One year on the crazy Occupy ride: big lessons, reflections, and next giant steps

by Zappa Montag

I have been part of some weird shit in my lifetime, but Occupy Oakland may be the weirdest of the weird. I still shake my head in amazement and confusion over the wild ride it’s been. Unbelievably it has been only a year since Occupy Wall Street bloomed its first flower of rebellion in New York. I was immediately excited by OWS, partly due to a shift in tactics that seemed to draw lines directly to the source of inequity, and also because my friend Stephanie was one of Brooklyn Bridge folks, and she took some inspiring pictures that gave the first early views of the coming wave of People Power. From that day I was waiting for the Oakland version to hit. I knew Oakland was gonna be different and powerful, but it was in a whole different way than I could have ever dreamed. In my early vision, I saw myself working with many old friends and activists groups, and finally getting a movement worthy of our passions and dreams in Oakland. With that optimism in my heart it was also nearly a year ago that I attended my first Occupy Oakland meeting at Mosswood Park. A meeting which left me feeling annoyed, confused, and vaguely optimistic, and gave me clues that I was not able to read as to how things were really going to be like. I shrugged of the doubts and jumped in with optimism that I hadn’t felt about the movement in many years. Little did I know that the negative and infuriating dramas would be nearly as incredible as the momentous moments of pure magic that I would experience, often nearly simultaneously. What a year! What a freaking year!

We have learned a whole lot in this last year, lifetimes of knowledge and understanding opened before our very eyes, and we have reaffirmed certain truths that we may have forgotten about. We have struggled mightily, but have kept going. It is no secret that cliques and ideological and territorial turf wars and severe personal disagreements within the movement have shaped the struggle in Oakland. At times it has been very intense, and all consuming, yet at the same time, one year later, we continue on. As fractured as it has been in some cases, I would say that we have all learned from each other and have influenced people who stuck it out and paid attention. Even those who cannot work together at this time due to movement conflicts have shaped each others approach for the better. I am also happy to say that I have met an amazing amount of beautiful people since last September 17, many of whom have become integral parts of my life. It is a rare thing for grown adults to meet a significant friend at any time after a certain point in your life. The fact that I have made so many connections, and am able to build with these wonderful folks, is to me the greatest blessing of the tumultuous year we have had. The personal bonds that we have created have allowed us to continue to build towards a focus that is just now becoming clearer…

So what is clear to those of us who I have found common ground, and shared effort with, and what are we building? From where our extended group of friends and activists see things there are several lessons that provide the bulk of our framework for our next year of organizing and community building.
For one thing we have affirmed that certain old truths remain truths now more than ever, and one of these truths is that “The pen is mightier than the Sword/ Drone”, and that there is no doubt that “The truth is on our side” and that “T he truth shall set us free”… We are writers who put ideas in motion. We need to write our own fearless truth, and help each other do the same. We have amazing writers; we have perspectives that need to be heard. The continued misinformation and unimaginative analysis of Oakland from the East Coast, or from local movement voices with little long term roots in the area, was one thing that drove us to be purposeful and powerful with our writing. We are now inspired to write with intent and passion, and to build our own networks to spread and receive the people’s truths. We are developing a network, and infrastructure to sing our story to the far corners of earth and beyond. After all we are writers with multimedia skills and technological savvy, and creativity for days. This is a skill and power we can help bring, and we will. Write the heck on!

We are dreamers who believe in the power of music and arts and the creative, wide open, human spirit and kind-hear ted nature. We believe that these are our strengths and our medicine. We have creativity pulsating through our community, and we have gathered our  creative energies here in the west because the only way left to go is into the limitless world of the imagination. We believe that Oakland and the Bay Area, needs to be led by the creative, optimistic, artistic, not the addicts of consumerism and disharmony. We will build our arts, music, our gardens of fertile creativity, as an asset, and source of strength to carry us through the shattered and sickened society with its negative drain on our collective emotional health. We will organize as artists, and we will write a new way, a never-ending musical starring everyone, and everything. The issues surrounding gentrification, First Friday art murmur, and the imbalance favoring management over the artists and community they serve, are issues that encapsulate our struggle and give us focus. We believe in supporting and developing our local talent, especially the youth, and allowing the gift of peace, which is what the arts bring, to be bestowed widely and without regard to corporate financial interests.

