When Occupy Oakland established its first camp at Oscar Grant Plaza on October 10, 2011, even the most optimistic among us could hardly have expected the incredible efflorescence that resulted. Within twenty-four hours there was a functioning field kitchen, a supply tent, a medical station, and other facilities dedicated to providing for the needs of those in the camp.
In my time at Occupy Oakland, I was very happy to help feed all the many folks in need of food, and I definitely washed a dish or two. But I also wanted to figure out : what, as a writer and “culture-worker,” can I contribute ?
Many of us in the vibrant local community of writers & artists were asking the same questions. Our answers were diverse. We supported the Raheim Brown Free School & Library ; we worked on the daily Oscar Grant Plaza Gazette ; and, every Sunday, we gathered at the steps of 14th & Broadway for a “Poetry for the People” open mike.
Here’s an extract from an invitation to the first reading (pictured above) :
“RADICAL POETRY FOR THE PEOPLE! Dear friends, poets, appreciators of poetry, et al, this Sunday, October 16th, poets will be convening at Occupy Oakland (Frank Ogawa Plaza aka Oscar Grant Plaza, in Downtown Oakland) for a group reading of poems. Please come, bring a poem and join in! Please choose one piece from the revolutionary / radical tradition to read (e.g. brecht, baraka, lorca, di prima, etc. etc. etc. — please bring appropriate volumes to read from and to share).”
We invited people, and they came. They were writers we knew, they were people from the camp, they were people who were living on the streets downtown. They read poems from books, they read off their Iphones or out of tattered notebooks, they recited their rhymes and raps from memory, or they made stuff up on the spot.
I remember hearing work by Walt Whitman, Rob Halpern, George Oppen, Blake. I remember hearing the Book of Isaiah, Claude McKay, Aime Cesaire. I remember a woman I did not know and have never seen since read “To Althea, From Prison,” by Richard Lovelace.
Our poetry gang met up & read poems every Sunday through December at the plaza, our numbers slowly dwindling in the face of the police repression that had shut down the plaza camp twice & then a nearby camp at 19th & Broadway. After that raid, on a rainy December morning, a comrade came up to us & asked “Are you reading poems to the streets?” We were.
When I sent out a note to friends announcing that December 18th’s “Poetry for the People” would be the last installment before an indefinite hiatus pending future developments, Diane di Prima quickly wrote back to remind me “there is never a last Poetry for the People”. As things have gotten tougher through the spring, I’ve found that reminder very useful.
In less than a month it will be May 1, International Worker’s Day, a day on which Occupy Oakland and others have called for an international general strike. Many people I’ve talked to are both excited about the day and uncertain as to what will actually happen. One thing I feel I can be sure about : in the streets of Oakland, anyway, there will be poets, putting their queer shoulders to the wheel.
David Brazil was born in New York and lives in Oakland. His most recent chapbook is Mass of the Phoenix : A Mina Loy Portal (Trafficker, 2012). A full-length collection, ECONOMY, is forthcoming from Compline Press.