Occupy Berkeley remains, experiment is proving fragile

Around 40 tents are now pitched in Civic Center Park as part of the Occupy Berkeley encampment. Photos: Judith Scherr

While Occupy encampments across the nation are being forcibly disbanded, be it in Oakland, Manhattan or right here on the Cal campus, the tent-city in Berkeley’s Civic Center Park, which was established in early October after gravitating from the Bank of America on Shattuck Avenue, remains. Its presence has been marked not by clashes with the police or loud demonstrations, but rather by its inherent low profile.

Over the past few weeks, it has quietly grown in size and, while showing no sign of leaving, it is nevertheless struggling with the consequences of its policy of radical inclusivity. Occupy Berkeley campers and supporters are engaging in loud and long disagreements and debates as they try to figure out the best approach to a world which opens its doors to all who walk in: decent people, as well as thieves and assailants.

On Saturday November 26th, an unseasonably warm day, the sun reflected off the 40-plus tents in the park. There was a “knit-in,” aimed at attracting people who were not regular visitors to the encampment, and a general assembly where some 25 participants engaged in dynamic discussion. Shoppers from the adjacent farmers’ market meandered among the tents as beats from a drum circle echoed through the camp; skateboarders practiced their skills and a violinist dropped by.

A description of Occupy Berkeley depends on the lens you’re looking through. Some say it’s a beautiful experimental community striving for a more authentic way of life – more communal, less material, less hierarchical and free from corporate greed. Others argue it’s made up of people with irreconcilable goals and lifestyles, a fragile, fractured community, about to implode.

On Saturday, Berkeley occupiers shared a spectrum of views of their encampment.

What is incontestable is that the fragile tent community nestled in the heart of one of the most liberal cities in America still exists. It hasn’t been raided by police or pressured to disband. Some say that’s due to supportive city officials and further note that the camp location doesn’t impact city business or commerce.

The very fact of the camp’s existence, its claim to common space, is significant in itself, said Brian Lipsom, whose primary residence is Occupy Berkeley. “A main focus of the occupy movement is simply the ability to occupy a space for whatever reason,” he said. “In the name ‘occupy,’ what’s really being brought out is the need and the right to peaceably assemble and how the First Amendment trumps any local ordinances.”

On Saturday November 26th, Occupy Berkeley held a “knit-in” aimed at attracting people who were not regular visitors to the encampment

One doesn’t apply to join this community; you show up to a general assembly or pitch a tent. “I just love how, the fact that I was walking by [the Shattuck Avenue Bank of America] and I was automatically fully included and invited to fully participate,” Lipsom said.

Maxina Ventura sat in a circle of knitters not far from the farmers market. There were women and men, teens and grey-haired, housed and homeless. One woman showed off a blue knit circle that would become a hat; beginners were learning from the more experienced. The “knit-in” was designed to make warm hats and scarves for occupiers in cold regions and to create a space of welcome for new occupation supporters.

“This whole occupation movement — it’s not just about these encampments,” said Ventura, who initiated the knit-in and was among the first to pitch her tent at Occupy Berkeley’s Civic Center Park site. “But the encampments are a very public face and a place for people to come down and tell their stories – talk about what’s happened to them.”

She acknowledges the challenges of a community of widely diverse people: non-campers and campers; people with homes, like herself, and without homes, who camp to support the movement; people who join the encampment for food and a safe place to sleep; people with severe mental disorders and drug and alcohol addictions; people who come to prey on a community without locks on their doors.

The Occupy Berkeley community is diverse: campers and non-campers; people with homes and without; people with mental disorders and addictions

Unlike Occupy Oakland, which specifically banned police and government representatives from the encampment, Occupy Berkeley welcomes council members who drop by and does not exclude the need for occasional calls to police – the department is just across the street. But the goal is to solve problems independently and compassionately, Ventura said. “We are trying to deal with [people who cause problems], if possible, without police,” she said. “People get sent to jail and their lives further deteriorate.”

Sometimes the camp security team tells people to leave. “That’s been one of the great ironies that we’ve been dealing with, essentially being involved, you can say, in evictions,” Ventura said, noting, however, that if they don’t ban troublemakers, their effort will collapse. “We recognize that this whole larger political occupation could be lost if we let people stay who are either threatening other people or are so disruptive that people trying to do something positive can’t accomplish that.”

Over time, camp governance is evolving. Newly instituted camp-only meetings, separate from the general assembly, may empower campers to better address issues such as security and cleanliness, and reduce tensions between campers and non-campers, Lipsom said.

The media has at times portrayed camp tensions as homeless versus housed people, but that’s not the issue, explained Cody, a young Occupy Berkeley camper, interviewed in a video by Lee Stranahan. “There are a lot of decent homeless people here who know they can sleep here without getting woken up by the fucking cop at two in the morning and given a sleeping ticket,” said Cody, estimating that about half the people at the camp don’t have permanent housing. The tension is with the seriously mentally ill and drug addicted, he said, arguing that the movement is not equipped to handle them.

