Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza

A couple weeks ago I woke up at five in the morning to what sounded like a battalion of helicopters overhead. It was not the first time. Whenever there’s been a protest in my downtown/uptown Oakland neighborhood following a new development in the Oscar Grant case, out come the helicopters and police.

I figured it was Occupy Oakland being raided since there had been rumors the police would come early in the morning, and I went outside to look around. The streets were barricaded for blocks, and there was no way to see what was going on inside.

When I returned later, the plaza was still barricaded and guarded by a line of police in riot gear. Occupy Oakland protesters were amassed outside the barricades, some sitting on the sidewalk with backpacks and sleeping bags. I wondered if they were planning to move back in, if they had somewhere else to go, and how they saw the space of the plaza they had inhabited. I went home and came back with some markers and paper, hoping that some protesters would be interested in drawing pictures of Oscar Grant Plaza (the name Occupy Oakland gave to Frank Ogawa Plaza when they moved in) or maybe of Oscar Grant — something to capture the place they had created.

The drawings people did of Oscar Grant Plaza, especially, got me thinking about place and space in the sense that Harrison & Dourish describe in this piece (pdf)[1]. In their terms, space is an opportunity or collection of affordances. Place, meanwhile is:

generally a space with something added—social meaning, convention, cultural understandings about role, function and nature and so on. The sense of place transforms the space. (p. 3)

The place Oscar Grant Plaza was before the raid — a space with something added — looked like this to one of the Occupy Oakland protesters, Luka:

Drawing of the Occupy Oakland encampment Oscar Grant Plaza before the raid

Before Police @ Oscar Grant Plaza ~ Drawing by Luka

These images resonate with my experiences of Oscar Grant Plaza. Prior to the raid, people had been living there for a couple of weeks, and the plaza had become a fledgling community, with a large sign that felt both home-y and like an extended invitation, “Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza.” When I had wandered around there a bit, someone had shown me the art tent, the school tent, and the kitchen, where I was told they fed about a hundred homeless people a day. A Berkeley Free Clinic van was set up in one corner. There was the media tent, and the bike powered generator people used to charge up their cell phones.

Some people from the encampment would come by the Brown Couch Cafe on 14th Street in the afternoons for coffee and sandwiches. There was activity everywhere, even after 5 when the city government people go home and the neighborhood is usually desolate until the nightlife rush that sometimes strikes. Instead there were people talking and cooking and reading, and yeah, smoking pot. Broadway around 17th Street is a haven for medicinal marijuana, after all.

It was strange to finally see the plaza in the aftermath of the raid, emptied of tents and scattered with shreds of signs. A little village had grown up in that plaza, and then it was gone overnight. Luka’s drawing of the plaza post-raid depicts a community destroyed:

Drawing of the Occupy Oakland encampment Oscar Grant Plaza after the raid

After Police @ Oscar Grant Plaza ~ Drawing by Luka

I wonder about the effects of the police reaction on the local community on a couple of levels. Uptown Oakland has been teetering on an edge between “sketchy” neighborhood and increasingly swanky nightlife haven for some time now. There are housing developments in the area that still need tenants, including a large upscale development side by side with low income housing, suggesting the potential for a thriving community of mixed socioeconomic status… or not.

Helicopters buzzing overhead for 15 hours non-stop and a neighborhood that looks like a war zone probably does not enhance the area’s reputation and it certainly doesn’t do much for residents’ quality of life. (It struck me, walking around during the raid, that the most fear I have ever felt in my “sketchy” neighborhood has been of the police — and as a white lady who speaks standard American English, I’m not even a person who typically has much to fear from police. How can this be good for a community?)

And then there is the micro-community of Oscar Grant Plaza. They can’t stay there forever, right? But maybe they could stay there for a while. Maybe local authorities could have negotiated with the community instead of violently erasing a place created by citizens from a public space.

Still, the network the village grew from remains, and the encampment has grown back up again (although curiously it doesn’t feel like the same place to me. Different “collection of noticings”?) Thinking along the lines of The Field Site as a Network[2], the field site here would seem to be a hybrid of places located in physical space, places located in technological spaces — and perhaps imagined, potential places, given frequent references in the General Assembly meetings to “what this place could be.”

A young woman told me she found out about Occupy Oakland on Facebook, where she recruited another friend to join her. Another protester mentioned that everyone had cell phones, even people with nothing else but the clothes they were wearing. Text messages were used to communicate about proposals — sometimes efforts at creating the kind of place protesters imagined Oscar Grant Plaza could be — before the General Assembly meetings. Perhaps these tools were also used, along with “real life” strategies, to reconvene the camp.

Some more drawings by Occupy Oakland protesters below:

Welcome to Oscar Grant Plaza[slideshare id=10042607&w=637&h=532&sc=no]
[1] Burrell, J. (2009). The Field Site as a Network: A Strategy for Locating Ethnographic Research. Field Methods, 21(2), 181 -199. doi:10.1177/1525822X08329699
[2] Harrison, S., & Dourish, P. (1996). Re-place-ing space: the roles of place and space in collaborative systems. Proceedings of the 1996 ACM conference on Computer supported cooperative work (pp. 67–76).
(annlytical’s marked-up pdf of this paper is fun + interesting.)

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