Video project examines Occupy Oakland from different viewpoints
on May 14, 2012
The inspiration for a web project that contains interviews with 16 people “involved or impacted” by Occupy Oakland came from an exhibit at the Oakland Museum of California that documents the year 1968. “We thought, ‘What we would have done if we had a time machine and could go back to 1968 with a camera and a notebook?’” said Alex Abramovich, a journalist, artist and one of the co-creators of the project. “’What did we wish someone had done?’”
Inspired by films like “The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975” a comprehensive look at the Black Power movement in the 1960s and 70s made by Swedish journalists, Abramovich and his project partner Lucy Raven set out to create a project that would examine Occupy Oakland from different viewpoints, including from the perspective of those who have ties to it. The result is “Portraits from the Occupation” which is featured on The Oakland Standard, a contemporary art project website created by the museum.
“We decided that we would take something happening in Oakland now—Occupy sort of being the most obvious thing—and see if we could represent it from all sides as objectively and kaleidoscopically as we could,” Abramovich said.
The artists began with six interview subjects—independent journalist Susie Cagle, Occupy organizers Leo Ritz-Barr and Christopher Moreland, Bay Area real estate developer Phil Tagami, UC Davis English professor and activist Joshua Clover and Oakland Mayor Jean Quan—but soon realized that six interviews wouldn’t provide “a clear enough picture,” Abramovich said. The artists expanded the list of interview subjects to 12, and then finally 16.
Abramovich had been out reporting at all of the main Occupy Oakland events since protesters began setting up tents in front of City Hall in September, including the first general strike and port blockade in November and the move-in day in January when protesters tried to take over the vacant Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium, so he said he could identify the main players. The final 16 include a trucker who works at the Port of Oakland, Scott Olsen, a marine injured during the late October protest, and Councilmember Desley Brooks.
Most of the interviews are under the 10-minute mark, and can be clicked through individually on the Oakland Standard website. Abramovich and Raven asked each subject four questions: How did you become involved in Occupy Oakland? How has Occupy Oakland been good and/or bad for Oakland? Given the benefit of hindsight, what are some of the things that Occupy Oakland and/or the City of Oakland could or should have done differently? What’s next (or, what do you hope is next) for Occupy Oakland and the City of Oakland?
One of the most insightful interviews comes from a somewhat surprising source, considering he was not actively involved in any of the Occupy actions—former Oakland Police Chief Anthony Batts, who is now a consultant with the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Batts stepped down shortly before the Occupy protests began, and Batts’ successor, Howard Jordan led the department through policing the eviction of the camps and the resulting street protests. Abramovich said the artists interviewed Batts because they wanted a law enforcement perspective but were unable to get anyone from OPD to agree to speak on camera.
In the interview, Batts says he submitted his letter of resignation the day Occupy began in Oakland, saying he was speaking with Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana when he looked out the window and saw tents being set up in Frank Ogawa Plaza. He talks in the interview about how the understaffed OPD would not have adequate resources to police mass demonstrations, and how the consent decree came about and works to reform the department.
Batts also says he would have handled the eviction of Occupy protestors from Frank Ogawa Plaza differently than city officials. Batts said he would have acted more along the lines of the Los Angeles Police Department, which he said was able to evict its Occupy encampment through “diplomacy” and a “well-planned plan of operation.” Batts said he thought police acted to hastily in Oakland.
“The reality, all you had is people sleeping on grass,” Batts said. “You can replace grass, you can do things over, so that’s no reason to move quickly. You take your time, you use diplomacy, you talk to people.”
One of the reasons Oakland officials struggled to evict the protestors, and then garnered negative publicity when protesters and police clashed in the streets when protesters tried to re-take the plaza that night, was because Oakland had a “rookie crew” in charge Batts said in the interview. “You had an aligning of a perfect storm,” Batts said. “You had a rookie crew, from the mayor to the city administrator to the chief of police at the time, dealing with a situation they’d probably never seen before.”
Abramovich said the interview with Arturo Sanchez, then the assistant city administrator who was charged with communicating on the city’s behalf with Occupy protesters, also stood out to him. In his interview, Sanchez talks about how Occupy’s message could have been stronger if they had partnered with the city. Abramovich said Sanchez’s interview is an example of “systemic disconnect between people on Occupy’s side and the side of the city.”
“Sanchez said imagine if Occupy and the city joined forces, and the message that would send to the rest of the country,” Abramovich said. “But when I think you look at the things that are said on the sort of other side of the aisle, not only is there no interest in partnering with the city, the very thought of it is diametrically opposed to the founding principals of Occupy Oakland. That sort of structural inability to communicate we thought was fascinating.”
Abramovich said he’s hoping the interviews will help people understand the different viewpoints concerning Occupy Oakland, and “connect some faces to some names and some explanations of what people were doing.”
“Things had gotten so polarized in Oakland that there really weren’t lines of communication for people on either side of the conflict,” he said. “We hope we can at least maybe help people see what people on the other side of the barricade were thinking and where they were coming from.”
Go here to view “Portraits from the Occupation.”
Lead image: A screen grab of the film. Courtesy of The Oakland Museum of California.
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