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Love in Public

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A Fantasy Expansion of SOTS Director Nichola Torbett's Interview on TALK OF THE NATION
 

On Thursday, February 9, I was interviewed for about ten minutes on Talk of the Nation, the daily national noontime broadcast from National Public Radio. It was a tremendous honor, and I left the little adjunct radio studio here in Oakland brimming over with so much more to say. Here is the interview I wish we could have had.

What is Occupy Oakland about?

I think this movement--here in Oakland and worldwide--is ultimately about love. Millions of people are coming out into the streets to say not only that they will no longer be exploited, but also that they will no longer participate in and benefit from the exploitation of others.

We are waking up in this country--one of the wealthiest in the world, comparatively--to the reality that the social systems and structures within which we live force us into exploitative relationships with people here and around the world, as well as with animals and the planet. We rely for "safety" on a racist and classist criminal justice system that currently incarcerates more African American men than were enslaved in the pre-Civil War era while letting white-collar criminals walk free. Many of us wear clothing that we had no idea was made in sweatshops and cosmetics that we didn't realize were tested in torturous ways on animals. We eat Hershey's chocolate and M&Ms made from cacao beans harvested by child slaves in West Africa and shipped back and forth across the globe for processing and packaging at tremendous cost in environmental impact and consumption of scarce fossil fuels.

As we start to meet each other--online and in the streets--and as we begin to talk to each other and share what we each can see of the world, we are awakening to these realities. We are becoming unwilling to secure a good life for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors and new friends.

Cornel West says that "justice is what love looks like in public." Ultimately, that is the aim of this movement. We are seeking a life worth living for everyone. This goal goes so far beyond any limited policy demands, and challenges so deeply the fundamental assumptions about how things have to be, that we are often accused of having no demands. In a sense, our demand is on each other to show up, listen, be honest, and help us invent a new way forward. We also demand the Constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble and speak out so that we can have those conversations in the public square, where they are accessible to everyone.

How does this aim of "love" square with the increasing violence in the protests there in Oakland?

Occupy Oakland is nonviolent, at least in terms of actions initiated by protesters. (The police, on the other hand, have not been nonviolent.)

I understand that the perception of OO as violent comes from the mainstream media, which eagerly runs a photo of someone in a black bandana tossing a tear gas canister back at the police, but never covers the more deadly violence of the status quo. Where are the national news stories about the decades-long epidemic of police brutality in Oakland and other cities around the country? What about the violence of toxins seeping into our groundwater or being spewed into the air as byproducts of manufacturing? What about the violence of a criminal justice system that isolates people in solitary housing units for years on end, denies prisoners needed medical care, and even executes people? Or the violence of the Apple corporation, which asks Chinese workers in iPhone and iPad factories to sign contracts that they won't commit suicide as a result of brutal working conditions, or that if they do, their families won't sue for more than the legal minimum in damages?

This kind of ongoing violence, violence in which we all participate and from which many of us benefit, is so pervasive as to have become invisible. It is certainly not deemed newsworthy.

Aren't the police part of the 99%? Why is Occupy Oakland locked in a struggle with the police?

We might ask the same question! When our movement started, we were focused broadly on social and economic justice. In addition to staging marches on the banks, we also modeled an alternative way of living at our encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza, providing food, medical care, and makeshift housing (in tents) for hundreds of people. We had a stationary bicycle hooked up to a generator so that people could charge their phones and laptops, and we were holding workshops on things like community gardening and starting cooperative businesses.

Then, on October 25 and again on November 15, the city ordered police raids to take down the camps. In the wake of the second encampment, we started a 24/7 vigil at Oscar Grant Plaza, navigating the city's labyrinthine permitting process only to face continual police harassment, which included confiscating our food, taking blankets from homeless people, and ticketing people for having bicycles and umbrellas on the plaza. Eventually, even the vigil was torn down by 40 riot police at midnight on January 4. Police repression has increased steadily in the past months, culminating in the kettling and arrest of more than 400 peaceful marchers on January 28, and, ironically, in the arrival of more than 20 riot police at a subsequent anti-repression rally, where the police pushed into the crowd with batons drawn and confiscated our sound equipment. That is why we are angry with the police-that, and the long history of police brutality, especially in communities of color, in this city.

The police are being used by those with social and economic power to preserve it in their hands. I have actually written an open letter to police explaining to them that it's not personal and inviting them to join us. Many of us are angry and upset that the city is spending millions on police repression of this movement in a time when schools are being closed and city services cut. However, we recognize that the answer to this is not for us to go silent about the more pervasive violence of our culture. We believe it is our patriotic duty to speak up.

I believe that when we love broadly and deeply enough, we are inevitably drawn into conflict with those who would profit from the suffering of others, as well as with the institutions that harbor them. At a certain point in his ministry, Jesus realized that his love for his people was going to take him to Jerusalem at Passover, straight into a direct confrontation with the Roman empire and those in the Jewish establishment who were in collusion with it. Our struggle in the US takes us straight to Wall Street; Washington, DC; city hall; and the police.

Okay, but certainly Occupy Oakland made a tactical error in attempting the illegal seizure of a city building?

Again, I think it is interesting which "illegal seizures" of land are okay and which are not. I have many friends among the Chochenyo Ohlone people, the native inhabitants of this land, who remind us that this entire country is founded upon the brutal illegal seizure of land. How is that okay when the appropriation of a single, long-unused city building for housing and services is not?

There are about 4000 homeless people in Oakland, and at least that many vacant city- and bank-owned buildings. That is one of the injustices our "Move-In" action on January 28 highlighted.

So, what's next for Occupy Oakland?

People are working on so many things! Some upcoming events include:

February 20 National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners: We will rally outside of San Quentin

February 21 Oakland, Sever the Relationship with Goldman Sachs: A coalition including Q/POC Decolonize Oakland, Occupy the Hood, and other working groups are urging the community to come out and talk to city council about ceasing all payments on the unfair interest rate swap with Goldman Sachs and demanding a return of the $26 million we have already paid out since the bailout.

February 29 Shut Down the Banks: A day of action with details to come

May 1: International General Strike Day

 

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