5 Years After Occupy Oakland, Still Fighting for the 99 Percent
Just before dawn on December 12, 2011, Jason "Shake" Anderson was marching with a group of thousands to the Port of Oakland.
“We are doing this to bring attention to what’s going on across the world, where the 1 percent is actually taking money from us every day, making our life hard," Anderson said, "and they’re still collecting dough and they living a great life, and that’s off us.”
The march was one of Occupy Oakland's largest actions, part of a months-long stretch that featured dozens of massive marches, a shutdown of the port and clashes with police.
So where is Anderson now?
I got back in touch with him, and we met up in Oakland’s Mosswood Park to reminisce, surrounded by sunbathers.
“Occupy happened and it extended the way I was already living," Anderson said.
At the time Occupy Oakland began, Anderson was a Navy veteran, DJ'ing at a pirate radio station.
“I wasn’t necessarily political, but I also always had a wanting to learn the money system," said Anderson. "My politics came from like, 'What is money really, and why do we need it, and why is it such a problem?' ”
"And I was like wow! I mean like two years straight I’ve been asking the same money question ... this is great!"
In 2011, Anderson’s tent was among more than 100 pitched on a plaza in the heart of downtown Oakland. Every day, the camp featured political workshops, performances, child care, and meals -- all for free.
Anderson volunteered for Occupy Oakland’s media committee, and served as a sort of de facto security guard at the camp, and helped de-escalate conflicts when they arose.
"Every type of anarchist was there with all their philosophies, right. I had to learn all that later. I was just there to help people,” he said.
There truly were people of all stripes there. Anderson, a local from West Oakland, marched in the same crowds as David Keenan, who grew up as a punk rocker in L.A.
“I would say it was a radicalizing moment for me in terms of seeing how you can have a really incredible movement kind of just squashed very quickly.”
Despite its global notoriety, the main Occupy Oakland camp actually lasted only five weeks before it was evicted by the city and removed by the police. After the camp was broken up, Keenan yearned for a permanent space to provide a home for the collective spirit of Occupy
"Not someone’s house that’s just like friends and friends of friends," Keenan said. "But like a truly public space where anyone could participate and we could build solidarity, a space where that could happen all the time that couldn’t be closed down the way that the plaza was closed down."
After more than two years of looking, Keenan and other activists found a defunct Italian social club in North Oakland.
The 22,000-square-foot building is called the Omni Commons. There’s a ballroom for concerts, a kitchen for a cafe, with winding hallways and alcoves everywhere. Currently, there are 13 groups using the Omni, ranging from food justice organizations to a small printing press.
“We’re doing something at a scale that most cultural groups or political organizers aren’t really doing," says Keenan. "But coming out of a lot of the energy of Occupy and the sense of empowerment that you got doing things at a big scale, we’re like, 'Let’s try to have space for that to happen and that can’t be taken away.' "
Paying the monthly $15,000 rent has been difficult for these groups. But with the help of an anonymous million-dollar donation, they are very close to buying the building, which Keenan hopes will solidify the Omni as a cultural space for years to come.
We peeked in one small room and found children and their parents, learning to do screen printing. The screen the kids were working with said “Against Adult Supremacy.”
One of the moms in here was Franki Velez — her son, Ashoka, is 8 months old. When I asked her about Occupy Oakland, she beams.
“It was the best damn thing that ever happened to me. It changed my life," said Velez.
When Occupy Wall Street started spreading to other cities in October 2011, Velez says she was living in Tacoma, Washington, getting her master's degree in public administration. She went straight to Occupy Tacoma, and was surrounded by 250 fellow dissatisfied souls.
“And that was the first time in my life I didn’t feel alone," Velez said. "So I sold everything I owned, jumped in my VW Bug, and I came to Oakland and I never left. I got involved in Occupy Oakland."
Velez camped with Occupy the Farm — a tract of UC Berkeley agricultural land in Albany slated for development. She helped run a free school at Occupy Lakeview, an effort to prevent the closing of an elementary school. She also met her future husband and father of her child through Occupy Oakland.
So what's she doing now?
"Now I’m a mom, full time," Velez said, "and I’m going to be starting apothecary school because I think we need to like get deeper with our healing, we need to connect with the earth. Food is medicine. We already screamed and yelled about the problems, and now it’s like we’re focused on the solutions,” she adds.
So what are those solutions? Well, there are still well-organized groups across the San Francisco Bay Area that try to stop home foreclosures. The activism of Black Lives Matter and the economic message of Bernie Sanders’ campaign both trace some of their roots to Occupy Wall Street.
"It only seemed logical for me to run for mayor because I kept doing things in the vein of community work," Anderson explained. "I ran for what Occupy should’ve run for, meaning that look at what we’ve done, this is our representative to speak to the masses.”
But I had to ask: Isn’t running for public office inconsistent with the anti-establishment tenor of Occupy?
“There’s a power that you’re fighting against. But then you, you don’t create any way to negotiate with that power? That's a futile movement," Anderson said. "That means that you’ll never get past yelling on the streets. And since I’m about progress, I think we should evolve. So what I did was my evolution. It wasn’t Occupy’s evolution."
Anderson ended up with less than 2 percent of the vote, but he says the simple fact that he ran was a victory.
To mark the five-year anniversary of Occupy Oakland, people will be gathering in the plaza where it all began on Oct. 8. Franki Velez and David Keenan say they’ll be there. Anderson might show up, too. He said Occupy is part of his DNA now.