"Break On Through! To The Occupy! Hella Occupy Oakland!"
(Revolution #249, November 6, 2011)
The following report and interview is with someone who was part of Occupy Oakland nearly from the beginning and who was arrested in the police attack and destruction of the camp. Occupy Oakland has now come back, to the same place as before.
Q: Can you tell us why people came together initially for Occupy Oakland?
Hella Occupy Oakland started off converging onto Downtown Oakland's Frank Ogawa Plaza, all united around the slogan "WE ARE THE 99%!" Many people spoke of the deeply felt anger towards this system in many different ways, from the greed of corporations to the ongoing wars for empire. Others expressed a sense of hope coming from the Occupy Wall Street Movement that is spreading throughout this country and the world, because it is based on mass resistance and mobilization to the crimes of this system on many levels, including mass nonviolent civil disobedience, challenging people to act in accordance with transforming the world, however they may see that or relate to that. Nonetheless the call was clear; we the 99% are indeed, as Annie Day said in her article "Report from Occupy Wall Street: 'We Only Want the World'" (Revolution #247, October 9, 2011), "fed the fuck up," may I add, "hella fed the fuck up!" In the mix the first day were two communists who supported the newspaper Revolution. I was one of them and I had my backpack ready with clothes, hair and toothbrushes, and a sleeping bag ready to hella occupy this mutha fucka! While I listened to people speak and express their sentiments on unity, inspiration, and concerns, a HUGE FUCKING BANNER saying "WELCOME TO THE OSCAR GRANT PLAZA ON OHLONE LAND"
struck me. I was filled with joyful emotions seeing that sign and what it represented in terms of people seeing the need for calling out the system and its historic crimes as well as current crimes. Oscar Grant was a young man murdered in cold blood by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer, (I mean pig, hog, swine, animal for the 1%, let's just get that clear now) Johannes Mehserle on New Year's Day 2009. And the Ohlone were the native inhabitants of Oakland and much of the Bay Area before the brutal U.S. expansion to the west led to the near destruction of the people and the culture, along with the theft of the land. There was a vibe in the crowd that what was happening with these Occupations around the country was historical and necessary in a time of great demoralization about the future of humanity as a whole.
Q: Who was part of Occupy Oakland?
A lot of what makes up the majority of the people there, I thought it was anarchists at first, but a majority of the people there are middle-class white youth from different backgrounds, from different ideological standpoints, who, you could get this sense they feel like they have no purpose in this society, like traveler kids from all over, and there is, within that, a section of anarchists, and that gets tricky too, you have black block who are militant and more closed off, and anarcho-syndicalists who have some kind of unity with communism, you have people who aspire to communism, consider themselves Marxists and some consider themselves Maoists, and some Marxist-Leninists and not Maoists and disagree with Maoism, and you have a lot of people from Oakland, homeless people who were living at that place before we even got there, who have been integrated into that community and have been contributing, whether through security or helping with the food, they are contributing as part of this. People are coming because they really are coming at this for the first time, they never even engaged in a protest before. And also, within that crowd, you have a lot of people from the older generation who are camping out and contributing and coming by and donating, and doing as much as they can to help out. So that is the campers. That is what the campers were looking like, the first round, before the police attacked and destroyed the original camp. (Editors' note: This protest has grown over the weeks, and many, many more people from all walks of life are now participating and supporting this movement, as evidenced in the General Strike on November 2.)
That was what the campers looked like. During the day, you had people from every background coming by. It is hard to put your thumb on what section of the people are coming to this because so many people are coming to this. You are getting more basic masses from East and West Oakland who are coming by to check it out. You are getting business people who work around downtown Oakland taking their lunch break and going down and eating with us and talking with us and figuring out what we are doing. You have high school students coming down every morning now, you have a class of high school students who come by and just talk with us, we have somebody give them a tour and explain what is going on. You have grandparents, parents, children, you have a kids' village. So during the day it is really hard to say "this is the kind of people" because everyone is coming. And that definitely has changed since the raid. After the raid there has been more people coming by and a certain sense of respect for what Occupy Oakland is now as opposed to before.
Q: Can you describe how the camp grew in its early days?
The size almost doubled the second day with people coming in to stay and many, many others coming in to show support and donate food, tents, water, medicine and anything else they can. People expressed a unity with the campers and sought in many different ways to see how they can plug in and help in whatever way they could. You really got a sense that not only were the campers determined to stay but that we had the support of the people. Hay bales and wood pallets were donated by American Steel, which is a huge warehouse that rents spaces to artists of all trades but in particular those who work with metal and wood arts, a lot of who work on art for Burning Man.* We utilized the hay bales to spread around the grass that was soaked and muddy from the rain that hit strong for about a week before the occupation. We then set up roadways with the wood pallets to have more accessibility.
