The Occupocalypse at Occupy Oakland

We expected a raid that night (Nov. 14), most likely just before dawn. So after concluding our General Assembly of the evening, the Events Committee announced an emergency dance party, calling it “The Occupocalypse.”

Loud music boomed out over the Plaza. Dancers moved like shadows in the dimly lit amphitheater. It was nearly midnight. I watched them for a while, then began a stroll around the perimeter. The entire scene was almost surreal. A Native American had moved into a tree above the Plaza, built himself a roosting place and hung out a large sign reading, “Ohlone Land” (the name of the indigenous people). As I stood there admiring his arrangement, I heard the creaking of un-oiled wheels. Three women rolled past me, wheeling a fourth woman on a book-cart who was somehow reading aloud in the dark to the other three.

I moved on, notebook in hand. Someone asked me if I were a writer; I said, “Tonight I’m a war correspondent.” Though I said that with a chuckle, I wasn’t actually joking; this Plaza was a war zone, a contested space. No sentries had been posted; with so many people up and around, there was no need for it. We knew the day and even the hour of the impending raid; a sympathetic insider had told us that the police would come at 4 a.m., just as they had three weeks earlier, on
October 25th.1 About a hundred of us were arrested that morning.

The grassy area of the Plaza stood two and a half feet above the perimeter. It was still covered with tents, though not as thickly as a few days before. Perhaps a third of them had been taken down in anticipation of the impending raid, and there were now broad avenues through which one could push a shopping cart.

I continued on along 14th, nearly to Broadway. There, above the Plaza entrance hung a large banner. “OAKLAND COMMUNE,” it proclaimed to the world. This was more than just a camp, it had become a symbol of hope and a center of resistance to the dominant one percent. Only two weeks earlier, the general assembly had called a “general strike”–a day of action that had mobilized as many as 50,000 people and shut down the Port on November 2nd. So perhaps not too surprisingly, the power elite viewed Occupy as an invasive native species, and launched a campaign of “low-intensity” warfare which included physical violence, tear gas and pepper spray, as well as ongoing attacks in the corporate media, including slanted and inaccurate news coverage.

In front of the banner, between the entrance and the intersection, stands a flagpole with a metal plaque honoring Marine Corps war dead. According to the inscription it had been erected in 1935. On this monument a group of antiwar veterans2 had fastened a Marine Corps emblem with photos of Scott Olsen, the Iraq war veteran and peace activist who’d been critically injured by police during a previous action. Around the base of the pole were numerous burnt-out candles, placed there in his honor.

A couple of motorcycles roared noisily by, then were gone, and music from the amphitheater re-occupied the night air. There wasn’t much traffic at this hour–just past midnight, five minutes into the morning of November 14th. Up ahead was the BART entrance escalator which descended to the subway station under Broadway. Access to BART is part of what makes this such an excellent location. And we were smack dab on the front steps of city hall, right in their face.

Turning left, following the perimeter, I passed the Interfaith tent. Farther along was the library, the only tent in our camp with electric lights; it even displayed a string of Christmas tree lights. “Where do you get the electricity?” I asked a fellow who was reading a book. He shook his head, “I was wondering about that myself,” he said, glancing around. A cord disappeared under a book shelf, to some mysterious source.

I chatted with a semi-retired carpenter, Paul Bloom, who’d been at the Port of Oakland when the police attacked us back in 2003. Now he was living in a tent here in the Plaza. If evicted he had another place he could stay, he told me.

Completing my circuit, I found myself once again at the amphitheater. A dozen people were still dancing. There was a brief halt when the amplifier broke down and the music stopped. Soon they got it going again, now playing the song “The Revolution will not be televised.” Ironically, as I later discovered, the subsequent events of this night were indeed televised–on TV channels and the internet around the world.

“Mic check!” the words rang out, and were repeated, “Mic check!”

The music stopped again, this time so people could hear.

“Police are assembling at the Coliseum,” announced a tall fellow reading from a text message. This was followed by a series of reports on police activity at the Coliseum, where police were reportedly staging for a raid. I glanced up at the clock on the city hall tower, but I couldn’t read it as it was almost directly overhead. Stepping out on the brick pavement by the kitchen, I got a clear view of the other clock, the one on the Tribune tower. It was 1:30 a.m.

Moments later, people were passing out painter’s masks dipped in vinegar. For tear gas, it was explained. I thought this was a bit premature, as the police were unlikely to arrive for another two or three hours.

“Occupy Oakland!” a guy was shouting with a bullhorn. “Can I hear an ‘Occupy Oakland’?”

“Occupy Oakland!” people shouted back. “Occupy Oakland!”

A couple of women were taking down the kids’ tent, which was now empty, the children having been evacuated. The kitchen crew was dismantling their gear and loading onto a truck. Others were moving about with similar tasks. Nobody seemed to be really rushing. Some were clustered in small groups, talking, chatting. A ambiance of festivity still lingered in the air. The scene was rather like breaking camp at the end of a weekend outing.

Twenty minutes had passed since the police activity had first been reported. It was 1:50 a.m.

