The Oakland Commune

As a site of resistance, “Wall Street” is a metonym for a system, a transnational apparatus of capital and political oligarchy. We don’t have to get too specific, because we all know what we mean when we say “Wall Street” (even if we don’t agree on what that thing actually is). And so while that particular part of Lower Manhattan might be a focal point of a gigantic process of accumulation and dispossession, “Wall Street” is still just a concrete symbol for that larger and much less tangible process. The fact that so much financial work is actually done elsewhere is not that important; to “Occupy Wall Street” is to attack and de-legitimize the thing it symbolizes, the ordering structure that builds and rebuilds the world around us, that the rest of us have no choice but to inhabit and endure.

This is why it has meant something very different, from the beginning, to “Occupy Oakland.” In a just world—in the world the occupiers are trying to usher into existence—there might be no such thing as “Wall Street” at all, and certainly not in its current form. But Oakland is not a center of finance and power or a locus of political privilege. There is a “here” here. No one really lives in Wall Street, but those who “Occupy Oakland” do so because they already did. As a result, when we “Occupy Oakland,” we are engaged much less in a symbolic protest against “the banks” or “the 1%”—political actions which are given their shape by the political terrain of protesting abstractions—and much more in a very concrete struggle for a right to the city.

After all, the police who dispersed occupiers with tear gas were only doing the sort of thing they had long been accustomed to doing to the poor, transient, and/or communities of color that make up a great majority of Oakland’s humanity. They used inhuman means of regulating human bodies—the declaration of “unlawful assembly”—because the city is accustomed to having the power to do so, the effective right to assemble and disassemble Oakland as they see fit. It’s that power that’s being contested. When a body calling itself the Oakland Commune renames the front yard of city hall after a police shooting victim, sets out to feed and house anyone who stands in line, and refuses to allow the state’s purveyors of violence to police them, the challenge is quite direct and legible, a peaceful revolution.

This point is worth lingering on, because it has generally been neglected. You will struggle in vain to find the words “Oscar Grant Plaza” or “The Oakland Commune” in most national news reports on Occupy Oakland; even in local Bay Area reporting, those words tend to appear, at most, in quotes made by occupiers. Instead, “Occupy Oakland” gets made legible by reference, first and foremost, to other occupations, mainly the one in New York. It will be described as more violent, perhaps, or more radical, or the way the police crackdown has been more intense will be noted (and, in some cases, found to be wanting by the guardians of the true spirit of the movement). It is like Occupy Wall Street, but different.

I’m not saying this is right or wrong, or even making a media critique (though there is much to critique). My point is that using a comparative lens—that mode of analysis by which “Occupy” is a category, a series of variations on a theme that first emerged in Zuccotti Park—will almost inevitably lead us to overlook the ways that an autochthonic Oakland Commune rises up and makes sense of itself, in resolutely local terms, by reference to nothing other than itself. There’s a crucial way, in other words, in which Occupying Oakland (or Atlanta, or Philly, or San Jose, or Huntington, WV, etc.) is not the same thing as to be a part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: while the former is a reclamation of a very particular shared space, community, and history, the latter not only implies that “Occupy Wall Street” is the original thing—the important thing—but it places and understands all the other occupations by reference to that original, like local franchises or copycats who have been inspired by it.

This distinction is especially important, because a certain idealized (and whitewashed) version of #OWS has become a useful narrative for a variety of establishment politicians and critics of both good and false faith. But we need to beware of people who pay theoretical lip service to an idealized “Occupy Wall Street” brand and then to use the particular shortcomings of its local iteration to condemn it. Oakland mayor Jean Quan, for example, always says that she supports the goals and principles of Occupy Wall Street—a theoretical solidarity, by which she is rhetorically positions herself in opposition to abstractions like “Wall Street”—but this theoretical solidarity has, of course, never translated into any actual support for Occupy Oakland. And this is precisely its purpose: a symbolic protest against a symbolic abstraction like “the banks” is sufficiently meaningless in practice that almost anyone can rhetorically sign on. And once a symbolic protest has been allowed, for the moment, the nonsymbolic protest (of breaking a law against open flames or camping in public) suddenly becomes all the more illegal by reference to it.

