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Rita Nakashima Brock, Ph. D.

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Why Occupy Oakland Persists in Searching for a Home

Posted: 01/30/2012 6:08 pm

Occupy Oakland has endured two months of police harassment. We have managed to maintain a presence at the plaza where we originally pitched our tents, which were removed in a second raid on Nov. 14. But this has gotten increasingly difficult; the city has decided that passing out food, resting bicycles, and placing umbrellas and blankets on the ground are illegal in the public plaza. After the November raid, the city started watering the tent-friendly grass area of the plaza 24/7 and flooded it. Occupiers renamed the plaza Quan Lake, in honor of the mayor.

On Dec. 12 and 30 they raided the plaza, tossing food for hungry people and everyone's belongings into a trash truck. They arrested anyone who protested or tried to stop them, issuing restraining orders against their return to the plaza. The harassment, instead of making us more afraid, toughened us, hardening our determination to grow the movement and fight the city.

So Occupy Oakland decided we needed a new home. On the beautiful, warm, sunny afternoon of Jan. 28, a dozen of us from the Interfaith Tent joined about a thousand folks from Occupy Oakland in a march to take over a mystery building that had been unused for six years and would make a new home for our homeless movement. A core group selected several options, but none of us knew what it would be until we got there.

The Children's Village -- a brigade of parents pushing strollers with toddlers, carrying babies in slings, and supervising kids carrying balloons -- invited the Interfaith Tent to march with them. We did until they detoured for a picnic and games before we got to the building.

Though city officials claimed we wanted to vandalize buildings, in fact, marchers carried items for a move in: a rug, boxes of library books, a religious altar, a potted flower, kitchen equipment, musical instruments and a sound system. After we left the children, we marched near a guy who carried an orange stuffed chair on his head -- he paused occasionally to sit in it -- and several disabled folks who spiritedly rolled their wheelchairs.

The first round of police violence erupted as a group tore down a fence and tried to enter the unused convention center. Police issued a dispersal order, and, at several locations along the march, they fired tear gas, flash grenades and beanbags at marchers trying to get access to the building. Those who chose not to be arrested stood near the back of the march, which is where I watched the events as they unfolded. Video shows how much better prepared marchers were this time for the police violence and how long they faced it. Some even threw tear gas canisters back at the police. After dark, police kettled several hundred peaceful marchers, did not give a dispersal order or allow people to leave, shot tear gas into the imprisoned crowd, and then arrested 300 for refusing to leave a riot, after roughing up some of the arrestees.

The raids that cleared most major occupations at the end of last year were coordinated by homeland security and have left many occupations without a secure home. Why, you might ask, are we so determined to occupy a new site?

Occupying is the spiritual heart of the movement. It is how people with a fierce desire for a different world embody, in real life practices, the community life they want. In all its imperfections and struggles, the Occupy Movement embodies respect for the earth, generosity and care for others, open democracy, appreciation for diversity and an ethos of love. When we were in the plaza, medical professionals worked their jobs and then volunteered hours of help to Occupy, and they were there to help injured protesters at the march on Saturday. The public librarians came over after work to manage the library. People went to work all day and came to the plaza to cook and serve food, clean toilets, maintain security, figure out the finances, plan events and facilitate the general assemblies. The hours of generosity and hard work have been stunning and inspiring.

Occupations create a common public space for assembly, free speech and intense, transformative conversations. The common space is also profoundly creative of poetry, of music and of art, not to mention wonderful humor.

Occupations are also prophetic speech acts; they stand in a long and distinguished biblical tradition that uses such acts to hold the powerful accountable for the suffering of the people. Because prophetic acts expose attempts of the criminals in power to deny, ignore or crush the hard truths of injustice, they require courage to handle the inevitable backlash of the powerful. Standing in that long legacy, occupations expose homelessness, foreclosures, rising poverty, gross injustice and the continuing financial crisis.

Not everyone who supports the Occupy movement spends time at the site. In fact, even when we had a tent city, many of us slept at home and were in the plaza a few hours a week. But the time I spent at the plaza was inexplicably moving, even when I was frustrated or upset by things that happened. Something deeply important was happening there, and when I couldn't get down there for a few days, I missed it.

No substitute exists for a physical occupation. It is what incarnation means. Occupations incarnate intangibles like love, dignity, respect, freedom, truth, justice and democracy in the tangibles of warm flesh and blood. In that incarnation, spirit breathes in bodies and courage is contagious.

We didn't succeed in occupying a building this past weekend. But this was our first attempt. They'll be more.