Occupy Oakland: focusing or fading away?

Matthai Kuruvila and Demian Bulwa
S.F. Chronicle, Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Occupy activists have assailed a federal government they say colludes with the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans. But on Monday when the president came to raise money in downtown Oakland – home of the nation’s most militant Occupy movement – the protesters did little to respond.

President Obama, who attended a big fundraiser at the Fox Theater, was met primarily by a group of medical marijuana advocates. Some Occupy protesters joined them and later marched, but their actions were a stark contrast to events in the past that drew thousands.

Whether it’s a sign of a movement that’s lost steam – or is merely evolving – is still unclear.

“We don’t know where it goes, but we’re in the early stages,” said Matt Smaldone, 38, a West Oakland resident who has been involved in Occupy Oakland since the beginning. “I don’t think we’re at a risk of things stopping, because the economy is not improving.”

More than nine months after setting up an elaborate tent city outside City Hall, leading to infamous clashes with the police, Occupy Oakland is again trying to reinvent itself without the unifying force of the encampment and in the face of critics who question their aggressive tactics.

Thinking smaller

Large-scale actions – like shutdowns of the Port of Oakland in November and December – don’t appear to be the future. Instead, the movement has fragmented into smaller groups focused on issues like school closures, foreclosure prevention and a fatal police shooting in May.

That means doing things that often involve neighborhood organizing, which happens far from downtown. For some, that’s a sign of progress.

“It’s a good thing people are focused less on spectacles and doing more community organizing work,” said Steven Angell, 23, an Occupy Oakland activist since January. “Those are much more important, particularly for Oakland.”

But some critics of Occupy Oakland said the group had lost much of the support it had last year, in part because some members put so much energy into confronting police.

‘Mayhem’ criticized

“They would get support if they would fight for a cause, not just cause mayhem,” said Nancy Sidebotham, 67, who helped organize Stand for Oakland, a group of citizens and merchants that spoke out against Occupy Oakland. “They need to go after the banks or the economy. Pick something and go after it. Don’t try to go all over the map because you can’t get it together.”

Members acknowledge that their numbers have shrunk, and not just at public actions. General assemblies, held twice a week, have drawn fewer and fewer people, prompting moves to reduce from 100 the size of the quorum needed for a vote. In Occupy Oakland’s heyday, some meetings attracted more than 1,000 people.

Wendy Kenin, a 40-year-old Berkeley resident who is on Berkeley’s Peace and Justice Commission, said a core group at the assemblies is “holding the space for the continuation of the movement. It might not look like the massive uprising of last year, but it’s still active. There are going to be ebbs and flows.”

Several people, though, said that frustration and burnout had chipped away at the movement and that divides had opened due to violence and infighting – sometimes, ironically, over how to spend donated money.

Some people who participated in Occupy Oakland felt it was important to rally against the police, particularly after they arrested protesters. But others saw a useless series of skirmishes that could have been largely avoided, and that distracted from the core message of economic inequality.

On Monday, Spencer Mills – who helped pioneer live, online broadcasts of Occupy Oakland events – criticized protesters for past tactics like throwing rocks at police.

“Please, come off that high horse & tell me what you have accomplished with violence & property destruction in Oakland,” he wrote on Twitter. “Actually, it has accomplished things. #OPD can better justify its budget,@JeanQuan gets the high moral ground & (Occupy Oakland) drifts in obscurity.”

Blaming the establishment

Many Occupy activists said tension is inevitable in a big social movement. They said the internal discord has been heightened by outside forces, particularly police and the press.

“The establishment did such a great job demonizing the Occupy movement that a lot of people who are unhappy with the economy are too afraid to show up,” said David Meany, 32, of Pleasant Hill, a self-described pacifist who has been coming to Occupy Oakland since nearly the beginning.

Rachel Dorney, 24, of Oakland, who moved into the original City Hall encampment, said she had been less involved in recent months, in part because of internal strife. But she, too, believed Occupy would not fade away.

“I don’t think it’s dead,” she said. “I hope it’s not. Whatever happens, we can’t go back to how it was (in America). Things have definitely changed. It’s an idea, and I think a lot of times people forget that. Whatever happens, we haven’t failed.”