Last Night at Occupy Oakland
Last night I thought I would attend Occupy Oakland’s general assembly, being held every night at 7pm at Frank Ogawa Square. I’ve had numerous debates with friends and family about the protests, their effectiveness, aims, their white, homogenous, demographic make-up, among numerous other things. Certainly, the aims of the movement were opaque to me, but I believe in the affect of protest. A person might not know what he or she wants out of a protest, but they know something’s wrong, and by simply gathering together with others who are also agitated, collected, and simmering, they potentially clarify their own position in tandem with others.
Going to Occupy proved the theory. Once you get through the sprawling tent city – yes, of mostly white, middle-class kids – you enter into a collective area that reflects the diverse make-up of Oakland. The entire movement is much more diverse than I’ve been led to believe. Last evening the General Assembly introduced a number of speakers that addressed problems of race in and through the more general economic protest. Speakers also addressed the violent police dispersal of the square. That was my own, personal, and second motivation for coming to Occupy. The dispersal was meant to intimidate future gatherings in the square – by not attending the protest, we simply reinforce the municipality’s acts of intimidation. How could we stand for that? How could we not go down there to simply say with our own fragile physiques, that people belong in this space? Again, the affect of protest produces a more complex gathering of people.
One theme dominated the evening’s speeches (and this is why I’m posting this on a blog about architecture and history): Housing. Virtually every speaker demanded a right to housing – the economic crisis comes full-circle. Most speakers argued that housing provided a pathway to economic security, public safety, and a way out of the police/prison system that seems to gobble up the lives of working people of color in US cities. Several speakers depicted a contrast between being properly housed in their city versus a life of daily police intimidation or imprisonment – stuck in a jail outside of the city they call home. Speaker after speaker: Housing, housing, housing; autonomy from the policing of everyday life. A clear, easily intelligible demand: “house us,” and then stay out of the way: we can take care of our everyday lives.
As a professor in an architecture school I find that we often talk about housing as a problem to be solved, without discussing housing as a conduit that connects architecture to basic human rights. Housing is an urban problem in architecture schools, without a larger consideration of the problem of the city – again as a right. My impression after this evening is that our obligation in a design course on housing is to express a more basic foundation for housing. The presence of housing as a site of rights has not necessarily had its expressive due.
I couldn’t help but think of Aldo Rossi’s Gallaratese during the speeches. That great monument to opening up a line – a setting for life – in the city, but one that also acknowledges the sadness of living in a world in which states have to “supply” housing for its poorer classes. Within the Gallaratese Rossi built an architectural language for getting out of the way – a location for life versus the manipulation of peoples’ lives into a more overt symbol.
The discussion of housing at the Occupy protests also included a discussion of environment in the city: Today many architecture schools, architects and writers explore what we might term “extreme” environments. These activities address things like climate change, changing shorelines of cities, sea-level rise, and toxicity, among other things. Not my own area of specialization, but interesting stuff. I think of the activities of firms such as the Living or the Infranet Lab as being good examples of this type of work. But listening to these protests, you quickly realize that everyday life in the US has become an extreme environment. And this more everyday, extreme environment cannot be expressed in the languages that architects use to typically depict “environment” – fluid dynamics and network theories. It can’t be expressed in the language of science or architecture. But architecture can open up a space of environmental calm and, like Galleretese, express a bit of the melancholy in having to do this.
I hope you have the chance to attend one of these events; at the very least it will make you think. And after you leave, you feel this tremendous urge to go back, hatch plans, do work, and think some more.