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Occupy Oakland: Poesis and Political Practice


The System Has Got to Die

The landscape of global capitalism has been substantially altered in the past six years. A mixed policy of austerity (cuts and state retrenchment) and fiscal stimulus (central bank bond purchasing programs from Japan’s State Bank to the US Federal Reserve) has made for a post-crisis recovery in asset prices, though not in broader economic activity. One peak of the waves of struggle born in this recent period—the Arab Spring and Occupy in 2011, Turkey and Brazil in 2013—is my subject here, that peculiar and contradictory upsurge in popular mobilization called Occupy Oakland. In Oakland, more so than other US post-crisis struggles, discontent with capitalism as a system, not just with its recent corruptions, was made palpable. Among the demonstrators there was some real consciousness that the institutionalized form of US democracy is not equipped to fight the bailout profiteer capitalists.

The poets around Occupy Oakland were close to Occupy as a social form of political practices: general assemblies, slogan and banner creation, publication of materials, social media amplification, and actual mobilizations or demonstrations. Occupy, in this sense, initiated a series of innovations for radical political protest communities in the US. Since the first ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization in Seattle (1999), the “summit” protest was the apex of activist convergences. (Similar protests coincided with the 2000 DNC in LA, the 2004 RNC in New York, and the 2008 RNC in Minneapolis.) Occupy attempted to extend the temporal duration of protest and to spread it out geographically, cutting the dependence on these “summits.” And the movement was not just a counterforce to the dominant “summit.” It was something in its own right. In a word, it signified a dramatic escalation.

Segments of the poetic community of the Bay Area, imbued with a confrontational spirit, righteous with anger, and decidedly to the left, remain both aesthetically and politically adventurous in fashioning a running skirmish against the neoliberal austerity state. Occupy activists discovered challenging post-bailout circumstances, with mobilizations undertaken in deteriorating conditions: incarceration, de-unionization, layoffs, and advancing gentrification. Here in California, the Democrats are the party of cuts and corporate handouts, and the Jean Quan administration in Oakland typifies neoliberal California ruled by Democrats; cozy with big finance capital, they are easily swayed by Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), the needs of transnational real estate, and shipping companies. The remaining conditions of the working life are a quantum mechanics of multiple jobs or tenuous alternative forms of wages outside of the employment nexus.

Young people on the fringes of employment are subject to a grinding form of policing in California. The popular anti-police movement that coalesced after the murder of Oscar Grant fed directly into the 2011 developments in Oakland. Police brutality in the context of mass incarceration in California is nothing particularly new, but with Grant’s killing a situation emerged in which a younger generation and the broader community said enough! In a rough prelude of Occupy itself, the tough-minded ILWU local 10 got involved and shutdown the port of Oakland (in 2010) ahead of the sentencing phase of the trial for Grant’s killer, Johannes Mehserle. They staged a rally for Oscar Grant at Frank Ogawa Plaza—later to be dubbed Oscar Grant Plaza during the season of Occupy. The summer 2011 police murder of Kenneth Harding Jr. would see major street actions in San Francisco, another precursor to the uprising that coming fall.

The radical legacy of the Bay Area—with a politically conscious black community; remnants of the 60s campus movements; and an sector of the working class, with relatively high levels of positive organization plus links to Asian and Latino immigrant community organizations—remains crucial to any consideration of the upsurge in 2011. The transmission of knowledge from previous struggles matters chiefly in grasping how this sequence of the global protest unfolded in Oakland. The Wall Street bailouts and subsequent Obama election had a quieting effect on protest and social outrage on the US left. A strong generational dynamic— relative affluence among the baby-boomers lucky to make it through Reagan, Bush, and Clinton in the churning field of employment—has produced little fight back. Many have a strong investment in the status quo. But by the spring of 2009, and intensifying over the summer, an initial pushback against the waves of post-bailout austerity in the US was developing. The first large-scale fight back took place on University of California campuses that fall, in the protests over cuts to worker and faculty pay coupled with tuition hikes.

A trenchant Marxist analysis was also emerging from this wider Bay Area scene of activists, poets, and self-styled communists: the crisis would be understood in these extant study groups not as a punctual business cycle crisis, nor as a product of neoliberal deregulation and tax cuts—but instead as a symptom of the more or less permanent stagnation of growth in a manufacturing sector beset by problems of overproduction and overcapacity at a truly global scale. In 2011, Gopal Balakrishnan would argue, building out from Robert Brenner, that global capitalism had entered what by all appearances was a long-term stationary state. We have now seen the beginnings of this condition in our new form of stagflation.

Poetics of Distributed Social Momentum

Why would poetry matter in such a political-economic context? Poetry’s elastic linguistic forms (whether popular or recondite), emphasizing line or a run of lines as architectonic, as structure, have proved useful to the sequence of struggles taking shape over this period. Activated by context, poetic language frustrates, complicates, and reinvents common sense letter by syllable by painstaking word. This claim is peculiarly resonant with respect to Oakland, as poets sought to galvanize a novel historical circumstance.

