In the piece I wrote for the Atlantic last week about Occupy Oakland, one of my favorite quotes unfortunately didn’t survive the final round of edits. In the final piece, this part appeared:
"Our overconfidence and impatience will be our downfall," says Leo Ritz-Barr, 21, an Occupy Oakland events committee organizer. "And we’ve seen that happen before."
In my draft, it was followed by this:
"I don’t want to see any more actions of the one guy running ahead to get slaughtered and then leading the rest of us into the proverbial gas chambers."
Last week Occupy Oakland’s infamous Tactical Action Committee founded a new camp on December 22 in what was for several days a “secret location.” This move came quickly on the heels of a five-day eviction notice served to one of the occupied foreclosed houses at 10th and Mandela, a house which Occupy Oakland’s Foreclosure Research Action Committee had found but which local foreclosure defense non-profit Causa Justa had taken responsibility for occupying.
Those five days would have been up yesterday, but the occupants of the building had moved on to their secret camp, on a piece of land they said was “unowned.” They named it Cypress Triangle, they named it Zion. They occupied with tents and with open flame cooking and with fervor. Along with the TAC, some of the houseless Occupy Berkeley residents recently evicted from their camp came along, too. The property, surrounded on all sides by high and nearly opaque fencing, was largely secure from prying eyes, but TAC’s chain and lock on the gate helped too.
But while the fence and the locks kept the campers safe, they also kept them from making a political statement to the city, and for little ultimate gain.
While Occupy Oakland security culture often leads to planning problems, this secret camp existed for days without issue, until a visit from the Oakland police yesterday. Occupiers decided to reveal the location afterward, which is when the property owners were tipped off.
The property has been owned by Brian Collins, senior vice president at a local commercial real estate firm, Henry Wong, and a limited liability partnership between Mehrad Dokhancy and Patricia Phneuf, which likely includes other silent partners, since 2006, when they bought it from the city at auction. The multiple parcels which made up the lot were combined, according to the Alameda County assessor, as of June of this year, but were always owned by this group. They are currently $12,824.51 behind in their property taxes on the lot, which is assessed at around $445,000 (they paid about $415,000). Since 2006, those property tax bills have been sent to a suburban house in the windy hills of Lafayette, 13 miles from the 21st and Mandela property, in Dokhancy and Phneuf’s names. It looks like a really nice house.
There is a strong statement to be made about landlords who sit on vacant property, especially landlords who live out of town. This is an ongoing problem for the Bay Area at large, and San Francisco and Oakland specifically. Speculative investors snatch up low priced properties often at auction. And then they wait. While zoning laws in the area prevent the development of housing at the 21st and Mandela lot, commercial use is allowed. In the course of five years, this lot could have been made into something that would service a blighted West Oakland community.
Instead, it’s been fenced off and left to sit. Instead, two dozen Oakland police officers were mobilized to clear it and protect the owners’ claims to the land.
But Occupy Oakland didn’t frame this battle this way. Instead, the focus remained on the disputed facts of the lot’s ownership.
"They said we were trespassing but this parcel doesn’t exist," said Tactical Action Committee member Julien to a newscaster as the OPD handcuffed and cited occupiers for 602LI misdemeanor trespassing.
"We probably lost this battle right here," said TAC’s Melvin. But "a lot of other shit is in progress."
This afternoon I did an interview for local Berkeley radio station KPFA about the future of the Occupy movement, especially in its arguably vanguard Oakland iteration. I spoke specifically about more research and more patience going into direct actions with stronger, clearer messaging. I spoke about reasons to be optimistic for the future of the movement. No more slaughters, no more gas.
Five hours later, the lot at 21st and Mandela had been cleared.