Mountain Sun

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Friday, November 4, 2011

Listening to Occupy Oakland

Occupation Oakland encampment 10/31/11

On October 31st I visited Occupy Oakland (OO, twitter feed #OO and #OccupyOakland).  I wanted to listen to occupiers in order to find out what they were thinking and doing, and more specifically why they joined the Occupy Movement.  I also wanted to get their opinions concerning whether the Occupy movement should have a central message to the larger public, and whether they themselves had a fundamental or underlying message about what the Occupy movement is about.

Ted McCoy is one of several people who run the OO Library.

Ted  McCoy

There is a media tent at the encampment, but at the time I visited the media team was likely engaged with a local TV team or two.  After waiting a bit, I went next door to the Occupy Oakland library tent and talked with Ted McCoy, one of several librarians serving the encampment.  Ted, who appeared to me to be in his 30's, is a grad student in library studies and is working his way through school working part time at the Oakland Public Library.  He also has a BA in American Studies and a JD in Law.  He lives in San Francisco.  Ted had just recently begun participating at Occupy Oakland.

McCoy's motivation for coming to OO stemmed from his concern for failing public institutions in Oakland, much of this due to budget cuts and austerity measures.  In his job as librarian at Oakland Public Library, he has become aware of how many in the community--many of them poor--are dependent on libraries for internet access and electronic communication.  The severity of the digital divide is made worse in Oakland by severe public budget cuts to the few facilities where internet access is available to the public.  He also pointed to the high rate of foreclosures in the bay area generally, and how those had given rise to a feeling of alienation and dispossession.  "People don't feel they have a stake in this community any more" he said.

Since arriving at OO, McCoy has gained an appreciation for the diversity of causes people have brought to the protest.  It's more complex than he had realized and goes far beyond his own reasons for joining.   He hasn't participated in the OO general assembly sessions, and spends his available time rebuilding the encampment library--"we lost the entire thing in the raid [the police raid on the encampment] last Tuesday".

Even though he sees the diverse concerns of the Oakland occupiers, McCoy did see an underlying common theme  in the movement message.  "It's economic injustice", he said, "and we're all vulnerable to that".

Markos Greenwood

Markos Greenwod
Greenwood is a San Francisco native, perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, and joined OO on "Day One" (the occupation began October 10).  He described Occupy Wall Street (which occurred September 17th) as "The trumpet call:  it showed somebody finally realized what was going on."   As we sat and spoke, Greenwood monitored a handheld radio, occasionally speaking into it.  When I asked about his activities as part of OO, he said he was part of a security team, which I assume was tasked with guarding or monitoring the encampment.

The reasons Greenwood joined the occupation centered on his perception of a lack of equal social justice, inequalities in access to education, political representation, economic opportunity.  He was especially concerned with the power of corporations and the effect of money in politics.   He stressed that he didn't wish ill of those whom occupiers term the 1%.  Greenwood stressed that his goal as an occupier was to do away with a system, not attack any segment of society.  That said, he is clearly distrustful of the motivations of the very rich when they feel the need to "rig the political system. How can your political motivations be good for the public if you have to buy politicians in order to get your way?" he asked.  When asked if the Occupy movement should have a central message, and if so what it might be, Greenwood said "get the money out of politics."

Gwendolyn (last name withheld)

An ordained minister, Gwendolyn joined Occupy Oakland "about 6 days in."  An Oakland resident, Gwendolyn doesn't live in the encampment, but participates daily, including the daily general assembly.  When I asked her why she joined OO, she responded immediately:  "because I'm against abuse--and government is closing its eyes."   She mentioned that there is some political history in her family.  Her uncle was Arthur Fletcher, an influential civil rights activist and a major figure in Affirmative Action enforcement while serving in the Nixon and Ford Administrations.

While she has no formal role in the occupation, Gwendolyn tries to "motivate and inspire" the Oakland protest.  As the occupation has continued, Gwendolyn has been able to refine and crystallize the reasons that brought her to the protest originally--"participation has helped me to bring this out--we want freedom to live as ordinary human beings.  The people we're calling the 1% have become a problem for our society, because of greed."

Thoughts on the visit

The three people I talked to at Occupy Oakland represent a tiny sample and can't be demonstrated to be representative of the OO protest, let alone the much larger national Occupy Movement.  I wish I'd had much more time to speak with folks at the encampment and gain a larger sample, as it was a very uplifting experience to hear them.  There are however strong underlying similarities among the three occupiers, even though they may have come to the protest for their own reasons.  I'd propose that each of those interviewed are protesting against systemic inequality.   Unequal access to education, unequal access to government representation, unequal access to justice, unequal access to opportunity.  While each may have experienced that inequality in different ways and in different social realms, the underlying similarities are compelling.

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