Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Oakland? And What Is Oakland, Anyway?

Oakland City Hall c. 1940; what is now Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza in front.

It occurs to me that as the Energy Center of the Occupy Everything Movement has shifted from New York to California, specifically to Oakland, California, there is a good deal of confusion about the city and what it represents in the context of leftish Movements of all kinds.

The picture above shows the Oakland City Hall and the plaza in front of it as they were around 1940; this is the primary location used by Occupy Oakland, and it is the site where the Incidents on October 25 and 26 took place. (As a complete side note, the October 1917 Revolution in Russia took place on October 25-26 -- Old Style calendar -- or November 7-8, current calendar.)

Oakland is the principle East Bay city. It is set against the Oakland Hills across the San Francisco Bay from... San Francisco, surprisingly enough. While San Francisco no longer has an operating port, Oakland has a very active one, something it has maintained throughout most of its history, which, as a city, begins in 1852. Prior to that, the site of Oakland was part of the Peralta family's Rancho San Antonio, and prior to that, the site was a village and gathering place for the indigenous Ohlone people.

I've made my chief home in Northern California, mostly in Sacramento, for more than fifty years. Oakland is not that far away physically, but because of the nature of settlement and the geography of this part of California, Oakland and the Bay Area are culturally quite distinct from the Central Valley where Sacramento is located. In fact, the distinction is so strong, even today, that Sacramento is barely recognized as a 'place' by those who live in the Bay Area, to whom 'the Valley' is simply terra incognita.

On the other hand, people who live in the Valley are quite familiar with the Bay Area, particularly San Francisco which has long been a destination city for Valley residents. The East Bay is almost as familiar to Valley residents, though Oakland may not be as familiar as neighboring Berkeley where many Valley residents attended the University.

The main attribute of Oakland for as long as I have been aware of the city is its "grit." Oakland is considered a hard-scrabble working man's town, first and foremost. It has always been that way. The thing is, there are extraordinarily elegant parts of Oakland as well as the grittier hard-scrabble sections. The Oakland Hills is one of the most sought-after Bay Area deluxe residential communities. Fancy People like to live in the East Bay, including parts of Oakland, because the weather is generally better than in San Francisco, Marin and the Peninsula.

But the "grit" of Oakland is its main characteristic, one that many Oaklandites are very proud of. It's grit that is helped along by a couple of Oakland literary luminaries, Jack London and Gertrude Stein (whose "there is no there there" quote actually refers to her childhood home which had been demolished, rather than to the city of Oakland itself), and by the city's long tradition of distinctively radical working-class politics and political action.

Most everybody knows about neighboring Berkeley's political radicalism. I prattle on about it myself from time to time. Free Speech Movement, Mario Savio, steps of Sproul Hall, winter of 1964? Yadda, and yadda some more.

But Oakland actually has the more radical political history. Far more radical and more consistent and more sustained. It is partly because of Oakland's reputation for radicalism that more conventionally minded souls tend to stay away.

Unless your own brand of radical politics is as strong as the locals', it's hard to feel comfortable in Oakland. It's hard to feel like you belong.

Oakland's grit probably began with the lumbering industry which denuded the hillsides of Coast Redwood trees very quickly after the Gold Rush began; the lumber was used to build early versions of San Francisco. Of course, they burned down, most spectacularly in the earthquake and fire of 1906. Many refugees from San Francisco then settled in the East Bay, in part because it had largely escaped damage from the earthquake.

San Francisco has its own hard-scrabble history, but after 1906, much of its working class moved to the East Bay, where their descendants still live -- or try to.

Oakland became a manufacturing center, with a lot of heavy industry and the port taking the leading roles. In turn, union labor and the social and political organization that went with it became the standard of operations. Labor organization became the engine for the development of more radical politics and the many social and economic justice movements that are still deeply ingrained in Oakland's society and culture.

And it has happened without the gloss of fashionability that is so apparent across the Bay in San Francisco and Marin, and without much of the arrogance and sense of God-like power that drives so much of what goes on down the Peninsula and in the Silicon Valley.

Oakland's grit is down to earth.

It is not tamed, it is not even polite most of the time.

Oakland was the hothouse where the Black Panthers were born and nurtured. It's Angela Davis's home town. My man, Bille Joe Armstrong lives in Oakland, though he is from Pinole. How about Sonny Barger, founder of the Hell's Angels? You've heard of Korematsu v United States? Well, Google it. Fred Korematsu was from Oakland. C. L. Dellums, Ron Dellums, and Barbara Lee are all Oaklanders.

Advocates for seemingly every social and economic justice program on the face of the earth have their spiritual if not their actual American headquarters in Oakland. The 1946 General Strike was in Oakland, the last one that actually amounted to anything prior to the General Strike in Oakland on November 2, 2011.

What I've named doesn't even scratch the surface of the radicalism that is intrinsic to Oakland, but it can give you an idea of what it's like there without getting too far into the weeds.

Labor unions are strong. The People have a voice and they use it.

And the city has been under a quasi form of martial law for years. Graffiti and vandalism and police brutality -- police murder, for godssake -- has been a way of life for a very long time.

People in Oakland are used to the shit that's been going on there since the start of the Occupy Oakland encampment -- and more importantly, they know how to fight it.

Whether they'll win, I don't know. "Victory" is a mutable thing, and I don't think it's altogether clear just what they think a "victory" would look like. I don't think anybody does at the moment.

And just for the record, I want to repost something Boots Riley wrote a couple of hours ago on his Facebook page about the controversy roiling Oakland and beyond over the presence of Black Bloc tactics on Novemeber 2:

The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy.

If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn't have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike. Occupy Oakland, on the whole, has a radical analysis that leads us to campaigns that others wouldn't and which also capture people's imagination. For instance, as I've said before, Gandhi was vocally against strikes because physically stopping someone from what they want to do is violent. Occupy Oakland has called for a diversity of tactics- which is different than our New York comrades, however I don't think that is supposed to mean that you use every tactic every time.

We are so large here precisely because our actions have teeth. If the police blockaded at the port- we would have had 2 choices. The first would have been to let them stop us from getting there- with them thereby calling a victory against OO. The second choice was for us to quietly push through them with the shields we had in the front of the march and using our power in numbers to get through. That would, technically, not fall into non-violent philosophy. I think it is the fact that police knew that we had tens of thousands and we would push through there if necessary, that caused them to stay away.

Also, everyone here seems to be inspired by Arab Spring, Greek movements, and other similar movements in Europe. None of those were non-violent in nature. The Egyptian folks burned down a police station, for instance. Everyone I know thinks that tactics like that here would cause the movement to be crushed, so those tactics are not on the table- I'm just pointing out that people are saying that this is emulating a movement which was pretty violent.

But, I think the discussion is about tactics, not about adopting non-violent philosophy. On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland- are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you're missing the point and you'll be missing out on history.

Don't let the media frame the discussion. The average everyday person was empowered by what happened on November 2nd. Every movement has contradictions, we aren't told about them so we think this movement should be different- there was violence during the Civil Rights movement. The pastor that had MLK's job before him at Ebeneezer Baptist Church had just made all of his congregation buy shotguns. The NAACP had an ARMED chapter in North Carolina.

You can wait 50 more years for your perfect movement, or you can realize that it's here.

I added the paragraph breaks, and bolded the final sentence. Because I believe it's the truth.

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