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Sunday, 16 October 2011

Occupying Oakland

I was on the West Coast of the US for a few days recently. On my last day there, I spent some time at Occupy Oakland, one of the occupation protests to spin off from Occupy Wall Street. The Oakland protest was an encampment in front of City Hall. I arrived on Tuesday afternoon to find a bunch of tents set up and people milling about. There were signs posted, renaming the plaza to "Oscar Grant Plaza." Oscar Grant was, of course, the man shot by BART police a year or two ago. Other signs invited the 99% to "hella" occupy Oakland. Another large banner was against corporate oligarchy

Some of the people were working on stuff, so I asked a guy there if I could help. He sent me to the food tent, where there was another guy dishing up soup to passers by. I helped him out for a while and then he went off, leaving me in the tent.

Several people came up for soup, bread, grapes os something to drink. The soup was made in a large pot which was over a camp stove that was keeping it warm. It seemed like about half the people who came asking for food where people who had come specifically for the protest and the other half were people who might have been hungry anyway. I worked a shift in a soup kitchen once many years ago and this was not like that. In the soup kitchen, you have a stark dividing line between who is feeding and who is being fed. Some people bring food and others eat it. In this case, there were people coming constantly with donations, but everybody was eating together.

As long as people just wanted soup, I was fine and I could tell them where to put material donations, but anything more than that and I had no idea. I was alone in the tent for a while, unable to answer questions. Finally the women who knew stuff came back and told me to take a break.

I wandered through the tents to where I could hear music. There were native Americans playing a large drum and singing. A reporter from the local TV news recorded herself talking with them in the background. A circle of lesbians were sitting nearby with a MacBook, planning something. A woman from Revolution Books sold me a newspaper about how Bob Avakian is the second coming of Mao. I sat in the sun until the shade progressed over the entire plaza and then I moved towards more music.

I found a guy with an American flag T-shirt and a rockabilly haircut playing a guitar and singing something about a "rich man" through a PA system, when there seemed to be the sound of drumming getting gradually closer. There was a samba band marching up the street, to the occupation. As they arrived, the guitar player wrapped up his set and the drums played for at least an hour. They had a dance troop with them. Both the drummers and the dancers were amazing. After a long routine, they said they'd brought extra instruments and everybody should join them by playing or dancing. Many people did.

Meanwhile, the kitchen crew had gotten a BBQ going and were cooking something that might have been pork. A woman came by with a bag of apples and handed them out to all and sundry, so some people stood eating ribs or apples, watching people dance. This was Oakland, so the dancers were all races, all ages. Some of them were middle class, some were poor. Some were white, some were black, some were asian. There were LGB people, trans people, straight people, cis people, in what felt like a giant festival. A middle schooler lept into the middle of the dancers and started break dancing to wild cheering. Then a pair of guys in maybe their mid 20s started doing a sort of martial arts dance while the samba dancers danced in a circle around them. One of the martial arts guys was hopping up and down on his hands while the other one did some move I could never hope to replicate.

The joy, the diversity, the food, the music, the use of the word "hella" - it was pure Oakland. It's why I love the East Bay. It's why that protest gave me hope. With the wide swath of people participating, with the toilets donated by the unions (and by a local BBQ joint), it felt like real coalitions are happening. And while the demands of the protest aren't entirely clear, they're building something that seems like a movement. Real change might come out of this and it is change we desperately need.

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