January 11, 2012

For some months now, our friends over at Occupy Oakland have appeared to be changing their focus from opposing the banking and financial industry—where they began—to opposing the government of the City of Oakland, and, most especially, the Oakland Police Departmen           

A quotation from an Occupy Oakland participant in a January 9 Oakland Tribune article following a chaotic Saturday night march in the downtown area highlights that trend.

"The rising importance of police conflict and government crackdowns on citizens trying to exercise their First Amendment rights is becoming a much higher priority for people inside the Occupy movement," the article quoted 59 year old protester Diane Reiner. "For people like me, who originally joined to focus on national broad financial issues, media and politicians being controlled by corporate money, now this direct oppression by extreme policing is becoming a higher priority." (“Oakland Police Arrest Six Occupy Protesters In Saturday Night March”)    

This is not an “official” position of Occupy Oakland, which, in principle, at least, has not given up opposing the 1% as their main goal. But it’s in Occupy Oakland’s actions, not their official rhetoric, by which they must be judged. And since Ms. Reiner has been identified by the East Bay Express as an “Occupy Oakland member,” and has posted frequently to OO’s facebook page, her views have to be taken as reflecting at least some of OO’s activists and members.

One of the directions in which O-O has currently turned was reflected in the Saturday night march itself.

A January 8 article in Occupy Oakland Media, one of the unofficial news outlets for the movement, said the evening march from Frank Ogawa Plaza—the former Occupy Oakland headquarters—to OPD headquarters seven blocks away on Broadway was set up “to protest police repression of Occupy Oakland” (“Violence And Arrests At Anti-Repression/Fuck The Police March”).

The article reprinted a press release by a group called “Oakland Commune,” a group which grew out of the Frank Ogawa Plaza encampment, The Oakland Commune Statement outlined the reasons for Saturday’s march (italics in the original):

“The City of Oakland is a war zone. The politicians, chamber of commerce, large scale property owners and Oakland Police Department daily work together to make our lives a living hell. Between the inflated rents, unemployment and consistent indiscriminate police violence there is not a day where the social forces that surround us do not attack the very foundations of our lives. Recently over the past weeks those who have actively participated in Occupy Oakland have been the targets of the OPD. At the vigil in Oscar Grant Plaza as well as in new occupations across the city, the OPD has coordinated a brutal campaign of repression and intimidation using counterinsurgency tactics such as targeted hit and run snatch squads. This is clearly an attempt to undermine the resurgence of the Oakland Commune in the new year. Dozens have been arrested these past weeks and many of them are still sitting in Santa Rita facing daily harassment and brutality at the hands of the Alameda Sheriffs. This is a direct assault on comrades trying to change this hell we live in. This is a direct attack on people self organizing to take our city back into our own hands. This is coordinated police activity to destroy the Oakland Commune.”

The Oakland Commune statement is notable not for its radical rhetoric—Oakland has long experience with radical—but with the fact that the group’s concerns about Oakland police misconduct appear to be mostly directed towards police misconduct against Occupy Oakland members themselves rather than against Oakland citizens in general.

Other police monitoring groups in Oakland—PUEBLO or the Law Offices of John Burris, for example—focus their work largely on allegations of false arrest and police misconduct and brutality against African-American and Latino youth in the city, because those youth bear the brunt of OPD crackdowns. But while Occupy Oakland has taken such broader police-related actions as calling for a “National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners” next February, it is clearly the police actions against their own members that most gets their attention.

That attention was made clear in article in another Occupy Oakland media outlet, Occupied Oakland Tribune, which quoted Occupy Oakland Tactical Action Committee member Melvin Kelly on his current priorities with the movement.

“I’m here with Occupy Oakland to help feed the homeless and make sure people have affordable housing,” the article quoted Mr. Kelly as saying. “They’ve been tearing our people up for the last 3 months now, doing hella shady shit, so now we’re revolting, we’re fighting back. When people are protesting they been arresting us for stupid shit, so now we’re revolting. We’re not stopping. We are going to do this shit for the rest of our lives.” [“OPD, Occupy Oakland And ‘Fuck The Police” January 8, 2012]

Kelly told Occupied Oakland Tribune that the “Fuck The Police” march will continue to be held each Saturday for an unstated period because “it’s time for the police violence to stop.”

That’s the kind of passion and focus the Occupy movement used to reserve for the financial industry, not so long ago.

In fact, if you surf the comments on Occupy Oakland’s facebook pages, the single individual who attracts by far the most vehemence and scorn is not the president of Wells Fargo or Bank of America, or the venture capitalists of Silicon Valley or San Francisco’s Financial District, but Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and what Occupy Oakland sees as Quan’s role in the various city and police actions against their movement.

A January 11 Susan Cagle article in this week’s East Bay Express entitled “Out Of The Tents And Into The Chambers” sums up the pivoting of Occupy Oakland into a City Hall focus.

“Much has changed at Occupy Oakland since the evening in late October when [Mayor] Quan was booed out of a[n Occupied Oakland] general assembly after expecting to speak without waiting her turn,” Ms. Cagle writes. “Several camp raids and more than two hundred Occupy-related misdemeanor and felony arrests have further shifted the focus of Oakland's occupation from national issues of wealth inequality to every day struggles for what occupiers say is their First Amendment right to peaceably assemble in Frank Ogawa Plaza.” 

Ms. Cagle concludes that “a campaign [by Occupy Oakland] against big money has in large part become a campaign against a mid-size and troubled municipality.”

Two caveats come to mind.

First, it’s a responsibility of an organization to come to the aid of members injured or arrested during organization activities, so there is nothing wrong with—and everything to commend them for—Occupy Oakland mobilizing support for its incarcerated participants. And second, Occupy Oakland is free to modify, alter, or completely redirect its focus in any way it chooses. They have not made any promises to Oakland citizens that they are now breaking.

But Occupy Oakland’s popularity was generated because it arrived in this city upon the wave of New York’s electrifying Occupy Wall Street action, and upon the general feeling in this city that the nation’s banks and mortgage brokers and financial freewheelers had too long been out of public control, had caused and deepened the Great Recession by their greed and carelessness, and needed someone or something to rein them in. In those early days, Occupy Oakland members were the golden children, the brave young warriors willing to take on the enemy most of us hated and feared, and that’s why we loved and respected and supported them, overlooking so many of their early missteps and mistakes.

But if Occupy Oakland’s major focus is turning away from busting the financiers into something else—including changing how Oakland runs its government and polices its streets—then public opinion in Oakland towards Occupy Oakland will almost certainly change as well. That opinion has already changed, in fact, as Occupy Oakland is increasingly being judged by the same standards that we judge any other organization within the boundaries of our city. How the folks at OO will come out on that standard is yet to be seen.