Occupy Oakland: Barriers to Participation

Posted by CODEPINK Staff

Posted by Sharon Miller, CODEPINK San Francisco intern

One of the most intense experiences I have ever had at a protest was sitting with hundreds of other Occupy Oakland activists at the General Assembly following a march protesting the brutal police crackdown on Oscar Grant Plaza in front of Oakland City Hall on November 14, 2011. As news helicopters buzzed overhead, and police helicopters beamed their search lights down on the crowd that had assembled in the plaza, I came to realize just how threatening the 1% and their enablers consider our movement’s goals of economic justice, accountability, and an end to the war economy.  I remembered that peaceful encampment I had visited several times in Oscar Grant Plaza, where members of the 99% came together and amplified the truth about the circumstances so many of us face in our lives:  we are neither alone nor powerless in the face of injustice. The fact that so many of us came to speak this truth by learning from each other is precisely what the 1% finds so incredibly threatening to the power and privilege that they guard so jealously and so violently.

I am alarmed at how sharp the contrast is between what I saw, heard, and felt first-hand, and the frightening picture of Occupy Oakland, and the Occupy movement more generally, that the mainstream media has created: its emphasis on broadcasting riot footage, along with the disproportionate amount of attention given to the opinions of the police and other enablers of the 1%, including Mayor Jean Quan’s laughable attempt to call the “national leaders of the Occupy movement” to request that they disavow Occupy Oakland. Contrast this with a maximum of only one or two short sound bites per mainstream news story from Occupy Oakland activists themselves. For example, the mainstream media has focused a lot of attention on a group of Occupy Oakland protesters who broke into Oakland City Hall on January 28, 2012, and burned an American flag. Obviously, I can’t prove my hunch that the protesters who were shown doing this were outside provocateurs, hired by enablers of the 1% in a deliberate attempt to smear Occupy Oakland. At the same time, these actions are strikingly similar to those I’ve seen depicted in American right-wing fear-mongering rhetoric about flag-burning.

Despite my anger at the poor media coverage of Occupy Oakland, I need to point out that these highly problematic news stories are not the only factor limiting the involvement of many members of the 99% in the Occupy movement. To engage in Occupy Oakland protest marches and actions these days carries a very real risk of arrest and/or bodily harm. The police brutality we’ve seen at Occupy Oakland is not aimed only at those who are physically present at protest marches and other direct actions; it is a direct threat to anyone who wishes to become involved in the movement. Police tactics such as kettling, or issuing a dispersal order without allowing protesters the ability to escape arrest, are highly effective and sinister bullying tactics. It breaks my heart to know that my fear of being arrested, while not unrealistic, is nevertheless exactly what the 1% and their enablers want me to feel.  It breaks my heart that the very nature of my own personal situation—I am currently unemployed and I would not want an arrest record to prevent me from getting a job—is linked to this fear of involving myself more fully in the political movement that could most benefit me and other people in similar situations.

Another issue that has come up for me is the issue of covert hierarchy in Occupy Oakland. I was reminded of Jo Freeman’s writing on the issue when thinking about the January 28 “move-in” action to occupy the abandoned Kaiser Convention Center and turn it into a social service center. Although I was not at the action itself, I learned from CODEPINKers and other activists who had attended the rally and march that this particular action was not organized with the full consensus of the Occupy Oakland General Assembly. When I received news of this action via Facebook, the location of the vacant building to be occupied was not given. I therefore have no idea whose decision it was to pick which building to occupy; how they arrived at this decision; and why it was kept a secret. Similarly, with regard to the City Hall incident, keeping in mind the possibility that the flag-burners may have been saboteurs, the question persists: whose idea was this? Absent a clear and transparent process of shared decision-making, it is very difficult to establish accountability. It would be incredibly disappointing if Occupy Oakland’s goals were undermined by a failure to address this issue.

These are just some of the issues that need to be addressed urgently if Occupy Oakland, and the Occupy movement in general, is to remain a sustainable, nonviolent, and inclusive people’s movement to empower the 99%.

UPDATE 2/6/2012: I've been following people's responses to this post. I am especially concerned that, contrary to the information I provided in my blog post on PINKtank last Thursday, I have been hearing that the move-in action on January 28 was in fact passed by the OO General Assembly. I sincerely regret making this error. I fully support the goals of Occupy Oakland and the Occupy movement. I support the hard work of many dedicated activists with whom I share a vision of a more peaceful, equitable, and just world. I believe wholeheartedly in the enormous potential of the Occupy movement and of Occupy Oakland to address and work toward solutions to urgent issues that the 1% and their enablers have failed to adequately address. Indeed, OO and the Occupy movement have already had many successes, and I am proud to support this historic movement. --SM

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