“Wake up the camp!” the cry rang out, “Everybody up! Gather by the kitchen!” Everybody knew why the kitchen was specified. It was adjacent to the city hall, a convenient place everybody knew. Before long, several dozen people had assembled to determine our course of action.

Glancing around me, I saw some familiar faces, people with whom I’d been arrested during the previous raid, not quite three weeks earlier.

A hundred of us had linked arms and firmly stood there, not moving, as overwhelming numbers of riot police had advanced on us, clubs in hand, shoulder weapons pointing our way. That was what shock & awe looked like, and we hadn’t backed down. But we hadn’t saved the camp. If there was a point to be made, hadn’t we already made it? Our discussion began.

“Are we going to defend the camp?”

“We don’t have enough people.”

“Then what are we going to do?”

In total contrast to the last time we were raided, nobody was dashing around setting up barricades. Experience had shown us that barricades didn’t help much. So what were we going to do? That question was being passed back and forth. To hold the Plaza we’d need a couple thousand people, maybe more. There were perhaps as many as a hundred of us meeting near the kitchen, plus an undetermined number scattered throughout the camp, gathering up their belongings, or performing other last minute tasks.

Leo Ritz-Barr of the Events Committee suggested that we move to 14th and Broadway, a strategic intersection at the entrance to the Plaza. Business would definitely not go on as usual if we blocked it.

“Think of how your actions will affect others,” he admonished us. If one or two people threw rocks at the police, others might be injured in the response. Most of us wanted to keep this non-violent and avoid casualties.

Text messages were sent out to rouse our supporters to come and join us. We had a list of people who’d promised to come when notified, sort of a 21st century version of the Colonial Minutemen, in our case, both women and men. Today’s Redcoats were the riot police in Darth Vader helmets.

I borrowed a cell phone and called a friend. “I’ll be there by 4 a.m.,” he assured me.

The discussion continued. “If we are scattered,” someone was saying, “the convergence point for tomorrow is the library at 4 p.m.” That instruction had been repeated many times during the last few days, especially during the evening’s General Assembly. The phone number of the National Lawyers’ Guild was also announced and repeated.

“I think it’s good to be mobile,” said Andrea Prichett of Cop Watch, seconding Leo’s opinion. “We should go out to 14th and Broadway.”

That seemed to be our best option. We knew we couldn’t save the camp because we couldn’t hope to stop the police, who were certain to come in overwhelming numbers. But we could stop traffic.

“Strategic retreat, then?”

It was now 2:50 a.m., and we began our trek to 14th & Broadway, which was only a few hundred feet away. Passing the Interfaith tent, I saw eight or nine people sitting in front of it, a semicircle of candles placed before them. They’d chosen to stay.

Reaching the intersection, we set up shop and began beating on drums. They were actually plastic buckets and garbage cans, but they worked splendidly, echoing loudly in the otherwise quiet pre-dawn hours. Six or seven people were pounding them furiously, and they resonated like the heartbeat of a newborn era. We chanted, “The Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!” and “We are the 99%!” and “No justice — no peace!”

“Who’s got the power?
We’ve got the Power!
What kind of power?
People power!”

With the drumming and chanting, it was a loud and lively scene, and it kept getting louder. Eerie notes issued from a bugler playing the Deguello.

Although there had been only about 100 of us, certainly less than 150, now as I looked about me, there seemed to be more. 200 maybe? Or could it be 300? It was as though our drumming, bugling and chanting were conjuring up more people. Some minutes later when I again tried to estimate our numbers it looked more like 400, or possibly 500. Really? Could it now be this many?

“Daniel!” I heard someone call my name, and looking around I saw Jonathan Nack, whom I knew from the Port Action committee. Then I saw several others whom I knew. Steve Gilmartin, whom I’d phoned earlier, was there, and I saw old friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen for months or even years. It was like a reunion. “Thank you! Thank you!” I kept saying, “Thank you for coming!”

The new arrivals were people who’d gotten our text message and come out to support us. Of course the great majority of the crowd were people I didn’t know. There were many, many people there, and I felt very grateful to all of them.

The drums kept beating. The moon overhead shined brightly in the clear, dark sky. It was nearly a full moon.

“There they are!” someone shouted.

A ghostly phalanx of riot police could be seen coming down Broadway on foot from the north. A moment later, we saw more approaching from the south, and then from the east and west on 14th. They were a good block away, presumably in riot gear; I couldn’t see that well in the dim light. They moved slowly. Dark ominous figures.

“They’re everywhere!” said a woman who looked to be about 25 years old. “We’re completely surrounded.” Saying that she let out a laugh of one who’s been through it all. I recognized her as the woman who’d assigned sentry posts a couple weeks before, on the eve of the previous raid.

The advancing police seemed to have halted, a block or two away from us on all sides.

Steve looked at me, grinned and said teasingly, “Based on your studies of military strategy, what do you think we ought to do?”

I looked at him sagely and replied, “Something quick and decisive. Give me a couple days to research it.”

Then, chanting “Whose street? Our street!” we left the intersection where we had gathered, circled the perimeter of our camp, and returned to the intersection of 14th and Broadway. What to do now? A few more moments of confusion, some discussion, people tossing ideas back and forth.