The food tent stayed open practically all night and day with people helping and contributing whatever they can, whether it be food or volunteer time. One thing that stood out to me is the active involvement of the homeless people in not just the food tent but also everything. You get this real sense and they even say it, "we have nothing at all and what you all have done has inspired us to become active contributors to changing the world." There was a woman who came and donated a salad and water and I helped her get the stuff from her car. She was saying how sorry she was that that's all she could do was bring food and leave but that she wanted to help somehow. I began to explain to her as we walked over to the food tent how important any donation is, especially food; in the middle of me explaining tears started to build in my eyes as she asked we what was wrong. I pointed to the food tent that had a huge line of people waiting, not to get food but to give us food. I said to her, "We need this, this gives us hope, and it makes us stronger, not just nutritionally but also emotionally."
Q: Can you describe the atmosphere in the encampment?
There is a whole atmosphere of people wanting to contribute in any way they can. This is crucially important to learn from in terms of applying it to our movement for revolution. Because of the fact that you have people from so many different sections of society wanting to contribute on whatever level they can. That can be in the form of donating water, food, to tents, that can look like doing your own workshop or coming by and expressing your art, music; you have screen printers who come in from different artistic backgrounds doing printing, you have musicians coming with free music for people that is uplifting and creative, you have performers, people who can juggle fire, who do belly dancing, folk music, rock music, rap music, all of these different things coming together, and then within that, not even within that, but what is characterizing all of that is this hunger, this drive to fight for a different world however people see that, you really do see a strong determination to go up against race, class and gender, and those are the three things that have constantly been at the fore of Occupy Oakland. And it is something that I found really significant and characteristic. I don't know if it is just Occupy Oakland, but what is happening here is people are putting the question of this whole system and what that has to do with things like race, class and gender, and people really hashing that kind of stuff out. Like women taking on the question of patriarchy and gender and their position in the world, I found was really significant. It has been the case that young women are taking up most of the organization and responsibilities of maintaining and keeping the camp going. And that is not just on the level of some patriarchal they are feeding and cleaning for the men -- they are taking an active part in politically organizing this whole thing. And it is something that is really significant. The challenge I think does need to be put up to more of the men, though there are men who are taking a role in organizing too politically…
Q: Early on, a decision was made about the homeless and people from the drug rehab places in downtown Oakland—are they in or out? Can you talk about that and why you thought it was important?
There were several situations where people in the camp were confronted with the wounds this system has put on people, mentally and emotionally, in terms of homelessness, alcoholism, mental illness. When certain sections of people confronted that, late at night, in the encampment, people didn't know how to deal with that. Some people were saying let's just ignore these confrontations or these issues, other people were saying, no, we have to address these situations, and then there were different ideas on how to address that. The question that was put forward in front of the GA [General Assembly] one day was how to deal with this situation, will we just turn our backs on these people and say they are worthless and have no role in any of this? Because of the wounds they have got through this system? Or are we going to integrate them into our community? The fact is that they have illnesses that we don't know how to treat right now, but are working on getting people who can deal with these things. And it was decided, amongst everyone, the majority decided that we need to integrate them into our community. They have been living a life, and we confronted especially in particular the anger a lot of these Black homeless people were letting out. And what we realized was especially for someone who is homeless, who has a mental illness, and has an alcoholism problem, they are living a life where they are already feeling marginalized, already feeling outcast by society, like they are worthless, and if you have a process where people can't voice that anger, it builds up, especially when you have alcoholism and mental illness together. These bursts of outrage, though expressed really wrong sometimes and really violently sometimes, they stem from what people have been conditioned to become under this system. People wanted to confront that and they decided that was a challenge the camp was going to take up, that we were going to police ourselves. So that is when the actual question of how we were going to deal with these situations came up, because it was a gut wrenching process to see some people who were so on point about the role of the police, and the stress of situations like that, and there were some times when those people would say, I am all for being against the police but this guy, maybe it wouldn't be that bad to call the police and have this guy removed. And it was good, because overall what happened in the camp is that the police were not called. People realized that we have to take this on ourselves, and this is exactly what the system wants, for us to rip ourselves apart, through internal stuff.