In addition to the security issue, the decision-making process itself creates tension at Occupy Berkeley, according to Tefari Casas, a 22-year-old filmmaker, born in Peru and raised in Berkeley. “I see the educated predominantly white group take control [at the general assembly] because they understand the process,” said Casas, who has camped at Civic Center Park for two weeks and hopes to produce a film write a series of articles about it. Age also creates divisions, with older activists who believe their experience of the 60s gives them a right to make decisions and young people who refuse all advice, he said.

“We’re so split up in our factions… that we’ve forgotten who our real enemy is,” Casas said. “And we’ve forgotten what our real goal is. That’s what’s going to kill Occupy Berkeley.”

Ventura is more hopeful. Engaging in the process; working through camp and community issues is success in itself.

“How do we find our way through this muck that we’ve been dealing with?” she asked. “So few people in our society have been engaged in this way. This occupation movement is bringing millions into this fold and asking: how do we figure out how to make a better world?”

Occupy Berkeley consolidates camp, supports Oakland [11.02.11]
BPD lent support to OPD at Occupy Oakland demonstration [10.26.11]
All quiet at Occupy Berkeley camp at MLK Park [10.26.11]
Berkeley joins 900 cities to condemn corporate greed [10.16.11]
Wall Street protests come to Berkeley [10.09.11]

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  • David

    Meanwhile the rest of us have had a well used park stolen with not a bit of protection from the city. The crafts faires, so wonderful this time of year are driven off. The high school kids have lost their park. Add to that the city is giving electricity to the occupation at tax payer expense, and begging downtown has reached levels not seen in decades. Shame on the city for allowing such thieft of public common space.

  • I couldn’t agree more.  With the exception of the first few weeks of Zucotti, I haven’t seen an “occupy” movement that wasn’t hypocritical in the above fashion (noted by David) or achingly angry at the wrong people (i.e. protesting Cal tuition raises that are largely due to huge cuts in state support…go “occupy” sacramento).

  • David

    Yes! if only they would occupy the legislatures who are starving the public sector they might be doing some good. But breaking Oakland, embarrising Cal., trashing Berkeley, where’s the noble mission in that?

  • Bruce Love

    From my perspective, Occupy Berkeley (the movement, not the camp per se)  is wrestling with the break-down of camp governance.   The democratic processes that characterize Occupy have broken down in the context of the camp.  That’s unfortunate because it comes at a time when Occupy Berkeley is moving towards making it easier for people to participate and help define this national and international movement without having to commit to camping or clashes with riot police.

    There is a chance for those in OB who still believe in democratic processes to work with the city and the campers to help wind down the encampment as gracefully as possible.   In any event, the camp can not simultaneously refuse to participate as equals in the broader Occupy movement and yet also be a part of that movement.

    In my view (and here I’m recycling a message from a couple of other contexts):

    Occupy is about mass organizing to directly  address  big, structural problems that create intolerable inequities and injustices. 

    Occupy focuses on a malevolent concentration of political and economic power in a relatively small elite who seem to exercise their power so as to increase those inequities and injustices.

    Occupy attempts to organize resistance under a “big tent”, improvising and using techniques of Real Democracy.

    An encampment is sometimes  a symbolic and practical hub for mass organization. It can help mass organization as for example on November 2, 2011, Oakland CA.

    On the other hand, a camp may be forced by necessity and common decency to spend nearly all  or even “more than all” of its energy on the immediate survival and wellness needs of its members.

    When a camp does that — turns inward that way — it doesn’t have anything left over to work on mass organizing against a defective concentration of power.  It’s too busy keeping its members  alive and mostly civil.  It’s not really doing the “Occupy thing”, at that point.

    A camp that is turned inward, working on the survival of its campers, also tends to  punish non-camper supporters.   Every gift from a supporter goes towards the immediate survival and wellness needs of the campers and, even more … if there is anything left over then the number of needy campers is likely to grow.   The reward for trying to help solve the problem is a bigger problem.

    So, not only can’t an inwardly turned camp directly help the Occupy movement, it also eventually alienates its outside supporters and collapses under the weight of its own unmet needs.

    The tensions arise from that conflict between the inward humanitarian mission of camp and the outward political mission.

  • The Occupy Movement is NECESSARY for our citizens to expose
    the corruption which Big Business has infected our Government with.  Every single person occupying the streets and
    protesting Corporations is a hero and a patriot.  I was compelled to lend a hand and create
    some new posters for the movement which you can download for free on my
    artist’s blog at

  • Charles_Siegel

    I won’t comment on the Berkeley movement in particular, because I don’t know much about it, but it seems to me that the Occupy movement in general has already had a major effect by making people think about inequality. 

    For example, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office recently did a study that showed the income of the top 1% of Americans went up 275% from 1979 to 2007, while the income of the average American went up less than 40%.  I suspect that the CBO would have thought about doing this study, if it had not been for the Occupy movement talking about the 99% and the 1%.  
    For their chart, see

    Another example: Paul Krugman wrote today that Americans with the top 0.1% of income (incomes above about $2 million) make a total of about $1 trillion in income, and that we could reduce the deficit significantly by taxing them at a higher rate.

