By Amrit Cheng, Oct 27, 2011 2:30 PM
It is 6:30 on Wednesday night, and the stack is open at Occupy Oakland. Roughly 2,000 people are packed into the amphitheater at Frank Ogawa Plaza, with more idling at the outskirts of the newly fenced-in park, which up until yesterday morning held and housed more than 100 tents and their owners. There is palpable tension in the air and rightly so. Just yesterday morning, the Oakland police department evicted the protestors, destroying the two-week-old encampment in the name of sanitation and health hazards. Later that night, Oakland police and protesters clashed in the streets, resulting in alleged police brutality, including the unnecessary use of teargas and rubber bullets.
As people come up to the mic and tell their stories of being gassed, I am shocked and also slightly disappointed to have missed a night of so many significant events. In truth, I hadn't visited Occupy Oakland for some days. I went initially on the first day of the encampment, excited to have a local occupation after following the news of Occupy Wall Street steadily for the past month. However, after a few more visits, I started to lose a little steam. I wasn't able to camp out simply out of practicality—though I gripe about my job and desperately relate to the plight of the unemployed (having spent four long months sharing this fate after I moved to California) there was no way I could afford to take a leave. I still tried to visit Occupy Oakland in the afternoons for the General Assemblies. Sometimes I left inspired, other times I felt like I was only a bay's distance away from an afternoon at Dolores Park—essentially, just hanging out with a lot of people in a space that happened to contain tents.
However, this afternoon, 15 days after its start and one night after its violent dismantling, I now know exactly why I am here at Occupy Oakland. A speaker comes to the mic and says something unexpected: in a sweetly sincere tone, she says that she would like to personally thank the Oakland Police Department. “Look at how many new faces they have brought out for us.” The crowd erupts in applause and a thought occurs: without bullies, without personally experiencing unjustified suppression, many of us might have trouble articulating exactly what is it that we would stand up for at any given moment. In 1964, when U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart was struggling to create a definition for obscenity, to draw a distinction between protected and unprotected speech, he wrote, “I know it when I see it.” Well there was something particularly obscene in how the protesters were treated last night. People of Oakland and the world have seen that, and if they didn't feel as if they had a stake in the occupy movements before this, last night created a place for them.
Since their inception, the occupy movements have had a far-reaching range of causes for which they have been faulted in much of their coverage in the mainstream media. A common concern is that the movements lack a clear set of demands and that they are, perhaps, too wide an umbrella for all manners of left-leaning individuals. In many ways, this is true. Protestors at Occupy Oakland have expressed a huge variety of desires and grievances. Their reasons and motivations for occupying cannot be condensed into one succinct thread. As each person moves up in line to speak to the General Assembly, to argue passionately for a next step for the movement, there is usually some one a few spaces back in line who will argue for an opposite approach. And both suggestions will likely elicit applause and support from the audience. This, however, does not portend disaster for the movement. Because, overall tonight, there is a feeling of unity and commonality that I had yet to see at Occupy Oakland. All of these individuals might not be occupying for the same reasons, they are not all standing up under one banner or one cause (a la the Tea Party and death to taxes), but tonight, thanks to the actions of the Oakland Police Department, they are all standing against the same thing. Unnecessary use of police force against citizens. A government that silences the peaceful exercise of free speech (a basic tenant of its founding) rather than supports it. In their attempts to nip something in the bud, the Oakland Police Department has given Occupy Oakland an opportunity to sharpen and strengthen their image and identity, not simply through their own actions, but now in contrast to a truly unflattering picture of the police department and the Oakland City government.