–Published on OaklandNorth.net on October 24, 2011–
(Co-written by Brittany Schell)
There used to be grass here, but it didn’t last long―not after the bodies started multiplying and the make-shift community started growing. Now the space is covered in mud and heaps of hay. And a runaway pancake that slid off of someone’s blue-plastic plate. And a stray sock, and a boardwalk of planks. And feet. Hundreds of feet. This used to be Frank H. Ogawa Plaza, but not any more. Welcome to Occupy Oakland.
The camp has been occupying the plaza in front of Oakland’s city hall since October 10, when a group of protesters decided to replicate the Occupy Wall Street movement that began last month in New York City. The demands of the movement are broad, but focus largely on economic inequality: one of the mantras chanted often by protesters is, “We are the 99 percent,” implying that the nation’s wealth is concentrated among one percent of Americans.
The entrance to the campsite is littered with signs that read: “Let’s end a system prone to corruption and try again,” and “Bail out the people, not the banks.” Visitors walk by a community garden box growing chard and rosemary, then squeeze past the cluttered dish-washing station and a noisy line of campers waiting for a free meal before winding their way into the depths of the tent city on improvised wooden walkways with names like “Endism Road.”
On a hot Sunday afternoon, in and around a sea of tents in varying sizes and colors, there are snowy-haired elderly women, hippies with dreadlocks, street kids in baggy pants, optimistic college students and a few children running around. Here are excerpts of conversations with five of them.
Living in an urban public plaza is no longer new to 26 year-old Charmz Valentino, from Seattle. A week and a half ago she was camping on Market Street in downtown San Francisco before police came and moved the protesters out. “You bring what you need,” said Valentino, who described herself as currently unemployed by choice. “And you take care of one another.”
Last month, after breaking up with her girlfriend, Valentino decided to move from Seattle to the Bay Area, in the process quitting her job as an on-the-phone tech and billing support technician for Verizon Wireless. When she arrived, Valentino immediately joined up with San Francisco’s Occupy 99 effort. Growing up in a household with a severely disabled mother who received less than $850 a month, she said, is one reason Valentino feels passionate about the movement.
“People all over America are losing their homes, and there’s corrupt banks that are giving high-risk loans to people and taking their houses,” she said. “So there’s a number of different reasons why I’m here. But I’m here for my family that is struggling.”
As Valentino sat in her tent in front of Oakland’s city hall, playing with her 9-week-old puppy Tucker, it was unclear exactly what she believes this protest will change. This is a strong group of people, she said, who will stand together if the police come. Their encampment demonstrates to city officials that they are banded together. The tents all around this “neighborhood,” she said, gesturing to the tents set up in her area, were refugees from Occupy San Francisco—those protesters who left when the movement across the bay started clashing with police. Valentino said the Oakland camp feels more like a community.
Taxing the rich and ending the nation’s overseas wars are two means of starting the healing process, she said, as this would enable the government to save billions, perhaps dedicating some of that money to solving the housing crisis. “But it goes much deeper than that,” she said. She has Occupy travel plans now and wants to hitchhike up the coast to Occupy Portland and Occupy Seattle to see how those movements are doing. “Even going from San Francisco to here, there’s a whole bunch of differences and it’s cool to see the way different communities work together,” she said. “It would be awesome if all the cities could nationally and internationally have communication and set up international marches and things like that to happen across the world.”
Until then, she said, she’s content to travel across the country from one Occupy 99 encampment to another, with just her 70-pound backpack, Tucker, and the phone number for the National Lawyers Guild written in marker on the inside of her forearm.
Torricka Wilson is a 31-year-old single mother of four—unemployed, she said, and living on $518 a month from social services to support herself and her young children. On a Sunday afternoon at the Occupy Oakland communal kitchen, she made ground turkey tacos and smothered potatoes for the campers.
“I’ve got four hungry kids,” said Wilson. “I know how to cook!”
