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'Doing What's Right, Not What's Legal': Boots Riley on Occupy Oakland

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Boots Riley speaks at Occupy Oakland.
Boots Riley speaks at Occupy Oakland.
Sourced via YouTube/babylonfuneral

When Mayor Mike Bloomberg cleared the Occupy Wall Street encampment from Zuccotti Park last fall, the protestors vowed to carry on. Since then, though, the movement seems to have lost its initial momentum (and/or media novelty), with the major exception of one city: Oakland, California. Over the weekend, around four hundred Occupy Oakland protestors were arrested during an action they’d called Move-In Day, in which they’d planned to occupy a vacant building and covert it into a community center. Some of the protestors broke into City Hall, and a flag was burned. The Oakland Police Department claimed officers were "pelted with bottles, metal pipes, rocks, spray cans, improvised explosive devices and burning flares"; Occupy Oakland, meanwhile, decried the "brutal police response" in which they claim protestors were "met with baton strikes, shot with rubber bullets and exposed to tear gas."

Outside of New York, Oakland has been the Occupy city to receive the most national attention. Last October, Scott Olsen, a twenty-four-year-old ex-Marine, was critically injured during a police raid on the Oakland encampment at Frank Ogawa Plaza. A few weeks later, Occupy Oakland became the first of the Occupations to call a general strike, the first held in Oakland since 1946. Twice, the group has shut down major berths at the Port of Oakland, costing operators millions of dollars. "All of the energy in the Bay Area is coming out of Oakland, not San Francisco," Edwin Dobb, a local journalist, told me. "I think the police response had a lot to do with how militant Occupy Oakland became. It was like, 'Okay, motherfuckers, this is how it’s gonna be?'"

One of the most dynamic spokespeople for Occupy Oakland has turned out to be Boots Riley, who grew up in Oakland and might be familiar to music fans as m.c. of the radical hip-hop group the Coup. Riley has described himself as a Communist in the past, though now he says, "I don’t care what you call it, as long as people have democratic control over the wealth they create." We met for lunch one afternoon in December at a nouveau soul food restaurant in an industrial neighborhood in West Oakland. With his prominent Afro and mutton chop sideburns, Riley looks like he was cryogenically frozen after leaving a Black Panther rally in 1971. He’s still making music — at the moment, finishing up Sorry To Bother You, the soundtrack to a film of the same name, based on his time working as a telemarketer. Mostly, though, he’s been consumed with his hometown’s Occupation.

"All the changes that we’ve had in the last century that people can call progressive change, none of them have happened because people elected the right person into office," Riley told me. "Politicians don’t do shit. We got the eight-hour day because people shut shit down. We got the weekend because people shut shit down. New Deal happened because there were a million card-carrying Communists and people were in the streets and FDR thought there was going to be a revolution."

After lunch, we drive over to a house on 10th Street and Mandela that’s been taken over by Occupy Oakland’s Tactical Action Committee, a group of predominantly African-American young people whose core members had been hanging out around Frank Ogawa Plaza before the occupation began – "probably harassing people and selling drugs," one of the older members of the TAC tells me — and have since become politicized. The house, one of the rambling, two-story Victorians that line the streets of predominantly black West Oakland, had been foreclosed upon by Fannie Mae and left vacant for months. A sign out front reads Give Back Our Homes Fannie Mae and the windows have been entirely covered with "We Are the 99%" posters to prevent anyone from seeing inside. As we approach the front gate, a man with long dreadlocks and a hand radio materializes from behind the house, looking stony-faced until he recognizes Boots.

In the ground floor, Nell Myhand, a longtime neighborhood activist, has been running tenants' – and immigrants-rights workshops. "We own Fannie Mae, and they need to be responsible to our needs," she says. I ask if they’ve had any problems with the police, and just as my tongue hits the "L," a squad car pulls up to the curb. Myhand smiles and says, "Yeah. In progress." She sends the walkie-talkie guy back to get someone else, but the cops are just cruising by, making their presence known.

The house has no furniture or heat. Eleven people are currently living upstairs. Several look like they’d been living on the streets prior to this, and not necessarily as a politcal act. One of the occupation tents has been set up in an empty room with burgundy carpeting. A sign made from a torn piece of cardboard hangs on the wall. It reads Defend Oakland and has a stencil of an AK-47 painted below it.

"Every movement need to have people on the front lines," says Julion Lewis-Tatman, who grew up in the Bay Area, at one point living in a car with his mom and younger brother. Today, he’s dressed preppily: chunky square glasses, a smiley face bandana peeking out of his black jacket. "It went on for months, us huddled in that car," he says. "It was ugly." He laughs uncomfortably, then mutters, "I don’t like to talk about it." Twenty-two-years-old, Lewis-Tatman is a year away from getting his bachelor's degree from the University of Phoenix, but doesn’t think he can afford graduate school. He wants to be a psychologist. "The cops know not to come here," he says. "They gonna mess with us – it is West Oakland – but they can’t really do nothing. It's freedom of speech. We never thought they would take it that far at [Frank Ogawa] Plaza. But now we say please take it that far. We got gas masks. We don’t know what to expect from them, but we preparing for the worst."

