The Occupy Wall Street protests—which first began in New York’s financial district on September 17—have reached Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, where on Tuesday morning protesters camped out in about fifty tents in front of Oakland City Hall. Protesters welcomed passersby with signs that read “Do not consent to corporate oligarchy” and chalked the words “Bail out the people, not the banks” on the sidewalks.
The Occupy Wall Street protests began nearly one month ago, when people gathered in New York to rally against big banks and protest economic inequality. Since then, protests have erupted across dozens of US cities, including Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Since 4 p.m. Monday, nearly 100 Oakland residents—from tattooed anarchists to retired grandparents to campus activists from local colleges—have built a tent city on the plaza’s grass field. Taking a cue from protesters in Egypt’s Tahrir Square this past January, Oakland’s protesters, who intend to camp there indefinitely, organized tents to provide different services, such as food, medical assistance, and entertainment. An arts and crafts tent was equipped with colorful markers and a djembe drum.
Although the Occupy Oakland protesters have not yet decided on a unified set of goals, they are holding committee meetings and a larger general assembly daily to develop a strategic plan of action to end what they call the corporate corruption of the country’s elite. No single leader or organization runs these meetings, which one protester referred to as a “community tribunal.” Participants put forth amendments and proposals on issues such as creating new subcommittees and addressing housing for the protesters, either reaching consensus or “blocking” decisions.
Although Oakland’s protests are rooted in national frustrations with economic disparities, protesters have also discussed local issues such as teen curfews, gang injunctions, and police brutality.
“I’m tired of being broke,” said Dotty Long, a 62-year-old Oakland resident and bartender at the restaurant Everett & Jones. “It’s just not fair that one particular group gets all the cookies.” Long sat on a lawn chair draped with a cheetah-patterned blanket; her Raiders hat and sweatpants stood out against the purple and black interior of her tent. “It would be one thing if they wanted to share, but that’s not the case,” she said as she knitted a green poncho. “I’m here to voice my disapproval, peacefully.”
Long was joined by others who felt that occupying Frank Ogawa Plaza indefinitely would send a clear message to policy makers that changes need to be made. “We need more direct participatory democracy,” said Lucy V, a 26-year-old Brooklyn native who declined to give her full last name. Lucy came to visit friends in Oakland and ended up helping run the food tent. She squatted down on her bare feet, muddied by the rain, to wash a blue basin. “People directly affected by decisions should be making the decisions,” she said.
On one side of the plaza, protesters huddled Tuesday under a blue tarp riddled with holes as they held a committee meeting to discuss issues such as security, housing, logistics, and drafting the group’s demands. “I want to see a written resolution,” said Reinaldi Gilder, a 26-year-old student. “There needs to be something to take to the city council, and to the local and federal level.”
John Reimann, a 65-year-old Oakland resident and retired construction worker, urged the group to consider stationing some people out on the streets to pass out fliers in order to attract more passersby to join their cause. “Don’t expect people to come to us. We need to go to them,” he said. Reimann said he had five reasons for why the Occupy Wall Street protests matter to him: Thandiwe, Amara, Jair, Xochitl, and Amen. “They’re my grandkids,” he said. “I want to see a decent future for all our grandchildren. I want them to have decent jobs, a clean environment, and a world run by working class people and not a tiny minority of billionaires.”
As the group discussed the importance of having diverse voices represented in its resolution, Mayor Jean Quan made her way to the crowd. After a few minutes of listening to the meeting, Quan attempted to speak, both to address their concerns as well as to warn the campers against public urination. Protest organizers said she had to wait.
“She just wants to tell us not to pee on the oak tree, because it’s old and could die,” said one protester.
“There are people here with other important things to say, too,” an organizer said.
“The mayor is a representative of us!” a man yelled out from the circle.
Protesters asked Mayor Quan to submit a proposal about her public urination concern, then resumed with the meeting’s agenda.
At the food tent on the other side of the plaza, Lydia Apple, a 31-year-old social worker, had come to donate some cookies and other pastries before heading back to work at a community health center down the street. Although Apple says she’s not sure that the protests will accomplish anything on a policy level, she thinks it is important. “I think it’s more of a vigil, in a way,” she said. “It’s about holding a light up to what matters.”
As Apple headed back to work, other food donors made their way to the food tent. One middle-aged woman opened up a black backpack to unload some croissants, hard-boiled eggs, and fruit. Another came in and said she needed help unloading “tons of coffee” from her car. The food tent’s protest organizers responded with a unified “Awesome!” as the woman listed the other items she had to donate: napkins, stir sticks, milk and soy milk.
As the women set up the supplies, a homeless man came into the tent asking if the coffee was free. “Yes! Please help yourself,” said a food tent organizer, who also works with the group Food Not Bombs and Beyond.
Buddy Roark, a 23-year-old student at Laney College and coffee shop worker from San Leandro, said that he felt that this kind of sharing was already a victory for the protesters. “In the short term, it’s already doing something real by providing a place where the unemployed and homeless can come and get a meal,” he said. Pointing to the heaps of donated food piling up in the tent, he continued, “This could be the embryo for a new way of doing things.”
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.
Text by Amina Waheed, video by Mariel Waloff and Megan Molteni.