In advance of Occupy protesters’ coordinated attempt to forcibly close seaports along the West coast today, a breakaway group of activists launched a peripheral campaign on Sunday. The group did not try to retake Frank Ogawa Plaza or Snow Park, areas that protestors fought to hold during a month-long showdown with police. Instead, they built a large raft, loaded it with supplies, and anchored down in the middle of Lake Merritt.
The group nicknamed their action “Aquapy.” Their vessel – dubbed the SS Don’t Let The Banks Punk You Out – is a simple platform, about ten feet long, with two rows of plastic barrels lashed to the underside. Bright stencils decorate the surface and a crude plastic canopy provides shelter.
On Sunday, in the predawn hours, the Aquapiers drove past Children’s Fairyland on the north side of the lake. They pulled over by the Lake Merritt Boating Center, a Parks and Recreation Department-managed boathouse. The building was dark and the docks were empty. They lowered the raft into the water and pushed it behind a grouping of trees, then went to work with cordless drills to erect the canopy.
As they were finishing around 5:30 am, a police car drove by, slowed down, and then continued on. “We were like, ‘Let’s go,’” one participant said, and they pushed out onto the lake, raising high pink and black banners displaying messages like “Occupy Anything” and “Port Shutdown.”
Participant Colin Dodsworth, 28, said the action was a response to a decline in media interest about Occupy Oakland. “People have gotten really apathetic and turned off by typical protests,” he said. “It’s important to do creative, exciting things that will get people talking.”
The Aquapy team didn’t go through Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly process to ratify their project, but rather held their own meetings in secret. They met daily at a squatted house near Emeryville (not one of the foreclosed homes that have recently been taken over by Occupy protesters). With donated materials from Urban Ore and volunteers enlisted by word of mouth, the group completed their craft in less than two weeks.
“It wasn’t hard to do,” said a protester who goes by Liberty Euphrasia, 26, and declined to give his real name. “It’s not that nice of a boat.”
Euphrasia, who was wearing a marching band jacket and a huge yellow plastic anchor on a necklace, had previous experience constructing elaborate vessels from salvaged materials. He helped build fleets that floated down the Mississippi and Hudson rivers for traveling shows that were orchestrated by the New York street artist Swoon.
By comparison, the Aquapy raft was a straightforward, unembellished thing. There was one dominant design element in mind: utility. The structure was built in two separate pieces then screwed together before being loaded at the work site. It was given a rough base coat of flat black paint. Its anchor is a cement-filled bucket.
Throughout the day, activists said dozens of people were ferried back and forth from the raft in a dinghy, a small rowboat attached to the larger vessel. Some were friends, arriving to take shifts crewing the raft. Twenty or more were curious strangers who noticed it from the shore.
The group soon drew the attention of the Boating Center manager, who called in a report to the non-emergency police line, then, shortly before the boathouse closed at 5 pm, dispatched a whaler labeled “Lake Patrol” to investigate the raft.
“The only thing they could really get in trouble for is being in a park past the closing,” said recreation attendant Lindsay Jones, 26. “We went just to check it out.” Jones asked the crew to pay a launch fee, she said, and they did. She also delivered them life vests, enough for everyone on board, and informed the Aquapiers that if they remained much longer, after 5 pm, they would be breaking the law. After that, Parks and Recreation staffers left them alone.
“They were super nice,” said Jojo Tasia Mcgraw, 23, (also not his real name). Mcgraw said he hopes more boats will join their cause, resulting in a flotilla takeover of the lake.
Meanwhile, after sundown, on the southwest side of the lake, a woman and her husband placed their own rafts – four of them – into the water. Each one was about 18 inches across, made of tiny orange tents tethered to slabs of silver Styrofoam, decorated with battery powered string lights.
Sussu Laaksonen, a 41 year-old Finnish ex-pat and a writer of Occupy Oakland fan fiction, said she came up with the idea for the miniature rafts the day after the Frank Ogawa Plaza camp was first raided, on October 25. “They broke the encampment and it was heartbreaking,” she said.
Laaksonen said she had no idea about the larger, crewed version of her art project floating just a hundred yards away in the dark. Her immediate goal was “to show that Occupy Oakland isn’t dead,” she said. Her long-term goal, she said, is to bring Finnish “mom and pop views” to the United States. “I want to import socialism and free health care and free education for everyone,” she said.
After pushing the little glowing boats out onto the lake, the couple shared a thermos of glög, or hot mulled wine (in this case, grape juice), and produced song sheets from a clear plastic tote. As the boats drifted away, they sang a hymn, “Nearer, my God, to Thee.”
“This is what they played on the Titanic as it was going down,” Laaksonen said. “And our economy is the Titanic.”
You can see Oakland North’s complete coverage of Occupy Oakland here.