This is the second part in our “After the Crest” series, studying what we can learn from the waning phase of social movements. In this installment, participants in Occupy Oakland trace its trajectory from origins to conclusion, exploring why it reached certain limits and what it will take for future movements to surpass them.
The Rapid Ascent
In setting ourselves the sobering task of narrating the decline of Occupy Oakland, we are at least spared any argument about when the high point took place. There might be disagreement about whether the “general strike” of November 2, 2011 deserved that title, but no one would dispute that it was the high-water mark of the local movement and a turning point in the Occupy sequence unfolding across the country.
At that moment, describing Occupy Oakland as the Oakland Commune was not just an exaggeration. For a short time, we really were a collective force with the ambition and capacity to transform the whole city and radicalize the national movement. The experience of that day has stayed with many of us, a brief and chaotic glimpse of insurrectionary horizons that closed as quickly as they opened. Remembering this as we go about our daily lives under capitalism has been enormously painful; for many of us in the Bay Area, the last year and a half has been a process of grieving the loss of that moment. This grief was present in all the successive stages of that political sequence. Although the movement continued for months, bringing out thousands of people for explosive days of action, none of the later moments—December 12, January 28, or May 1—even remotely compare to November 2.
Before we can analyze the Oakland Commune’s decline, we have to understand its rise and the various projects in the Bay that helped to foster it. The following narrative is not meant as a total account of all of the elements that combined to form the Oakland Commune, but rather the ones we experienced firsthand.
During the spring of 2011, with a backdrop including the Arab Spring, the European “movement of the squares,” and its faint echo in the Wisconsin capitol occupation, comrades in the Bay Area began a slow process of reconstituting themselves as a force in the streets. This followed an extended period of decomposition and aimlessness. Many of us expected that the wave of unrest sweeping the globe would reach the US eventually, and we wanted to be prepared. That summer, the Bay Area witnessed a series of small but fierce and creative demonstrations. From the native encampment protecting Glen Cove against suburban development in Vallejo to the riotous protests in San Francisco after police gunned down Kenneth Harding when he avoided a transit fare check, the summer provided several opportunities for radicals from a range of communities to work together.
During June and July, a mix of anti-state communists and insurrectionary anarchists organized a series of anti-austerity actions dubbed Anticuts that got people into the streets to experiment with new tactics and forms of social intervention. These were intended to map out the local terrain of struggle and the various antagonistic social constellations that might participate in future rebellions. Through these small and sometimes frustrating excursions, new march routes and ways to understand the geography of downtown Oakland emerged. For instance, the third and final Anticut action—organized in solidarity with a hunger strike in California prisons—marched from the future home of Occupy Oakland in Frank Ogawa Plaza down Broadway past the police headquarters, courthouse, and jail, holding a noise demo there before circling back towards the plaza to disperse. This small demonstration marked the first time this loop was tried. Months later, during the high-tension moments of Occupy Oakland, that march route became intimately familiar to thousands of people, sometimes repeated multiple times per day.
The rhythm of small and medium-sized demonstrations such as the Anonymous actions against BART police and the one-day occupation of UC Berkeley’s Tolman Hall continued throughout the summer and early fall. But it wasn’t until momentum began to build nationally after the establishment of the Zucotti Park camp on Wall Street—September 17, 2011—that the full potential of the relationships built over the summer could blossom Oakland joined the national movement late, on October 10, immediately establishing a sprawling camp in the plaza in front of City Hall—renamed Oscar Grant Plaza, after the young Black man murdered by BART police in 2009. This became a liberated zone, off-limits to police and politicians and organized according to principles of self-organization, free access to food and supplies, open participation in all aspects of camp life, and autonomous action.
In hindsight, it is striking how quickly Occupy Oakland emerged, matured, and reached its peak. Only two weeks separate the beginning of the camp from the first police raid in the early hours of October 25. After the Commune repeatedly resisted attempts by the city administration to assert control over the camp—staging public burnings of warning letters during general assemblies in the amphitheater on the steps of city hall—Mayor Jean Quan authorized the militarized police operation that left the camp in ruins and over 100 in jail.
Later that same day, thousands of enraged people poured back into downtown, charging police barricades around the plaza and braving countless barrages of tear gas and projectiles until the early hours of the morning. Partly because of the near murder of Iraq War veteran Scott Olsen by a police projectile that night, and the dramatic footage of the entire downtown area covered in gas, the next day the police withdrew in a storm of controversy. Exultant crowds reoccupied the plaza, holding an assembly of 2000 people—the largest of the whole sequence—and agreed to go on the offensive with the November 2 strike. The fact that it seemed possible to organize a general strike in a single week indicates the degree to which normal calendar time warped and stretched in those first three weeks. During the Oakland Commune’s incredibly rapid yet brief ascent, there seemed to be no limit on what could happen in a week, a day, an hour.
It all came to a head on November 2. Looking back, the scope of that day remains impressive. In less than 24 hours, the strike unleashed all the tactics explored during the entire Occupy Oakland sequence. Flying pickets, work actions, marches, blockades, occupations, and moments of riotous destruction brought as many as 50,000 people to downtown Oakland, many of whom were participating in disruptive acts for what must have been the first time.
