The World is Watching Oakland
Tonight I witnessed one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. One night after the Oakland police brutally attacked a thousand nonviolent protesters with tear gas, sound grenades, and rubber bullets, the people of Oakland responded by meeting in a peaceful general assembly of 3000 community members to come to consensus about how to move forward.
The night before was a historic moment in movement history and in my personal commitment to nonviolent change. After an hour of marching with thousands of people through the streets of Oakland, I locked arms with my partner and sat down in a row of protesters 15 feet from a line of heavily armed riot cops. The police were barricading the entrance to Oscar Grant Plaza, where they had spent the previous night using tanks, tear gas, and hundreds of officers to demolish a peaceful tent village. We were determined to take the plaza back. As we sat down in the streets with a thousand people at our backs, the Oakland police announced that we had 5 minutes to disperse or they would use chemical agents and people would be in danger of severe bodily harm. The crowd continued to sit or stand, arms locked, while they repeated the threat, until we had 30 seconds left. Our hearts were racing–we could not believe that we were actually doing this, holding the line and waiting for the violence to come. Becoming intimate with our fear and our courage. Trying to continue breathing. It was clear we had to stay. Our friends and comrades were injured and in jail. If we did not stand our ground it would send a message that the state’s violent tactics work. We did not want to encourage more militarization in the destruction of occupy camps across the country. Oakland is our home, and it was suddenly in the national spotlight. The violations here threaten the people’s movement that is growing all across the world. The air was electric and we knew we were not alone. We continued to march, circle back, and return.
When the police fired the sound grenades and tear gas it was terrifying–the downtown I ride my bike through every day turned into a war zone, complete with blasts like cannons firing, clouds of poisonous smoke billowing under the uncanny glare of streetlights, and people scattering down Broadway to escape the fumes. Medics sprayed Maalox in people’s eyes to dissolve the gas – others offered vinegar to help the scarves around our noses repel further assaults. What was most phenomenal is that we did not give up, and we did not start fighting the cops–after the first round of teargas our resolve only got stronger. We reorganized, circled back, and stood again and again to reclaim our land. It was clear that this was only the beginning of a much longer process. The police violence made it clear how high the stakes are. They are terrified of how effectively we are organizing, and the viral spread of this movement. The world was watching us. We were not going to disappoint.
This morning the national and international media was full of stories about the overwhelming police brutality in Oakland. Meanwhile, the people of Oakland called for a general assembly at 6 PM. As the sky blushed pink over fenced-off Oscar Grant Plaza, people poured into the open-air amphitheater in front of City Hall from all directions. Instead of the rioting people expect from our town, three thousand of us spent 3 hours communicating by people’s mic, a process in which the entire gathering repeats each speaker’s phrase back to the crowd, one phrase at a time, so that every person has a chance to hear. While we listened and spoke, protesters tore down the entire perimeter of 8 foot fences that the police had erected to keep us out of our plaza. We discussed collective action while we watched the walls go down all around us. We considered a proposal calling for a general strike in one week, supporting all the students and workers in leaving school, leaving work, and assembling to shut down corporations and banks. Members of the crowd had the opportunity to speak before the entire assembly, asking questions, sharing experience, and weighing our concerns against our hopes as we considered how to bring this momentum into action. Over and over, the speakers echoed the phrases, “the world is watching Oakland. What we do now will be remembered. What we do now will inspire the rest of the world.” After three hours almost 2000 remained. We broke into groups of 20 people to discuss the proposal and vote, and we finally reached consensus –1480 people in favor of the general strike, only 70 abstaining or opposed. On November 2, Oakland will be having the first general strike in the US since 1947. Oakland called the last general strike too.
As the votes were counted, the facilitators announced that the people of Cairo had sent a message that they would be marching in solidarity with Oakland on October 28. Occupy Wall Street marched for the first time ever today, and it was a solidarity march with Oakland. They chanted “Oakland, Oakland, end police brutality,” and sent $25,000 to support our cause. As I type this helicopters fly overhead, and our comrades in San Francisco are getting threatened with raids from the police. When the general assembly concluded in Oakland tonight, hundreds of people got on the subway to go stand in solidarity with our friends across the bay, though the riot cops returned to block access to the BART stations. So they marched to police headquarters. We are not standing down, and we are not fighting force with force. They have the tanks and the guns and the grenades. We have the power of the 99%.