Occupy Oakland marked its two-year anniversary Thursday with a celebratory gathering at Frank Ogawa Plaza in downtown Oakland.
The event started at 2 p.m. with volunteers serving freshly cooked food to supporters and the local community. By 5 p.m., dozens of people had gathered to commemorate Occupy Oakland’s anniversary, but also to support and highlight the California Prisoners’ Hunger Strike.
The event revealed a resolve by the city of Oakland to take no chances with violence at Occupy protests. At times, there were more police than participants, as the Oakland Police Department surrounded the plaza, deploying groups of four to six officers at nearly every corner. The gathering remained peaceful, with participants listening to speeches and designing an enormous chalk mural on the plaza floor, dubbed “Chalkupy.”
After Occupy Wall Street started an international movement in 2011, Occupy Oakland formed on October 10, 2011, and set up camp in Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by protestors. At one point, hundreds of people were living in the camp. After a series of clashes with police, the camp was ultimately dismantled in November 2011, but the core of the group has remained intact.
Organizers also used the event to focus attention on the 60-day California Prisoners’ Hunger Strike, which ended last month. The hunger strike, which at its peak included 30,000 California prisoners, was the largest in United States history and called for an end to solitary confinement in California prisons.
Dan Siegel, an Oakland attorney and former legal counsel to Mayor Jean Quan who publicly broke ties with the mayor over her handling of the Occupy protests in 2011, spoke to the crowd about a recent legislative hearing in Sacramento to address solitary confinement. He encouraged Occupy supporters “to get behind this movement and add our voice to the folks who are trying to end torture in California prisons.”
Sarah Shroud, one of three hikers detained in Iran from 2009 to 2010, along with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal, spoke on what it meant to live in solitary confinement for 410 days and how she adjusted after coming home. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is after prison,” she said. She remembered being back in the Bay Area and wanting to join Occupy protestors in shutting down the Oakland Port. But that day she couldn’t stop crying.
Shroud has since been working to end the practice of solitary confinement in the United States. She acknowledged that there was a lot of work to do to systematically change the system, but said that thanks to Occupy, “things are shifting in this country. We’ve changed the narrative.”
At the event, speakers took turns addressing the audience through a small P.A. system in an open mic format, and the topics were as varied as the crowd. Some spoke to the solitary confinement issue, others to foreclosures, but participants made it clear that Occupy Oakland is still an active network for activists involved with these issues.
“Everybody said Occupy is dead, but people still come together and support each other’s work,” said Ali Oakbaba, a member of Occupy Oakland who helped organize the event.
Occupy Oakland member Lelah Behbehanian asked the crowd to think about what it was exactly they were celebrating. The community was able “to build a radically different world” here in downtown Oakland, she said. Today, “I celebrate our collective vision of that world.”
Participants and organizers did not seem fazed by the low turnout. Siegel, for one, suggested that many Occupy supporters may have been absent because they were busy with their own social justice work.
“Occupy was just one face of a movement that never sleeps,” added Behbehanian. “People ask, ‘Is Occupy dead?’ You can’t look for the tents. You have to look for the work.”