People gathered in the early morning under a giant banner, stretched across the central intersection in downtown, reading “Death to Capitalism.” From there, the crowds quickly fanned out across the center of the city, shutting down businesses that had refused to close for the day. The camp at the plaza became a crowded anti-capitalist carnival offering music and speeches from three different stages. By early afternoon, as tens of thousands filled the streets, an anti-capitalist march led by a large black bloc smashed its way through downtown, leaving broken windows and graffiti on banks and corporations in its wake. Within a few hours, tens of thousands of people marched on the port of Oakland, shutting down all operations at its various terminals. Finally, as night fell, hundreds of people joyfully occupied the aptly-named Traveler’s Aid building a few blocks from the plaza; long empty, it had formerly housed a nonprofit serving the homeless. Within an hour, however, riot police attacked and evicted the new occupation, provoking a night of rioting during which people wrecked most of the businesses and city offices around the plaza, including a police substation.
We were in the middle of something without recent precedent in the US. And yet the day was just a day. There was no continuation, no sense of what might come next. The following morning, after three weeks of great weather, the first rains of the season fell and the camp lay quiet, foreshadowing the dispirited mood of the months to come. The backlash from the previous day’s anti-capitalist march and the more indiscriminate rioting later in the night was intense, as various liberal elements took the opportunity to demonize anarchists and the black bloc, calling for vigilante patrols by pacifists and initiating a reactionary backlash that caused many anarchists and radicals to steer clear of the camp for a few days. The mood shifted from elation to demoralization very quickly, especially given the failure of the occupation of the Traveler’s Aid building, which might have opened up new horizons for the Oakland Commune. It was difficult to recognize this at the time, but we had already encountered the fundamental limits of this sequence of struggle. The slow decline had begun.
Days of Action, Horizons of Struggle
Arguably, the decline had been set in motion in the days immediately before the strike. Up until the raid on October 25, the power of the Oakland Commune lay in the camp itself: in collective activities that linked each day in the liberated plaza with the next, building momentum through consistent interaction around questions of survival rather than activism. When over 600 riot police fired tear gas and flash-bang grenades as they broke through the barricades protecting Oscar Grant Plaza in the dark morning hours of October 25, they were not only attempting to evict the camp, but to break apart the continuity of the tenuous community that we had formed.
This first eviction backfired on them spectacularly. The crowds came back even bigger and called for the November 2 strike—a timely and effective decision. But it also marked the first moment when the energy of the Commune shifted from the daily process of holding liberated space to a strategy built around discrete “days of action.” The day in question was only one week away, and the buildup to it ran parallel with the reconstitution of the camp. But with the historic decision to strike, there was a shift away from the reproduction and expansion of the original oppositional zone. Something was lost in this transition.
The consistent process of eating, sleeping, and organizing with many others in a liberated zone at the heart of a struggling North American city had proved to be a challenge for which few were prepared. At times, the Commune was a veritable inferno—a place of fistfights, constant emergencies, injury, illness, miscommunication, and stress. At other moments, it offered a kind of freedom and beauty unlike anything else. There were times when each person seemed full of limitless creativity, compassion, and dedication, matched by hatred of capitalism and the state. We could see the experience changing people day by day, hour by hour, and we could feel it changing us. The camp was a place of joy, laughter, and care, almost psychedelic in the confusion it provided to the senses. But mostly, it was a place that teetered on the edge of breakdown, a place in which none of the usual buffers and mediations that mask the daily violence of contemporary America were present. All the misogyny, homophobia, racism, and other poisonous dynamics that form the foundations of capitalist society rose to the surface in this liberated zone, challenging the Commune’s ability to sustain itself. We were ill-prepared for the problems the camp raised, though people made heroic attempts to respond to each new emergency.
For this reason, many comrades welcomed the first police raid in hopes that direct conflict with the state would breathe new life into a struggle slowly dying of internal causes. After the raid, people could focus their attention outward in offensive actions like the general strike, away from the overwhelming difficulties of the camp.
The decision to strike was not a mistake. On the contrary, it was one of the better decisions collectively made during the entire sequence. But it inaugurated a half-year period defined increasingly by days of action called for by the general assembly rather than the rhythms of shared experience. This process accelerated after the second eviction of the camp on November 14 and reached its terminal point with the late January call for another general strike on May 1—a strike that never materialized. May Day 2012 ended up being an exciting day of action, but it paled in comparison to the November 2 strike, which had been organized in only a week. The more that the Oakland Commune lost its footing, momentum, and sense of direction, the more it relied on arbitrarily chosen days of action that were increasingly few and far between.
In the shift away from the camp towards spectacular offensives, the actions of November 2 opened up three horizons of struggle, each of which hit a wall over the following months. In many regards, the limits of these approaches were already apparent during the strike.
First, there were the tens of thousands who laid siege to the port. Most would agree that the high point of the day—the action that had the most impact on capitalism and the local power structure—was this blockade of the port of Oakland. However, the success of that action empowered one tendency within the movement to push the struggle away from reclaiming space and disrupting the flows of capital toward a kind of trade union superactivism that later proved to be a dead end.