Wilson and her kids― daughters Toriawn, Torrin and Toristine, and her son Toriano, who range in age from 3 to 9―all camped at Occupy Oakland this past weekend. Wilson has been coming every day since the camp started on the evening of October 10 to work preparing food, washing dishes and helping lay down the hay that now covers Frank Ogawa Plaza.
Wilson watched the encampment grow over the last two weeks. “When I first came here, there were only about 30 tents,” she said. “I came back the next day and the tents were all the way up near the doorsteps of Oakland’s city hall. It looks like well over a hundred tents to me now.”
She camps with her kids on the weekend, and returns on weeknights to their 18th Street townhouse two blocks away―$87 a month of subsidized rent– so the kids can go to school each morning.
Their tent, which was given to them by the Occupy organizers after it was donated, is set up beside the arts and crafts station. This way, her kids can go right out in the morning and paint, said Wilson. She doesn’t worry about their safety, even when she is on kitchen duty and they are running around the campsite.
“Everybody in here knows them,” Wilson said. “I’m here every day. It’s like one big community up in here.”
Wilson has been unemployed for two years now, she said, and the money she receives from social services is not enough to live on with four kids, whose father is in jail. Before the economic downturn, Wilson made a living doing in-home care, she said, going to people’s houses in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and as far away as Sacramento or Stockton.
“We are down here struggling and living poor,” said Wilson. “We are at the bottom of the food chain, and y’all get”—she was referring to the wealthiest group of Americans that the 99 percent movement is protesting—”whatever y’all want,” she said. “If you take the $100,000 you make in a year and you split it with five or six people out here, trust me, we could all be living comfortably,” she said.
As she carried a roll of paper towels to her tent to wipe up spilled paint on the tent floor, Wilson said her kids, who have never been camping, understand why they are here and the motivation behind Occupy Oakland.
“They know it all,” Wilson said. “If I ain’t told it to them, there are so many people here who have.”
Twelve years ago, Daniel Kaiya said, he had a corner office and made more than $50,000 a year. He could have easily continued living this way for the rest of his life, but he chose not to. “I had a decision to make,” he said, referring to his job as the assistant administrator for the New York office of Studio Archetype, a visual design firm. “I had a great salary, stock options, and I was set. But my heart was dying. I had everything I wanted but I didn’t want it anymore.”
So he quit.
Today, he earns money in any way that he can—dancing, teaching yoga, organizing peyote circles—and has been part of the Occupy Oakland movement since October 12. Kaiya, who uses his spiritual name instead of his birth name, lives in East Oakland and switches off sleeping in a tent at the campsite with his girlfriend and other friends, he said, so that they “can help keep the numbers up.”
It is important, he said, for people to support the movement and help instigate a change in society. “I really think this society is criminally insane,” he said, citing the government’s policies on healthcare, incarceration, social services, and basic human rights. “We’ve been living under the fallacy that somehow the American Dream works for everyone, but obviously it does not.”
Although he has not been living at the campsite on a consecutive, day-to-day basis, he said he is very involved with the community, helping out with multiple tasks and chores such as cooking, cleaning, and donating goods.
“This is not a protest, but a parallel of how things should be,” he said. “We’ve blocked out all the rules and we’re creating whatever feels right. Rather than building a cage, we’re building a lattice.”
Since quitting his corporate job, Kaiya said he had many opportunities to suit up and enter the workforce again, but he didn’t take them. “The people who have always treated me the best were those with the least,” he said, which is why he feels that supporting Occupy Oakland and the entire Occupy 99 movement is so important. There are so many problems today that he feels the solution can not be left solely in the hands of the government.
Even if local, state or federal governments were to address some of the concerns being voiced by the Occupy 99 movement, Kaiya said he is not ready to leave his campsite. “Not until it turns into a village. It keeps getting better and better, nicer and nicer. It’s attracting people who come from around the world who have the same opinions on what comes next. “
“I’m not a Marxist, I’m not a Socialist, and I’m not a communist,” said Gregory Henderson, as he ate his free, locally-raised scrambled eggs and chorizo breakfast at the Occupy Oakland campsite. “Some of the stuff they talk about I don’t agree with. But I do believe that there’s too much power to the banks and to much power to the corporations.”
