BUILDING SOMETHING BETTER THAN A BUILDING OLAASM’s Experience at Occupy Oakland’s “Move In Day”
(ed. Originally published on Feb. 11, 2012 – here!)
My involvement in the Battle Against the State of Oakland had its roots from the aftermath of the Regents meeting at University of California, Riverside. The day that followed was coincidentally an intensely emotional experience, as we sat in our tents on the lawn of UCR, recovering from the battle we waged with the Regents, UCR police, and Riverside Sheriffs.
That day we discussed how in each of our lives the state had either violently interfered to escalate a situation or had failed to provide the support we desperately needed. We thirsted to change the system which had oppressed us for so long. We were hungry to reformulate our lives, each other and our community. It was that early afternoon, that one of us stumbled upon news of a library occupation at Cal.
By the time we arrived in Berkeley, the library occupation was over. Instead we decided to roam the Bay and learned about Oakland’s “Move-in Day”. The Bay Area is tragically beautiful; it is a swift breeze of salty refreshment from Los Angeles. We couldn’t stay away… and that is how we ended up in urban warfare and I ended up in jail.
The morning of Move-in Day, I woke up thrilled at the prospect of helping Oakland take a building to transform it into a community center. We had spent the night at our comrade’s apartment in Berkeley. All thirteen of us crammed into a tiny studio.
We left at about 10:30am to arrive early for a quick meet-up with our other comrades from Los Angeles. The sun shone brilliantly, promising a gorgeous day in Oakland. At 11am, people had just begun to gather. Final touches were put on signs. Art supplies were organized. Food was loaded to be used later for the dinner at our new building. We had proclaimed a whole schedule of events for the day at the building we hoped to take.
Before the rally even started, there was an arrest. Police grabbed someone from the crowd. We formed a circle around them, chanting “the whole world is watching” “let him go” and “fuck the police.” Police responded aggressively and pushed protesters with their batons. It was still early, and already the tone was set for the day. Thank you, Oakland Police.
After the rally at about 1pm, we took the streets. We spilled out from Oscar Grant plaza and to the corner of Broadway and 13th. Some of us in the crowd held shields with spray painted peace signs. Others held three large corrugated shields with spray pained messages: “Oakland Commune,” “Commune move in.” and “Cops move out.” It was a defense; November 2nd and Scott Olsen was still a recent painful memory. The image that circulated the Internet of his cracked, bleeding head was still freshly imprinted in my mind. I did not want to be tear gassed. I didn’t want to be hurt or killed. But I sure as fuck did not want to continue to live in this oppressive world.
To take the streets always feels liberating. My heart pounds, my smile lifts, as we march through Oakland. Behind us are mobile speakers and a large truck. Music is all around us. We are joyous. We are the people and collectively we have power. It vibrates within us, we are young, beautiful radicals and we will change the world.
The police follow us. They are ready to control us. It is their job. They do it so well; their consciousness was beat out of them a long time ago.
The decision to march through Laney College is made. The pathways are narrow, we slow down, we lose the music truck. I have no idea where we are going. Someone shouts out a suggestion to occupy a building at Laney. We keep walking and stream into greenery and a lake.
The police stand in a line, blocking us from leaving Laney. As usual we face off with the police, then walk around, across the bridge and emerge to see the first building we want to take. The fucking Kaiser Convention center. It is a magnificent building. It would have made a wonderful community center.
As we walk the perimeter of the building, the police are already lined up around it. The fence is torn down. I am in awe, I am pregnant with hope. When the first canister hits the ground, I am talking to my friend. I hear her scream. I think it’s tear gas and I prepare myself for stinging eyes. I have not experienced tear gas, I’m not sure what to feel. Nothing happens, more canisters, more flashes, more screams, and people rush the fence opposite the building, knocking it over in a mad dash to escape the smoke that we all believe is tear gas. It’s not. They are smoke and flash grenades. My friend disappears in the crowd. I look for my comrades to ensure their safety.
The police draw their paintball guns. I am standing behind one of the barricades. They point to us. Bile piles into the back of my throat. I am their enemy. Through their megaphone they announce that the “State of California” declares us an unlawful assembly. I have lost count on the number of unlawful assemblies I have been a part of since October. I am an assembly, I am peaceful, I am here because this is my world and I want to change it. They don’t care. We duck behind the barricade, unsure of whether they will fire, whether we should stay.
The crowd begins to trickle out. The police presence is heavy. The situation is impossible, the people are not ready.
Our march moves to where the Battle of Oak Street begins.
The Battle of Oak Street occurred in front of the Oakland Museum of Natural Science in the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. This was not your usual battle zone. Another face-off with the police. The shields are asked to advance to the front.
The shields advance, I stand behind them. All of a sudden, there are flashes everywhere around me and the street is filled with smoke. Car alarms erupt from all sides. There are yells and screams – “Medic!” My eyes start to burn, I can’t breathe; my face is on fire. It is tear gas. I gasp for air and begin to retreat away from the smoke. A flash grenade explodes in front of me. I stumble to the sidewalk, and look up to see a dizzying array of families standing on the steps in front of the museum in shock. There are more whistles and shots. A heavy smoke hangs in the air. People are milling around in shock; many with Maalox and vinegar on their faces. The burning on my face continues but at the moment it doesn’t matter. I am in shock. I am given a gas mask, which I slip on with shaking fingers. We return the front line. Then the police start to fire bullets. I huddle behind the shield. I can feel the impact of the shots as they hit our barricades. More tear gas. The gas mask is not tight enough; my lips are burning. We begin to retreat.
