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.


  1. Very interesting piece. I have been witnessing the transformation of the “native” occupants (homeless) of the Plaza area, as they have been incorporated into the Occupy Oakland community. These “derelicts” are now active participants, volunteering for cleaning and cooking duties, attending general assembly meetings. It is amazing what a difference having a place to sleep with privacy, available restrooms, 3 hot meals a day and a little companionship can make!

    I have been feeling as though contemporary architecture, particular environmental architecture and city planning, has taken the “human” out of the design of human spaces. Everyone deserves a home. Yes, in America, this should be a basic human right. And the effects of the current wave of foreclosures on America’s families and children will not be clear for generations. Children need a place to call home, too, and sterile high-rise towers just won’t cut it.

    • For people who do not imiagne that this is much more than a bunch of hippies, bums, communists, and anarchists right here to throw The united states into civil unrest i’d advise shopping up the Occupy Marines site. Just google it for Christ’s sake. These are every day usual citizens and your mockery of what they do only makes them even more frusterated, unstable, and Pissed OFF! You are are supporting them recruit much more folks to this bring about with your annoying and shallow perception of human dignity(and human rights). YOU are helping produce the “fall of the rome” cataclysmic mentality that we face these days. Im not concerned in Occupy oakland or ANY other group, im not a democrat, or liberal, and im defnietly not a communist. Ive lived in the Bay Area my entire daily life, i have seen the nieghborhoods change, the streets repaved, the empty lots filled with empty condos, and our future right here is looking bleak. People today are deperate, on your own, starving and you have the nerve to insult the 1 movement which is taking LITERAL- Physical-ACTION to feed eachother, work, get alongside, and consider and make a social alter. Trigger undoubtedly there expectations to be one particular. The Oakland Police Division has had it is honest share of corruption all the way through the a long time no doubt, and in someways ive looked at the cops attitudes alter around the eyars as nicely. They are bolder,much more equipped, and dedinetly carry the tendency to blow tiny circumstances out of proportion. This is a person of individuals circumstances where by the state of affairs was blown out of proportion! They developed much more of a mess than the occupiers did, i know becuase my brother lives subsequent to lake merrit(just acquired honorably discharged from the UNITED STATES MARIN CORPS!), ive found what these consumers are carrying out firsthand. Just remember we are no unique than any other place! The outcomes will be the similar for police brutality,when you react to peaceful protest with violence, it develops into a violent revolution, and i believe the very last issue the town of Oakland demands is far more violence in any form or type. If you agree with any of this then i inspire you to electronic mail me.

  2. dlgissen

    Thanks for visiting (and good thing you put some of those words in quotes!).

  1. 1 suburbandonment « eartH0use

    […] David Gissen, an architectural theorist and professor blogged in Oct 2011 about his experience at an Occupy Oakland event that reverberated ‘housing’, “listening to these protests, you quickly realize that everyday life in the US has become an extreme environment.” More recently the Occupy movement has begun a permutation of its own. ‘Occupy Homes’ movements have had a growing presence, this post from twitter: […]

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