Oakland Occupied

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Friday night at Frank Ogawa Plaza outside City Hall in downtown Oakland. I stopped very briefly on my way down to the Jack London Square ferry slip. The city had served notice a few hours before that it considered the occupation/encampment illegal and wanted Occupy Oakland to vacate the premises. Since the city considers the space “closed” from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.–a closed park at any hour, especially at city center, is an odd concept to me, but also not a new one–the city each day for several days has issued a “notice of violations and demand to cease violations” to the folks in the plaza. Today’s notice, like previous ones, says in part:

You do not have permission to lodge overnight in Frank Ogawa Plaza. You must remove all tents, sleeping bags, tarps, cooking facilities and equipment and any other lodging material from the Plaza immediately. Your continued use of the Plaza for overnight lodging will subject you to arrest.

For the past week, the city has issued more specific complaints, too, citing the occupiers/campers for everything from fighting, open-air sex, open fires, dogs, illegal drugs, public urination, improper storage of food blocking access for paramedics and firefighters, delivering soil to the site, graffiti and vandalism, trespassing in city buildings, and loud music. The notices have been posted on the web and apparently posted at the plaza, too.

The Occupy Oakland response? In essence, “We’re not going anywhere.” Well, that, and some preparation. The group has set up an emergency text system to try to rally supporters if and when the police show up and say 1,000 have signed up so far. An item before the camp’s nightly General Assembly on Saturday urged participants to “have a plan in place for yourself when the police come (lock arms and make inside/outside circles, film officers, evac. plan, outside mobilization). Think about it before you sleep tonight.”

In the picture above, there’s a banner on the left that says, “The Corporate Media Puts the Masses to Sleep.” Occupy Oakland has developed a bit of a reputation for being touchy with the local media. In one incident, a protester’s fairly mean-and menacing-looking dog grabbed the sleeve of reporter Ken Pritchett from Oakland’s KTVU (that link is from KPIX, another Bay Area station; the Occupy Oakland report starts at about 3:00 of the five-minute video; the brief view of the Pritchett incident starts at 3:51). On Friday, a KTVU camera operator and reporter were followed around the encampment and their attempts to shoot video and interview people on the site were blocked by members of the encampment.

Today, a statement purporting to have been approved by Occupy Oakland’s General Assembly appeared on the web. It sets the ground rules for media coverage in the plaza (which the occupiers call Oscar Grant Plaza, named after an unarmed black train passenger killed by a white transit officer on New Year’s Day 2009). The statement:

We agree with Occupy Wall Street that corporations “purposefully keep people misinformed and fearful through their control of the media.”

The mainstream media’s inextricable ties to corporate interests drive them to lie to protect profits. This undermines the discourse we have begun in occupations across the country and the world.

Due to this conflict of interest, we have set the following requirements for all media.

  • All media and those with professional recording equipment will check in at the Media Tent, located in the Southeast corner of Oscar Grant Plaza.
  • Do not photograph or film people who are sleeping, receiving medical treatment, or have requested that you refrain from recording them.
  • Do not enter the kitchen, kid zone, or medic spaces as this disrupts their function.
  • Do not recording personal conversations and meetings without the express permission of those involved.
  • We encourage you to document the General Assembly, the primary stage for public gathering and discourse, held daily at 7pm in the amphitheater.
  • Make an effort to report on a diversity of voices and opinions; the media team is happy to help.

OK–there’s something more than a little creepy about attempts to physically restrain reporters from doing their jobs. The guy with the dog in the video seems like he’s into a moment of ugly macho thuggery. And it’s disingenuous for the protesters to declare a right to occupy a public space and then declare it a semi-private zone where they, and only they, have a say in what will be reported from there. But there’s something disingenuous, too, about some of the local news operations and their pious tsk-tsking about the media-unfriendly behavior of Occupy Oakland.occupyoakland102111b.jpg

As someone who’s worked in news for a while, let me offer an observation: The media give credence almost without fail to statements from official government sources. These reports are generally accorded an initial assumption of credibility that virtually no one else enjoys. We often can’t help ourselves: We need to know what happened so we can tell our readers, listeners, and viewers, and we need to do it now. The official word on a crime, a police shooting, our nation going to war–it’s gold. Until it’s not. Until it turns out that maybe the whole truth wasn’t on offer for some reason. But that’s part of a future we’ll deal with then, part of tomorrow’s news cycle.

What does that have to do with Occupy Oakland?

Well, look what happened when the city started to issue its alarming communiques about fighting in the encampment, about rats, poor sanitary conditions, and all the rest. Without doing much independent verification, as far as I can tell, the local media went with the city’s complaints as gospel. The standard approach is taking that stance is pretty simple: As a reporter or editor, you don’t say Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem; you say “the city says” Occupy Oakland is causing a rat problem. The media’s issues with public trust aside, many if not most in the audience conflate what they read and hear with what’s true. As Virginia O’Hanlon’s dad once said, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

And so, the occupiers’ preoccupation with trying to control what the world sees. A Chronicle reporter who talked with protesters asks the right question:

The real issue here is whether the stance is smart. The chief goal of a public demonstration, after all, is to bring attention to a cause. Some protest organizers seemed to appreciate the dilemma at a camp meeting Tuesday, with one saying, “When we get raided (by the police), we’re going to look to the media to get our word out. … Let’s stay on the good side. … Don’t scream at them like a madman or mad woman.”

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