Take Joan Walsh’s recent argument in Salon that doing practical social justice will get in the way of doing social justice:

In Oakland, as in other cities, the camps have become magnets for the symptoms of the social injustice they’re protesting: homelessness, drugs, mental illness and crime. Dreamers and do-gooders in the groups genuinely believe the movement has to help society’s victims as it tries to change the world. Some think that’s part of creating the alternate society that is going to gradually annex the rest of us. I admire those people, but I think the shameful problems of our larger society will capsize this movement if it attempts to solve them on its own, rather than channeling energy into changing a political structure that creates and ignores these human tragedies. Meanwhile, the more the camps attract troubled and violent people, the more they alienate the vast majority of the 99 percent the Occupy movement is trying to speak for, and leave those comfortable with violence and disorder in control.

The logic of capitalist realism is overwhelming here—in which the desire to include homeless people is “admirable” but unrealistic—but what interests me in such rhetoric (and Walsh is pretty representative) is the explicit privileging of “the movement” over the claims of those it seeks to speak for. Not only have the homeless and chronically unemployed suddenly ceased to be a part of “the vast majority of the 99 percent,” but she’s telling a revisionary history. Homeless people were sleeping in Frank Ogawa Plaza long before Occupy Oakland showed up and renamed it; to push them out because they’re not wanted—because to include them would be too difficult—would be to replicate the logic of the city managers themselves. It is to Occupy Oakland’s credit that they never did; all were welcome to be present and to be part of the camp. And those who were there, before the city tore it down, know that the pulsing heart of the camp was never primarily the General Assembly. It was the kitchen.

And this was what I found inspiring from the beginning: in a community as utterly divided by class, race, politics, language, and gender as Oakland, people reflecting so much of that variety of difference were getting together to hammer together some kind of common and communal purpose, to declare that everyone who inhabited the same space was, in an important sense, there together. We ate together, we listened together, we spoke together, and we were tear gassed together; in the days when Frank Ogawa Plaza became Oscar Grant Plaza, that tiny stretch of Oakland was perhaps the least segregated neighborhood in the city, and the only place in the city where I would ever have the conversations I had with the people I did.

In a way, I’m idealizing it, both because it sometimes lived up to that ideal, and because having it as an ideal reminds us that more is possible than we find to be imaginable. Problems are solvable, and we are capable of confronting them. You are capable of being the person who steps up when some crisis arises organically out of the dysfunctions we’ve inherited from the societies we have no choice but to occupy. This is not the easy triumphalism of Yes We Can, but the hard responsibility of Yes, We Must that we are forced to look in the face when the problems we’d like to avoid don’t go away. And this is clearly the job ahead of us.

This is why putting up tents in Oakland was not a symbolic protest, not a part of the movement that can be allowed to die. To put up a tent and sleep in it, in violation of city ordinances, is a tiny way to claim the right to make the city ourselves. And since we are, as people, a function of the cities we build to remake ourselves as a people, as David Harvey puts it quite nicely, putting up a tent in this way is the very definition of the right to the city:

The right to the city is far more than the individual liberty to access urban resources: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city. It is, moreover, a common rather than an individual right since this transformation inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power to reshape the processes of urbanization. The freedom to make and remake our cities and ourselves is, I want to argue, one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights.

The construction of a thing called “The Oakland Commune” at a plaza that was re-named after Oscar Grant was, in this sense, not a franchise of Occupy Wall Street but a revolutionary defense of that particular space, the demand that we who occupy it have the right to decide what will be made of it.

* * *

At this point, then, we have to talk about Oakland itself, about what “Oscar Grant” means to the people who made that name the center of their protest (or what it would mean if Occupy Oakland renamed itself “Decolonize and Liberate Oakland.”) The broad and racialized social restructuration that Oakland has undergone in the last half century—an “urban renewal,” after the end of segregation that has melded seamlessly into suburbanization and gentrification—is a process that has analogs in cities across the United States. But the Bay Area is also unique, and the fact that Oscar Grant was a young African American man traveling on the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system—and was shot and killed by a police officer charged with policing BART—is a perfect symbol of the forms of differential inclusion through which Oakland has been formed and reformed (as this blogger describes too precisely for me to need to replicate).

