OCCUPY OAKLAND, already on edge thanks to the assault on former Marine Scott Olsen late last month, has recently attracted support from local teachers who are rallying to fight proposed school closings. After a pack of Occupiers annexed an abandoned lot on Saturday, police stepped in early Sunday morning and dispersed the protesters. They left peacefully, pledging to return.
SATURDAY Nationally publicized police brutality has hardly done wonders for Oakland's tourism industry. For just 40 bucks on Priceline, I booked a room at the Marriott Courtyard — only a block away from City Hall, where Occupiers camped up until November 14, and near where cops fractured the skull of former Marine Scott Olsen in late October. Videos of Olsen being pelted with tear-gas canisters were among the first visuals to spur a national discussion about the inhumane treatment of Occupy protesters, and Oakland activists also got another sympathy boost when Deputy Mayor Sharon Cornu — and the Quan's chief legal advisor, Dan Siegel — resigned after the November crackdown.
When I arrive at Frank Ogawa Plaza — renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by Occupiers in memory of the 22-year-old killed by a BART transit cop in 2009 — thousands of people are gathered around the giant quad in front of Oakland City Hall. Most avoid the grassy parts, though, since the city intentionally flooded them in a successful attempt to keep Occupiers out. Nevertheless, they're showing up 10, 20, and even 50 at a time — the National Union of Healthcare Workers, masked Web hacktivists, Black Panthers, extended families, and hundreds of Oakland teachers, who are rallying to stop five school closings. After a half-hour of drums, poetry, and impassioned rants about banks and inequality, they're off, stretching across more than five blocks by the time all of the platoons line up. The celebration doesn't stop when the march begins, though; there are at least half-a-dozen dance parties along the route, including one around a brass band and another on a flatbed truck fueled by fitting anthems like "Sound of Da Police."Most people are packing some sort of mask or bandana and a plastic bag with anti-pepper-spray solution, but there's hardly a police presence on today's march. I ask around about why there are only a few cops in sight — some with signs on their back that say NEGOTIATOR — and am told that, while things are cool now, they're bound to heat up later when the group tries to squat in a new lot five blocks from City Hall (as proof they point to the three or four helicopters hovering above). Before that encore, though, the march pauses to rally outside a school facing imminent closure. There, above the crowd on one side of the Grand Lake cinema, is a sign advertising the new biopic J. Edgar — signaling more than a few cracks about how the former FBI chief is posthumously monitoring radicals. On the other side of the overhang is a short poem in backlit letters: "No one can evict an idea whose time has come. Shame on you Mayor Quan."
When we get to the corner of Telegraph Avenue and 19th Street — the site of a fenced-in abandoned lot that Occupiers planned to commandeer — I expect nothing less than a fully loaded riot squad. But the 30-or-so cops standing across the street and around the perimeter have no masks or helmets on. Furthermore, they don't even flinch as mobs of rabid Occupiers unravel hundreds of feet of chain links, push through gates, and run through the lot cheering. When resourceful Occupiers begin constructing a tent-and-tarp city using sticks and pipes from the massacred fences, police still leave them alone for more than two hours, until 10 pm, when authorities instruct the driver of the aforementioned flatbed truck, which is still fueling a dance party, to vacate. He does, but gets pulled over blocks away.
After a stand-off with about 20 cops, one officer enters the party truck and drives off, telling the nonviolent but verbally aggressive crowd that the vehicle will be impounded for 30 days. But while two protesters claim to be sideswiped by an unmarked cruiser fleeing the scene (and show everyone their bruises to prove it), the situation de-escalates as quickly as it started. Everyone heads back to the newly occupied lot, where there are about 100 people left with some others crashed in tents. Some seem wary about how long they'll last here, but they still mark the day a victory.
SUNDAY When I return the next morning, the tents are down, the tarps are gone. I see a young hippie couple that I met the night before, and the dreadlocked girl tells me they were raided at 8 am, and that, after some shouting, everyone decided to go peacefully. "We'll be back," she tells me. "Whether it's here or somewhere else." I look around, and there's no real trace of last night's action besides a pile of fencing. Across the street, discarded on a curb, I find one of the many doctored signs that Occupiers hung around the lot hours earlier: PIGS GO HOME. NO TRESPASSING WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION OF OCCUPANTS!!! PURSUANT TO THE POWER OF THE PEOPLE.
Chris Faraone can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @fara1. His book on Occupy, 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, drops in February.