Secondly, there was the attempt, later in the evening, to occupy the Traveler’s Aid building. But when riot police besieged the building, the participants failed to put up any meaningful defense. It was one thing to occupy public parks and plazas—but another thing to breach the sacred barriers of private property. Comrades had been discussing that trajectory from the beginning, but the failure of the Traveler’s Aid attempt indicated that it might remain an unsurpassable horizon.
Finally, there was street fighting and the black bloc. This represented the dream of continuous escalation, in which a proactive offensive of black-clad rioters would usher in a new phase of increasingly widespread militant rebellion, culminating in a full-on uprising. Certainly, November 2 saw some of the most intense street conflicts up to that point, epitomized by the appearance of a large black bloc during the afternoon anti-capitalist march. Yet that night, when riot police were finally ordered to reassert control of downtown Oakland and evict the newly occupied building, this increased street militancy meant little. Police scattered the participants like a bowling ball plowing into a wedge of pins.
Few people were organized into affinity groups capable of acting intelligently and decisively in the face of the highly trained and physically intimidating Oakland police. Inexperienced rioters had the tendency to attack weakly and prematurely, then scatter when the police counter-attacked. In addition, the presence of vigilante pacifist members of Occupy—whose violent assertion of nonviolence underscored the paradox of their position—and amateur journalists too busy photographing the riot to help their ostensible comrades both produced confusion and dissension. As is often the case in the US, comrades were able to carry out attacks on property with relative ease, adopting an effective hit-and-run strategy. But when it came to standing ground or mounting an offensive against the police, the street fighters were rarely effective.
The New Year
After the camp was cleared during the second police raid of the plaza on November 14, many comrades continued along each of these three trajectories, moving ever farther from the camp that had brought them together in the first place.
The labor solidarity wing of the movement, born during the November 2 port blockade, increasingly viewed Occupy as a vehicle for supporting unions and intervening in existing workers’ disputes. On December 12, this faction led a day of action to shut down ports across the West Coast (as well as in other scattered locations such as a Walmart distribution center in Colorado). This had been called for in response to the wave of repression and camp evictions across the country in late November and early December, as well as in solidarity with the struggle of longshoremen in Longview, WA against the efforts of the multinational corporation EGT to break their union, the ILWU. While not entirely successful, the day was still impressive, demonstrating the continuing power of Occupy. As 2012 began, this labor solidarity wing of the movement was busy spearheading a regional mobilization to disrupt the first scab ship scheduled to dock at the EGT facilities in Longview. Many comrades from the Bay planned to converge on Longview in what looked to be an important showdown.
Elsewhere, an alliance of insurrectionaries and comrades from a wide range of working groups that had sustained the camp were organizing another offensive. Regrouping from the failure of the Traveler’s Aid occupation, they had called for a massive day of action on January 28, 2012 to occupy a large undisclosed building. This was to become a new hub for the Oakland Commune.
Finally, there was the assortment of radicals and rebels who continuously struggled to hold down Oscar Grant Plaza itself. Some of them had slept on benches in the plaza long before Occupy; some were young locals politicized over the previous months; others hailed from a range of eccentric Bay Area groupings including a contingent of juggalos. The plaza was still contested turf with regular general assemblies, events, and a 24-hour “vigil” that held space, served food, and provided a social venue. The park and empty lot a few blocks away in the gentrifying Uptown district at 19th and Telegraph had also become a second front, following a brief occupation there on November 19 that ripped down the surrounding fences and established a camp before being quickly evicted.
This was the political climate in Oakland on New Year’s Eve, as a spirited march left from the plaza for a noise demo. The crowd followed the now familiar loop from the plaza to the police headquarters, courthouse, and jail, where people unleashed a torrent of fireworks before returning to the plaza for a raucous dance party. With hundreds attending, it was powerful demonstration that even without the camp the Commune could still call the plaza home. It was also a celebration of the struggles to come and the next major wave of the Occupy movement, which many believed to be just around the corner. In those early celebratory hours of 2012, it was nearly impossible to grasp how quickly all of these possible trajectories would hit walls. But in January, the limits that first became apparent on November 2 became debilitating, ushering in the terminal phase of the movement.
Oscar Grant Plaza was first to go. Running scuffles between the ragtag rebels of the plaza and platoons of cops looking to scare them off had increased throughout December, becoming a daily occurrence by the final week of the year. Dozens were arrested. In contrast to previous mass arrest situations, the cops and DA were clearly looking to make examples of the arrestees, who were slapped with large bails, felony charges, and a new favorite tactic of repression: stay-away orders that threatened people with additional jail time if they returned to downtown Oakland. While not as spectacular as police indiscriminately tear-gassing and spraying crowds with projectiles, the most brutal and effective repression of the whole Occupy Oakland sequence arguably occurred during the turf war over the plaza at the turn of the year. Because so many comrades were focused on organizing for the upcoming days of action, those facing the cops and courts in the plaza were isolated, without the support they needed.
