It was with great excitement that I greeted the news the Occupied Wall Street movement was going to express itself in my city, Oakland, CA.
You see, I am a New Yorker, and like most of the New Yorkers I know. I was raised to believe that all things wonderful, original, and vital – have their start in the 5 boroughs which make up metropolitan NY.
I don’t recall when I heard about it – I believe that it may have been a post on Facebook – and then I began to watch and pray for these brave young people, who transparently shared their every move, their every attempt to create a new world. I was astonished that for the first few days, no one seemed to be following them. Not even the supposed “progressive” news shows. I was stumped by this – how could it be, that several hundred people where protesting in a major American city and this was not seen as news worthy? Yet, so it was that day after day their movement was being ignored. I was dumfounded!
It was not until this peaceful group of protestors came under the fire of the New York Police Department, did their existence break through the denial of the American psyche – and they emerged as a national happening – and became a visual representation of the authentic representation of change in this country. Their bravery sparked the bravery of us all, and led to affinity groups all over the country. Powerful, amazing and true!
So Occupy Oakland was about to start – and I sat at the first planning meeting and allowed the words of the speakers to wash over me. My excitement was replaced with a wave of concern. I don’t know why this thought was slow to form within me – I guess I was a bit giddy from the excitement of it all. But by the second planning meeting – the reality of the scene opened like a flower within me. What were we about to do, was considered by some – to be illegal. And I know the good people of Oakland, knew that we would turn out in great numbers. Where Oaklanders go, so do their children. And how would this important event be presented to them?
At the first General Assembly in Oakland, there were adults expressing angry emotions, many children cried – their parents removing them from the area. So now that parent was out of the stream of information. Other adults were smoking, with no regard for the young lungs standing right beside them. I was appalled.
And I knew that something had to happen, something that would allow the participation of children in this most important event in the history of our city – and our world. I knew also that young ones have a great deal to offer and that their presence had a calming and civilizing influence.
After the speeches and a very beautiful opening ceremony from an Ohlone Elder, Occupy Oakland officially began. There was then time for committee announcements.
During the early planning sessions there was mention of a “childcare” committee being considered. I shook my head when I heard that – childcare, during an occupation? How was that going to work? I committed then to find out about that committee and to lend my support as well as my experience as a child care provider, mother and grandmother. I bumped into woman, a mom who ran a child care collective. We quickly shared words and agreed that we would address the group and announce to formation of the children’s committee. We agreed that we would both address the large crowd – seamlessly she spoke of how it takes a village to support and educate our children and I announced the birth of Children’s Village and asked for others to join us and make it run.
Just like that – when we stepped away from the microphone we were immediately approached by about 10 other women who offered their support and desire to get started. I went home and created a group on Facebook, and within 24 hours the group had sixty members. Mostly busily communicating about how when and where the children village should operate.
It was my desire to be in a space which was easy to exit – and such an oasis was secured. Our location was perfect – close enough, too, that parents could hear what was going on in the amphitheater in front the city hall steps, and far enough away for children to play undisturbed by loud voices and cigarette smoke.
We established 4 rules for children’s village:
1) Parents need to stay with their children in the village.
2) Loving and affirming language only
3) Healthy non-sugary snacks
4) No smoking
5) Have fun! (The rule about sugary snacks has fallen to the wayside- but what can you do!
All of this was done with amazing ease and competence. I must say that children’s village is the most efficient and orderly of all our committees, and is one with the least amount of friction between its members. Why? Well I believe that parents are people who are used to: thinking on the fly, delegating and cooperating. And our committee is mostly mommas, and two amazing poppas! And me – The Nana…
In another 24 hours we were on site, the other mommas and I – with children in tow. We hugged each other and enjoyed our first face to face greetings. It was already like we were old friends. An “easy up” was borrowed and set up, toys were put into place, a wonderful young woman named Dorney assured us that she would be camping nearby and that she would care – perhaps even sleep under – the easy up, and take care of the space over night.
What followed was the tense beginning of our Occupation. This group of about 200 tents which made up the first encampment was filled with an assortment of people, including those who had come to participate in the occupation and those associated with non-profits and/or educational agencies who came for the same reason. There were also the folks who has been there before us, the homeless people who resided at the newly renamed “Oscar Grant” Plaza. (Renamed from the officially named “Frank Ogawa” Plaza, by those who organized the Occupation as a tribute to the young man who was shot and killed on a public transit platform by uniformed Transit Police on New Year’s Eve 2008-2009.) It was a curious and potentially explosive mix.
Those first days were very interesting and precious. I witnessed people having varying degrees of success in learning to communicate with each other: race, class, sex – all of this issues presented themselves to our attention. Caucuses and affinity groups were being established – training sessions took place. Immediately, our kitchen began to feed everyone in the camp with the kind donations from local restaurants, food co-ops and citizens. Medics gave first aid to persons who before our presence had no hope of such care. It was moving, it was inspiring, and it was frightening as well.
I often found myself wondering if this was how it was for the very first conscious human beings – reaching out to others, not knowing how – learning each other’s languages, getting it wrong, and then, getting it right…
Very quickly everyone there became very dear to me. The gentlemen who attempted to flirt with me as I walked to the village each day; the children and families who came to play; and of course the amazing group of core volunteers, who showed a devotion to our project above and beyond their humanity.
