ast week The New York Times published a piece called “Oakland, the Last Refuge of Radical America” that pretty much had everyone in Oakland, including some of the folks they interviewed, scratching their heads and mouthing a collective WTF? Reporter Jonathan Mahler seemed more interested in crafting a fictional piece to rival famed writer Jack London, whom he referenced, rather than telling the truth and putting the subject matter he highlighted in its proper context. His article basically paints Oakland as a seedy, dangerous, impoverished Wild West where anarchy abounds, crime is rampant and where folks (mostly white) are flocking to exercise and keep ‘radical’ politics alive. Keep in mind this is all coming from the same New York Times that earlier this year declared “Oakland as the 5th Best place in the World to Visit,” where they penned glowing reviews citing all the new restaurants, cultural activities, abundant nightlife etc.
I don’t know how much longer Occupy Oakland will survive. But I do know this: its disappearance wouldn’t end radical politics in Oakland. That’s because there’s something The New York Times forgot to mention. Oakland has a large community of astute, determined, political activists who pre-date Occupy. And I’m not just talking about people who were active in the 1960s. This is a city where folks are simply not content to sit back and wait for a messianic leader to come along and make things happen.
‘Radical politics’ — in Mahler’s world — are those who like to throw rocks at windows, fight the police for the notoriety and recapture the hey days of the Black Panthers and rowdy rebellious spirit of the Hells Angels who have a chapter here. That in no way describes what people are all about here in Oakland. It diminishes the true grind that organizers put in day-in and day-out to improve their community and better this city. Those who take direct action in the face of oppression do so because they have little or no choice. It’s not something to be romanticized, it’s not a game, even if this writer came across a few individuals who thought it was.
So let’s put a couple of things on the table that The New York Times and Mahler omitted, starting with the Movement to win Justice for Oscar Grant. For those who don’t know, Grant was a unarmed 22-year-old man who was shot point-blank by a BART police officer on New Year’s morning 2009, while he lay face down, restrained on the Fruitvale station platform in Oakland. His killer was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced in November 2010 to two years in prison. To not mention the intense, well-heeled organizing efforts that took place for more than two years around Grant and how it was a direct precursor to the Occupy Movement in Oakland that enabled it to flourish is akin to someone doing a piece on police brutality incidents in New York City and not mentioning Sean Bell or Amadou Diallo.
Simply put, the Occupy Movement found a home in Oakland, not because it was this mythical ‘last place on earth for radicalism‘. It flourished because it was preceded by an intense, well-heeled movement for social justice that addressed many of the overarching issues that eventually were raised by the Occupy Movement. Occupy had a nice way of framing things, 99% vs 1%. But economic disparities, the prison industrial system, school spending relative to money spent on prisons and the dominance of corporations and their influence on legislation and politicians were all issues that were unavoidable and vigorously tackled as folks struggled to get justice for Grant.
To be completely honest many of those aforementioned issues were being addressed by various organizations even before Grant. If we did a complete history of the Oakland and Bay Area social movements you could write a book as some already like SF State Professor Andreanna Clay, The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth, Activism and Post-Civil Rights Politics where an in-depth run down of