Inspired by the success of the New Year’s Eve noise demo and hoping to respond to the escalating repression, the Tactical Action Committee—a militant group composed primarily of young Black men from Oakland who had been busy defending the plaza and organizing other actions—called for the first FTP (Fuck the Police) march one week later, on January 7. On January 4, after a general assembly in the plaza ended and the majority of people went home, a militarized raid involving dozens of riot police successfully evicted the vigil. This was the third and final raid of Oscar Grant Plaza. A member of TAC was among those arrested in the operation. The rebel presence in the plaza had been successfully removed, and the upcoming FTP march took on increasing significance.
Nearly three hundred gathered at the corner of the Plaza at 14th and Broadway on the evening of January 7. Many were masked up and ready for a fight, feeling that this was the moment to present a coordinated militant response to the successive evictions of the Commune. Led by a massive “Fuck the Police” banner, the march took off once again down Broadway on the loop past police headquarters and the jail. Clashes erupted near the headquarters as a police cruiser was attacked, bottles were thrown, a small fire was lit in the street, and lines of riot police repeatedly charged the crowd. Yet once again, the displays of militancy were just that, displays—ineffective when it came to defending comrades. Fighters were able to get in a few hits on police, but quickly retreated and fled out of downtown in the face of the OPD offensive. Arguing erupted among comrades, as it became clear that the eagerness with which many went on the attack was not matched by any kind of organized defense or coordinated crowd movement. As comrades scattered, leaving the plaza abandoned once again, another wave of arrests ensued with police units picking off isolated street fighters who had been identified by undercovers in the crowd. As with the wave of arrests around the plaza over the previous weeks, the people arrested at this first FTP march bore some of the heaviest penalties of the whole sequence, with some comrades eventually doing significant jail time.
The first FTP march failed to reverse the rapid decline of the Commune or reassert the movement’s presence downtown. On the contrary, it accelerated this decline, signaling to the state that it was now clearly gaining the advantage. This was not the fault of TAC, who continued to hold weekly FTP marches over the following months that were usually less confrontational. Rather, it showed the limits of the uncoordinated and tactically ineffective displays of street militancy mustered by the black blocs of that period. At the time, this series of painful defeats failed to register to many comrades as a serious blow to the movement, even though the authorities had successfully swept the plaza clean and neutralized the attempt to mount a response. Many people were distracted, with their sights set on the upcoming days of action. In retrospect, the new year was clearly off to a bad start.
Planning continued for the convergence in Longview and the January 28 day of action. General assemblies decreased in size and regularity but continued to meet, increasingly retreating to the park at 19th and Telegraph since an increasing number of comrades were prohibited from the Plaza by stay-away orders. The source of the Commune’s power, the defiant public occupation of space, was quickly drying up, though the upcoming offensives gave many comrades the sense that another wave of momentum was imminent.
This delusion was shaken when the bureaucrats at the top of the ILWU outmaneuvered the planned blockade of the scab ship in Longview, and all plans for the convergence imploded. Occupy caravans had been organized from Oakland, Portland, Seattle, and elsewhere, while the federal government announced it would defend the scab ship with a Coast Guard cutter. Comrades from across the West Coast were just waiting for word from those working directly with the Longview Longshoremen to initiate a confrontational showdown. But in their determination to reorient Occupy towards labor activism, the tendency that had coalesced during the November 2 port blockade constructed a framework that was completely disconnected from the streets and plazas from which they had emerged. With every step from the November 2 strike through the December West Coast port blockade and towards Longview, these actions ceased to be participatory disruptions in the international flows of capital as a projection of the occupation’s power beyond the plaza. Instead, they became solidarity actions, organized only with supporting the union in mind. There was naïve talk about the actions sparking a wildcat strike in the ports, or prying the union away from the bureaucrats who were eager to diffuse the conflict and cooperate with EGT. But none of this came close to materializing.
In the end, the labor solidarity tendency within Occupy Oakland and the handful of radical Longshoremen allies were no match for the political machinations of those at the top of the ILWU, who coerced the rank and file of Longview to accept a compromise with EGT that kept them on the job while stripping them of many benefits and their job security. This was enough to ease the tension and avert the showdown. On January 27, as the last-minute plans for the following day’s attempt to occupy a building were finalized, a confusing statement emerged from the caravan organizers, announcing that the Longview workers had accepted a contract and that this was—in some unspecified way—a victory. This was how the port campaign ended: not with a bang, but a whimper.
The next morning, the final offensive of January kicked into action. Though in many regards it was the most significant day since the general strike, the planned January 28 (J28) building occupation was fundamentally an arbitrarily chosen day of action with all the limits thereof. However, unlike the port actions, this was a massive attempt to return to what had made the Oakland Commune so powerful in the first place: liberating space from capital and the state, transforming it into a collective occupation where people could take care of each other and organize further actions. Even though many remember that spectacular day as one of the most important in their experience as part of the Oakland Commune, in relation to its stated goal, it was a disaster.
