The only shade available to Evie on a hot July afternoon in Frank Ogawa Plaza, the erstwhile home base of Occupy Oakland, is, appropriately, a sprawling oak. She waits there with four other members of the Bay Area’s 4.3 million-deep homeless population, all men, and her dog. The Veteran’s Administration, she tells me, cut her off from disability assistance after she did a bid in New Jersey for crimes involving a certain plant she was using for help with her disability. She might have specified the disability in her lengthy story, but I missed it beneath the rapid-fire rush she rattled off before scampering away to welcome another friend to the group.
In Oakland, 13.7 percent are unemployed, as of last count (May 2012), and several dozen of those roughly 54,000 people met up Wednesday at Ogawa Plaza (renamed by Occupy Oakland for Oscar Grant, who was shot to death in 2009 by the transit cop at whose feet he lay under arrest), to launch the Union of Unemployed Workers.
“In the 1930s, there were unemployed councils,” David Welsh, a retired letter carrier and organizer of the Union project, tells me. “When people got kicked out of their apartments, the unemployed councils would move their possessions back in. They also organized wide-scale demonstrations that scared the government into implementing the New Deal.” At this rally, the group’s “shot across the capitalist bow,” as Welsh calls it, are the demands “Jobs or Income Now,” “Extend unemployment benefits” and “Bail out the unemployed.” But in the long term, what Welsh is after is a new New Deal, complete with jobs creation projects like Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Another organizer, Gary Hall, addresses the crowd. “The corporatocracy doesn’t have a plan. It’s not their intention to create full employment. They’re happy with the way it’s going right now. Why do we let them do that?” Hall’s aim is not another New Deal, but something beyond it: class abolition. “Let the working class create a system to meet our needs.”
A young woman named Lauren Smith hands me a flier advertising a similar initiative, the Oakland Assembly of the Unemployed, the younger, more anarchistic answer to the Union of Unemployed Workers. “In our future,” the flier reads,” we aim to create mass mobilizations of the unemployed; taking over utilities to provide free services; garden cooperatives; free housing, food, clothing, transportation, childcare and education; newspapers by and for the people; free community health care; and neighborhood assemblies.”
“Survival through mutual aid,” Mike King calls it. King, like Smith, was active at Occupy Oakland. “Being unemployed, underemployed, or poor doesn’t just mean not having a stable job,” he tells the crowd. “It means stress, anger, despair and dreams deferred.”
Both groups, the Union and the Assembly, each with its distinct, if parallel, approach to the struggle against mass unemployment, march together to the Career Development Center, or, in the common parlance, “unemployment office” (housed, improbably, in the Old Oakland Bank Building, the logo of which still adorns the door). A security guard shuts everyone out. A woman named Karen, who was laid off in 2009, her meager benefits cut off after two years, observes via megaphone, “I am despised and criminalized by my government and the media for not having a job and for being poor.” She implores the crowd, “What kind of government is it that leaves people to fend for themselves?”
Someone shouts, “A capitalist one.”
“What are we supposed to do,” Karen asks, “if we’re denied money and the means to make it?”
Someone else shouts, “Take it back.”
The march gives up on the unemployment office and heads to the federal building, where security guards lock the doors, pissing off employees returning from their lunch break to find that they have to go around the building to the other entrance in order to get back to their jobs. I ask a court security officer at the adjacent court building why the doors are locked. “Protest,” he tells me. They lock the doors whenever there’s a protest? “It would seem so.”
So, everyone heads to the state building, where security guards lock the doors and tell all the employees to go around to the entrance on the other side of the building. Terri Kay, a former quality inspector who has been unemployed since October, addresses the crowd, explaining that the perennial budgetary disaster that is the State of California borrows from its tax-revenue-funded Disability Fund to pay interest on federal loans taken out to pay out unemployment claims.
“I think the interest is now up to $300 million,” she tells me, as the group heads to its final destination, Obama’s Oakland campaign headquarters. “The whole thing is a scam.”