After Occupy Oakland’s efforts to occupy the Kaiser Convention Center were met with police violence, a larger question about the group’s choice of targets was ignored: what part of our democracy entitles people identifying as “Occupy Oakland” to seize a public building for their own purposes? The Kaiser facility is hardly a “public space,” and unlike a bank, financial institution, or foreclosed home, it has nothing to do with the power of the 1%. Occupy Oakland did not spent months organizing broad public support for the group’s takeover of one of Oakland’s leading public assets; to the contrary, input on group decisions is limited to those with the time to attend Occupy meetings. For all of its claims to represent the true democratic spirit of the 99%, it seems that once Occupy Oakland decides to close down a public facility or seize a public asset, that’s all the democracy it needs.
Occupy Oakland’s belief that it was entitled to occupy the Kaiser building as a movement command center should force Occupy backers to think hard about what this entity has become.
A movement focused on economic inequality and the undemocratic abuses of the 1% now feels free to substitute the decisions of a very small group for the entire body politic of Oakland. Occupy Oakland did not care that ILWU leaders opposed the port shutdown in December because the group claimed it “spoke to workers” and concluded they supported a closure; in other words, Occupiers saw themselves as better representatives of ILWU members than their elected union leadership.
As for the Kaiser Convention Center that has remained vacant for six years, the obvious question is why is it vacant and what efforts have been made by community groups to either put it to good use or sell it for city funds. Shouldn’t the city’s elected leaders, with the input of community and labor groups, be the entity deciding a public facility’s future?
Occupy Oakland spokespeople defend their public targets by arguing that politicians are bought and paid for, union leaders do not represent members, and other rhetorical strategies designed to obscure a critical fact: there’s nothing “democratic” about a small group like Occupy seizing public facilities or closing them down.
It’s easy to shift attention from Occupy Oakland’s undemocratic processes – and, no, a consensus process by a very small, unrepresentative group in a major city is not how democracy is supposed to work – to Oakland’s excessive and even outrageously violent police response. Oakland Occupiers get the moral high ground when focusing on police abuse, yet speak little of who granted them the moral authority to speak for “the people” in dealing with publicly owned entities.
What Happened to the 1%?
When I heard that Occupy Oakland was prioritizing the seizure of public buildings, I wondered: what do these facilities have to do with the 1%? What happened to occupying banks and other institutions that, unlike the Kaiser Center, actually have a connection to economic inequality?
Some involved with Occupy Oakland have focused on stopping foreclosures and occupying foreclosed houses. Yet their efforts are now eclipsed by high-profile marches and protests whose public targets appear almost random.
After President Obama’s recent State of the Union speech, pundits came out in droves to note the impact of Occupy on his comments about income inequality and what is happening to the middle-class. Nobody doubts Occupy’s central role in shifting the national debate.
That’s what makes Occupy Oakland’s focus on public facilities rather than the 1% so sad. Instead of using the momentum created by the massive November 2 general strike to build a broader coalition against banks and the financial industry, Occupy Oakland shifted its target to public facilities and the city’s police and elected officials.
What Happened to Organizing?
Social movements are built through grassroots organizing. Is Occupy Oakland organizing to broaden its base, or operating as a group that is defined by those who show up at a particular meeting?
Organizing involves more than posting a flyer or sending an email announcing a meeting. Yet Occupy Oakland seems satisfied to operate as a small group that calls mass protests, missing the critical intermediary step of reaching out to neighborhood groups, churches and labor unions to achieve broad support for their actions.
One risk of organizing is that the people organized may have different opinions on strategy, tactics, and targets. A broader cross-section of Oakland residents might question targeting the Kaiser Center instead of empty, foreclosed homes where low-income people could live.
Occupy Oakland has dissipated much of the positive spirit that emerged from the November 2 general strike. It either gets back on track, or becomes yet another sectarian group disconnected from the 99% they claim to represent.
Randy Shaw is author of The Activist’s Handbook and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.