Melvin Kelley, a tall, sleepy-eyed nineteen-year-old in a camoflage jacket, a Guy Fawkes mask hanging from his neck, nods in agreement. Kelley was one of the kids who'd been hanging in the park before the occupation began. "What drew me was the idea of having a helping hand," he says. "Because the city don’t give a fuck about you. They put you in jail, let you out on parole, then violate you again for some bullshit. You can work your whole life and get your house foreclosed on.
 
"What make this shit different from New York," Kelley continues, "is that four police got murdered out here. [He’s referring to a 2009 incident in which Lovelle Mixon, a twenty-six-year-old parolee in East Oakland, killed four police officers with an assault weapon.] And then the police killed people of our color. So there’s a lot of a friction with the police. And we dont give a fuck. We gonna go to war if we got to. We gonna do what we gotta do."

A beefy, intense-looking white guy in a black leather jacket has wandered into the room, sipping from a can of 7-Up. "Oakland’s the home of Tupac, man!" he shouts at me now, as if he suspects I might be an undercover cop or a disguised Timothy Geithner.

"Yeah, so like, that’s what makes us different," Kelley goes on. "It just adds to the fire. And the police be thinking they can come from other places and do what they want. But it doesn’t work that way. Cause they be scared. They see us walking around with walkie talkies and knives and shit." When he says knives, he touches his waist. "We gonna do what we gotta do," he repeats. "It didn’t surprise me when they came hard. I thought they’d come harder. They’re known to shoot first, ask questions later."

The white guy, a twenty-nine-year-old Albanian from New York named Hamza Sinanaj, is becoming increasingly belligerent. He says he went to college, but the company he worked for after school went bankrupt. "And then I had a bunch of college debt and no job. Same shit, man. I used to have a car. Now I can’t even afford my cell phone. Things aren’t working. People get locked out of the economy."

Kelley starts to say something, but Sinanaj interrupts. He’s yelling now, moving closer to me, spittle flying from his mouth. "I needed help, man, and where did I go? I went to my local Occupation.  Because my city services didn’t help me. I been here one day, these kids give me a place to stay! And the fucking cops are the ones doing shit to us! I get arrested! And I’m a good guy!"

I ask Sinanaj when he got arrested.

"All the fucking time! For no reason! For dumb shit. For shit that shouldn’t be illegal!" He points at Kelley. “And if I’m getting arrested, imagine what they’re going through. We have the right to protest. If they don’t like it, it’s their problem. If they wanna behave like animals, we could shut the port down for a month. Or two months. We’ll take it all over North America! Until you learn how to act!"

The Tactical Action Committee is far from representative of Occupy Oakland. Riley describes the committee as an "autonomous group" which he doesn’t always agree with. "But it’s part of their learning process," he says. "Some older organizers see this wild, out of control thing and think, 'We need to figure out a way to harness this.' But the wild, out-of-controlness is what makes people feel like they can jump on board."

Riley has been an activist since high school, when he spent a summer helping to organize migrant farm workers in central California. He says he was used to seeing twenty-five people show up at demonstrations, and in he past, he’s weighed his activism against what he might accomplish with his music, and generally chosen the music – so many more people could hear the message that way. "But with Occupy, I can’t use that same equation," Riley admits. "What we’re doing here gets a different message out, a stronger message out, to many more people than my music."

By directly targeting labor and production through actions like the port shutdowns, Occupy Oakland has been different from other Occupy cities, Riley notes. He’s hoping the movement will grow to include elements of the working class who don’t normally organize, such as fast food workers. "There are a lot of companies in cities that are supposedly poor that make millions of dollars and pay people low wages," Riley says. "There’s no reason why McDonald’s can’t pay fifteen dollars an hour and still be turning a big profit. They have it set up where they sell their stuff to franchise owners so the owners have to say, 'I don’t have enough money.' But we if we wanted to, we could shut down all of the McDonald's in Oakland. We could help the workers renegotiate with those franchise owners. At McDonald's, at Wal-Mart, all of those places. We want to organize where people are actually working in the United States — places where people are not able to unionize because they’ll get fired. We can eliminate that risk because if they fire the folks who are unionizing, we can shut them down. Unions can’t legally organize in that way." Riley smiles. "But we can do stuff based on what’s right. Not what’s legal."

Related
Scott Olsen: Casualty of the Occupation

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