Cultural Divides at the Berkeley Post Office Occupation

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For over four weeks now, the steps of the Berkeley Post Office have been occupied by a group of campers and activists intent on preserving the building from being sold off on the private marketplace. A coalition was formed by members of Save the Berkeley Post Office and Strike Debt Bay Area to engage in this direct defense of the Post Office, becoming a new group called Berkeley Post Office Defense (BPOD). The Occupy tactic was brought to the post office, establishing a 24/7 presence equipped with signs, literature and letter-writing tables, and tents. The effort to escalate the battle against privatization is underway and the narrative is set between the private forces of capital and the public commons.

With insolvency being used as a rationale for selling off public assets to wealthy individuals and corporations, a voice of clarity must infiltrate the mainstream media current and ask the question at the core of the problem: “who has to pay their debts?”. Public institutions that need not heed the demand for increasing profits and turning money into more money are being told they are broke. The money is simply drying up, as the story goes, and without sufficient funds buildings, services, and pensions must be scaled back to balance the budget at the end of the day. But one need only take one step forward and ask the question “why are we in this mess in the first place?” to begin the journey and discover the source of our societal woes.

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There is some good coverage Here and here.

Though perhaps not readily apparent, the problem can be made visible when dedicated and knowledgeable people come together and reclaim space for the good of their friends, cities, and commons. By occupying contested sites, information can be spread, actions can be planned, and communities of resistance can be built from the ground-up. The occupation tactic carries much potential for building an adequate resistance to the dominate forces systemically crippling lives, while bringing along a number of thorny issues along with it. Much has been written about the need to preserve our public commons, the post office in particular, and financial greed; (Dave Welsh) (Mike Wilson) what I will focus on is explaining some of the difficulties faced by occupations – made apparent by the on-going Berkeley Post Office occupation in the heart of downtown Berkeley. This will hopefully provide a teachable experience for future occupations and eliminate recurring quarrels that drain the potential energy of political organizing away.

When an occupation is set up in public and with a commitment to achieving political objectives, it is going to attract attention. Organizers from the Berkeley Post Office Defense (BPOD) planned for a few tents, two info tables, a kitchen, and an annex section for any newcomers who wanted to join the protest. Press releases were sent out and statements were made regarding the illegitimate burdens imposed on the Post Office, highlighting the use of debt as a tool to dismantle a healthy public service. With hot meals, movie nights, and donations coming in, the Berkeley Post Office Defense started off with a festive optimism. Almost the entire city is behind the action with the mayor and all council members in positive agreement (something I’m told is very rare among them) not to interfere. The city police were told or decided not to get involved, so a safe zone from police violence was created under the aegis of a local-political protest to preserve an historic building. This combination of factors has led to a prolonged encampment where new relationships could be forged and dynamics put into play over a long term. Suddenly an odd situation arose: all of the street-folk of downtown Berkeley could come through a political protest put together by mostly veteran activists.

It didn’t take long before the entire grassy side of the building to be filled with tents occupied by mostly house-less youths familiar with the area. There is a geographical divide formed by the different edges of the building that exacerbates the difference in culture between the action organizers and the incoming campers. Organizers perched out in front of the building close to the steps put there money where their mouth is and continue to engage in direct action via urban camping, together with the more weathered contingent. Having come together largely because of the recent Bay Area Occupy phenomenon, BPOD respected the autonomy of each individual and refused to impose any rule-based structure on anyone else. Anything that smelled of hierarchy was combatted in nightly general assemblies. In the early goings, there was a strong push to implement behavioral constraints by those activists having invested more time in the Save the Berkeley Post Office struggle, though with less of a direct action element attached to them. The Berkeley Post Office would become a liberated space with a loose consensus model and the memory of the 2011 Occupy camps still fresh in mind.

