March 26, 2013

Occupy Oakland is an easy target for criticism.

For one thing, the organization did a lot of things that need criticizing, such as helping to open the door for organizations and individuals to come to Oakland and experiment with breaking other people’s stuff up for no discernable political or social purpose (“Occupy Oakland’s Legacy Of Vandalism Lives On”).

For another, even in their heyday, when they had hundreds of people camping out at Frank Ogawa and they could march on the Port of Oakland and shut it down for several hours, Occupy was a distinctly insular group. While a rich political debate was constantly going on within Occupy circles, Occupy members tended to keep their comments and opinions about their organization within their own online discussion groups.

And so when I wrote, a few weeks ago, that “the jury is still out” on what Occupy Oakland did right and did wrong during the months they occupied our streets and public places (“The Legacy Of Occupy Oakland”), one reader, L. McNeil, replied flatly that “No it’s not” while another, Glen Miller, said “that ship has sailed,” adding that “most of you already know [that the Occupy Oakland encampment] had become a magnet for the worst of the worst from across the country.”

Neither McNeil nor Miller felt it necessary to provide explanation for their positions, and no-one identifying themselves as an Occupy Oakland member or participant—present or former—stepped in with either challenge or defense.

Though I do not consider myself either an Occupy member or a defender, I do think those of us outside of the Occupy movement need to take a closer look at the lessons that might be learned from what Occupy attempted and what they actually accomplished in their months on the Oakland stage.

That closer look should obviously begin with a close study of Occupy Oakland’s signature accomplishment, the months-long tent-city occupation of the plaza in front of Oakland City Hall.

Much has been made of the low points of that occupation, most especially the November, 2011 shooting death of 26 year old Kayode Foster just yards away from the OO encampment where he sometimes stayed. Occupy discussion following the shooting center on how much should be blamed on Occupy and how much on Oakland itself, with Oakland Local quoting “one of the most visible occupiers” Khalid Shakur, for example, as saying that the Foster shooting “was a case of typical Oakland Black on Black crime.”

What was largely lost in the general discussion, and afterwards forgotten even by those who mentioned it at the time, was that the first responders to Foster as he lay shot and dying on the Ogawa Plaza pavement were paramedics from Occupy Oakland itself, who tried vainly to keep him alive before regular county and city EMT personnel arrived.

That little fact underscores what is certainly Occupy Oakland’s most impressive accomplishment and the one that we ought to take the time to study: the operation of the Frank Ogawa encampment itself. That would be a remarkable achievement in itself—housing and feeding and governing hundreds of  individuals for several months during 2011 and ‘12—much less while operating an ongoing direct action campaign while fighting off infiltration by police agents and official pressure from both city and police officials.

One doesn’t have to agree with all—or even anything—Occupy Oakland stood for to think that enormous lessons can be learned by how well, how poorly, or how in-between the Occupy encampment was run.

Occupy used the process of consensus to govern its deliberations, for example, which some participants described as “bottom up democracy” superior to the majority rule model. Consensus does have a nice ring to it—a blending of New Age tolerance with 60’s hippie “do-your-own-thingism” and Quaker mutual respect—until you take a closer look at its practical effects and application in a complex governing body like the Occupy encampments.

“Consensus process is in many ways an attempt to formalize the act of resistance, which I suspect is what makes it so popular in activist communities,” correspondent Diane Sweet wrote about the Occupy Wall Street version of the practice in a February posting to the Crooks & Liars website. Let's compare this to democracy, a system which was invented to formalize dissent. With democracy, you could fight and disagree without resorting to violence. Feathers could be ruffled, progress could be made, and life moved on according to plan. Resistance on the other hand is when you're so angry at something, that you're willing to go on a crusade and use all available means to stop that thing from happening. [emphasis in the original] Resistance knows no rules. It is something that should never happen, yet is the responsibility of any socially conscious individual. It's a wild beast which cannot be tamed. Now ask yourself what happens when you get a bunch of people in one room, people whose nature inclines them towards resistance, and then give them the power to resist with a simple hand gesture and a requirement that all others be subservient to their demand. You do the math.”

Is that also a characterization of consensus and how it was applied in Occupy Oakland, and was it one of the factors that contributed to the Occupy movement’s rapid decline and demise in this city, particularly in regard to the inability to curb or even condemn violence and vandalism by people within its own ranks?

And more important, what did Occupy Oakland members and participants learn from that grand experiment in self-government, and how much of that knowledge is being applied to efforts by those activists in post-Occupy work in this city?

Myself, I have no idea. And that’s why I continue to say that the jury is still out concerning Occupy Oakland, in large part because its still far too early to tell how positive or negative the movement’s ultimate legacy will turn out to be.

This continues to need more thought and discussion, my friends.