In response to criticism of the clandestinely organized occupation of the Traveler’s Aid building on November 2, J28 was organized in a radically open structure. Regular “Move-In Assemblies” of over 100 met publicly in the plaza to plan the occupation, while giving a smaller closed group the mandate to pick a building in relative secrecy. This assembly spent countless days organizing infrastructure for the new occupation, setting up guidelines for accountability within the space and planning a multi-day festival of music, speakers, and films. As the day of action unfolded, this ambitious plan was blasted apart in the first spectacular clashes outside the target building—the massive Kaiser Center Auditorium—in what became known as The Battle of Oak Street. It was probably because people believed so strongly in the dream that a new liberated space could emerge from the Kaiser Center and resuscitate the Commune that they fought so hard and with such a collective spirit that day. But OPD had no qualms about transforming downtown into a warzone to insure that private property remained off-limits.
A backup plan later in the day also failed to seize a building. As night fell, OPD called in additional police forces from across the Bay Area. After their first attempt to kettle a march of nearly a thousand people at 19th and Telegraph was outmaneuvered—the crowd dramatically escaped by tearing down the fences the city had recently rebuilt—the police finally succeeded in surrounding over 400 comrades outside the downtown YMCA. The arrestees spent the following days in filthy overcrowded cells at Santa Rita Jail.
Amazingly, those who remained on the streets remained undaunted. They broke into City Hall, burning the American flag and vandalizing the inside of the building in revenge for the police repression. Even after riot police with shotguns chased them off, the night was still not over. An FTP march was quickly organized. In keeping with tradition, participants took the familiar loop through downtown and unleashed rocks, bottles, and other objects at the police station and jail as they passed. The Commune was not going down without a fight.
Yet that was the end. The limits had emerged one by one over the course of January, and there was no new occupation or wave of mobilizations on the way. On January 29, as comrades scrambled to support the hundreds in jail while thousands across the country organized solidarity demonstrations with Oakland, over 300 gathered at the plaza in what turned out to be the last large general assembly. They voted enthusiastically to endorse calls emerging from New York and elsewhere for a May 1 global general strike—a strike that never materialized. Many still hoped that Occupy would reemerge with a spring offensive. But given the bitter defeat in the turf war over the plaza, the implosion of the port blockade campaign, and the failure to secure a new home for the Commune, this seemed unlikely. January was the end. Occupy’s window of radical possibilities would soon be closed in Oakland and everywhere else.
Over the following months, people carried out many amazing and inspiring radical projects. Occupy Oakland organized a series of large neighborhood BBQs across the city. The anti-repression committee set an impressive standard for how to take care of arrestees and imprisoned comrades. The SF Commune temporarily held a building at 888 Turk. Insurgent feminist and queer comrades who had come together over the previous months continued a campaign of actions and interventions while writing and distributing propaganda and texts. Clashes and attacks temporarily erupted across the Bay around May Day, while a struggle over an occupied farm emerged in neighboring Albany. Foreclosure defense campaigns successfully held off a series of evictions. For a week, people occupied an Oakland public school that was being closed down.
Yet the chance to regain momentum had passed in January. All of these efforts were still riding on evaporating momentum from the previous fall. In their increasing detachment from each other, they represented the long process of dispersal and decomposition that began with the strike on November 2.
Camp and Commune
At its core, Occupy was about occupying. In Oakland and elsewhere, it was about producing a form of life defined by mutual aid, self-organization, and autonomous action. It was about defending spaces free from police, politicians, and bosses, and the necessarily violent conflict between those zones and the surrounding capitalist world on which the camps nonetheless depended. Oakland took this about as far as it could go within the framework of Occupy, establishing a zone that fed and sheltered hundreds of people each day—sometimes thousands—in brazen defiance of the city officials fifty yards away in City Hall and the cops leering from the periphery. For all the hype about social media, livestreaming, and other information technologies enabling this new wave of revolt, the grounding of the struggle in the face-to-face relationships that combined to form the occupation is clearly what gave Occupy its unique potential and created the material foundation for all the political possibilities of the movement. The authorities understood this. That’s why they cleared the camps in Oakland and everywhere else, using as much force as necessary to prevent reoccupation.
Once the camp was cleared, the Oakland Commune became a husk deprived of its central tactic and, arguably, its reason for being. This was the reason why the vigil clung mournfully to the plaza despite repeated battering by OPD. It was the reason why the decision was made to claim a building for the movement on January 28. It was why the planning for an autonomous occupation provided the initial impetus for the convergence of feminist and queer comrades in what would later become Occupy Patriarchy. Without something to take the place of what had been lost with the camp, there was little chance that we would regain the expansive prospects of the fall.
The strength of “the camp form” was its ability to carve out material zones of political antagonism that were not organized around petitioning the authorities for concessions through symbolic demonstration but directly providing for our daily needs through the repurposing and reclamation of urban space. This was one of the most appealing aspects of the camp: it offered the opportunity to explore ways of relating and surviving together that did not rely on the usual mechanisms—money, the state, police, predefined social hierarchies and categories—though the banishment of those things was always partial and provisional at best. This enabled the participants to bypass some of the more tedious ways in which activists develop political projects, equipping people to organize around their own survival, in their own cities, on the basis of their personal experience of oppression and need, rather than according to essentially moral objections to this or that injustice. In the context of this contagious form of revolt spreading through the communal liberation of space, the movement’s rejection of the need to issue any specific demands to authorities made perfect sense. Occupy’s power came from the proliferation and reproduction of these oppositional zones, not from its political sway.
