The Trick of Occupying Space is Tricky

by zunguzungu

I’ve been moved, fascinated, and overwhelmed by the ways that Occupy Oakland is transforming the space that is officially called “Frank Ogawa Plaza” into something called “Oscar Grant Plaza.” I don’t sleep well the nights after I’ve been there, because my mind can’t stop racing. But the more time I spend there, the more I learn and hear, the more aware I become of the limitations on my ability to adequately describe and understand, and the danger of doing so irresponsibly. I have talked people’s ears off — and conversations with @callie_hoo, @reclaimuc, and @soundscrapers (in real life!) have been incredibly helpful in trying to come to grips with the moving target that is that space — but I’m not even close to feeling like I could write something on this blog about it, or at least not in the mode of claims and arguments. To put it simply: I have never seen an association of humans about which I would be more hesitant to make sweeping generalizations. But that’s not only because it’s so hard to see enough, or to get a broad enough slice of the whole that you might then call it “representative” (even if that, by itself, is plenty). And it isn’t just that the media narratives overwhelm you with their noise, though that, too, is a problem: it’s so hard to be open enough to what is really happening that you can look past the blinders of what you expect to find, even before you look. It’s that the thing is open-ended, by its very nature.

That’s a hard thing to describe, but it’s also the most reliably true thing that I find I trust myself to say about what’s happening. There is nothing contradictory about the fact that Occupy Oakland has an amazon wishlist; this is a space being built in space, out of materials, and the fact that you must pay for materials to live in space with money is exactly the point. This is an attempt to create a space where something that was previously implausible could happen, but it still has to be done in that space. And so I find myself becoming more and more interested in the micro-social interactions out of which this new space is being made, the incredible work that is going into making that space livable and the transformations that you can see (and can’t) happening around you, and less and less willing to actually say anything about what I think I might be seeing. And as I realize that I would need to spend twenty times as much time there to be able to even start to feel in synch with what’s happening, all the stuff I read on the internet seems almost absurdly and laughably irrelevant, written as it is to be received at the towering heights, far from the smells, sounds, and muddy grass and wooden pallets of that place, which is now nothing like this:

Partly it feels like there’s something fundamentally different about the orientation of the Occupy Wall Street movement in Zucotti park, which everyone’s talking about, but which seems — from afar — resolutely oriented on national politics. But is that only a function of distance? When you’re there, the incredibly Oaklandish flavor of what’s happening at 14th and Broadway is overwhelming. That camp not only looks like Oakland — and carries the legacies and burdens of Oakland on its back, starting with what it means to call the place “Oscar Grant Plaza” — but you immediately become aware of how embedded it is in Oakland in such a literal sense, a little open city in the middle of and dwarfed by the city around it, to which it is exposed and apart from which it is unthinkable. The borders of it are utterly clear: Frank Ogawa Plaza is a raised park of grass surrounded by broad concrete plains, and the occupiers are so tightly crammed onto it (and so loath to move off of it), that it’s as if there’s an invisible wall keeping them in, or keeping it out. When you claim the three steps up to the plaza, you’re in occupied Oakland. When you step down, you’re on the outside looking in. But at the same time, those borders are so porous, so open, that Occupy Oakland is just Oakland in miniature, crystallized, microcosmed. And maybe Zucotti park is the same way, and maybe my distance from it makes it impossible for me to say or see anything about it through the haze of discourse that separates us. But being here, I cannot be there. So today I’ll be here.