Days later when I watch the youtube videos of the Battle of Oak Street, it didn’t make any sense. It is so different to be on the inside, then it is to see it displayed from the outside. I have no perspective, it’s all a hazy smoke; all I know is that we must put our bodies on the line against the police state. It is only by being fearless in the midst of fear that we can win. What else can we do when they start to fire at us? We are not violent; we want to change the dominant narrative of private property. The Convention building currently lies vacant, we want to turn it into a useful space for the community and the movement. We don’t want to ask permission; this is a revolution – did Rosa Parks ask permission to not move? Did she check with her local police force before she committed her act of disobedience? At some point we must no longer obey because we are told to do so, we must do what is right. If the State responds violently, we must not back away, we must continue to fight; it is our duty.
We return to Oscar Grant Plaza to recuperate. We are hungry. We are high on adrenaline. We are soldiers in the fight for justice and equality. It feels surreal to return to the sun, to sit, to laugh, to smoke a bowl. Was I just tear gassed? Are we doing it again?
My face still burns and I need to go the bathroom. I go with my comrades to find a restroom, which is almost impossible, as we go from business to business hoping someone will let us use their facilities. “Please, we were just tear gassed,” we plead at a dentist’s office. The workers look at us in shock, but refuse us. “It’s part of the rules,” the young man informs us firmly. Finally Oaksterdam allows us in. My comrade gives me some vinegar to put on my face to help with the burning. It soothes the skin and makes me feel ready to take the streets gain.
We rest for almost an hour and then we take the streets. The sun sets; once it gets dark it will be that much harder.
We go to our second location, but the police are right behind us. First we are trapped at Snow Park. The police surround us on all sides. There is an order of dispersal followed by more tear gas. I find myself yelling, “Don’t run. Walk. Don’t panic. Walk” as people push each other to escape the tear gas.
But people are panicking. We take down the fence surrounding the green field in the middle of the park and run across it to escape the police kettle. We flow across the grass in a glee of liberation. We are free. The police cannot stop us. As my feet reach the pavement on the other side of the park, I realize I have won. The march continues down Broadway. I don’t care where we are going now. The beauty of collective action envelopes me. We are the people. We are brave, we are united, we are together, we can do anything; they can’t stop us. Collectively we are smarter, we are faster, we will always win. The rest of the march is a blur. I’m not sure when we were kettled again, but we were. The State and its guard dogs were done with us.
We are stopped in front of a YMCA. A handful of people get inside the YMCA and escape. The rest of us are pushed down the stairs and from the streets and into the sidewalk and the corner. Again screams, as we fall over one another, trying our best to not fall and to not trample. A few minutes later the police announce, “You are all under arrest.”
At first I don’t believe it. There are hundreds of us pressed against this building. They can’t possibly arrest all of us. Maybe they’ll let us go.
We start to chant, “Let us go” and “This is illegal detainment.” I have no idea where my comrades are. I hope that they are out. Instant solidarity forms with the people in my kettle. Strange conversations are happening around me, “I’m sorry I won’t be home tonight. I think I am under arrest. Looks like I’ll be going to jail. I’m so sorry,” says the man behind me to someone on the phone. The woman next to me is indignant. “This is against the law. You can’t detain me. I’ll call my council members. Call the media,” she yells out. But the State doesn’t care. If we get out, it’s because we’re not worth it. In retrospect, ruminating on the events of the day, there was never a chance we would not be arrested. We threatened and twisted their authority all day long. In America that’s not ok; we are not supposed to rebel.
As the realization that we would be arrested sunk in, the weed and alcohol erupted. Massive blunts, joints, bowls, handles of alcohol are handed to me. The kettle turns into a party. It is liberating to watch them watching us; at least we have fun no matter what we do. There is nothing in the world more fulfilling than what we do and we all know it; we are free, as we are arrested.
It takes hours to arrest us. Later I heard that there were 409 arrests. We were kettled at around 7pm, I arrived at Santa Rita at about midnight. My plastic cuffs were so tight, I could not move my wrists for hours. My fingers lost all feeling and the bumps on the bus to Santa Rita were almost unbearable. When they finally remove the cuffs, I start to cry.
I am released on Monday morning. I spent two nights and a day in a holding cell. Jail is violent. It is a violent violation of your soul. The experience of forced lack of freedom is powerful. It is also terrifying. At Santa Rita’s detention center there are no blankets; the food consists of bologna, bread, an orange, two cookies, and a calcium drink; time is non-existent and you never know when you may be released. It is a horrific process which dehumanizes you as your curl up on a hard bench, hands pressed inside your thighs for warmth.
Tears cloud my eyes when I see my comrades on the outside. The best thing about jail is the feeling of getting out. There is nothing better.
The revolution is a mix of victories and failures. For me it is already a victory because we are fighting. We don’t always win the battles, but we face Goliath. But with each action our collective power grows. We did not take a building on January 28th, but we built something so wonderful and so massive that two weeks later I still cannot fully grasp it.
All I know is that it is absolutely fucking better than a building.