But if the camp was the source of our strength, it was also the source of the limits we reached, and not only because without it there was no real future for Occupy. At root, the camp was inadequate to the project of finding ways to live together beyond the specious forms of community that capitalism provides. In fact, the Oakland camp was already in a state of degeneration by the time it was cleared, and probably would have broken down on its own eventually.
The camp was no more violent or miserable then the city of Oakland is on any given day. Yet the level of everyday misery, alienation, and abuse that makes up the mundane reality of capitalist society is truly staggering, especially when concentrated in a plot of grass in the middle of an impoverished city. When we liberate urban space in 21st century America, we have no choice but to confront the devastation produced by centuries of capitalism, conquest, and domination.
Inside the reclaimed space opened up by the Commune, rampant interpersonal conflicts and forms of structural violence could not be contained or managed in the ways that capitalism normally does, through the violence of the police, the institutions of the state, or the ready-to-hand hierarchies provided by money and commodities. We had to confront these problems collectively and directly. But to do so adequately would have required the expropriation of resources and space far beyond what was within the grasp of the nascent movement. It also would have required the audacious dedication of participants to transcend their atomized lives and constructed identities under capitalism, going past the point of no return. The failure to overcome these fundamental obstacles enabled power relationships built on patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity to reassert their dominance within the movement while undermining and repressing the vital new relationships that had emerged through the process of struggle. These were the underlying limits that led the Commune away from the reclamation of space that had provided the basis for its initial rapid ascent, and ushered in its six month decline, passing the point of no return as the horizons of struggle that led away from the camp hit dead ends in January 2012.
This is the double bind we found ourselves in: the camp was both inadequate and essential. A potential solution to this bind is contained in the concept of the Commune, by which we mean the projected translation of the principles of the camp onto a new, more expansive footing. Occupy Oakland became the Oakland Commune once it took the camp as the model for a project (barely realized) of reclamation, autonomy, and the disruption of capital on a much wider basis: neighborhood assemblies reclaiming abandoned buildings for their needs; social centers that could serve as hubs for organizing offensives and sustain all kinds of self-organization and care; occupations of schools and workplaces. These were the horizons that the Oakland Commune illuminated, in the positive sense, despite its limits. We believe it is likely that future struggles in the US will follow this trajectory in some way, using Occupy’s attempted offensives and space reclamations as the foundation upon which something much larger, more beautiful and more ferocious can begin to take shape.
But the questions still remain: what would it mean to actually take care of each other and to collectively sustain and nurture an unstoppable insurrectionary struggle? How can we dismantle and negate the oppressive power relationships and toxic interpersonal dynamics we carry with us into liberated spaces? How can we make room for the myriad of revolts within the revolt that are necessary to upend all forms of domination? The effectiveness of any future antagonistic projects in the U.S. will be determined by our ability to answer these questions and thus transcend the limits that were so debilitating within Oscar Grant Plaza, forcing the Commune away from the very source of its power.
Another wave of struggle and unrest will undoubtedly explode in our streets and plazas sooner or later. Our task in the meantime is to cultivate fierce and creative forms of cooperating, caring for each other, and fighting together that can help us smash through the fundamental limits of contemporary revolt when the time is right. If we can make substantial strides beyond these obstacles, police attacks and jail sentences will be no match for the uncontrollable momentum of our collective force.
Some Oakland Antagonists,
Over the past year, we have experienced many forms of overt police repression, from the camp eviction and night of tear gas on October 25th, to raids on the vigil, to snatch and grab squads on May Day. We have come to expect the riot-clad police, with their batons and chemical weapons, although repression comes in other forms as well. As a community, we have not been sufficiently attuned to these other faces of repression. As the Anti-Repression Committee (ARC), we too have focused primarily on the overt police violence on the street and its counterpart in the jails and courts. We have spent countless hours in communication with people in jail, working with NLG folks to secure lawyers when possible, doing and mobilizing court support, and providing commissary and other forms of support for our comrades who remain locked up. We have also held workshops to talk about some of the other forms that repression can take–and ways that we as a community can keep one another safe–but we have not done enough as a committee to address these other faces of repression. We feel that as a community we need to shift our thinking about repression, to recognize the subtler more insidious forms that it takes and the ways that it targets our sources of strength and plays on existing conflicts and divisions in an attempt to weaken, distract, and consume us. This does not mean that we should become mired in trying to identify state infiltrators and agents. We may never know who the infiltrators are, and ultimately, whether individuals are directly working for the state when they engage in disruptive and divisive behaviors is not the point. We need to instead focus on behaviors. If behaviors support and consolidate state campaigns of repression–then they do the state’s work of repression.
