The Battle of Oakland

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On January 28, 2012, Occupy Oakland moved to take a vacant building to use as a social center and a new place to continue organizing. This is the story of what happened that day as told by those who were a part of it. It features rare footage and interviews with Boots Riley, David Graeber, Maria Lewis and several other witnesses to key events.

Rush transcript of the video:

On October 10th 2011, hundreds of people in downtown Oakland, California, occupied Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of city hall and began Occupy Oakland. They re-named the space Oscar Grant Plaza, after a young African-American man who was murdered by police in 2009.

In the early morning hours of October 25th, only two weeks after its inception, Oscar Grant Plaza was violently evicted by the police. Occupiers re-took the plaza the next day and held it for another two and a half weeks before being permanently ousted as part of a series of nationally coordinated raids targeting the occupy movement. Since then, Occupy Oakland has had no home.

On January 28th, Occupy Oakland moved to take a vacant building to use as a social center and a new place to continue organizing.

Maria Lewis, Occupy Oakland: “So on the 28th of January, Occupy Oakland took to the streets and thousands of people came to the Kaiser Center to occupy an abandoned building and open it up, as a social center for Occupy Oakland and for the larger Oakland community.”

Boots Riley, Musician, The Coup: “Occupy Oakland is going to occupy a building to have a home base. They’re kicking folks out of Oscar Grant Plaza, so we’re going to take a building.”

Maria Lewis: “To open the building, which had been vacant since 2006, and to establish it as a place where people could come, and have a dry night’s sleep, have a warm meal, and have basic health services, and also to come together with community and talk about the issues that are affecting us and to organize and strategize about how we can resist the systems of oppression and domination that we live under every day.”

Stephanie Demos, Activist: “The objective was to get a large building where we could have our meetings indoors during winters and to have a good kitchen where we could provide not only for ourselves as a movement but provide for the homeless population who do not have kitchens and do not have food half the time, have spaces for people to gather, have a library, and other social functions that a community space would have.”

Maria Lewis: “We gathered outside the Kaiser center, marched to the center, and attempted to occupy it. The police state was out in full force, it used tear gas and rubber coated steel bullets beanbag guns and concussion grenades against the protesters.”

Stephanie Demos: ”I saw smoke so I know that they at least put out smoke bombs and/or teargas early on. So some of us took a roundabout way to get over on the other side of where those police officers were, and we re-gathered up on the roads away from the building. And then police surrounded us and stopped us from any forward motion and I was actually up on a ramp at Laney College property taking video and still shots. And I was watching as police began shooting rubber bullets, they were shooting explosive devices, and they were firing tear gas. We were all gassed.”

Martin MacKerel: “I started tasting a little tear gas in the back of my mouth, then I saw a shot and it landed right where these people had these corrugated metal sort of barricade-things, and then everybody started running and you could really taste the tear gas. The cops were just being really agro…pushing us…I saw them earlier some people on bikes they were attacking people. Some of the cops were really getting into it, running ahead, and the other cops had to hold them back. A couple of my friends were in handcuffs. But they were just pushing us and pushing us.

Maria Lewis: “Several people were brutally injured.”

Stephanie Demos: “We came back to the plaza, we gathered here and rested up and then another march began to attempt a second occupation, which was a really short march to attempt an occupation of a space that had been previously occupied, and there were painters in there which stopped us from going in there. We came along right nearby the plaza here and somebody opened a fire hydrant, which waylaid the police for a minute and the marchers went that way, I stayed to take pictures, and then the march continued on to 19th and Telegraph, which was another area we had formerly occupied.”

Shake Anderson, Occupy Oakland Media Committee: They ended up kettling us first at 19th and Telegraph. I was there at 19th and Telegraph where they blocked off all the exits. They asked us to disperse, but yet they gave us no exits to disperse they began to pop tear gas and shoot rubber bullets, the people began to panic, we decided, collectively or intuitively, to knock down the fence to create an exit out, and that’s what we did.

