An Insider’s View from Occupy Oakland

Robyn (who asked that her last name not be used) is a forty-year-old resident of Marin County, California, who is active in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Marin. In early December she spoke to the Humanist about life in the camp, and what it means—for her—to occupy.

The Humanist: There’s still a lot of confusion about Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement. Its amorphous nature throws people and leads them to simply say, well, they’re completely disorganized and there’s no real plan.

Robyn: Sometimes it feels that way. The truth is a lot of people have been occupying in their hearts for ten years, but there was a certain sense of apathy, a feeling that everyone else was asleep. Now, apathy has been squashed and people are asking questions they’d never ask before: Do we need the Federal Reserve? What is fractional banking? Why are there subsidies for oil and natural gas? What is food justice all about?

But I understand the public’s frustration in wanting a list of demands. They won’t get it from the media—we won’t give it to them. But we do have demands. One piece of the pie is the financial angle. Then there’s food infrastructure, healthcare infrastructure, our physical infrastructure, energy. And there are some who understand one or some of these very well, say, the banking system, but don’t understand green alternative energy issues. Occupy is people coming together to address all these symptoms of the same disease.

The Humanist: What role do the camps play in this?

R: The camps are not the movement; the camps have been a message. Think of them as demonstration art meant to provoke critical thinking and conversation. And in that aspect they are 110 percent successful. Everyone who has invested time and energy into a camp would not consider it time wasted, even watching the police tear it down and slash it up. People in Occupy camps have crossed socioeconomic boundaries, they’ve crossed political, racial, and religious boundaries—most of the fundamental boundaries that have been put in place, not by ourselves, but by our media and by politicians who keep the red fighting against the blue. In truth, what we have in common is so much more important than what’s different.

The Humanist: So is the opposition truly the 1 percent?

R: Absolutely. And some people are confused, and they wonder, am I part of the 1 percent? If you make $8 million or more and you keep it all to yourself, then yes, you probably are.

The Humanist: What if you make $4 million?

R: If you make that much and you’re doing good things with it, probably not. It’s how you use your financial power. If you use it to pillage the resources of another country and impoverish its people, and then leave their environment in ruins, you’re not really using your millions wisely. And the people who are affected are getting together. In this sense the movement isn’t local, it’s not national, it’s not even global. It’s this feeling that everyone has in their heart that life is supposed to be beautiful, and when you look around there’s abundance, but there’s something in the way of that abundance being shared.

The Humanist: Ok, but there are people out there who are part of the 99 percent, maybe they make $100,000 a year, but who have no connection whatsoever to this idea. They’re busy working and living their lives. Do they also lack a certain compassion?

R: I’d say most people are more compassionate than they’re given credit for. But they’re not confronted. And if you’re insulated from everything but your job, your commute to your job and to pick up your kids, and the time you spend at home with your family, maybe you have a few hours to watch the news or read the paper or a blog, but so much of the information you can gather about what’s happening outside your life—that you’re working really hard to keep afloat—is skewed. That’s another major component of this fight. We want people to turn off their TVs and come outside. Meet their neighbors and start talking about things like how secure their local food supply is. For me food security is at the top of the list—localizing food production and figuring out how communities can transition when peak oil occurs. Nobody has to starve; it doesn’t have to be mayhem.

The Humanist: What was your primary role in the Occupy Oakland camp?

R: I helped with security and mediation and also the media group. (I have a degree in multimedia but it wasn’t supporting me—I was working security at a nightclub before I started occupying.) I also volunteered in the kitchen. All the food was donated and we never had a shortage. But donations have now dried up. And no one can figure out if it’s Occupy Oakland’s refusal to adopt a policy of nonviolence, or if it’s a natural flow of movements, or because we lost the camp. So we’re all waiting to see what happens on December 12.

The Humanist: Can you talk a little about the specific rationale behind the port closures?

R: The general strike on November 2 was Occupy Oakland’s first solidarity action with the longshoreman workers in Longview, Washington, who have been locked in a labor dispute with [multinational grain exporter] EGT. And port truckers in Los Angeles are fighting to unionize against abysmal working conditions imposed by Goldman Sachs-owned SSA Marine terminals. These groups put out a call for help, and someone raised the idea at a General Assembly to issue a statement. Then someone else suggested we participate in their action to shut down the port. When the images went out all over the world, people couldn’t believe how we filled the streets. (Conservative numbers were 50,000.)

The mass action planned for December 12—targeting what they’re calling Wall Street on the Water—has grown into a major West Coast port shutdown involving San Diego, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Santa Cruz, Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. Occupy Houston is now organizing shut downs of Gulf Coast ports.

The Humanist: Practically, this is going to cost numerous companies huge amounts of money, the threat being, we’re going to keep doing this until—what?

R: Until they stop union busting. And the second message of the march is: stop busting up our peaceful assemblies. Attacking us in the streets is not acceptable, and if you do that we’re going to shut you down. They may decide that it’s time to start shooting at us with real bullets. But any attack on that day will extend the blockades for days and days. People won’t go away. They have nowhere to go, except to stand up and fight for our future. But I sincerely hope no one gets hurt and that anyone who works in law enforcement has the wisdom to see how volatile the situation will be if they choose to protect the banks instead of the people.

