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Place and Occupy Oakland

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Aaron Bady makes an interesting and pretty convincing argument that Occupy Oakland and the Occupy movement as a whole outside of Wall Street is best understood by grounding it in place. He argues that unlike Occupy Wall Street, Oakland and other movements around the country were specific reactions to problems within cities rather than strictly to national economic issues.

After all, the police who dispersed occupiers with tear gas were only doing the sort of thing they had long been accustomed to doing to the poor, transient, and/or communities of color that make up a great majority of Oakland’s humanity. They used inhuman means of regulating human bodies—the declaration of “unlawful assembly”—because the city is accustomed to having the power to do so, the effective right to assemble and disassemble Oakland as they see fit. It’s that power that’s being contested. When a body calling itself the Oakland Commune renames the front yard of city hall after a police shooting victim, sets out to feed and house anyone who stands in line, and refuses to allow the state’s purveyors of violence to police them, the challenge is quite direct and legible, a peaceful revolution.

This point is worth lingering on, because it has generally been neglected. You will struggle in vain to find the words “Oscar Grant Plaza” or “The Oakland Commune” in most national news reports on Occupy Oakland; even in local Bay Area reporting, those words tend to appear, at most, in quotes made by occupiers. Instead, “Occupy Oakland” gets made legible by reference, first and foremost, to other occupations, mainly the one in New York. It will be described as more violent, perhaps, or more radical, or the way the police crackdown has been more intense will be noted (and, in some cases, found to be wanting by the guardians of the true spirit of the movement). It is like Occupy Wall Street, but different.

I’m not saying this is right or wrong, or even making a media critique (though there is much to critique). My point is that using a comparative lens—that mode of analysis by which “Occupy” is a category, a series of variations on a theme that first emerged in Zuccotti Park—will almost inevitably lead us to overlook the ways that an autochthonic Oakland Commune rises up and makes sense of itself, in resolutely local terms, by reference to nothing other than itself. There’s a crucial way, in other words, in which Occupying Oakland (or Atlanta, or Philly, or San Jose, or Huntington, WV, etc.) is not the same thing as to be a part of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: while the former is a reclamation of a very particular shared space, community, and history, the latter not only implies that “Occupy Wall Street” is the original thing—the important thing—but it places and understands all the other occupations by reference to that original, like local franchises or copycats who have been inspired by it.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Aaron says. I do see the homeless problem as a real problem–but at the same time, not only are the homeless certainly part of any construction of the 99%, but they were already living in these spaces when the protestors arrived. Still, thought-provoking throughout.

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