It is also clear to us that strategic nonviolence, or peaceful intent, builds stronger activist community, and community involvement. Semantic hair-splitting aside, we all know right from wrong, and we all know that at some point, self-defense and survival trumps ideals, but we also know when aggressive tactics are truly called for in terms of self-defense, and we know when our actions are perceived as morally justifiable, and when we look like bullies and goons. Is there room for healthy debate as to when self-defense is called for? For sure. Is there always going to be some debate as to what violence is? Yes indeed. On the night of the tear gas attacks (Oct. 26th?), I would occasionally take to drumming on streets signs, or other loud entities during our hours of marching. I even had a good session right in front of a large group of cops guarding the plaza. Is drumming on sign violence? No, but I was trying to hype people up to continue to march back to 14th and Broadway, and to fluster the police without using crude name calling. In some ways I feel like I could have been pushing people towards danger. On the other hand, on that same night I personally intervened when I saw people contemplating, or engaging in petty violence and vandalism. In each case I could see that the perpetrators were scared and pissed at the violence the cops had inflicted or were threatening to inflict. I watched the night unfold and felt that the police were hoping to provoke a riotous melee, as they didn’t even try to defend the businesses downtown that they used gas and projectiles to push the crowd back towards. I also sensed that if we kept it cool we would win the day, and I was so proud of how we did keep it together. As an old school “action faction” type, I can’t pass judgment on the urge to smash things, or otherwise create discomfort for the corrupted elite, as I know the urge well. However, strategically, it seems clear that this was/is a time for building bonds, and focusing rage against the previously invisible economic elites. This is not a good time for engaging in a strategy of symbolic violence and police skirmishing, which inherently and inevitably produces fractious debate and conflict inside the movement.

Anarchism 101 teaches us that even symbolic violence changes the conversation, and thus has power. Sometimes the conversation does need to change but in this case it was too early to force that conversation, as we didn’t know each other. The secret Black Block planning and actions for the November 2 General Strike, as well as the mayhem from the poorly planned Travelers Aid takeover, was the main cause of the fracture in OO that never healed. Our Port Shut down March, our great triumph, was overshadowed, and our momentum to take even another, bigger step was ground to a halt, and recrimination and division took root. The “security culture” militant solidarity ethos that dominated, stifled attempts or desires to reach common ground and remains a source of movement insecurity, ironically. Thus, early on, I found myself as a DOT adherent, finding more allies in the Non Violence groupings, and thankfully in the Children’s and Parents Committee/Children’s Village, which gave me a functional and calm route to focus my involvement with the more structured aspects of Occupy Oakland such as the GA. I focused my other organizing with working with longtime friends because I was feeling concern about the amount of anonymous or unfamiliar people’s with aggressive postures. I joined up with Decolonize Oakland after hesitating initially.  To this day, I have remained in both Decolonize Oakland, and Occupy Oakland, and I plan to continue to be part of both despite having earned the ill will of quite a few Occupy Oakland folks on a level I have not experienced in my 20 plus years as an activist. This ill will began to set in to the movement in the after math of the November 2nd conflicts, and has been fueled mainly by divisive militant actions such as Move in day, and May Day, in which ideological and organizing divides played out on the streets, on social media, and in the press, mainstream and alternative, and have yet to be resolved.

Another key lesson is that we see community building as the key to organizing success. We are proud of the many ways we have been able to help this happen in our community. Some of the powerful and ongoing efforts that have emerged from our efforts are discussions and work around race, and privilege, and overcoming the division that can so easily spread. Mediation between groups and individuals in conflict has been a needed role that has been developed thanks to some strong and dedicated organizers. We also have had a variety of social gatherings, from house parties, to picnic meetings, to educational events, and have begun to build beyond the confines of Occupy in terms of both the people and politics. We are organizing a series of social, cultural, creative, community empowerment events and social meet ups for the next weeks leading up to various Occupy anniversaries, and the sham national election in early November. One of the larger ones will take place on October 26 at the Humanist Hall, so keep a look out. We believe that optimism and unity need to be created and maintained, and that demonstrations involving anticipated violent repression from law enforcement mostly build unity amongst those who are already in a similar state of mind. We choose to organize slowly, and in ways that will be more inclusive, and allow for growth. Or maybe we just like to party?…naaw, we just need to get to know and trust each other for these coming times of struggle. Now the key is to find ways of weaving politics, and community, and creativity into our social events, so we keep getting things done. That will be a focus in the coming year.