    This is the conversation that started when one group of people began camping out near Wall Street, and other people joined them in their own cities across the country.  Before Occupy began, the Tea Party was America’s most prominent “grassroots movement” (with lots of added funding from oil interests).  Now, the national debate has changed.  You can be sure that every legislator in the nation has heard about this movement, even though they are not occupying the legislatures.

    Despite minor inconveniences, we are all better off because the Occupy movement has given more prominence to the issue of income inequality.  If you are middle-income, think of how much better off you would be if the top 1% paid its fair share of taxes and earned its fair share of income – rather than the exorbitant share of income they get now, which makes the United States the most unequal of all the developed nations.

  • Traveler

    I traveled over Thanksgiving and I can tell you this… no one I spoke with has faith in the Occupy movement to make change until that changes occurs through new legislation, and to do that you need to make Occupy into a political movement that elects officials into office who are sympathetic to their wishes.

    And knowing I’m from Berkeley I received a lot of questions from friends and family. Did I see firsthand the camps in the Bay area? In their minds, the Occupy movement in the Bay area is nothing but a lawless bunch of protests, particularly in Oakland, of people who want to vandalize or otherwise redistribute money from those who have it to those who don’t. There was sympathy for the issues (political corruption, lack of leadership in elected officials, corporate distrust, etc), but absolutely not for the movement or the people involved due to their tactics.

  • Anonymous

    I support the Occupy movement, but geez, they should have cleaned up after themselves when they left BOA. That shows little regard for MOST of the 99%.

  • Occupy hasn’t started a new discussion. People like Krugman have been discussing that income/wealth gap – and the CBO has been issuing reports detailing it – for decades.

    Here’s an old, simple video based on said information that I’ve been using to explain the issue for the better part of the last decade.

  • The Occupy movement is an embarrassment, and just another example of the impotence of the political left in America.

    For all their faults, after a few months of bizarre rallies the Tea Party was at least able to organize and win a handful of elections. Occupy seems content to continue trashing public parks, making life difficult for some members of the 99%, shrieking about inequality without offering any reasonable solutions, and completely ignoring the importance of the ballot box when it comes to creating change.

  • Danmcmullan

    Provide for the common DEFENSE, Promote the GENERAL WELFARE, Ensure the blessings of LIBERTY to OURSELVES and our POSTERITY. These words (That I wrote from memory and hope I got right.) in the Preamble to the Constitution that is waved around by hippocrites of all stripes.Is what the Occupy Movement is about for me. Unfortunately when you get to Occupy Berkeley among the many good folks are some of Berkeley’s biggest Activist/Grifters and that has turned many in the know away. I have done many “Occupations” over the year and I have found that it is unfair and unnerving to the Community at large to leave your actions open ended and not give folks assurances that you are here to make a point for so many days and then move on to other means to make your point..I have found 30 days to be about the limit for all involved. It is also unfair and mean spirited to let homeless people prop up these actions, then go home leaving them with no advance in their conditions.Our past Occupations have opened the Berkeley Rain Shelter. Got rooms set aside for homeless people that are sick and discharged from the hospital.Ect…..These are the type small but nessessary advances of the GENERAL WELFARE that are do-able locally.
    These are things that may be worthy of consideration.

  • Tefari Casas

    My name is Tefari Casas and I’d like to remind the writer that I am not hoping to produce a film, but rather write a series of articles about Occupy Berkeley.

  • Tefari: Thanks for the clarification. We have made the correction.

  • Maxina Ventura

    Though this is months later, it bears pointing out for clarification for anyone checking archives that, in fact Occupy Berkeley worked very closely with a representative of the Ecology Center (over weeks) to make sure that the 3-weekend crafts faire would not only be able to be held in the park but would be successful, which it was: no better, no worse than past years, we were told.

    We took a lot of responsibility in discussing the importance of supporting our local craftspeople and the Ecology Center’s organizing of the faire and to that end, we got people to move tents, and new occupants to set down tents in areas leaving a large area open alongside the Farmers’ Market specifically for the crafters. We kept this area open for the better part of a month, which means is was also available for those weeks for anyone wanting to use that area of the park, even if she/he did not want to be in the middle of Occupy Berkeley.

    I would submit that, this demonstrates cooperation and direct democracy; good projects, worthy projects which support our communities, are welcome and will be supported, as long as there is communication, understanding of goals, and sometimes some restraint as in: I sure would like to plunk down my tent in that open area but I sure want our local crafters and other local businesses to thrive. I guess I’ll set up my tent in another area.

    In our society, people need to practice saying what we want or need, not expect to get everything we want, and practice cooperation. In fact, I would say that that is a lot of what the Occupy movement is bringing into focus. We’ve been abused especially since the Industrial “Revolution” by businesses bullying. It’s been coming to a head worldwide in waves more recently. The Occupy movement is doing our part to collapse the empire by serving one another, as needed. Movement toward interdependence is perhaps the scariest of all aspects of Occupy to the powers that be.

    Maxina Ventura