I visited Occupy Oakland several days after it began. Approaching the encampment walking south on 14th Street I saw tents encircling the steps of the amphitheater in front of City Hall. The encampment was muddy. It had rained the night before. As I passed the great oak, living symbol of the city, the outdoor kitchen was in full swing. I was surprised by its scale and organization. I entered the plaza, formerly known as Frank Ogawa, where the size and complexity of the encampment became clear. It was as if a Bay Area demonstration had brought it’s camping gear on a march and decided to bivouac here.
There were placards representing the full spectrum of progressive thought . There was a media tent, an art tent, a daycare area, a clinic to mention just a few of the dozen, or so, mini-centers scattered among the hundred tents.
This particular afternoon some forty people danced to the beat of drummers. On edge of this crowd of dancers was a young woman, her hair dyed scarlet totally at ease at an easel, painting away. Her name was Jessica Joy Jirsa.
Several days later I would meet another gifted artist, John Paul Marcelo, painting the amphitheater. His picture would appear in the Sunday Edition( Oct 23) of the San Francisco Chronicle in a photo montage of the Occupation.
On my second visit I was impressed to see bales of hay and straw scattered over the grass to prevent it from being reduced to mud. There were also improvised walkways made of shipping palettes. I began to recognize the faces of people I’ve encountered many times when I paint on the streets around city center – some of them homeless.
I witnessed a singular sight as I stood on the corner of the amphitheater near City Hall and 14th Street. A band of young men, one with a black flag on a stick, were chasing the police out of the Plaza (which occupiers have renamed for Oscar Grant, the young black man murdered in cold blood by a BART officer.) The police looked furious and a little scared. They’d obviously been ordered to stand down.
Oct 18th, I started my first painting. A view of the colorful tents below the looming facade of City Hall (See above). I worked on it for four afternoons.
Painting here was easier than than working on nearby Broadway. Everyone was supportive and delighted to see me. In general, the camp was peaceful with dedicated people planting vegetables, communicating information, running art classes and meeting the press.
There were discordant notes. Young men, white and black, with large, ill-disciplined dogs that would snap at people and attack each other. A group of monitors who angrily drove some reporters away. A man who was becoming aggressive was noisily forced out of the encampment by a chanting crowd that never actually touched him.
On my third day a dedicated, African American organizer told me “ The homeless aren’t our biggest problem. Many of them are settling down and becoming politicized. We can help them. It’s other elements… We’ve been telling people to keep their dogs out of the camp, to smoke pot at night, in their tents. We’re getting a security detail together, but one thing we are not equipped to handle is mental illness. ” He seemed tired but undaunted.
The first two nights of Occupy Oakland the vice mayor, Desley Brooks, slept in one of these tents. The city, like most of the country, was proud to welcome this long overdue uprising against the injustice of our corporate controlled government.
Of course, city officials and hot-headed activists, many with a deep distrust of the Oakland Police Department, were not likely to see eye to eye for long especially, when the city’s perennial problems of drugs, crime, homelessness, the mentally ill and, of course, rats all began to make an appearance right in front of City Hall. I hasten to add that none of these problems seemed anywhere as serious here as those I’ve witnessed on the surrounding streets. But for City Hall it was too close for comfort.
October 25: This morning I learned that 600 police officers from 17 jurisdictions had raided the camp between four and five AM. Despite the fact that there were children in the camp, tear gas and flash grenades were used to dislodge about 150 inhabitants who offered no violent resistance. At least one was injured by the police. City Center, when I arrived, resembled a debris strewn battle field. I photographed the two scenes I had recently painted. What a sad contrast.
I understand that the city was concerned with liability, health and public safety issues, but these tireless activists deserved our full support. In a time of home foreclosures and job layoffs without end, they have displayed laudable ingenuity and humanity in confronting the intractable problems of homelessness and poverty. They provided three meals a day to hundreds of people as well as a safe place for people to sleep and converse. Childcare, education, even a free clinic. Yes it was chaotic, at times, but whatever the problems I never saw any ‘human waste’ nor ‘unsafe structures’. There were donated portable toilets that smelled a trifle ripe on warm days.The kitchen may have been improvised but it was well run and clean. I only learned of one violent incident. The outcome, handled within the camp, was probably better than if police had been involved. Indeed crime decreased in downtown Oakland for the sixteen days that this camp existed.
In my opinion, Oakland has fumbled a golden opportunity. The Occupy Movement represents a massive paradigm shift that is absolutely necessary if this nation and the world is to finally confront the collapsing economy and the impending environmental crisis. With reason many Occupy activists have no respect for our government institutions. Oakland officials need to rise to the occasion, put aside their foolish pride and work hand in hand with people who are willing to walk, and live among the poor and provide them, on a 24 hour basis, with essential services.
The city might just become part of the solution.