Stephanie Demos: “During that time people were marching and as they were marching they were waylaid by police again and they were kettled in front of the YMCA where they were surrounded by the police and when they were ordered to disperse they were not given a path to disperse, at all. They were completely surrounded and pushed into the building and there were people working inside of the building who voluntarily opened the doors to the building to let people get in and escape out the back way. So the police followed people in and some escaped and others were arrested and at least one person reported being arrested and charged with felony burglary of the YMCA even though they were walked in through an open door. And a lot of people are being released today, but plenty of people had their belongings stolen, people who were cited and released had their belongings stolen, people who were jailed and released had their belongings stolen by police. Their phones have been stolen, their cameras have been stolen, our sound system has been stolen, and the police are continuing to surround us here today.”

Shake Anderson: “The whole tactic of that night, from my opinion, was to gather as many people as they can to arrest a mass group of people. I truly believe that they were just entirely exhausted from the day’s events. And they were of course under-manned, and exhausted, and therefore they wanted to end this as soon as possible, so they used violence to end the protest march that was happening at the time.”

Mitch Jeserich: “Originally I was told while I was there, cause I was outside of the police line, that they attempted to occupy the YMCA building. And I heard that reported few times. Later on I learned from other people that there were some children in the march, they were at the YMCA building, and they were afraid they were going to be tear-gassed, and the YMCA opened its doors so that the children and a few other people could get in. And they actually went out through another door to get out of the scene.

Maria Lewis: In the evening, after Occupy Oakland had been kettled, and over four hundred people had been arrested a group of Occupiers went to City Hall, which was already open, and went inside, and as had been stated previously, occupied the building, and let their anger at City Hall be known. They made a ruckus and made a visualization of the anger that they felt at City Hall at the treatment of Occupy Oakland that day and also at the treatment of the city of Oakland, more broadly and the violence that we’re experiencing every day, living on the streets of Oakland.

Mitch Jeserich: So on Saturday night, I was originally at 24th and Broadway, at the YMCA, where a hundred or so people were arrested. Then when I came back to do just one more lap around the plaza at City Hall just to see what was happening, I came along the steps of City Hall, and I noticed, without anyone being there, that the door was propped open, with some sort of a stand, or something, I don’t quite remember, I barely even noticed it until I noticed a few of the people who were still here with the occupy suddenly run to the door, open the door, and then they all went in. But I didn’t see anyone break into City Hall, the door was open when I got here. Again, there was no one there, it was propped open, and I don’t know who propped it open or how it got propped open, that’s how it was when I got here. Then, some people went inside, a lot of people didn’t go inside, you could tell a lot of people were hesitant to go inside, it seemed like a very major thing to do. A lot of the people who did go inside, I believe they went into the City Council Chamber, brought out the American flag that was in there, and then tried to burn it, they didn’t burn the whole thing but they tried to. There was people saying they shouldn’t do it, obviously one of those usual arguments that erupt when something like this happens, even between the occupiers. Then the police showed up, fired some flash grenades, smoke bombs, and it dispersed.

[VO] After the melee that ensued in downtown Oakland, there were over 400 arrests and many protesters were injured. While the police stressed the violence of the demonstrators, some occupiers responded by condemning the police violence and their treatment while in custody.

Alyssa Eisenberg, Arrestee: “I have multiple sclerosis and I was denied medication while I was in Santa Rita, and I was not only denied medication but I was made fun of because I have that, by the guards.”

Caitlin Manning, reading a statement from arrestee Joshua Clover: “I was held for fifty-three hours for a misdemeanor charge which every single person here and there knows will never be brought and indeed which will be met with a class action suit for wrongful arrest, that the city of Oakland will be compelled to settle. I have a perforated peptic ulcer. Early on in the stay I requested non-prescription care, liquid antacid, which the jail keeps on hand. When I began to have an ulcer attack, which is to say, when I began to bleed internally, I was not given such care until an attorney was able to intervene by phone many hours later. I received one capful, which was mildly effective for about three hours. Further requests were ignored. As many will know, a bleeding ulcer attack is both painful and potentially fatal.