Attacks on the Anti-Repression Committee
There have been a number of attacks on the Anti-Repression Committee, claiming a mismanagement of funds and spreading misinformation regarding bailing procedures. We wish to clear up any misconceptions. ARC manages the bail fund, and has no connections to the OO Finance Committee, nor any access to other OO funds. The bail fund was established through a donation of $20,000 by OWS which was initially managed by the OO Finance Committee. However, in early March the Finance Committee notified us that the account was temporarily frozen because the Finance Committee member under whose name the account had been opened had resigned and removed his name from the account. We were told that in order to access these funds for bailing purposes, members of the ARC would have to step up and sign their names as account holders and thus become responsible for managing these funds. Despite our hesitations, several committee members decided to do so and this account has been exclusively managed by the ARC since that time. We issued a financial statement at the end of July documenting all funds raised and spent by the ARC. [**Hyperlinking feature broken, copy-paste link to view] ( http://occupyoakland.org/2012/07/financial-statement-from-the-anti-repression-committee/ ).
We would like to reiterate that all ARC bail funds are used only and exclusively for bails. This includes both the original $20,000 OWS donation as well as the additional $22,000 raised independently by the ARC through its Wepay. Despite accusatory suggestions that we should put these funds to other uses, we feel that the countless donors who entrusted us with this money did so under the clear impression that the funds would be used for bailing jailed comrades and not for other purposes. Therefore, the ARC also works to raise supplemental funds through fundraisers in order to provide for other repression related expenses (like commissary or jail calls). All of these raised funds and expenditures are also accounted for in our financial statement.
Furthermore, in response to criticisms that we make selective choices on who to bail and not bail out, we would like to reiterate once again that the ARC bails strictly according to OO policy. This means that we never bail prior to arraignment (when bails tend to be reduced dramatically or forfeited altogether) unless there is an emergency situation as defined by OO policy (for example medical emergency or child custody). Furthermore, we have always provided bail for arrestees after arraignment as long as the bail amount was within the possibilities of our fund (some bails have been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars). We NEVER make decisions regarding eligibility for bail in these situations (whether based on the type of charges, the nature of political action or any considerations about the “worthiness” of individuals in terms of bail), but rather always follow the same procedures outlined by our policy. (http://occupyoakland.org/2011/12/bail-policy-of-occupy-oakland/)
Finally, we would like to address the aggressive campaign of baseless accusations that have been targeted at our committee for months now. Some of the individuals making these accusations, including Shake Anderson, have been doing so for months through rumors and gossip rather than direct requests for accountability or transparency. Individual members of the committee have received aggressive and accusatory personal messages, and have repeatedly requested that these concerns be addressed to the committee (either via email or at weekly committee meetings). However, despite current claims of lack of response, these individuals have never directly communicated their concerns to the committee (despite numerous invitations to do so). Furthermore, we are outraged at how these accusations of scandal have diverted the time and energy of our community – particularly given that a financial accounting was provided long ago (and continues to be ignored) and that the committee has always been willing to answer questions or address concerns. While accountability and transparency are cornerstones of any strong social movement, we recognize these continuous and baseless attacks as attempts to distract our committee and the larger community from the real work at hand, and as a form of repression.
We are a committee that was entrusted with OO’s bail fund – a responsibility we do not take lightly. We have worked hard to manage these funds in an accountable and transparent manner, despite the fact that none of us ever chose to take on financial responsibilities (bail funds were essentially frozen unless ARC members were willing to take on financial responsibility) . We have worked to more than double the original $20,000 OWS seed money. We have worked tirelessly to respond to a harsh year of repression including almost 850 arrests. And after it all, there is still over $13,000 in our community’s bail fund, as well as an additional commissary fund raised to support the needs of long term arrestees like Kali and Truth. This means that we have maintained almost 75% of the funds that were originally entrusted to us a year ago and that our community still has the necessary bail support to continue its struggle. We are proud of our committee’s work and find the recurrent attacks to be baseless and intended to divide and distract.
Petty Forms of Repression: Personal Attacks, Rumors, Gossip…
Repression often takes quite mundane and petty forms like personal attacks or the spreading of rumors. The result of these behaviors is the targeting, exclusion or silencing of individuals and the creation of divisions and distrust within the community. These petty forms of repressive behavior slowly tear away at the bonds of community that serve as the backbone of our movement. They drain us of our energy and our sense of solidarity. We are not suggesting that aggressive, violent or harmful behaviors by individuals should ever be tolerated or excused. Rather, we hope that we can find ways to collectively address these concerns without being pulled into patterns of behavior meant to divide and harm us. We refuse to allow the (very real) wounds and disputes in our community to become a playground for the state’s campaign of repression.
Violence & Intimidation
One of the issues that has been divisive within our community is the question of property destruction and how violence should be defined. While many of us in ARC would dispute a definition of violence that includes property destruction (and instead restrict our definition of violence to those acts that cause harm to living things), we also recognize that many within our community see property destruction as an act of violence. We do not all need to agree on this point, but our disagreements on this question need to be expressed in a way that is not harmful to others in our community. For a while the Bridge Caucus provided a model and a forum for dialogue amongst people with differing definitions of violence and views of property destruction. Such discussion and debate on this issue, and questions of tactics and strategy more generally, should be welcome.