“Mic check!” someone yelled out.

“Mic check!” the of us rest yelled back.

“We need thirty individuals to defend the camp!” the speaker said. There was a hint of military jargon in the way he said that. Probably an ex-GI; several of our people were veterans.

A couple dozen of us followed him into the camp, the rest of us remaining at the intersection.

“They’re going to kettle us,” someone said, saying he’d gotten it off the police scanner. Kettle us? I’d never heard the term before, but I could guess that it meant mass arrest. Someone else spoke up and said the police probably expected us to be listening in on their scanner and might be using it to give disinformation. Perhaps to scare us into leaving. Maybe so, but a mass arrest did indeed seem
likely.

That was followed by a report that that the police were letting people out if they went east on 14th. Anyone who didn’t want to get arrested could get out that way. Most of us didn’t want to get arrested. I didn’t, neither did Steve, nor many others here. We tossed more ideas back and forth.

“There are 500 of us,” said a woman with shoulder length blond hair. She was Mindy Stone, one of the hundred occupiers who had linked arms
and been arrested during the pre-dawn raid of Oct 25th. “If they arrest all 500 of us, that would be quite a statement for us. Let’s stay where we are.”

And that’s what we did. Almost nobody left. We continued our rally right there. As the police closed in around us we again took up beating our drums loudly. We formed a circular picket line in the intersection.

“We are OCCUPY!
We’re never going to DIE!
Every time you kick us out, we are going to MULTIPLY!”

This was of course right in the middle of downtown Oakland. Dawn was soon coming and people would be arriving for work to find the center of the city shut down.

The riot police then advanced right up to us at the intersection, blocking us off from the Plaza, then halted and set up a metal barricade between us and them. As on October 25th, there were overwhelming numbers of them. It was shock and awe all over again, but we’d gotten used to it now, and the effect was wearing off. While some of us kept the picket line going in the center of the intersection, most people crowded up to the barricade, staring and gawking at the line of riot police, taking photos of them, observing them as though they were monkeys in a zoo. It was hard to believe that anyone could find cops so fascinating to look at.

There were police from all over, cops from Gilroy, sheriff’s deputies from Santa Clara. Hundreds of them. Nine agencies were involved, at a cost to the taxpayers of $500,000, I heard later. At one point, a chant arose. “You’re sexy, you’re cute! Take off your riot suit!”

This went on for a couple hours or more. At one point someone announced that we were on every TV channel in the world, and a loud cheer went up. “We’re also on Al-Jazeera!” And everybody cheered even more wildly, and chanted:

“Oakland! Oakland! The world is watching Oakland!”

Meanwhile, with us corralled there, local police were entering the camp. “Shame! Shame! Shame!” we chanted as they entered our camp, arresting 33 people there and ripping up our tents.

We’d saved many of the most valuable and crucial items from the camp, but most tents had remained and were being destroyed, later sent to a landfill. It was painful to watch. I thought of Nov 2nd, when a handful of people smashed windows, and the media called it “vandalism,” (which I agree it was). But when city officials send police to destroy the meager possessions of poor people, of homeless people, the corporate media’s editorialists don’t call it “vandalism,”
they applaud the action and call it necessary and decisive.

It doesn’t even seem to occur to city officials, media pundits, or anyone else speaking for the 1% that even the simplest possessions of poor people might be all they have. Or, they might be personal items; one occupier lost the poetry he’d been composing. Everything goes to the dump, and that’s symbolic of the way the 1% who dominate our society has chosen to treat us, to devalue us. Recently it was revealed that the cremated ashes of American soldiers who’d died in Iraq and Afghanistan were deposited in a landfill.3 It epitomizes what we are fighting against, and what we are fighting for: economic justice and human dignity.

And it needs to be understood that the mayor and city council behind this raid were NOT a gaggle of rightwing Republicans. They were liberal Democrats who were hypocritically expressing support for the Occupy movement, while brutally suppressing it at great financial cost.

The scene was disgusting, but not demoralizing. The world-wide coverage of this event almost made up for our losses. Our message was certainly getting out, while the city officials who’d ordered this police action seemed to us like the sort of people who would pound nails in tofu and think they were accomplishing something.

Then, unexpectedly, the police to the south of us on Broadway withdrew. So they weren’t going to mass arrest the 500 of us after all.

As the day dawned, we were still occupying this key intersection. It would not quite be business as usual this morning. But I hadn’t slept all night, and feeling I’d done my part for now, I packed up my notebook and was about to leave, when:

“Mic check!”

“Mic check!”

“One of our brothers is still occupying!”

The man was still perched in his tree above the Plaza. And, as of
this writing, he’s still up there.

  1. The Port & The Plaza–Raid of October 25, 2011. []
  2. Iraq War Veterans–casualties at Occupy Oakland. []
  3. Remains of US troops killed in Iraq dumped in a landfill. []

Daniel Borgström is an ex-Marine against the war, a veteran occupier. He writes about progressive actions. He can be reached at: daniel@borgstrom.com. Read other articles by Daniel, or visit Daniel's website.