Since the very first day of its inception, Henderson has been living at the campsite, an easy move for a homeless man such as himself, he said, because all he brought with him was his sleeping bag.
“I move around and I survive,” he said. “I’m homeless so I was doing this same thing before I came here.”
During the day, Henderson, who said he is a veteran of the Navy and looked to be in his fifties, panhandles within the vicinity of the Paramount Theater and Jack London Square. He used to sleep on the stairwell of a building on 2nd Street, but since October 10 has settled into a donated tent at the Occupy campsite. He now returns to the campsite for hot meals and medical care for his infected heel when he is not panhandling. The area that the campsite stands on was populated by homeless before, he said, and will continue to be populated by them afterwards, regardless of what happens with the movement. “There’s not much you can do about the camp,” he said.
However, there is something that can be done to change the way society operates, he said. “You need a complete change, not necessarily with the government, but with how they govern,” he said. Special interests have to go, he said. Politicians need to start talking about what is good for the people instead of what will get them re-elected. “People need food, shelter, a job—simple things. People need to be able to feel like they are worth something.”
Henderson plans to stay at the campsite for as long as it is up, but said he will not be emotionally affected if police force the camp to break up. “I’ll just go back to the streets,” he said. “Life goes on.”
“Wal-Mart says this is a four-person tent,” said M.J. Delacruz, gesturing to his white and orange tent set up in front of the steps leading to Oakland’s city hall. Across the top, he has written “Revolutionary Spooner” in black marker. “In a revolution,” he clarified, “this is a ten-person tent. Although spooning is not required, it is absolutely necessary at times.”
Pushing back his dark hair, Delacruz shouted hello to a couple camping neighbors who had also pitched their tents close to the large, historic oak tree in the public plaza.
M.J. Delacruz, 24, said he works 60 hours a week at the American Canyon Wal-Mart in Napa County, and another 30 hours a week at a Target in Marin. Saturday night was his first time sleeping at the Oakland campsite, where he plans to volunteer on the weekends until a separate encampment is formed under the banner of Occupy Marin, closer to his home.
“In Marin county we live among the one percent,” said Delacruz, who characterized his biological family, as he called it, as part of this wealthy upper class. He specified “biological,” he said, because he has not been in touch with his family since he left home at the age of 16. For eight years he traveled in South America as an English teacher before returning to northern California.
Delacruz now lives in Vallejo, where over half the houses are vacant due to foreclosure, he said. A livable minimum wage is his first priority. That amount would vary from community to community; in Vallejo it would be $12 an hour for a single parent with two children, he said. He is paid $8 an hour at both of his jobs, where he has been working for the past three months after returning from his travels. Although he works overtime, he struggles to make ends meet after paying for medication—for bipolar disorder and a herniated disk caused by a car accident—out of his own pocket, since he doesn’t have health insurance.
He arrived Saturday night at the Oakland camp, and has pitched in where he is needed―making coffee, cleaning the kitchen area and buying groceries with his own money to cook tonight’s camp dinner of chicken or tofu fried rice.
“When I pitched my tent, I felt like these were my neighbors, this is my street,” he said, gesturing to the sea of tents gathered in front of Oakland’s city hall.
Delacruz said he and others in the camp were opening up their “homes”―referring to the tents―to protesters who need a place to sleep. People have also been donating tents, food, dishes and other items to the camp, and the Oakland Teachers’ Union provided the row of portable toilets and outdoor sinks for the camp.
“I don’t expect that Occupy Oakland or Occupy San Francisco or Occupy Marin will be completely shut down to where it’s never rebuilt,” he said. “Someday, when I have a kid or kids, I am going to drive by here and say, ‘That’s where the revolution started. This is where the tents were. That’s where people gathered so you could have this life.’”