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A Critical Look at Occupy Oakland

Posted: Jan 30, 2012

Editor's Note: At least 400 people were arrested in Oakland on Saturday following an Occupy rally and march.  The clash with police occurred after a group of demonstrators broke into City Hall and attemped to occupy an out-of-use dowtown convention center.  The following account was originally published by Oakland Local.

While standing in front of the Oakland Public Library, a young white man gave me a flyer to Occupy Oakland’s “Weekend of Action!” While I agreed with some of Occupy Movement’s positions, I disagreed with a lot of their tactics. I told the man I had problems with Occupy Oakland. Though it was called “Occupy Oakland,” the media focused on white protesters from other cities. I heard little from the African Americans in Oakland. The young white man’s partner joined our conversation and it quickly escalated into an argument.

During the argument, the men conflated gang injunctions, racial profiling and racial discrimination. I disagreed. The gang injunction issue boils down to the community’s right to public safety over the right of individual gang members to terrorize it. Many African Americans in Oakland support gang injunctions for their neighborhoods because the injunctions help control gangs. It made them feel safer. Gang injunctions are based on a specific community’s need—whether that community and its gangbangers are predominately African American, Latino, Asian or white. It is not racial profiling.

The two men spoke against the police actions taken against the Occupy Oakland protesters. One called it “police brutality.” I disagreed with his use of the word “police brutality.” In the name of public safety, the police ordered the predominately white Occupy Oakland protesters to disperse. Though I saw a video with rocks and bottles flying at the police, many debate whether or not the protesters disrespected the police. However, the protesters had the option of leaving the area but they chose not to. In effect, they forced the police to get physical. The police gave them a reality check. With rights come responsibility; if the protesters wanted to make a statement, they would have to pay the price. However, because the protesters felt entitled and privileged to disrespect the police, they called the police actions “police brutality.”

I asked the men if the citizens of Oakland voted to make Oakland the “home” of their movement? Does Oakland benefit? Many Oaklanders don’t even know what they’re really protesting about. One of the young white men had the temerity to tell me that Occupy Oakland was fighting for me. I disagreed with this paternalism. He did not know my name, profession or where I lived, but he assumed he knew what I needed.

In fact, I told the man that Occupy Oakland distracts Oakland from its own issues. He asked me what some of those issues were. I didn’t know where to begin. How about the gentrification that treats African Americans like “blight” to be removed from our own homes? Then our politicians applaud the new “diversity.” Our politicians worry about polishing Oakland’s image and an Oakland Renaissance, even as Oakland’s children get killed in the streets.

In addition to the financial burden of Oakland Occupy protests, the state is cutting off Oakland’s redevelopment money. Rather than being distracted by Occupy Oakland, Oakland citizens need to be looking critically at its city management and “progressive politics.” In the past, was redevelopment money wisely spent or wasted? Did “progressive politics” use redevelopment money to foster an attitude of unsustainable “gimme, gimme, gimme” dependence? Did the redevelopment money spent downtown benefit Oakland’s African Americans or displace them? Can Oakland afford “progressive politics”?

As a result of Oakland’s financial woes, half of the employees at the City of Oakland, many of whom are working-class African Americans, received layoff notices. When the City Council met to discuss the layoffs, a group of Occupy Oakland protesters disrupted the meeting. But how many of those jobs were lost due to the financial burden of Occupy Oakland protests?

After Occupy Oakland’s shut down the Port, several major shippers threatened to use other ports. This could severely cripple Oakland’s, if not the region’s, economy. Unemployment among Oakland’s African Americans is already high and if those business leave, it will likely get higher. An independent truck driver complained on television news that the Port shutdown hurt his business and livelihood. One arrogant protester, a young (white) woman, told the reporter they were doing it for his own good.

When the protesters went back to their own homes, Oakland was left with the bill. In addition, our already understaffed police had been dispatched to attend to their protests away from other crimes in Oakland.

These two men at the library felt they were entitled to make Oakland the home of their movement. It mattered not that I saw them as privileged white men coming to trash Oakland and then going back home when they got tired. They did not think they needed the support of Oakland citizens. One of the men outside the library told me he did not live in Oakland. The other told me he moved to Oakland. Why did Oakland have to bear the cost of their protests? Why shouldn’t their own hometowns bear the costs? Why not Walnut Creek? Why not make some wealthy enclave in Marin County or Silicon Valley their “home”? Perhaps part of the answer can be found in our “conversation.” Perhaps they did not assume those places needed their paternalism.

Even though Oakland is a predominately African American city, the media portrays Occupy Oakland as privileged whites who come to Oakland to protest. Even though the two white men argued that there were African Americans in Occupy Oakland, I realized that they would only hear the African American perspectives they wanted to hear. In the past, I have heard African Americans make their same arguments and I disagreed with them too. Finally, one of the men began cursing and stalked off like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. At that moment, he personified what I hear many people say about Occupy Oakland protesters—frustrated white skin entitlement.

Kheven LaGrone is the editor of "Alice Walker's The Color Purple," a collection of literary criticism on the controversial novel. He was also the curator of Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentators at the San Francisco Main Public Library and Laney College Library. Kheven LaGrone is currently curating "Remember My Name: Black Genealogy Through the Eye of An Artist" which will exhibit at the San Francisco Main Public Library later this year.

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