And then there began to be talk of people who would come into the camp and start something, or steal something, or be aggressive, and when confronted by the entire camp, and confronted by the reality that this is a serious movement, some people would admit, "I was paid to come in there and do this by the police or by this person, somebody gave me an amount of money and told me to come in here and do this." So then we were really confronted with a serious situation. Now we had not only homelessness, mental illness, and alcoholism, but when that is combined with the police and other provocateurs paying people, that created a whole other level of something that people began to not really understand how to confront.
Q: Can you talk about what kind of conversations you have gotten into about revolution and communism?
On the front of my tent, before the police destroyed it, I had a sign that I made that says, Humanity Needs Revolution And Communism www.revcom.us. I had a little stand with Revolution newspaper by my tent. One thing I paid attention to is talking to the homeless.
For example, one guy is amazingly interestingly contradictory but I love this guy for the questions he brings up and the things we get into. He is a Black man who has spent nine years in the penitentiary. I met him on the third day around 3 am. I asked him why he was here. He said, "What you mean? Y'all came to me. I been at this park for a while 'cause I'm homeless, well I mean before this occupation I was and I was staying here. I was able to hustle up and make some money to get up out of here and up to Stockton where I got a little spot to stay in with the money I hustled. But the day I was going to leave y'all showed up and I realized I had to stay. This shit meant something to me. It was a fight for the underdogs, we need that. So I see this as the most important thing in my life right now, you know? This shit means more to me than anything because it's about real shit and dealing with real shit, fighting for real shit to get out of real shit. This shit is more meaningful than all the women I've fucked, all the money I've made, all the music I've done, this is the time, right now, for me to do a 180 and get out of this shit. That's why I stayed. Why are you here?" I told him, "Well I'm a revolutionary, a communist…" and before I can say more he snapped back, "Bro, you're a communist!?! A communist!?! You mean like them mutha fuckas that be running people over with tanks and shit!?! Why would you want to do that!?!" I smiled and said, "Nah man, that wasn't communism, they used the named communist but that was no longer a socialist society in transition to communism anymore." He paused and looked at me then said in an honest way, "Bro, I don't know what the fuck you talking about." I handed him the paper on "The Voices This System Has Cast Off" and he took it. We talked for a bit and he told me about being in prison for nine years and how he felt bad about the shit he did and how he wanted to make up for that. I told him, "First off, stop blaming yourself for what this system made you do, two if that's how you feel that you want to change the world then you need to read that paper and get with the revolution." He looked at the paper, and then looked back at me with a concerned look. I said, "What's up, you good?" He replied, "Bro, I will be real with you, I can't even read, like at all, I know this say 'revolution' up at the top cause you told me." I said, "Man don't be ashamed, I got you. Check out this quote." I read to him the quote in the paper on those the system has cast off. After I finished he said, "Damn… Damn Bro… wow… bro… um... wow... I'm like at a loss of words man… What is this paper, man? I want to be a part, man. I want to help out this right here. I know I can't read or write but I want to help this paper, can I sit down with you some time and you write down what I say and put it in the paper? I know that's asking a lot but what can I do to help even sort of that?" I told him, "Yeah, I can do that! Hell lets start now." He said, "Not now, I prefer later when I get some rest to think straight." I told him, "ok that's cool… want me to read you the rest of the paper?" He looked up with a look of "what the fuck!?!" and "hell yeah!!!" mixed together. He later explained his facial expression as "hell yeah I want to hear more" and "What the fuck? Is he really going to read it to me?"