After all, is Oakland really a city? It might once have been clearly distinct from San Francisco, Berkeley, San Leandro, Castro Valley, Emeryville, Piedmont, and Alameda (to name only the Bay Area municipalities on its borders), but it clearly is no longer. To put it more firmly, to pretend that Oakland is anything but a thoroughly well-integrated unit within the vast urban system that wraps itself around the San Francisco Bay is to allow ourselves to be mystified by the very structures of economic and political segregation that we oppose. Woven together by the BART system and by a series of freeways that allow commuters from the hills and bedroom communities in Contra Costa and Alameda counties to pass over or under Oakland’s once vibrant flatland communities—that have been left economically stagnant as a result—on their way to San Francisco, whatever is “there” in Oakland is there because of how the Greater Bay Area has been designed around it, how it was reshaped by its differential inclusion.

When BART and the freeways were built in the 1950s and 60s, this differentiating inclusion was made painfully clear by the massive displacement and demolition of primarily African-American communities in West Oakland that their construction required: once the heart of Oakland’s African-American community, West Oakland’s most thriving commercial and residential districts were torn down to make room for the transportation corridors that linked the expanding suburban fringe to San Francisco’s thriving downtown and financial district.

In fact, it would not be much of an exaggeration to argue that “Oakland” is what’s left behind when you carve away the most capital-rich parts of the Bay Area, a single, relatively poor and non-white gerrymandered remainder. As the industries that once employed Oakland’s middle class have foundered and gone elsewhere in the last fifty years, Oakland’s most affluent residents fled to Alameda, San Leandro, Hayward, Orinda, Lafayette, Concord, or suburban enclaves where their taxes would do nothing for the (increasingly non-white) Oakland they left behind. And even as new sites of industry and development have emerged just outside its borders—in Emeryville, for example, home of Pixar, or in Alameda, adjacent to but external to Oakland itself—the astoundingly affluent island city of Piedmont remains officially external to the impoverished city of Oakland all around it, a kind of reverse Bantustan of millionaires. Named one of the “25 Top-Earning Towns” by CNN Money in 2007, its tax rolls need contribute nothing to the schools and communities around it, and do not.

To tell the story of post-war Oakland—as the Bay Area has exploded around it—is to tell a story of political and economic exclusion. But while that story might have begun at the end of official Jim Crow segregation (when the Oakland Police Department notoriously recruited white police officers from the deep South to police its fast growing black population), Oakland’s constitution through exclusion certainly didn’t end there. As part of the gentrifying flood of white Oakland residents that have progressively lightened Oakland’s demographic makeup in the last ten years, I can testify that the lines separating where it is “safe” and desirable to live—and where it is not—are as well understood as the red line that separated black and white Oakland in the 1960s.

All of this is necessary background for understanding why, from the beginning, Occupy Oakland has been the kind of radically inclusive space that it’s been, why the beating revolutionary heart of the camp has not been its library or information tent—or even the General Assembly—but the kitchen that fed thousands of hungry Oaklanders every day, or the grassy space of Frank Ogawa Plaza where Downtown Oakland’s substantial homeless population could find a home. Local history is necessary for understanding why the occupants of the “Oakland Commune” have focused less on national economic issues than on the right to the city of Oakland which has, for so long, been denied them. Occupy Oakland has set its sights resolutely local from the very beginning; while anti-bank rhetoric and actions have not been absent, of course, activists at Occupy Oakland have targeted the five elementary schools that Alameda County recently voted to close, for example, and are moving in recent weeks towards defending neighborhood homes from foreclosure.

In other words, a close focus on local Oakland history is necessary background for understanding why this local orientation is so important, why the many calls to stop focusing on the camp and re-focus on the economic issues—Wall Street! The Banks! Political Corruption!—are missing something utterly crucial about what is happening around us.

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  1. Jane Vandenburgh says:

    This is EXACTLY the kind of reasoned, informed, in-depth journalism I’ve been dying to read since the Occupy movement began, as it’s written without animus and from INSIDE. So many people have expressed their disdain for OO to me in exactly these terms: It was a great idea but now it’s just, well? The Homeless, as if these people are fundamentally different from the rest of “us.” Every article I’ve read from the MSM has had this kind of slightly condescending tone, which is entirely lacking in this piece. Thanks so much for looking at the complexities here so clearly.

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