In 2011, I lived in Oakland and took part in many of the Occupy Oakland protests, meetings, and events. The pinnacle of the experience was when the teachers’ union of the public school district endorsed teacher participation in a city-wide general strike. It was the first city-wide general strike since 1946. Instead of teaching in our usual classrooms, many of us took a personal day off while inviting our students to join us at Frank Ogawa Plaza for rallies and marches, which were scheduled throughout the day. At the time, I ran a green jobs vocational training program at one of the toughest schools in the city. Our work included small-scale agriculture projects at community gardens, so many of my students decided to have a farmer’s market at the occupied plaza. In the afternoon over 20,000 (some estimated up to 70,000) marched to the Oakland Port, one of the largest shipping ports in the country and shut it down.
The day of the General Strike could well be viewed as emblematic of what transpired during the Occupy Oakland movement as a whole. The vast majority of activities, sit-ins, and protests were peaceful, but a handful of incidents of vandalism and violence cast long shadows over the positive actions. On a number of occasions, night would fall and ‘fringe’ groups would destroy private property and confrontations with police would intensify, along with police brutality. Eventually these incidents were used as an excuse for coordinated police raids to forcibly remove Occupiers from Ogawa Plaza and other occupied spaces. The Occupy Oakland post-mortem conversations in the media and among many Oakland residents sought explanations for the ‘failure’ of the overall movement due to its lack of leadership and absence of a concrete agenda (an analytical interpretation contested at length in Van De Sande, 2013).
My memory of the entire experience of participation was quite different; I experienced it as an electric spiritual awakening and heightened feeling of connectedness, especially when participating in demonstrations and debates. My experience is in stark contrast to the sweeping narrative of failure. At some subconscious level, I think I accepted this reductionist explanation as logical, mainly because none other was offered. At the time, the only other frame of reference for me was the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. It was true, there was no Martin Luther King of the Occupy movement who had emerged to negotiate with the city or state. It was true Occupy did not have a set agenda or list of demands. Maybe that is why we haven’t seen a marked change in the capitalist status quo.
This course has helped me reconsider what change occurred during my exposure to the collective power I witnessed during Occupy and why this experience is vital in its own right. They took me ages to find, but I dug through my archives and found some of the photos I took from Oakland’s General Strike. Looking through them for the first time in at least five years still gives me goosebumps and causes tears of joy to well up in my eyes. I am swept up with the same sense of rebellion and emancipatory emotion I felt then. Every sign still rings true, and in speaking to the broad array of ills of capitalism they realized an alternative society in the past moment when the photos were taken as well as in the present moment in which I view the photos. Occupy Oakland lives on.
Van De Sande, M. (2013) ‘The prefigurative politics of Tahrir Square – an alternative perspective on the 2011 revolutions’, Res Republica, 19, pp.223‒229.