Occupy Berkeley continues but stands at ideological crossroads

Barbara Sullinger/Staff
Tents set up by members of Occupy Berkeley dot the grass at Martin Luther King Park in Downtown Berkeley.

Nationwide, encampments established as part of the Occupy movement have been sites of conflict and unrest, often resulting in clashes with city officials and local law enforcement.

Occupy Berkeley is an exception, though, and some say the lack of resistance to the camp’s existence from the institutions it opposes has caused it to drift away from its original purpose.

Since its inception on Oct. 8, the Berkeley camp has come to have two identities — one as a symbol of the Occupy movement’s anti-corporate ideals and another as a refuge for people desperate for food and shelter. Over the past two months, the balance between the two groups has shifted toward the second, leaving only a few campers still actively protesting.

While a few of the residents of the roughly 100 or so tents in the Occupy Berkeley camp at Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park spend their time painting protest signs and planning marches, most help in the cooking tent, clean up garbage or sit in circles holding congress among their cliques.

John Holzinger, a UC Berkeley junior and one of Occupy Berkeley’s organizers, said the camp accepts homeless people even though that decision fuels criticism against the camp.

“Assaults, robberies, drugs, alcohol — the problems that come with homelessness are societal ills that we need to deal with within the camp, not things weshould shy away from,” Holzinger said. “If we want politicians to be up front, we need to be too. ”

Holzinger said the Occupy Berkeley camp would likely have been more active if the camp had been raided like the ones in Oakland, New York, Seattle and now Los Angeles, where reported police violence and photographs of protesters being pepper sprayed have helped galvanize protesters. However, no signs have ever pointed to a raid in Berkeley.

In fact, Berkeley City Council unanimously passed a measure adopting a letter of support for the Occupy movements at its meeting Tuesday.

According to Councilmember Linda Maio, the city manager’s office has taken measures to work with the protesters to ensure that safety and public health issues are addressed, which has so far been effective in minimizing friction between the camp and the rest of the city.

“The staff has gone tent to tent to see what is happening or not happening there in terms of health and safety,” Maio said. “We haven’t heard many complaints from residents.”

But this cooperative relationship has detracted from the camp’s initial, sociopolitical activism, said Bo-Peter Laanen, UC Berkeley junior and another of Occupy Berkeley’s organizers.

He explained that Occupy Berkeley’s daily general assemblies have become dominated by discussion of the camp’s day-to-day management, causing some protesters to stop attending.

“People started to focus more on what was going on in camp with personal problems,” Laanen said. “Of course, you have to take care of those things, but more and more and more, no one was paying attention to the issues.”

Holzinger is developing a proposal to close the camp so the protesters can concentrate solely on political action, but this has been met with strong opposition within the camp.

“The occupation was meant to rally people, and if you just continue to rally and march, you don’t get things done,” Holzinger said. “There has to come a point where we stop distracting ourselves. We could end the occupations but not the mindset of the occupiers.”

Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who said he tries to stop by the camp every day to see how it and its residents are doing, agreed that even though Occupy Berkeley’s organizers have worked hard to make the camp and its message work, others in the camp have been less helpful.

In the last few weeks, though, political activism in the camp has seen a resurgence as talk of a “phase two” of the Occupy movement has spread across the world.

This new phase has taken on different forms in different locations nationwide. According to the Occupy Together website, plans include occupations in foreclosed homes in Atlanta, New York, Los Angeles, Oakland and Minnesota.

In Berkeley, Laanen is working on communicating the movement’s message to middle-class Berkeley residents and local businesses. He is creating literature protesters can distribute that advocates transferring money out of corporate banks and buying locally grown or made products.

“Some participants are just taking advantage of the space, not working to further the Occupy cause,” Worthington said. “If all the people there were concerned with furthering the cause, they’d get a lot more done, but it’s hard to say that people should do work to camp. It’s a gray area and a challenging, growing experience for a lot of people.”

Christopher Yee covers communities.