The Zero Sum Movement

The first time I walked into the Occupy Oakland encampment, I felt like I had set foot in utopia.  I had been to Oscar Grant Plaza, in front of city hall, just a few days prior, but left the occupation’s first general assembly quickly after it devolved into an endless series of ideological pontifications: this isn’t going anywhere, I thought.  But it did.  When I returned, Occupy Oakland was a veritable city, except that most cities don’t provide their own power via bicycle generators, don’t provide free food and medical care for anyone who needs it, and aren’t bursting with beautiful artwork and transformative ideas in equal measure.

Over the next month, I returned to Oakland repeatedly—to march in the occupation’s first demonstration, to help them retake the plaza after the first time they were evicted, to aid in shutting down Oakland’s port as part of a general strike, and, once, to show it off to some visiting friends.  It’s funny, because media reports always emphasize how angry occupiers are, and in public, there’s some truth to that.  Yet behind that there was always a palpable sense of joy and possibility.  Every time I left Oakland, I felt rejuvenated and inspired.  If we can create an egalitarian, democratic enclave in the heart of Oakland, with all its racial conflict, violence, homelessness, and deprivation, then how could we possibly deny the possibility of organizing our entire society around these principles?

Somehow, over that same month, Occupy Oakland came to symbolize something very different to the rest of the nation.  Reports of a shooting outside the encampment (no rareity in the 5th most dangerous city in the U.S.) and images of protesters rioting in downtown (actually, they were trying to set up a library in an abandoned building until they were attacked by police, but whatever) came to define the occupation.  The city did its part by deliberately attempting to make the park an unsafe and unclean space.  Eventually, the encampment became not just physically but semiotically contaminated, the manifestation of all the concerns about violence and hedonism that even erstwhile sympathzers had about the occupy movement.  I knew it was bad when my mother told me, just don’t go to Occupy Oakland.

But when, three weeks ago, the call went out to support the encampment against a possible eviction, I felt that I needed to go: Occupy Oakland had given me so much that the least I could do was support their very existence.  We arrived at about 2 a.m., and parked a few blocks away from the plaza, where a line of ambulences were waiting.  I asked one of the paramedics if he had any advice for staying safe: he responded that I should go as far away as possible.  I asked him if he thought anyone was going to die tonight: he said he wasn’t sure.  “That encampment’s a shithole, man.  It’s got to go”, he explained.

I have to admit that when I reached the plaza, I could see what he meant.  Some combination of rain, negative publicity, and news of the impending eviction meant that the camp had fallen into disrepair.  Most of the tents were deserted, save a few strung-out looking individuals, and there was trash everywhere.  In contrast to a few weeks earlier, when thousands had thronged to the street to defend the encampment, this time only a scant few responded.  Those that weren’t frantically packing up their belongings were standing in a nearby intersection, half-heartedly participating in an all-night dance party that had been labeled, appropriately, the “Occupocalypse.”

Few in my generation will experience warfare in the way our grandparents did, even if the response to occupations around the country has turned our inner cities into veritable battlefields.  Tenuous though the military analogy is, I nonetheless bet that night was the closest I will ever come to experiencing what it is like to be in a city right before the arrival of an enemy army.  Anonymous Medics wearing all-black spandex suits and Guy Fawkes-masks came in with reports of police encircling us from all directions, but the information was never put to use.  Rumors swirled, and the mechanisms of decision-making that have defined our movement—the people’s mic and consensus—broke down.  A few black bloc anarchists donned vinegar-soaked bandanas, in preparation for a street fight.  Some local union members marched in a picket line, chanting lines of strength and empowerment that, for the moment, seemed to have lost their meaning.  Confusion, panic, and above all, despair permeated the crowd.

When the police came, the hopelessness of the situation was immediately evident.  There were hundreds of them, coming from all sides, armed with batons, rubber bullets, and assault rifles.  We didn’t come to an open decision, but everyone at this point realized we were there to bear witness, not to resist.  My best-case scenario rapidly shifted: just let no one get hurt.  I left when I could see that it would not be a massacre, and that most of those who were arrested would be given the chance to do so peacefully.  There’s no such thing as “non-violence” when hundreds of police are involved, but I was grateful not to see a repeat of the bloody mess they caused a few weeks prior.

I’m uncomfortable with some of the comparisons between police repression in the U.S. and the Middle East; although the linkages in police tactics and weaponry are important to note, we should not forget our fortune that Americans are not actually being killed yet.  But as I saw that night, you don’t need to harm our bodies to kill our sense of hope and possibility.  Occupy Oakland has not disappeared—indeed, tomorrow they will most likely manage to shut down the port of Oakland, once again, in solidarity with ILWU workers struggling for their right to be unionized.  They will find ways to keep fighting, as will the evicted occupiers in LA, Boston, New York, and Portland.

But without our encampments—our sites of radical, almost playful experimentation in utopia—I fear our movement has lost its innocence.  We spent two months pretending to live in the world we sought to create; now we have no choice but to confront the ugly reality of the world we live in.  They did not let us make our own power: now we must take it.  They refused to let us occupy public space: so we will seize their private buildings.  There can be no denying that this struggle is now zero sum.  But they were the ones who made it that way.

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