Black Bloc. 

What Occupiers, all of them, are actually doing is privatizing the public space, expropriating a public good for the exclusive use of a small part of the body politic for rhetorical purposes. The original Occupy Wall Street took a little-used park in a corner of Manhattan in order to dramatize economic inequity, and it worked, partly because of its shock value. No one was harmed, and a valid point was made, dramatically. 

But when this week’s demonstrators, whoever they were, declared their entitlement to a civic treasure currently shuttered because of a lack of public funds, they lost me, and I’ll wager a whole lot of other people too. It’s a crying shame that Oakland can’t afford to retrofit the beautiful Henry Kaiser building (which contains within it the Calvin Simmons Theater, named to commemorate the late beloved young African-American conductor of the Oakland Symphony) but that doesn’t mean that the building should become a de facto campground for a bunch of testosterone-poisoned whiteboys. 

And the sanctimonious whining heard from many others who claim to speak for the Occupy Oakland movement is equally annoying. A press release couched in parodic pseudo-scientific language put out by an academic-inflected committee calling itself the Occupy Oakland Research Group has the nerve to blame the victim, to chide the impoverished and beleaguered city of Oakland for problems not of its own choosing: 

From the release: “ ‘Oakland is spending millions to prevent Occupy from providing vital services to Oakland residents when they need it most. These funds should be used to prevent further cuts to schools and social services, instead of being wasted on the violent repression of activists and community members who are trying to fill in the gaps where local government has failed.’ said Sarah Thomason, member of Occupy Oakland Research Working Group and graduate student at University of California, Berkeley.” 

Well, yes, sure. But isn’t this a lot like the girl who murdered her parents and then asked the judge to have pity on her because she was an orphan? 

Oakland’s an easy mark, of course, because it still has a court-certified out-of-control police department which can be trusted to overreact at any provocation. No one would deny that the OPD once again over the weekend used excessive force against the latest round of demonstrators. 

But Oakland citizens who don’t like the actions either of the protesters or the police are caught between a rock and a hard place. They don’t want to see their public buildings trashed, though they certainly don’t want scarce funds wasted on preventing this from happening either, and they deplore violence from either camp. 

If you‘re looking for a critical mass of Malefactors of Great Wealth, Occupy Piedmont would make a lot more sense than Occupy Oakland. 

From the point of view of my new friend Pete and the rest of the 98%ers, Occupy AT&T would make a lot more sense than trying to move into some random publically-owned building. 

And whatever happened to non-violent protest? A disaffected Oakland activist told me that he’d tried to get the Occupy Oakland General Assembly to vote for a pledge of non-violence way back in November, but he was shouted down by the Black Bloc. People like him have been left with little choice in Oakland, so they’re just dropping out of the protest scene. 

Are there alternatives to watching a bunch of overgrown teenagers smashing stuff? 

Every Monday for many weeks there’s been a persistent non-violent demonstration advocating taxing the rich with no Occupy branding on Solano Avenue in Berkeley. There’s another one next Monday, starting at 4:30 in front of the defunct Oaks Theater. Something of the kind could work in Oakland if Occupy self-destructs. 

And there is an election coming in November. Since the loose agglomeration of activists who gathered under the banner of Occupy Oakland has gotten so far off the rails, there have been calls from many former supporters to shift gears into political action. 

Oakland voters, of course, already have a pretty good set of representatives, though they haven’t achieved nirvana yet, in particular Barbara Boxer, Barbara Lee and Sandre Swanson. Some others—Jerry Brown, Dianne Feinstein, Jean Quan—get their share of criticism, but it’s not likely that better candidates could be found to replace them. 

The Republican Congress remains the biggest problem. There’s a bunch of plausible candidates for Congress from districts close to Oakland who could use some help for the upcoming election: Norman Solomon, running in the June primary to fill a safely Democratic seat in Marin; Ari Bera, from the Sacramento area, who has a good chance of beating a Republican in November, and Jerry McNerney, a pretty fair Democratic incumbent out toward Tracy whose district boundaries have shifted enough to make him nervous, 

Anyone who wants to make a difference could join one of these congressional campaigns. Can’t hurt, might help. 

Will the assets of the fabulously wealthy .01%, the real culprits in this picture, be redistributed any time soon, even if these guys win? Probably not. 

But would re-electing Obama and ending the Republican grip on Congress keep things from getting worse? I know it’s boring, but it’s worth a try.