With the threat of a raid coaxed out of camp’s mindset, the task became keeping the camp from disintegrating amidst the constant barrage of angry arguments. With no behavioral model to appeal to and vastly different personalities in the mix, very loud eruptions occurred multiple times daily and would get worse at night. Berkeley is notorious for its homeless burnout population and the occupation has seen just about all of them at one time or another. Many of the activists with deep-grounded stakes in the issue became extremely worried about a homeless takeover and a chaos that would ruin media relations. If a brutal fight broke out and someone got seriously injured, the press would undoubtedly seize on the incident and stage a further, escalated conflict involving police to profit from. The fear of a camp turned into public health hazard loomed large, but those camping refused to risk resembling anything like an authority. The result was problems solved piece-by-piece in hotly contested arguments by a wide array of characters from all walks of life.

Despite this disorderly composition, the camp marched on and new people continued to come by and support the protesters with food, petition signatures, and donations. Honks of exuberant support and fat smiles persist to this day. Again, nearly the entire city is in favor of keeping the building open and public – not to be sold off to investors to pay back an artificial burden. Post Office Police would come by periodically and check things out but never made arrests. The worst came when a pack of a dozen or so came out issuing paper warnings that in large, bold type outlined the various sanitary and drug-related offenses, while mentioning the trespassing in small print at the bottom. It was clearly a damage control message meant to get the camp to clean up their act, but there was much leeway considering the public support and the minimal resources of a Postal Police Force. The municipal police department (BPD) would not interfere until they started issuing warnings of their own in week four. One rouge cop made a statement that a raid would come an hour later, but hours later and many phone calls, texts, and tweets later, no confrontation manifested. Three days later, a brutal arrest was made of an individual for no reason other than picking up a backpack. The trumped up charges are being fought and will not likely stand up.

Despite nagging surveillance, no raid has yet come down over four weeks in. A full-on sweeping away of the camp would be a public relations disaster for the city, so the police have resorted to pokes and jabs to scare people away. However, we remain resolved to carry on. This means that internal camp problems are our own to solve – a rare opportunity to learn how to sustain a successful public occupation.

Now, the intra-camp issues largely revolve around the culture disparity between the mostly young house-less occupiers on the side of the buildings and the mostly old organizer-occupiers in the front. It is unfortunate that such a divide exists; such is the effect of a system that excludes so many for lack of adequate public education, housing, and commons in general. On top of that, I hear police harassment stories told frequently and the legal system is hard to navigate without a stable access to resources. Activists in Berkeley are putting their efforts into the fight to save a city landmark, but they got more than they bargained for. Here is a short list of some of the issues that came up:

-people not feeling comfortable with the loud arguments and rough-housing.
-drug using and selling inside tents.
-coming for the free food, leaving for the activities/non-participation.
-trash, inability to take clean up after oneself.
-smoking by the literature/greeting tables.
-hyper-sensitivity to authority: “you can’t tell me what to do!” “I have every right to be here as you do!”
-the legitimacy that comes along with being a “24/7 camper” – the “real occupiers” debate.
-disinterest in meetings and impatience with the consensus process.
-police-payed provocateurs, specifically there to disrupt the camp (speculative).

Most people are sympathetic enough to realize that these are *systemic problems with the excluded, over-policed, and poor. Therefore, a “guideline” can be created that can be replicated for future cases within that *system. If the problem recurs, a set of lessons or normative attitudes can be tentatively formed to deal with the problem without it solidifying into rules. Persuasion can take many forms and different approaches are needed for different groups of people. Self-organization of the campers is vital to maintain cohesion while avoiding a creeping hierarchy. For this to work at the Post Office, assemblies specifically for the campers at another time of the day (in the morning) materialized around specific problems that took on an urgency that could not be ignored. The GA formalities of stack, facilitation, and agenda items could not always apply, though if you can get people to abide by those techniques, more power to you. Getting campers to assemble and make decisions collectively is a major positive development though. It basically eliminates vendettas and feuds when the entire camp comes out against an individual’s actions.

