What's next for the movement at its western frontier?
After hundreds of Occupy Oakland protesters were tear-gassed and shot at with rubber-coated steel bullets by riot police on October 25, protesters in Tahrir Square marched to the US embassy in protest. One of their signs read: "Cairo and Oakland are one hand."
At the next Oakland march, a black banner with white writing appeared: "Oakland and Cairo are one fist."
The change reflects the state of Occupy Oakland: a tactical perspective has elbowed to the forefront, leaving others bruised and annoyed along the way.
"Your open hand can do so much more than your fist," says occupier Laura Long, 29. But it's unclear right now what exactly Occupy Oakland wants to do, because it's unclear right now what and who Occupy Oakland might currently be.
Since the war that took over downtown Oakland that evening in October, Occupy Oakland has struggled with how to spend its political capital, and has lost much of it along the way. Several camp iterations and broken windows later, Oakland's occupiers are at a crossroads now in the movement -- and they aren't interested in sticking together. While the main decision-making body of the group, the general assembly, falters with low attendance, action meetings are growing. A couple weeks ago this disaggregation seemed like a death knell. Now it feels like the movement's best hope.
The breakup seems necessary after such a passionate escalation in tactics over a relatively short period of time. The period of
infatuation and political lust that intensified leading up to the November 2 General Strike ended quickly, and many fell out of love after windows started breaking.
This period of reflection and reconsideration is resulting in a multi-front movement that engages the public with spectacular shows of force at the ports, and with quiet and plausibly deniable ones in the form of smashed locks on empty bank-owned buildings.
In Oakland's occupation there are some hands, and there are some fists.
Occupy organizer Krystof Lopaur, 35, worked on the December 12 coordinated West Coast port shutdown, which disrupted port activities up and down the coast and catalyzed solidarity protests across the country. In Oakland, Occupy disrupted and cancelled three of the ILWU workers shifts and blocked trucking in efforts that the port says cost them, workers, and the city of Oakland $4 million. Nearly 4,500 people shut down the Port of Oakland in the evening. Krystof calls the action Occupy Oakland's "second big act" after the November 2nd General Strike and one-shift port shutdown. "And this is where it's at," he says of the future.
"There's a lot of stuff that we're doing that's interesting. We're kind of probing around for where we're effective," Krystof reflected. "And I think where we're effective is where we get the most pushback."
The shutdown was a huge show of force by Occupy and union workers that many expected would be met with a huge show of force in return from the police. This sort of confrontation is meant to force the state's hand, to create, as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, "a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Occupy may be less interested in negotiation, but they are no less interested in creating that crisis. But except for some 6 a.m. baton scuffles, law enforcement presence was minimal, even if the shutdown resulted in the city council's rules committee pushing the city to use "whatever lawful tools" to prevent any future port action. (The resolution did not pass.)
The shutdown was grand and visible. It contrasts markedly with the other threads of action that have spun out of Occupy Oakland. Take foreclosure defense, in which occupiers set up camps at or in properties scheduled to be taken over by the banks. The most high-profile effort occurred at 18th and Linden in West Oakland, when a lot owner, Gloria Cobb allowed occupiers to take over the space. It made the local news and seemed like it could become a new and successful tactic for activists. It was a highly visible political symbol, one of Occupy Oakland's last above-ground hurrahs. And it was also one of its greatest failures.
After giving initial lukewarm approval for the occupation, the lot owner Gloria
Cobb signed a declaration for the city stating
that she wanted them removed. The occupiers left reluctant and
angry, with a mix of wounded pride and sincere shame. This was Occupy
real stab at a tent encampment. At least they went out loud: the botched foreclosure occupation ended with a dance
party in the middle of a West Oakland street at midnight.
Dancing aside, things did not go well. "That's what inspired me to do this," says Iris Brown, 26, as she flips through one of many binders sitting on a shelf in the small warm kitchen of an occupied house in Alameda, each marked with a different zip code. "Watching that play out so badly."
Iris began the Foreclosure Research Action Committee (FRAC) in hopes of intervening on behalf of people in pre-foreclosure using legal means largely outlined under the Tenant Protection Act of 2010, as well as finding empty foreclosed buildings to occupy for full-time residential occupations as well as community centers open to the public and meant to serve the surrounding neighborhood.
The failure of 18th and Linden was not Iris' only motivation, though. Two months ago, the owner of her quaint Alameda house went into default, and sold Iris' lease to a new tenant for a much higher rent. Since she was never properly served with an eviction notice, Iris filed a motion to quash, and is now waiting for her court date before the scheduled February 12 auction of the house.
"This is what I was going through before I started being
involved in all of this," she tells me. "And then I get involved in all
of this and people are
like, Hey, let's help somebody with foreclosures. And I'm like,
Yeah, help me!"
The legal strategy Brown is looking to exploit are not of much interest to some others at Occupy Oakland. Organizers like Krystof are skeptical of foreclosure defense as a scalable and wise tactic for the future of the movement. "It's great because it's in line with the tactic of occupation," says Krystof. "The problem is you're intervening in a really personal and individualistic struggle." Squat development, meanwhile, is "kind of like dumpster diving, you know? Living off the scraps of capitalism."
He sees the strength of the future movement lying in a middle ground between blockading capitalism on the wide roads of the Port and occupying quietly, even secretly, in the narrow wood-framed homes of West Oakland.
"We need to intervene in a readable way in localized workplace struggles," Krystof tells me. "A campaign that will have locally tangible results for people" in the form of improved working conditions and additional hires -- ideally.
"It's kind of like a home defense, but you're not intervening on behalf of an individual -- you're intervening on behalf of a core of people there," he says. "I think that will re-radicalize the labor movement."