Despite millions of dollars and decades of planning, the city center was never vibrant until now-
Occupy Oakland is in its 8th night as I write this. I have visited the site every day since the first rally on October 10th, and every day it grows larger and more complex. If you have not seen it, I don’t believe that the photos do it justice. You must go.
Tonight I met 3 new twenty-somethings pitching their tent. I asked them where they had come from and they said, Berkeley, and kind of laughed-presumably-because it is so near. But, that, of course, is part of the attraction.
Most of the people I’ve talked to are actually from Oakland. Many are daily visitors -working on projects, engaging in discussions, making art or music-not camping out but they are at work on creating community. I can’t tell you how many are camping out, but it must be quite a few, judging by the number of tents on the lawn.
Before this, the area beyond the amphitheatre always seemed small to me but I guess it really isn’t. I could never have imagined that so many tents-with a few boardwalks plopped in the middle-could fit into that little area. Most of the tents look comfortable even if they sit cheek to jowl with each other.
I haven’t had the urge to stay over since the balmy evenings of that first week because it has gotten too crowded and even a bit too civilized. I’ve never been much for camping, and the endless negotiating and redesigning of a complex society just seems like lots of work. Still, the scene draws me back every day.
For instance, in the kitchen, the kettle barbecues have been abandoned for large gas-style stoves with giant pots full of stew. There is a food preparation tent alongside shelving for dishes and a dishwashing area. Whole families stop by to donate food and supplies. I have even heard that the city has asked them to stock a fire extinguisher to make this sophisticated arrangement safer.
So now that things are working a bit better-bureaucracy is bound to grow- but if we remember that bureaucracy was designed to bring organization to civilization, this is not necessarily a bad thing.
These message boards offer classes and discussion groups almost every hour. There are signs posted, stacked and lying about, and the messages are inspiring or thought provoking. There is almost always music all along the paths surrounding the encampment.
Early on, port-a-potties were donated by the Oakland Education Association (OEA), but cleaning them daily is expensive, and an instant fundraiser is scheduled this Sunday to provide a port-a-potty cleaning fund.
If you want to help grow this fund, please attend the Port-a-Potty Party this coming Sunday, October 23, from 5 to 7 (appetizers and drinks) at 1633 Channing Way, Berkeley, or send a check to the Oakland Education Association, 272 East 12th Street, Suite C, Oakland, 94606.
At the site, I frequently meet gray-haired friends who are visiting, chatting, and offering support. On Sunday I ran into Robert Reich who was talking to people and engaging them in discussions. He told me that this movement was indicative of the American spirit “rising up”.
At one gathering I heard a woman older than me say that she had been waiting for this uprising for 70 years and a friend of mine-who dashed off to Target (some irony there, I guess) to buy supply bins for the campers-told me, “I’ve been waiting 50 years for this.”
For the most part, my friends and I have seen this as a young person’s movement that we are willing to support in any way we can. We respect their process and trust that the campers and daily attendees will find a way to move it to the next stage.
The most striking aspect of this for me is how it has changed the conversation in this country and around the world, and that is probably the most significant thing it can do. I go through my day aware of them and their struggles as a generation, and thankful that their statement of rebellion matches my own anger, my own hope.
Tonight by 6 PM, I couldn’t stay away any longer and set out on foot to join them. Along the way I felt a simple kind of joy moving among the runners, strollers, bikes, kids, and dogs passing together along the edges of our beautiful Lake Merritt as the sun went down. As soon as I reached the library, the emptiness of downtown Oakland after 6 PM yawned before me and made me think of turning back. But there it was- the vibrant new village at Oscar Grant Plaza (which is very ironic given how much money the City has spent over the years to revitalize this core area). The General Assembly was just being called to order; so I joined the attentive crowd and listened as so many disparate folks expressed their desire to learn, teach, and share in real community.
Now, when I hear about what is happening in Congress or the presidential race, I think that they have rendered themselves irrelevant. Just months ago, all I could think of was how irrelevant we had become to those bent on destroying our public spaces, our public rights, and our public hopes.
Of course, I know there are still lots of important battles that must be carried on in the political houses of our country. But now, I believe that these houses are also the ones we design and run ourselves in these very public spaces with people who are, it turns out, not apathetic nor politically ignorant, but actively engaged in that task.
Whatever path the movement chooses, we will not go back to our lives of quiet desperation, isolation and self blame. This time we really will believe in hope and change. We will believe in ourselves.