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A view of Oakland Omni Commons space from above.

Omni Commons supporters work to build a free, open community workspace

on December 19, 2014

Every corner in this building has something going on: La Commune, a collectively-run and worker-owned bookstore and café, is turning the entrance into a cozy place which will welcome visitors with a cup of something to drink and something interesting to read. There is a space for Food Not Bombs, a project that brings free food to parks, political events, neighborhood gatherings and social centers. The Sudo Room and Counter Culture Labs share a spacious room that was once bocce courts, and is now a hackerspace and do-it-yourself biology space. Material Print Machine sits in the basement as an artist-run community print studio dedicated to the art of print and publishing. Timeless, Infinite Light, an Oakland small press, is focusing on contemporary poetry and critical theory. And the Bay Area Public School, which offers all kinds of classes, and a few other collectives share the remainder of the common space.

This is Omni Commons, an old 22,000-square-foot building near the intersection of Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues, which is now being renovated by activists, hackers, scientists, artists, educators and others who want to create a free space for all the citizens of Oakland. The several Bay Area collectives behind it share a political vision—one that promotes the equal sharing of resources and meeting human needs, rather than private interests or corporate profit.

Omni Commons started in 2011, with the creation of Sudo Room and the Bay Area Public School. Omni Commons launched an Indiegogo campaign on November 29, with a goal of raising $80,000 to buy the building and change it into to an ownerless space and a community land trust, according to their campaign website. The campaign raised more than $7,000 in its first week, and is currently up to $11,606. The campaign will close on January 5, 2015.

“We believe that everybody needs to build a commons!” Omni’s supporters wrote on their campaign website. “As for Oakland specifically—economic disparity and displacement have pushed long-time residents out of the area. We see a real need for projects that provide space and resources in a manner more befitting of Oakland’s radical history of creativity, cooperation and social justice organizing.”

Optik Allusions, a film collective formed by a group of volunteers, made a promotional video for their campaign showing a finished space with many groups simultaneously operating in it, but that was only temporarily staged—right now, the building is still only sparsely populated, and many things are still under construction.  Their $80,000 goal would be used to cover the upgrade costs of building renovations, refurbishing and equipping the space.

The motto “Open the Omni Commons for All of Oakland” permeates every operation, discussion and decision made at the center. There are no chiefs in the organization, and all members are committed to transparently documenting everything they do. They say they have learned how to work in groups, and how to communicate using Wikis to achieve efficiency while avoiding introducing hierarchy. “It functions completely horizontal,” said Noemie Serfaty, a founding member and volunteer. “There are maybe more than 100 founders. It is completely decentralized. Our goal is that anyone who comes in and wants to become part of this can do it.”

As one of the space’s more mature projects, Sudo Mesh is organized by a group of volunteers and civic-minded programmers who want to build a community-owned Internet that is made and powered by people, which allow the users to freely share Internet connectivity and build their own community-owned communication system with other routers around them. “Sudo Mesh, the people-owned network, is a part of global movement of communities that are running, operating and owning their networks,” said Matt Senate, the cofounding member of Sudo Mesh project—although he is reluctant to call himself a founder, in keeping with the group’s anti-hierarchical principles. “We felt the pressing urgency of changing the way networks are owned and operated.”

“It is extremely valuable to have a local network that is channeled through the Internet itself,” said Senate, “in which all the devices on the Internet can communicate to one and another, peer to peer.” He cited two reasons for its importance: First, he said that in disaster-stricken area, a mesh network is a way for citizens to communicate with one another. And secondly, he added, “It is independent. Each individual person who runs it in their house, they are the network. The network is the people who run this.”

“There are very few places where you can go and not have to spend money. It is pretty much like the library,” said Marina Kukso, an Oakland resident who contributed to the creation of Sudo Room and the Oakland Wiki. “Everyone can become a participant here and determine where the place is going in the future.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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