Which brings me to the most important and most contentious topic for general camp meetings: kicking people out. Ideally, everyone who comes by could be persuaded to do what is best for the protest without sacrificing their autonomy. Obviously, this is not always going to happen. Sometimes people are simply incapable of smoothly integrating with the camp and can’t help but repeatedly cause eruptions of anger and violence. Exile should only come when all other options have been exhausted and the camp as a whole has had enough. Otherwise, people would become edgy and fearful of their secure place in the camp. The negative vibes that emanate from excessive talk of getting 86ed dampens the entire atmosphere. Resistance is meant to be positive and uplifting, not to scare people away. To go along with this, people end up inserting the power of exile into minor arguments and add fuel to the fire. Again, this power must only be asserted by the whole group and in a general meeting – this is where decisions like this must be made.

As for non-immediate crises and recurring problems that hurt the movement, the main theater is, as always, in our personal relationships with each other and impromptu conversations. A general sense of joy and ease works like magic. Bring and share music, books, cigarettes, and a willingness to talk to anyone. If frustrations boils up (as it will for everyone), take a walk, take a break, think about other things and clear your head. An occupation is an intensified zone of righteous revolutionaries and reformers mixed with the casts offs of a broken system that the resisters are combatting. Though the two’s interests may align, lifestyles often do not. Getting cooperation from both sides (as a thriving occupation must) involves a slow process of endless dialogue – a rewarding experience indeed. Encouraging debate in the place of fighting is the first big step.

Some suggestions for dealing with stray houseless people coming to stay at an occupation:

-spend time at the camp and get friendly with anyone.
-suggest (semi-)regular meetings using consensus and/or general agreement.
-if the same problem keeps coming up/an incident takes place, call a meeting to talk it over.
-inducing self-organization takes convincing: “we are part of something bigger” – a righteous protest.
-make a well-reasoned case and back off, so it seems like it was their idea to change their behavior instead of a command – they’ve gotten enough of that throughout their life.
-emphasis on “family” or “community”: the whole camp making decisions vs. one or a few acting as an authority.
-if a “security team” is created for night-watch, absolutely DO NOT allow them exile privilege – everyone is a ’peace-keeper’.
-the goal (for all concerned individuals in any case) is to help the movement grow, to be able to sustain itself.

The month that we have had to gel at the Berkeley Post Office has afforded us the time to learn how to sustain an urban camp together with a political protest. This has been done before. But in light of how swiftly the police come down on protesters these days, I would recommend people learn to use the occupation tactic wisely. A liberated space can be run smoothly and stick to the principals of anti-authoritarian organization. What is required is simply patience and perseverance… and, occasionally, good damage control.

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**update

On day 33 of the Berkeley Post Office occupation, the Berkeley Police raided and threw away many of the tents around the building. Many of the occupiers were not there at the time and were attending a Justice for Trayvon Martin march in Oakland while BPD seized the opportunity. There was little struggle, though at least one arrest was tied to the raid. No footage of the trashing of protesters goods was recovered.

The timing of the raid coincides with the beginning of both Berkeley High and UC Berkeley. It is likely that further mobilization would ensue given UCB’s penchant for activism and an occupation close by. The sanitation and brawling containment rationale could very well have been a cover for the possibility of an escalating political situation – but this remains speculative. Activists continue the struggle on legal fronts, but tying direct action in physical locations with an anti-privatization movement still remains a latent and unfulfilled potential. Time and effort will tell if Berkeley will reignite.

The integration of houseless and exploited peoples with entrenched and networked activists remains a serious project for the occupation tactic. Should some happy understanding or mutual acceptance take place at the site of camp, a formidable force would be set up that allies the most resourceful and savvy activists with the most affected. The enemy would be more clearly in sight and internal divisions would be directed outward at those attempting to conquer public goods.

The occupation tactic is being used in other cities and must confront similar problems. If a narrative and culture of occupying takes off again, a slightly narrowed focus and a tighter organization could propel it a long way. Going for a local issue and then linking it up to a general pattern – like privatization – holds the potential of putting up a fight against the 1%. If the camp is run smoothly and the assemblies deal effectively with internal issues like cultural divisions, much could be accomplished.

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