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

By 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?”

Related:
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]