But it was quite striking that in the immediate context of struggle many poets turned away from poetry and toward the necessities of the political situation in October 2011. Something similar had already occurred in 2009 and 2010, during the campus and anti-police struggles. The political priorities of site creation, kitchen duties, camp meetings, general assemblies, proposal creation, etc. all took on an unprecedented urgency as the broader societal backdrop of resistance and occupation suddenly formed from coast to coast. But writing was not lost altogether. Brian Ang’s snapshot journalism, and similar short pieces by Gillian Hamel and Casey McAlduff, appeared on the Lana Turner website. Publications like the The New Inquiry (one of whose editors was a veteran of the UCSC movement in 2009) would run journalism about the police raid on the camp.

Others turned to poetry readings as part of the general atmosphere at the Occupy encampment. Social media—linking and posting, twitter battles—evolved its own fronts, as the corporate media was happy to minimize the initial days of occupation, but for the bubbling up effect from below on various blogs, listservs, and social media sites. Add the large and emblematic “Revolt” banners to the mix, and the naming slogan Oakland Commune began to find material support.

In these practices of camp defense and maintenance, of mass mobilization in response to the police raid,—intermittently captured by posts, tweets, banners, and slogan creation—the emphasis fell on the immediate atmosphere, the blooming environs of the occupation and port shutdown. Alliances were forged, as were broader links between Oakland’s proletariat communities of color and the graduates without a future from the campus struggles. New forms of belonging became suddenly possible at the campsite.

Poems and journalism emerged belatedly from this unfolding sequence of struggle. My own account of Occupy Oakland appeared shortly after the November 2nd general strike in The Los Angeles Review of Books. Darwin Bond-Graham has arguably written most of the penetrating retrospective investigative journalism, providing crucial glimpses into big capital’s penetration of the city government. Derived from the Oakland’s political struggles, both Jasper Bernes’s long poem We Are Nothing and So Can You and Jackqueline Frost’s work collected in her recent book The Antidote exhibit tinges of activist messianism in the crisis days of neoliberalism. Retrospectively, they offer something of the cataclysmic, teargas-charged air. (Poets also contributed subtly to the immediate affairs, as with Alli Warren’s protest sign “Poetry, tenderness, rebellion.”) Brian Ang’s long poem The Totality Cantos, with its radically egalitarian approach to individual word and syntactical continuity has been informed by the Oakland experience. So too has recent work by Juliana Spahr, to be found in The American Reader, with its open, procedural style:

I could tell you of the other things too.

A European influence.

A Middle Eastern influence.

A list of skirmishes.

A feeling of it being nothing. No wait, something. No see, nothing. Possibly

something. No.


Let’s just admit it.

We lost all the skirmishes, even the one called the PR war.

A geopolitical dérive becomes content of poetic line, determinant of the pithy, assemblage form. Another of Spahr’s recent poems engages the aftermath of intensely policed demonstrations. The poetics of the aptly named “Transitory, Momentary” crosscuts a montage of protest confrontation with police, naturalistic description of migrating geese, with political comment on the “oil wars,” the last being a leitmotif of Spahr’s work for some ten years now:

The Brent geese fly in long low wavering lines on their migrations. They start in western Europe, fatten in Iceland, then fly over the Greenland ice cap to Canada. They sometimes breed on the Arctic coasts of central and western Siberia and winter in western Europe, some in England, the rest in Germany and France. What I have to offer here is nothing revolutionary. They learn the map from their parents, or through culture rather than through genetics. It is just an observation, a small observation that sometimes art can hold the oil wars and all that they mean and might yet mean within…

And later:

Just as the stream has no narration, only ambient noise. And the police move slowly, methodically in a line as if they are a many-legged machine. They know what they are doing. It is their third time clearing the park and they will clear it many more times and then they will win and a building will be built where there once was the park. In this song, as is true of many songs, it is unclear why the singer has lost something, maybe someone. In this time, the time of the oil wars, there are many reasons that singers give for being so lost.

With this poem’s disciplined insistence on recursive, “many-legged” utterance, Spahr makes visible a column of the avant-garde, part of an urban and intellectual confrontation with the present. The poem’s quicksilver variations, its activation and rigorous approximation of historical development’s non-simultaneityits nested, coexisting temporalities—shows some way of collecting the recent past, speculating about the future, and demonstrating the necessity of intensifying the fight in this period of  crisis. And in Oakland’s left activist-poet-journalist circles, everyone’s already sick of the future an unwinding quantitative easing capital has in store for us. The next crisis will come readymade with more thoroughgoing political paralysis in Washington and Sacramento. A kind of post-bailout stabilization has now set in, but it too will be undone. Poetry and broadly avant-garde or critical writing (in Endnotes or Viewpoint) is beginning to emerge beyond the assumptions of a postmodern avant-garde about poetry and criticism’s place within the superstructure, the academy, and so on. This left neo-avant-garde writing has acclimated itself to intensifying struggles in crisis-produced terrains of breakdown and further privatization.

Originally Published: April 21st, 2014

Poet David Lau grew up in Long Beach, California. He has described his family as a “Chicano-Chinese and Anglo household.” He earned degrees from UCLA and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The poems in his first book, Virgil and the Mountain Cat (2009), were described by the Believer’s Dominic Luxford as...