I asked him what he thought it would take to bring forward basic masses to this occupation. He said, "I don't know man, they need to see determination, but not just camping, you feel me? We need to be getting together demands for our people, we need to get into those libraries and get into those law books and fight these mutha fuckas with facts and laws and demand what is ours." At first, I didn't understand the point he was making, so I told him, "See bro what you're talking about is reform, we can't seek justice through this system, we need to be out here fighting the power and transforming the people for revolution." He said, "That's what I'm saying though." I said "Nah bro you want to work within the system to ask them for favors, that's what you're talking about." Then he said something that stuck out to me, he said, "Nah fuck that! I don't mean ask them for help and shit. I'm just saying as a Black man in America we have been conditioned generation after generation to fear these mutha fuckas, you know? I mean I'm down to fight but my whole thing is, no more locked doors, you feel me?" ("No more locked doors" is a saying that became popular among sections of the basic masses after that movie Next Friday by Ice Cube had a Latino character who spent time in prison and disliked all locked doors and would get anxiety when doors where locked, and at one point he walks into a room flipping out about prison going in prison rape flashbacks and leaves the room saying, "No more locked doors! Gracias!") So I asked him to get deeper. He said, "Look man, if we don't have lawyers and other down ass people who are up on all these laws, we going to get crushed. How can I feel comfortable doing an action where the risk may be getting arrested and I got no help to get out? They going to keep my Black ass in jail." And that's when I saw what he was trying to get at is this point Avakian makes in the quotes about a force of communists among the basic masses and the feeling of being surrounded and crushed. The next few days that followed have been interesting with him in terms of dealing with some heavy contradictions. One is paranoia which I can relate to but realized that his time in prison has really, on the one hand made him very observant of his surroundings and being able to feel people out and see what they are serious about, while on the other hand has created a paranoia that I feel has developed into a mental disorder or block for him. He is constantly rethinking whether or not to stay or go. There are moments when he is down and loves the people he is surrounded by and then an hour later he is calling me saying he is sorry but he is done and going back home, only to come back and apologize for momentarily giving up. And this has happened a lot; for example one day he said six times that he was done and "fuck this shit, I will just make my money," only to return back apologizing for losing his patience with the people here. I asked him today what he thinks makes him do that. He said "I don't know Bro, it's like I see something here, it's beautiful what they got going here, but this isn't a utopia to me, this shit is real to me, and when I talk with people who are just cool with what we got here so far, I get pissed and I want to leave but as soon as I leave, I want to come back, because this isn't happening anywhere else. So I'm conflicted, I want to stay and I want to go."
Q: Can you paint a picture of the last days before the police raid, what was going on with the police?
On several occasions, when some of these confrontations I have described inside the camp were happening, a few of us would notice that on roof tops there would be people, it was hard to see who these people were.
Q: You are talking about on top of 15-or-more story buildings surrounding the camp in downtown Oakland?
Yes, big buildings, surrounding the camp, the shortest one is about six stories, and there would be one person on each building, normally three people. The plaza is shaped like a triangle and there were these observers on each point of the triangle; it was hard to see any symbols of who they were, but they were there all night, a few of us started to notice that when some of these situations were happening, in terms of confrontations with internal security issues, that there would be these people standing on these rooftops looking down. A few times some people said they saw telescopes. And this was all what was confusing us, we didn't know how every night, something happened, and then the next day it was in the newspaper. We were trying as hard as we could to not let that internal stuff be out there. We did discuss some of these things at general assemblies, and at certain occasions we would have emergency general assemblies to discuss what happened, when people's lives were on the line or threats were made. But it seemed like every time the news reported about these stories it was highly distorted. They would talk about whatever situation happened, but it would never cover the effort that was made to resolve that, the organization it took to de-escalate the situation, that it didn't end in a violent place. Obviously all of the newspaper articles were shaping public opinion around what this camp was, and they utilized that. People got frustrated day by day at the articles attacking the occupation. I remember jokingly saying that it is funny saying that the news talks about all of these problems it has with this occupation, but all of these problems exist in their cities but they won't talk about that. Nor will they talk about 30 to 40 people gathered to talk about race, class and gender, and make progress on their understanding of that. The news isn't going to say that. The news is going to talk about the rats, the smoking and drinking.
Q: Can you talk about when the police moved to attack the camp, to tear it down.
At the beginning, around 12 noon, that day, before the raid even happened, we had people coming to the camp, people were contacting me, these were people who had friends and family in the police department. They were coming down to let us know that something strange is happening. My brother-in-law, my uncle, my cousin, my friend, they are being called in at 2 am to work in Oakland. They are from Vacaville, Hayward, Fremont. People were coming in. We have heard rumors like this from the beginning of the occupation. So we would dismiss them. OK, thank you for that, but we would take it as hearsay. But that day, we felt it was too many people, we had some people's wives coming in saying my husband was called in, he can't come down here but he told me to come down here and let you guys know. And that I thought was really interesting. Because I don't agree that these cops are part of the 99 percent, but it had me thinking about situations where sections of people split and decide not to go against the people. Even though from what I know every cop showed up for work that night they came after us.
