Occupy Oakland: A first hand account

Nov 03, 2011

Occupy Wall Street protesters declared victory after thousands of demonstrators in Oakland, Calif. shut down one of the nation's busiest shipping ports late Wednesday, escalating a movement whose tactics had largely been limited to marches, rallies and tent encampments since it began in September.

Chat with Steve Fainaru, who has been in the Occupy Oakland crowd and witnessed the sometimes violent stand offs between the Occupy protesters and police. Ask him about what is happening at the protests, including the environment, how it's evolving, the police and more.

Hi Everyone. This is Steve Fainaru, editor-in-chief of The Bay Citizen and former Washington Post staff writer, reporting in from San Francisco. We're a non-profit news organization dedicating to producing deep and provocative coverage of the San Francisco Bay Area on our website, baycitizen.org, and the Bay Area edition of the New York Times, which appears in the national section out here on Fridays and Sundays. For the past several weeks, we have been providing comprehensive coverage of Occupy Oakland, which has emerged as both an inspiration and a flashpoint for the Occupy Wall Street movement. Yesterday Occupy Oakland staged a daylong general strike in which protesters managed to shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth-largest commercial port in the United States. The largely peaceful day ended with violence; police fired tear gas on protesters near City Hall. I was hit in the stomach by a canister and sustained second degree burns on my left hand. It's great to be back with the Post. Happy to take your questions. 

How was it that you got hit with a tear gas cannister? Did it hurt? Did you get the sense that the group who started protesting and throwing rocks after midnight was different from those who marched peacefully in the daytime? How can these Occupy movements not get hijacked?

For the complete account of how I got hit, here's my story.

There was definitely a very different vibe among the couple hundreds protesters who clashed with police. Some identify themselves as anarchists and have been involved in other recent clashes out here, including violent confrontations following the verdict against a transit officer who shot an unarmed black man shortly after New Year's in 2009. Yesterday's protests were very peaceful, for the most part, and police were barely visible. This will be a continuing challenge for the movement.

I understand many of the Occupy movements are pointing out the lessons of non-violent resistance. A problem always is getting everyone in your movement to follow the requests for non-violence. From what you have observed and heard, how much, if any, of the violence that has happened been from Occupy Oakland membera. If someone from Occupy Oakland has commited violence, did the other Occupy Oakland members act to stop it, support it, or ddi they appear powerless to do anything about it?

There's a really intriguing dynamic playing out here. Often when things begin to get tense, the protesters will argue amongst themselves over how far to go.

You can see this in our story on the port closure.

As some protesters set upon a longshoreman and began rocking his truck, others chanted: "Peaceful! Peaceful!"




What kind of job do you think the Oakland police is doing with the Occupy protestors?  From all of the reports of violence from protestors, and non-acknowledgment on their part, it doesn't seem like they are handling it very well.

I think the biggest controversy out here revolves around Oakland Mayor Jean Quan. She ordered the initial raid on the Occupy encampment, which resulted in violence and injuries to police and protesters. A day later she reversed herself and tried to align herself with the movement, but she has alienated the protesters, the police and the business community. 

At what point do you think "host" cities will say enough is enough and start charging protest "organizers" for the costs to the city and require permits just like they would any other organized protest? And for those people who support their protests and campgrounds, I ask them: What if the tent cities were simply homeless enclaves. Would the disruption and risks to personal safety be acceptable?

This will become a huge issue, if it isn't already. Even before yesterday, Oakland had spent over $1 million dealing with this crisis. That cost almost certainly go up, in a city facing a $50 million budget deficit, a homicide epidemic and dramatic cuts the the police department.

How long do you think these protestors will stay out there?

I think this is the question in every city, right? Out here the weather issue is not as dramatic as it is in other places, but just today the temperature dropped 20 degrees, and rain is threatening. How long can people hold out? That may be the ultimate test of the movement. 

From what you've seen, who are the majority of these protestors? Old, young, recent graduates, bums, what? And why do you think that is?

The first time I was out there, it seemed to me there were a lot of professional activists, of which we have many out here. That has changed. Yesterday the streets were filled with unionists, college and high school students, teachers. In the Oakland Unified School District, 360 teachers called in sick and at least a couple schools were closed (Link).


n extension of Burning Man. But that has changed. 

I've been trying to look a bit at coverage and lack of coverage of the nationwide movement in the media. As an editor, I understand there is a bit of pressure to not piss off your publisher, who in many cases is likely wealthy. As a non-profit, is the Citizen able to skirt any of these pressures? It seems you've covered both negative and positive effects of the movement more substantially and in-depth than most other outlets.

I think our staff has done a fantastic job on this story. That said, I don't feel any more pressure editorially at The Bay Citizen than I did during my 10 years at The Washington Post. Our founder Warren Hellman is one of the richest men in San Francisco. I haven't had a single conversation with him about this issue. 