The Humanist: So is the goal an end to capitalism? Are occupiers largely anarchist?

R: That’s a media misconception. There are principles of anarchy at play when you pitch a tent or meet late at night in a park to talk. But we want the country’s economy to keep churning—we just want it to churn properly.

It’s not productive to tear apart the country and have a big, bloody revolution. Society has evolved to a place now where we have tools of communication that can bring massive amounts of people together peacefully. And if five people smash windows? The police should handle those five people.

Unfortunately, our camp has been tied up for a month arguing about the media’s invented divide between anarchists and liberals. There’s no battle between the two. There’s a disagreement about allowing a diversity of tactics (a practice known as St. Paul’s principles) versus following Martin Luther King’s principles of nonviolence. The majority of people coming to Occupy events from the comfort of their own homes are more likely to have the privilege of education and an understanding of the power of nonviolence. The people who are coming from unstable homes or no home at all really haven’t been able to study these things and they might be really pissed off and impatient. The people who understand why the declaration of nonviolence is so important understand that it protects us from the 1 percent making us look like terrorists, or like a bunch of unemployed drunk punks smashing windows. We’re not. In truth, occupiers are everywhere, not just in camps. We’re in our offices, out playing with our kids, out teaching, and healing. The people sleeping in tents in the cold, getting beaten up, and shot at deserve support. They’re throwing down so that the rest can be in their homes discussing these things.

The Humanist: Were you shot at?

R: Yes. October 25 was the first time. I was standing in a crowd of 1,000 people who had been marching—regular people—and we turned the corner, and there was a line of police in riot gear but no barricade. People marched right up to the line and everyone else backed up behind them in the intersection. Then everything became tense. Two altercations happened at the front of the line and the next thing you know there was tear gas being dispersed and rubber bullets and things exploding all over the place. Kids and mothers were screaming. This was in broad daylight in downtown Oakland.

Explaining to the kids when we got back to the library that they were safe and the police weren’t after them and weren’t going to shoot at them anymore—it was unimaginable. After that, 3,000 people came and took back the park.

The Humanist: Do you think the Occupy movement could benefit from identifying a more centralized leadership?

R: That would be a fatal mistake. What sets this apart from any other movement is that there are no leaders. There are people who step up and take more responsibility, take on facilitator duties, and more leadership roles inside committees, but anyone can do that. You could do that tomorrow. It’s important for everyone to be as active as the next person, and as accountable as the next person, and encourage others to stand up and speak. Because if you push someone to the top then you’re just replicating this hierarchy we’re trying to undo.

The Humanist: But if occupiers want to dismantle a corrupt system don’t you need people on the inside? To amend the constitution and pass legislation? To chip away at corruption?

R: That’s what they should have done in the 1980s and ’90s but instead Ronald Reagan was chipping away at our rights. No, Occupy wants everyone to take the reins of their own government.

So instead of fighting over passage of a jobs program, you show people that they can go out and create their own jobs in a worker collective where members own the business together. You don’t need a national company to own you. You can do it greener, with pride, you can reinvest in your community, and keep money in your community by banking locally. I hope that message of possibility can be spread to all the unemployed in this country. We’re talking about small businesses bringing Main Street back to Main Street.

The Humanist: So you are physically occupying and, like you said, there’s a mindset that transcends location. And while I think a lot of people out there have been inspired to see this rising up, they’re also asking, what now?

R: It’s a frustration inside the camp too. What now? Today, Occupy is moving into foreclosed homes or those facing foreclosure, that’s what’s next. But as far as what people could or should be doing and what do we want—we want people to have access to information and we want it to be motivating for them to recognize their own power. Get up off the couch and organize. Some people will take actions that try to break the machine, others will be taking action where they go plant food, teach people to read, or weatherize a senior citizen’s home. It’s all work that needs to be done. And everybody can find their place.

My mother was in Alaska for Thanksgiving and everyone at the table was older and affluent and they were mystified about the Occupy movement. She said to one person, remember how your daughter was in a car accident and almost died, and you had to spend your retirement savings to save her because the insurance company didn’t cover her? That might be why you occupy. And then to another person she’d say, remember your entire investment fund that disappeared? That might be why you occupy. And to the guy who couldn’t get the surgery he needed because his HMO said it was experimental, that might be his reason. And for everyone at the table, she could find some instance where they or a family member had been cheated or swindled, and that’s what would prompt people to get up out of their chairs. Moral outrage is the expression of the camps, and it’s the first step toward acting. Toward occupying.

So when people say, what’s the end game? When will you all just go home? We respond that there’s no finish line; this is the beginning of a new life. Maybe in the camp we’re naïve but we feel that if we keep at it, and keep coming at it with love, that people will recognize their moment. They’ll realize how they can act to improve the future of their children, their grandchildren, and humanity in general.

Jennifer Bardi is the editor of the Humanist.