And the Children’s Village very quickly established itself as the heart of the Oakland Occupation! During the day, it was filled with the cream of Oakland Family Life – the most beautiful children anywhere in my humble estimation! And it became a place where tired adults came to sit and meditate upon that beauty. Folks just wanted to be near – to watch the children and dream of their own childlife. Very quickly, the hardest revolutionary began to watch their language around our young people – and there were those who approached most humbly asking if it was ok to “just come play with the kids”. I remember very fondly one young man who admitted to me that he really hadn’t spent much time with kids – but he wondered if he could read them a story. I assured him that it would be fine and instructed him to sit near our book case and just start to read. It took 5 minutes before this young man was surrounded by about 5 little boys who sat near and/or climbed on his lap as he read. I don’t know who was happier – the children or their new adult friend! He ended up reading 4 books to the children then finally had to take his leave. The children all burst into tears and begged him to stay. The young man’s face was full of emotion – “They like me, don’t they?” he said to me, his face reflecting confusion, and pride. “Yes dear, “I said, “you were kind to them. And they will love you forever for it” He seemed deeply gratified to hear that, “They are like angels. Aren’t they?”
“Yes, my dear – they are exactly like angels.” And he left our village walking taller than before and with a very bright smile on his face.
We had been together about 10 days before the warning letters from the city began, and to be honest, I wasn’t too concerned. Our Mayor, Jean Quan, was known to be progressive; she was a mom herself and a grandmom. I couldn’t imagine that she would permit the disgraced behavior the world witnessed in NY during their occupation. I was cautious, but I was hopeful that the camp would be tolerated “if not understood” by the city government.
My true concern was that the ability to learn to self police would prove too much for our encampment. We did have people amongst us who were struggling with emotional concerns – and I hoped that we as a group were ready to deal with what that meant. I was concerned that if we could not, the city would feel that it had to step in and that that would spark violence. There was an incident wherein a reporter poked his camera into a tent where a person lay sleeping with their dog – the dog did what any dog would do under the circumstances – it bit the reporter! This sparked quite a disturbance; the reporter called the police, who attempted to enter the area to answer the call – but several present did not wish the police to enter the area. The police, after some argument, stayed at the periphery of the camp; the reporter brought himself to them and he was taken to receive treatment.
And while the encampment was struggling to find their feet with these matters, the letters from the Mayor’s office kept coming. And I began to have a lingering feeling of dread.
One night I received a phone call saying that police were expected to arrive at Occupy Oakland any moment. I put the word out to my core committee, telling them what I had been told, and asking them to come help me secure all of our supplies rather than have them seized by police (as I had been told was the experience of The San Francisco protestors). Very quickly women headed to the area – one of our moms was the first on the scene and she witnessed a man who clearly had emotional problems fighting with others in the camp. He was subdued by others whose job was security and it was quite an upsetting scene –at least it was for me. Carmen said “I am from Puerto Rico, I have seen it all!”
Carmen left to get her car and I was in children’s village alone. I realized that I was scared, my hands were shaking. I walked to our supply tent – it was my desire to move everything in there out – to safety. I was kneeling looking into the small tent which was full to the rafters with toys, games, books and other supplies and realized that I began -with shaking hands – to remove the plastic boxes full of sidewalk chalk and crayons, paints, paper. I knelt on the ground and began to cry. I took a deep breath knowing that it wouldn’t do for me to break down – that I had to move quickly. To the right of me – I heard sound, footsteps. I turned and saw a young man approaching me. He was a slender young man, about 25, very pale, very frightened. My heart was immediately filled with concern for him. He approached me cautiously, he said hello – his voice was very grave. I greeted him.
“Are you taking the kids stuff away?” His eyes were filled with tears. I looked at him and knew what my answer had to be, “No, I said,” Not all of it – just enough so that we could start over if we had to. He nodded wisely and I hugged him and we cried together.
“Thank you ma’am, “he said.
“You are welcome, sweetie – be safe”
And he walked away…
And I realized how foolish my statement had been. Safety, what did that mean exactly? This movement was born in the desire to attain some small measure of safety for the citizens of this country, and the world actually. It was born in an attempt to maintain a standard of life that was really the bare minimum for happiness – shelter from the cold, the ability to never know hunger – the ability to access health care and to be educated. Not much – but so vital – the foundation and the tools whereby one can actually stand on their own two feet….
As I watched the young man walk away, I realized that I had no right to take everything away, to fulfill some inner sense of safety for myself. Children’s Village belonged to Occupy Oakland – I had no right to remove its heart. I kept my word and only took with me a few items – enough to resume if the police indeed raided the camp.
Carmen and the friend who drove me gathered up all that I had chosen and packed it up. I was the last to leave the encampment – I looked around and said a prayer. I touched the tent, I touched the easy up.
And I left.
The police did not raid the camp that night, but a few days later they did. They brutally attacked the encampment in the pre-dawn early morning hours – using tear gas and flash bang grenades – and then stormed the camp. Our Dorney attempted to protect the children’s village – she and others making a ring around it – and attempted to tell the police that there was no need to destroy it, that it was only filled with children’s toys and games. They handled her roughly, hurt her and arrested her. She saw police stomp the toys – “it looked like they enjoyed it.”, Dorney told us.
This horrible day ended with our Police using extreme force on Oakland’s citizens through the night, as the people attempted to reaffirm their right to take their grievances to their government, and to participate in the world wide movement which begun with Occupy Wall Street. Though many were injured and arrested they persisted.
I was told that the first tent reassembled upon the rebuilding of the second Occupy Oakland encampment… was Children’s Village.
Written – October 2011
L. Samsarah Morgan, DD Cht. LC
Apprentice Midwife, Doula, Childbirth & Lactation Educator, Counselor , Hypnotherapist and Family Life Coach