Many in our larger organizing circles also believe that as flawed as the Occupy Oakland General Assembly often was, it was still a reminder of the basic human rights of assembly and collective decision making and action. Humans need ways to meet in small groups and get things done that the government, can’t or won’t do. This predates government, which is why I don’t buy the idea that GA’s are an “anarchist” invention, which has been repeated so often. Holding assemblies is a human, and probably not just human, method to get things done, and taking collective responsibility. The Occupy Oakland GA has fallen into total disrepair, but we feel that other groupings should continue to create assemblies, and that in light of the corporate bought elections taking place this year, the timing is ripe for our own process to begin to emerge to counter the bullshit.
We have a natural right to assemble and make decisions outside of the agreed upon electoral process. When the Oakland Mayor and power brokers, gave the orders for me and my fellow concerned citizens to be gassed and assaulted repeatedly for attempting to exercise our right to sit down in an intersection in our city in protest, the truth was exposed to all. Rather than choosing to negotiate on October 26th, and seek a peaceful resolution to our disagreements they chose to unleash terror and suffering. That was the moment that it was crystal clear to me that our rights as regular Oaklanders are a secondary concern to them at best. Our government will subvert Democracy and use violent intimidation and worse, to keep us under control. We need to take back our power. We need our own process. We need to assemble freely, and set our own course of action, and “legality”, and “legitimacy” as defined by the system cannot used to keep us silent and dependent on them.

We collectively see a clear need for a multi tendency organizing approach. There is no one path to justice, and no one definition of what it takes to be a radical or a revolutionary. Furthermore, people grow and change, and learn. In fact that is why we organize, to push people to step outside their comfort zones and change their actions and habits. The radical ideological litmus tests that seem to permeate segments of Occupy are limiting and negative in that they hold people to set ideas, and write off those who are not perceived to be hardcore enough. If we only organize with people who are already staunchly radical or militant, we limit ourselves to a small segment of people, and we lose the chance to engage with the large segments of our community who are sympathetic, but more mainstream in some ways. I see no contradiction in engaging with many groups with views that may differ from mine. Pretty much everyone sees things differently than  I do. Deep down I am an eco-freak hippie, with a serious problem with many aspects of the modern technological society. Most people’s views are less extreme than mine in this area, but rather than write folks off as naive or blind to the real facts and shun them, I would rather work with people on that which we agree. After time, and familiarity, then we can debate strategy in the areas where we disagree to determine if there is possible common ground.

A multi tendency movement is more flexible, has more knowledge and resources at its disposal, and has more community buy in. Furthermore people work well together based on personality and style more so than politics. Most of the folks that I organize with are not in the same spot as me on the political spectrum, but yet we get along fine because we want basically the same things, and we see how personal histories shape each of us in our own way, and we enjoy each other. Maybe the 99% is a little too inclusive, but we need some members of every group within the 99% to join up. We can’t write off entire groups as outside of our movement without trying first to work together. If you are unable to work with people from a wide range of political and social orientations, you will not be an effective organizer. The folks that I work closely with believe that organizing is our number one task, and effective organizing takes hard work, flexibility, and communication. Organizing has to be done in a way that is friendly and truly inviting to people who may feel hesitant to join in. Many people in the early days of Occupy Oakland began to feel unwelcome, or not invited, and left, or stayed mostly on the sidelines. I am proud to be part of ongoing efforts to bring these and other folks back in to discussion, and collaboration. This is something that we will continue to build in this next year and beyond. We will organize!

Many more lessons can and have been written about, but I wanted to touch on what comes to mind for me, one year into the rebellion that began in New York City on September 17th. So far I am having a blast, and riding a wave of optimism that offers to carry us to the new paradigm. This has been a chance to make things happen, and I wanted to express that organizing, and dreaming solutions, and paths to unity, are underway in our little corner of reality (which always has room for more folks btw). We will be having events all throughout October, and beyond, and we are always looking to support and promote anything that is cool and for the people that you might be doing. We are also encouraging all writers to step it up, and make your voices heard, and will be looking to find ways to maximize our energies. Let us continue to build, and join together to dream up a new world for all. Thank you to all who have given it your all this year, you have re inspired me. Let’s keep it going!


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