As the day progressed, we had people on bikes going out around downtown. Around 1 am in the morning, we had a call from some people saying that there was an enormous convergence of cops at the Oakland Coliseum. This was miles away from downtown Oakland. We were a little worried, but they had done this before as scare tactics. There was a situation where the first few days of camp they would park a police cruiser right outside the camp with a police dog which would bark for a couple hours. Like 4 am to 6 am. So that is what we thought. A lot of things are pointing to a raid. But we still wanted to wait. Around 3:30 in the morning, we had word that they were setting up around downtown Oakland and putting on riot gear. So at that point there was a struggle over how to defend the camp. There was a struggle among certain sections of the anarchists and other youth that were adhering to that model of resistance, to take an aggressive fighting stance. There were other sections of the people that said no, this has to be done as a question of legitimacy. We have to stand together peacefully to expose what these cops will do. We know that they are going to come in beating our asses and we have to be prepared for that. So there was a strong back and forth as barricades were being set up as to how, where, and for what reasons. Afterward, we were able to wake everyone up, and wait. That was the longest hour of my life. We know it was going to happen. We didn't have the support at that time in the morning, we sent out a call, but by the time they showed up we were already getting raided. The cops showed up at 4:30 am, surrounded us, from everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, there was no place for anyone to go. They announced we had five minutes to leave. We sort of joked about it afterward, the way they did it, they said, first, we are going to spray the shit out of you with tear gas, then we are going to beat the shit out of you, then we are going to arrest you. After the five minutes, they lobbed tear gas and concussion grenades from every angle. It was hard to describe where the first shots came from, I was at the front and we were hit with tear gas. I decided to look back, at one point I couldn't take the tear gas, I was thinking where the fuck could I go to get away from this tear gas, and I looked back to a tent melting on fire. Tear gas everywhere, concussion grenades still going off, cops coming in ripping down our barricades, beating people out of tents. It was like beating cats in bags to be honest with you. I don't understand why, but some people ran back in their tent and assumed that maybe they wouldn't fuck with the tent, and those people were beat out of their tents. Beaten and the cops would rip it open to get them out. They weren't arresting anyone. For a good five minutes, they were just whooping ass and launching tear gas. They had a line of cops sent in to rip down our barricades, then another line of cops to whoop ass. I guess that is what they were planning to do that day.
Q: Can you tell us about leaving jail and going out into the middle of the fierce battle that was raging late into the night in the streets of downtown Oakland in response to the police attack on the encampment?
When I was released, it was about 7:30 or so at night. The CO said, when you are released, you have to go directly out the door, talk to the National Lawyers Guild person, and then keep on walking or you will be arrested. I looked at him, like, god damn. He said, you can't go into the lobby, you can't go to the bathroom, you have to get out the door, go straight to the NLG person, talk to them, and continue walking, or you will be arrested. I was like, fuck, what is happening outside? Then we walk outside, and along the side of the police station there are riot police and a whole bunch of cops and helicopters. I looked at the guy next to me, and said, what the hell happened? We had no idea what the hell was going on. He looked up all confused, and said, "Do you think Oakland finally broke?" I said what do you mean? and he said, "I mean like exploded, do you think they finally gave up?" I said, gave up what, and he said, "Believing in this system, man. For all we know, there is a rebellion everywhere in Oakland." I said let's talk to the NLG, then get the hell out of here like we were told before we get arrested."
We walk over to the NLG lady and we said are we really going to be arrested? She said yeah, just talk to me then walk over there and then you won't be arrested. I said why would we be arrested? She was like, well, it's been a long day, and this area is kind of considered an illegal protesting ground for the evening, and you guys being here alone is cause for arrest. I said, wow, OK, good to know. She said if you get arrested twice in 24 hours, it is a felony. I said, OK, good to know.
Me and the other guy left, and we decided let's go back to the occupation. It was me and this homeless guy. I was like fuck it, let's go back. We started heading up there and we saw cops everywhere, and they were staring at us like, how did you guys get in here? And we just had to have this little card the NLG gave us, and we had to say to every cop, we just got out of jail.
We got to Broadway and 14th and we saw hella riot cops, and we saw people standing in front of the riot cops, yelling at them, cussing at them. And we still didn't know what had taken place. I saw one of my friends, and I said hey, what is going on? He said, Dude, I been looking for you all day. Did you just get out, and I said yeah, I just got out. And he said "these motherfuckers been on a rampage. I hate these motherfuckers. I want to fight. I want to learn more about how to fight." This is coming from a friend who doesn't like going to protests. He doesn't like it. He sees it as pointless. You do all of this stuff just to end up with the same system. So why even try.
Then five minutes later we saw thousands of people coming down the street and it was like the most beautiful thing ever. From being in jail, completely by yourself, to surrounded by thousands of people, god, that felt good. And there were smiles, but there was resistance, militancy, anger and frustration. Joy that we were standing up against it. And a lot of anger. So about 20 minutes of me being out of jail, I find myself being in another protest that gets labeled an illegal assembly, and the tear gas and grenades started again.
* Burning Man is an annual celebration of art and community that brings participants from all over the world to an unpopulated ancient lakebed in northern Nevada.