home Human Rights, North America, Politics Whose Streets? Claiming Public Space and Occupying Oakland

Whose Streets? Claiming Public Space and Occupying Oakland

As we marched down the road a man with his face covered in a black bandanna ran up to me and tapped me on the shoulder, pointing to the intersection ahead of us. “The police are up there,” he said, knowing from an earlier conversation that I had to be careful not to get arrested, “you might want to get onto the sidewalk.” I ran up towards the front of the march: police were blocking roads in at least three directions, and I couldn’t see the fourth. A group of people who’d been arrested at Saturday’s Move In Day started walking off down a side street and I joined them, worried that the police would start moving in at any moment.

Occupy Oakland has been criticised for taking a more militant tone than other Occupies. The Mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, has attempted to widen divisions within Occupy by calling on ‘leaders’ of the Occupy movement to oppose Occupy Oakland for its failure to commit to nonviolence.

On January 28th, Move In Day, which was meant to lead to a building takeover to set up a social centre, people brought down home-made riot shields, barricades, and gas masks. For the last six weeks, sections of Occupy Oakland have also been having a ‘Fuck the Police’ (FTP) march every Saturday night, which the Tactical Action Committee describe as “a militant action” and “not a march intended for people who are not fully comfortable with diversity of tactics” (a phrase which refers to tactics that might include resisting the police and property damage).

However, what critics often miss is that the same people who carried barricades at Move In Day go to Occupy events in San Francisco empty-handed. When I went to Occupy Wall Street West in San Francisco on 20th January, I didn’t see any barricades or riot shields, and very few gas masks. The reason for this is clear: activists don’t expect to be teargassed, shot with rubber bullets and beanbag guns, maced, and beaten in San Francisco.

The FTP march may make some activists uncomfortable. Honestly, if I wasn’t trying to get a better understanding of Occupy Oakland for my research, I may not have attended: it’s not the kind of event I would usually be comfortable with as an activist. But then, I was never teargassed, shot at, or kettled until Move In Day, and my interactions with the police have been shaped by the fact that I’m a middle-class white woman living in Australia. I am now more anxious around police than I have ever been before.

What the FTP march, barricades and gas masks assert is the right of protesters to be in public space, and the willingness to resist being pushed out of that space. This is a vital right for activists to assert. It is possible for activism to take place in private, or in public only with permission: in rented offices, through letters to politicians or news sources, through decisions to boycott products or buy fair trade, in marches that have been granted permits or ad campaigns paid for by donation. But to believe that activism should be bounded by what is polite, unthreatening, and legal is to accept a system that configures as primarily as consumers, and channels our politics through the funnel of consumption. It means accepting that only those who can afford to speak loudly should be heard.

Being present in public space is an important part of activism. It makes it easier for people to stop by and get involved, to watch from the fringes and try to work out what is going on with the movement. It is a small step towards reclaiming the commons, asserting that healthy communities need shared spaces in which people can spend time without participating in acts of consumption. It also forces activists to work out ways to deal with the contradictions we face: to organise across lines of race and class, to build safe spaces for women, for people who are queer, trans or genderqueer, for children, but also to include those who have been pushed onto the street by a lack of mental health and welfare services.

Saturday’s FTP march demonstrated that people are willing to stand up to police intimidation in order to reclaim their streets. Many of those there were nervous: some had been arrested on Saturday and held in terrible conditions, others knew that being arrested might get them fired. They marched anyway. There were young people there with their faces masked, but also older people in suits, couples holding hands, people carrying pets, people who had never been to a FTP march before but came because of what happened on Move In Day. As they walked through Oakland I saw people watching from balconies and windows and cars, often waving and smiling. I didn’t see any hostile reactions from those who were watching.

I don’t know where Occupy Oakland is headed. In a week, I’ll get on a plane and head back to Australia, where I doubt I’ll be teargassed in the near future. In the meantime, the debates will continue, and activists will keep trying to build a public space for themselves in the face of police confiscations of their property and bad weather.

And, as I have heard so many activists say: Spring is coming. Who knows what the sunshine will bring?

 

Front page photo: Aftermath of the November eviction of the Occupy Oakland occupation, November 2011, public domain.

Sky Croeser lives in Perth, Western Australia, and is currently researching the politics of place. Her work focuses on progressive social movements: you can find out more about her over at skycroeser.net.


One thought on “Whose Streets? Claiming Public Space and Occupying Oakland

  1. The inclination to riot and participate in FTP campaigns is a part of mans basic rebellion. He wants change, but he wants it from the bottom up. man needs power, and when he rejects it from above, he must assert it from below.

    This is the way of revolution and de-creation. It has only ever lead to the destruction of society and never its improvement. It is playground behaviour with terrible consequences.

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