Following the events on January 28 2012, the mayor’s office issued a statement urging Occupy Oakland to “stop using Oakland as it’s playground.” Demonstrators responded with condemnation.

Maria Lewis: Jean Quan was elected on a progressive ticket, and I think she feels a certain amount of ownership over the language of social issues and progressive issues, much like the Obama administration. She was elected on a ticket of change, and of progress, and she’s really failed to deliver on that.

David Graeber, Author, participant in Occupy Wall Street: Well I know that Jean Quan has called on the leaders of Occupy Wall Street to denounce or distance themselves from Occupy Oakland and its ridiculous on a million levels. First of all there is no leadership, we’re all leaders. Second of all I think we’re standing in solidarity with Occupy Oakland…everyone I’ve talked to is outraged by what Jean Quan herself has done. I mean, what she’s done is to unleash unparalleled violence against the citizens that she has sworn to protect. To then attack them and say that some of them fought back a little so therefore I’m calling on you to denounce them is quite outrageous. And so I think that insofar as there is a leadership of Occupy Wall Street and again it’s two or three million strong at this point, I think we’re calling on Jean Quan to resign.

Shake Anderson: “If she thinks she can contact somebody, like a parent, like Occupy Wall Street is our parent, and tell them to make them stop, like we’re children? Because she can’t do it? That shows how naïve she is, it shows that her years of activism that she used to get elected went all for none. Meaning that she did not attach to any of the basic rules that she adhered to to become an activist. She is now clearly a politician, and for that I have no respect. I believe that what we’re doing is right and just, and that’s why it’s coming with so much repression.

Maria Lewis: We didn’t succeed in securing our social center but we did succeed in opening up a conversation about the use of space in this city. There are hundreds of vacant, abandoned buildings sitting empty, and they remain empty, despite the fact that there are thousands of people sleeping on the streets every night, freezing. And especially with the rainy season coming, we think this is a crime. And the reason these buildings remain closed is just because they’re private property.

[VO]: Demonstrators are already pushing for more actions and an escalation of the struggle.

Maria Lewis: A proposition was passed on Sunday for a General Strike on May First.

First Speaker at General Assembly: Okay so the basic proposal is that Occupy Oakland will join in, enthusiastically with the call for a national and global General Strike on May First, May Day 2012. And we encourage all other occupies, all other social movements in the world and in this country to join onto that call as well, and make May First a massive general strike, across the world.

Second Speaker at General Assembly: With two hundred exactly votes “Yes”, the strike is passed. No “Stand Asides”, zero “No’s”, two hundred, two hundred. No “No’s”, no “Stand Asides”.

David Graeber: Well what everyone’s talking about now, is they’re focusing on May First and the general strike. I think that it’s not just going to be a general strike, it’s going to be a way of flexing our muscles, and also as an organizing tool, to start general assemblies, and similar experiments with direct democracy on every level of American society. We need to make this as broad as possible. The camps were a wonderful way to advertise the idea of direct democracy, of self-governing, autonomous communities. But now we’ve really got to bring that home to people’s ordinary lives, and create a process whereby all communities in America can become autonomous self-organizing, communities. In defiance of a political system that nobody sees representing them in any serious way.

Maria Lewis: “I have a lot of hope that that can grow to be something really inspiring, but I also hope that we see many actions between now and then, and continuing re-appropriations of misused space, and abandoned spaces, and real expansion of our capacity, in Oakland and across the Untied States. One thing that has been so inspiring about the Occupy movement, and about the Oakland Commune in particular has been that we’re not making demands of power, we’re not asking for change. We’re making the change ourselves. We’re building resilient communities that can take care of ourselves, that can feed ourselves, that can house ourselves, and that can resist capitalism and the failures of representative democracy.

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