Monday, March 26, 2012

Occupy Oakland Still Leading The Way

Occupy Oakland activists reclaiming a house from a bank over the winter
One promise of spring and summer 2012 in the northern hemisphere is that it will bring fresh developments in the Occupy movement, as it emerges from its winter hibernation. Some Occupies - like Occupy London Stock Exchange - battled bravely on into late February, but struggled to maintain their astonishing early momentum. In fact, perhaps only Occupy Oakland (OO) has made any real progression over the last few months. But why has OO succeeded where others have failed?

The answer to that question is far from straightforward. Certainly, the City of Oakland has not been soft on the Occupiers, Mayor Jean Quan bears the political responsibility for some of the heaviest anti-Occupy police violence anywhere. But while many Occupys shrank under the state's brutality, OO grew under the cosh, to the extent that a general strike was called and successfully held in response to one particularly ferocious assault.

The local weather has doubtless been an advantage. Where other northern hemisphere Occupies have been tested by everything a winter could throw at them, Oakland has a Mediterranean climate, with an average of three hundred days sunshine per year. Though OO lost their main camp at Oscar Grant Plaza to a police riot back in November, they have been able to organise a large amount of outside activities since, and the relatively fine weather surely must have helped.

But as always in political questions, social factors are the most decisive. Oakland is not a place where the idea of political struggle fell from the sky with Occupy Wall Street. Its status as a major port has historically made it a centre of Californian class struggle. The socialist author Jack London was a product of the city, and the Black Panthers movement grew out of Oakland streets, when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale organised black self-defence against police brutality. While today's Occupiers might be the grandchildren of that sixties generation, they have nonetheless grown up hearing stories of those days, often passed on by the city's many hip-hop artists. Another key factor is Oakland's poverty rate, which stands 5% higher than the US national average.

With the long months of spring and summer stretching ahead, Occupy Oakland seems to be a vibrant organism, with working committees organising around anti-repression, neighbourhood cleanup, environmental justice, foreclosure (repossession) defence, food kitchens, labour solidarity, media, and outreach. And just a fortnight ago, rapper Boots Riley announced the creation of a grassroots-run fast food workers' union in Oakland. The rest of 2012 will surely be an exciting times for Occupy Oakland, and its influence will no doubt spread around the globe.
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