Occupy Oakland has many problems, but the name “Occupy” is not one of them.
Last night, about 300 people attended the Occupy Oakland GA to discuss, for three hours, whether we should change our name to “Decolonize Oakland.” 198 voted to change the name while 91 voted to keep it, reaching 68.5 percent which is just shy of the number required to allow ammendments and a revote. That is, the proposal failed. Afterward, the “decolonizers” began chanting “Decolonize Oakland,” which many “Occupiers” responded to in kind. Yeah, it was messy and feelings were hurt on both sides. It’s a movement. People take it seriously and fight for what they believe in. That doesn’t mean we can’t work together again. We probably will, so let’s keep the ultimatums to a minimum.
On the face of it, the proposal was meant to build solidarity with the struggles of Indigenous people and distance us from imperialism, colonialism and genocide. The problem, of course, is that many people in Occupy Oakland do not want to distance ourselves from the word “Occupy.” It may have negative connotations in some contexts, but plenty of words do. Nobody except a hard-core group of ideologues believes that “Occupy” is an inherently racist term, even if it has been used in racist and colonial contexts. The other problem is that many of us feel like we are already sufficiently distant from imperialism, having spent years and decades opposing US imperialism in all its forms. Some “Occupiers” have even lived under colonial occupations. We desire opportunities to raise these issues but we do not need to be lectured about our supposed blindness to genocide and racism.
Many of the arguments raised are absurd. For example, while Occupy Oakland may have been fighting for two months, “we Decolonizers” have been fighting for 500 years. Of course, there are Indigenous people invovled in Occupy Oakland, not to mention many African-Americans, Arab-Americans, Latinos and others, but they don’t count in this equation. If you don’t use the term “decolonize” then you do not really represent the oppressed. I’m not sure when the Central Committee of Oppressed People met and decided this for everybody, but there it is. And no, it doesn’t matter if the person making the argument is middle-class and white while the person receiving the argument is a Palestinian who has lived, you know, under an Apartheid-style colonial occupation.
So in the end, it wasn’t about building solidarity but about guilt-tripping and point scoring. The arguments rarely discuss the name at all and just talk about supporting the oppressed, as though Occupy Oakland does not want to do that as well. To anybody who asks, “Why are you so obsessed with terminology?” I simply respond, “Why are you?”
Let there be no mistake–and I assure you, there will be plenty of purposefully dishonest “misunderstandings” about what Occupy Oakland represents–the vast majority of us are anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, anti-racist and have spent years working on those issues. I only say “vast majority” because I have not literally asked everybody, but Occupy Oakland has already organized against racial injustice–including an action for Troy Davis and against the criminal justice system, as well as voting in support of a march for Oscar Grant on January 1. Oh yeah, and there’s that whole “colonization” of the Plaza with the name “Oscar Grant.” People even felt bad and made posters declaring solidary with Frank Ogawa as well, so as not to look like we were dismissing the struggles of Asian-Americans. And, of course, the labor march we organized a few weeks ago included Indigenous people and Running Wolf held a tree sit-in declaring the Plaza “Ohlone Land.” So it’s not like we’re a bunch of economic determinists who don’t give a shit about anything other than downwardly mobile white yuppies.
We just want to keep the name “Occupy.” Why? Well, as one teacher said at the labor march, “Occupy Oakland has built the largest march for education in Oakland’s history.” We don’t want to run away from that legacy. If the “Decolonizers,” on the other hand, want to build an action that is even more successful than this one–or the General Strike, for that matter, which saw African-Americans in West Oakland standing on their front lawns and cheering us as we marched to the Port–proving in practice the power of their terminology, they are more than welcome. Certainly, that would be the most powerful argument for changing the name.
This might happen, but I am skeptical. We’ll also see how many “Decolonizers” turn out at tonight’s GA, but I suspect that it will be the same hundred-ish group of people that have been hanging on for the last week or two. I made an announcement at the end of last night’s GA that, “If you want to Occupy the Port, Decolonize the Port or Shut Down the Port, you should come to our Port Shut Down meeting,” which was just beginning as the GA ended. I cannot tell that many of those newer folks stuck around for it. On the other hand, a white woman who spoke before me announced that there would be a white privilege workshop Monday at 6:30pm (during our GA) a few blocks from the Plaza. That is, she was actively organizing people to leave Occupy Oakland and have a different discussion somewhere else. We’ll see if sitting around and talking about white privilege is as powerful as the West Coast Port Shut Down. Personally, I doubt it.
Do we have problems? Of course we do. The real problem is not that “everybody hates Occupy Oakland”–December 12 will definitively prove that wrong–but that we have lost our sense of purpose. Specifically, we were kicked out of the Plaza twice by the Oakland Police and now that our camp is gone nobody is quite certain what to do next. Everybody wants to occupy a foreclosed building but nobody really knows how to do it. In the meantime, the GA has nothing to do with the Port action and nobody really knows what our goals are anymore. Maybe we will have a resurgence next week but we don’t know at this point.
What we need is not a name change but a unifying sense of purpose, either a new camp or something else that gives us a reason to exist from week to week. The horrors of capitalism, unfortunately, are not enough. We need to all be working toward a common practical goal and we need to figure out that goal soon. “Decolonizers” are welcome to join us in figuring out that goal. Just because we could not reach consensus on the name change does not mean we cannot find it elsewhere.
Losing a vote doesn’t mean you need to walk away. Some of the “Occupiers” chanting against the “Decolonizers” were among the most vocal critics of the facilitation committee, having claimed that people of color felt iced-out of the process. But they’re still “Occupiers.” Some of them lost some very ugly votes and yet they’re still with Occupy Oakland. Why? Because they’re principled.
THIS is what democracy looks like for principled activists. Walking away is something else entirely.