Who are the protestors inciting violence? Do they appear to really be a part of Occupy Oakland movement? Call me suspicious, but when I read of how much violence in both the civil rights and white's people's movements were stirred up by police agents and police informants, I want to be certain we don't have similar activities in the 21st century.

Some people have alleged that the violence is being stoked by informant, but we see no indication of that. The truth is some people are out there looking for a pretext. 

Why blue-collar Oakland and not Silicon Valley where most of the 1% are?

Well, there is an Occupy San Jose, although it doesn't seem to resonate as much as Oakland. Nor does San Francisco, for that matter. Our culture editor Reyhan Harmanci wrote an interesting piece Thursday on the historical roots of the Oakland protest movement, which includes the last general strike in the US and the Black Panthers.  Link

So Occupy Wherever You Feel Like - It's goal was to disrupt shipping ports? Congratulations? To be honest, protests have been going on for over a month and what potential legislative changes are in the works as a result? Is there any indication that politicians are paying any serious attention to the camp sites? I'm not referring to stump speeches intended to boost approval ratings, I'm talking about seriously listening to their grievances and seeking to address them.

I think out here the movement is having a profound effect politically. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan is struggling to navigate what has become a huge crisis for her administration. Across the bay, interim Mayor Ed Lee has handled it more delicately, but we have a mayoral election out here next week, and the candidates have been falling all over themselves to make an appearance at Occupy San Francisco. That said, I agree that it's hard to see how this plays out from a legislative standpoint. But it's still early.

The vast majority of the workers are probably either hourly or migrant workers. If the port gets shut down, they probably don't get paid. At worst a major company will see a stall in their production line by a couple of hours and has no affect on the bottom line. Once again it seems like these protests are poorly thought out, and the execution is even worse.

The port and the longshoremen have argued exactly this point. So has the small business community in Oakland, which was hit hard by yesterday's strike. In one of our stories -- you can see complete coverage at baycitizen.org -- a longshoreman got into a conversation with the protesters and basically said he was supporting them, even though he was giving up nearly $600 by missing his shift. On that basis, one might conclude the logic is skewed. But it's no small thing to close down a port the size of Oakland's, and one could also argue that symbolically it's a huge success.

I can't help but think that there must be a better way for these groups to utilize the time of the people involved in all of the Occupy groups. I would think if they found a way to do some volunteer work like setting up a soup kitchen, cleaning up grafiti, helping to rebuild homes, etc. that their cause would get much better reaction from the rest of public. Just setting up tents and camping isn't adding value to society.

I'll try to answer based on what I've seen and heard, and have read in our own coverage and elsewhere. I think many of these people honestly believe that the deck is stacked, politically and economically, in favor of a small percentage of people who control the most wealth. I find it a little hard to tell how much this is resonating nationally, but in the Bay Area, which is basically a one-party state, this message has gained a lot of support. 

Do you think that a distinct message that everyone can understand is a must for this movement?  Back in the 60's the protests were either against the Vietnam War of for Civil Rights, but there was a great deal of variance in ideals beyond those two main messages.

I do think it would help to distill it. I think a lot of people still don't really understand what the movement is about. Our own organization has had a lot of internal debate over exactly this issue; how do you cover it when you don't really know what it is? I think I've come around a little on this issue. Whether one supports it is one thing. But I think that the message is getting clearer: After two unpopular wars, the bailout, a lingering recession -- Oakland's unemployment rate is 16 percent, and the state's is 12 -- many people feel shut out right now, politically and economically. 

Will Obama and Pelosi denounce the criminal actions of the protesters in Oakland? How about the fires they set; the windows they smashed; and the near rioting that ensued? How many people will lose their jobs, or hours at work as a result of these IDIOTS?? 
DO Pelosi and Obama applaud the chaos these misfits are creating? Where is their voices??

I think the political dance going on around this, locally and nationally, is almost comical. You can't imagine the verbal gymnastics that are going on out here, as politicians try to placate protesters who are calling for their heads in a very specific way. One of the most interesting issues will be how this plays out in next year's election. Obama and Pelosi -- like Jean Quan -- will quickly learn, if they haven't already, that this is not necessarily their crowd. 

Thanks everyone for the great questions. Please come check us out at baycitizen.org. 


In This Chat
Steve Fainaru
Steve Fainaru is the interim editor-in-chief of The Bay Citizen. He came to the organization from the Washington Post, where he won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for a series of stories on abuses committed by Blackwater and other private security contractors in Iraq. Fainaru previously worked at the San Jose Mercury News, the Hartford Courant and the Boston Globe. He is the author of two books: "The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba and the Search for the American Dream" and "Big Boy Rules: America's Mercenaries Fighting in Iraq." He grew up in Marin County and currently lives in El Cerrito.
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