As I sit here and write this, there could be tens or maybe hundreds of nonviolent protestors setting up tents on the UC Berkeley campus. I just got home from Occupy Cal’s General Assembly where the proposal to support the use of tents as a form of civil disobedience was approved only a week after several undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, and even a Nobel Laureate were senselessly beaten by the campus police department (UCPD), Alameda County Sheriff’s Department, among others. I encourage you to read this article and watch the accompanying footage here.
In addition to Occupy Cal, I have been a participant in the Occupy Oakland movement that is taking place only blocks away from my home. Words cannot even begin to describe the extent of my contradictory emotions that the Occupy movement has come to embody in my mind. However, I think that I am most saddened with the positions local governments have taken to blatantly protect the interests of the elite classes over the welfare of our most underserved community members.
Before the proposal to support the use of tents as form of civil disobedience passed at Occupy Cal, I participated in a really interesting conversation with a group of about 20 other Occupy participants about the use of tents as a symbolic and/or necessary form of protest.
On the one hand, pitching a tent was going to be in direct violation of the University’s orders to those participating in the Occupy protests. Some of the participants felt that the University was at least trying to meet the protesters part way – they could protest however they wanted, so long as they didn’t pitch a tent on campus grounds. On the other hand, and in the words of one of the General Assembly’s speakers that so aptly put it, what’s the big deal about a tent?
A point I brought up with the other participants of our discussion group was how a tent might have symbolic meaning and material meaning as well. I clarified that the choice to pitch a tent was a privilege in of itself. If you had been to Occupy Oakland, you would have seen how in many ways the tent community had served to provide the basic needs for many of Oakland’s homeless, mentally ill, poor, and hungry. It was beautiful in a way (well, maybe more the second time around), in how different committees came together to try to meet the City’s public health, sanitation, disposal, and safety standards in order to keep the space as hospitable as possible. The way people organized a make-shift kitchen and fed hundreds of people for most hours of the day; others devoted themselves to cleaning up trash and separating compost and recycling; you could even see Occupy’s Medic Team walking around the camp to make sure no one was hurt or in need of medical intervention. These are examples of how planful, thoughtful, and empathetic people can be to try their best to meet the basic needs of the community – all without much of the infrastructure we’re used to in our daily lives. Also, it was entirely in the public domain. I mean, out in the open, entirely visible to everyone who walks by heart of Downtown Oakland.
The way in which I think the Occupy movement is so unique is in how visible it is to everyone. Now the City administration, the public, the tax payers, everyone has to look at the homeless, the mentally and physically ill, and the poor who are camped out right in front of their cubicle windows. Not that the ill, poor, and homeless do not exist on Cal’s campus, its just most of the time their struggles are not as visible to the general student body.
Pitching a tent is greater than just pitching a tent. It is also a way to make our struggles visible to those in power who claim to have our (the voters’ or students) best interests at heart.
I do not want to romanticize the encampment at Occupy Oakland, either. I saw probably the biggest rat of my life scurrying across the plaza, trash bins along Broadway were overflowing, and I didn’t necessarily agree with many of the organizing tactics that were being implemented by Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly facilitation committee.
So, what is the next step and what does it have to do with local government?
I believe that if the student body at UC Berkeley is planful, creative, and stubborn, they have an opportunity to create a much more democratic and decentralized community. Let’s engage students in public health, city planning, engineering, peace and conflict studies, etc. into putting the ethos of Occupy and their theoretical knowledge into practice to yield innovative alternatives to meeting the needs of our most undeserved community members. Then, let’s invite those City officials in positions of power to study us, to learn from us, to take our demonstrations and lessons learned back to their offices and use this as a moment to really address the systemic inequality and violence that being waged on the poor in our cities.
Just as cities made coordinated efforts to evict thousands of Occupy protestors nationwide over the last two days, I believe that cities can concentrate that energy into trying to incorporate and reflect the change that the Occupy movement symbolizes.