What we as a community cannot accept is threats, intimidation, and acts of violence directed against one another. In recent weeks a number of individuals have been subject to different forms of threats and intimidation. Some have received threatening personal messages. Some have been harassed and made to feel unsafe on the streets. That such behavior coming from people who identify as part of Occupy Oakland is entirely unacceptable should go without saying. But we draw attention to these recent threats because we need to recognize the way that they further the state’s goal of repression, regardless of who is behind them, by making us more insular (turning inward to the safety of a small group of loved ones and trusted comrades) and cautious (afraid to reach out and take the risks necessary to make the changes we desire).
Since November, anarchists amongst us have been especially targeted with threats and vigilante violence. We saw this on the anti-capitalist march on Nov. 2nd when those engaged (or perceived to be engaged) in property destruction were tackled, had sticks and chairs brandished at them, or their masks removed and photos taken–all in the name of nonviolence. And we are seeing it now. Fliers have surfaced calling for people to arm themselves with bats and weapons to “beat the shit out of anarchists/vandals” and thus “defend” Oakland against “their divisive & violent message.” Again, we must underscore the worrying irony of calling for violence against a group of people–ostensibly identifiable by race and dress–in the name of nonviolence and stress that any such threats, whether coming directly from agents of the state or not, do the state’s work, and plays into a long history of the state using the scapegoating of anarchists to divide movements in the U.S.
We are deeply concerned by the increasing demonization of “anarchists,” the “black bloc,” and “outsiders” now being conflated under the term the “Oakland Commune”. This is occurring in flyers, social media communications and manifestos. We see this demonization as being a clear expression of the state’s current strategy of presenting a profile of Occupiers as a dangerous, outsider white anarchist “criminal street gang” bent on irrational destruction. It doesn’t matter whether these attacks are being made by individuals who are directly tied to the state as agents or provocateurs. The important thing is that this narrative directly mimics the state’s campaign of repression, one currently being used to jail and charge us with conspiracy. By perpetuating this narrative one is perpetuating the state’s repressive script.
The state’s script involves claims of violence and threats to public safety, and manufactures an organization out of loose political affinity (people together in the streets for an unpermitted march or unsanctioned action) in order to criminalize both the alleged behavior and association itself. In a recent press release, SFPD transfigures a tactic (black bloc) into a criminal organization, making reference to “members of the criminal street gang, Black Blok (sic)”. ) ( https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B4pdvMvLhJfdbm9XX0dZYmJpX1E/edit?pli=1 )
Similarly, the piece circulated last week (“Fuck the Oakland Commune Hella Occupy Oakland”) takes what was an affectionate name that some used to refer to the camp and community created at OGP–the Oakland Commune–and makes it into a discrete thing, a shadowy organization, comprised of a “group of ideological extremists” who seek to “foment chaos and destruction” and who have cost Oaklanders their “sense of safety.”
Labeling something a threat to public safety is a key way that the state justifies its repression. We see it in the SFPD press release noted above, and we have seen it repeatedly used against Occupy Oakland. The camp was evicted because it was deemed a threat to public safety. Occupiers were given stay-away orders in the name of public safety, to constrain “those intent on using violence against the community” (http://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Occupy-Oakland-tamed-with-stay-away-orders-3341492.php).
But what we also see in these examples is the way that the state claims that it’s really only a small group of trouble-makers that it’s coming down on, the bad protester-turned-criminal, that repression is reserved for the criminal and not the lawful, good protester. This logic structures District Attorney O’Malley’s justification of stay-aways: she declared that those with stay-aways “were not rallying on behalf of Occupy Wall Street, or even the greater Occupy Oakland movement. Rather, they advertise themselves as ‘militant, anti-government, anti-police, and anarchists,’ with a mission to destroy the community fabric of Oakland through the use of violence.” This same line, this same attempt to isolate and root out a small group of violent trouble-makers threatening the community is echoed in the recent attacks on the “Oakland Commune” as a “vanguard clique” “operating in the shadows of Occupy Oakland” ( http://hellaoccupyoakland.org/occupy-oakland-media-collective-statement-on-the-oakland-commune/ )
This type of profile-jacketing does not come without severe and devastating consequences. We see this in the recent FBI raids and grand jury investigations of those deemed as anarchists in the north west, the arrest of those deemed as part of “black bloc” during the anti-columbus day march in San Francisco, and in the ways that this narrative continues to draw divisive lines within our movements that distract from real work and criminalize those that fit the profile. This profile of the “outside agitator” and “anarchist” has been used over and over by the state, dating back the the early 20th century when anarchists were deemed “terrorists”. Let us not do the work of the state for them by criminalizing our comrades by buying into the state’s narrative and profile of the “bad protester”.
The state has to generate some level of consent for the violence it seeks to unleash upon us. This profile is one of the means of doing so. When we help the state consolidate that profile, we assist it in doing its violence to us, all of us.
Exacerbating Divisions & Differences
Repression has always involved prodding, manipulating and exploiting existing divisions within the movement (whether race, gender, class, sexuality, or any other forms of oppression). These exist in the larger world and it is no surprise that they permeate our movement. We must continue to work on addressing and fighting these oppressions and power dynamics. We must however be careful not to play into the state’s desire to divide us. We must always remember that these divisions, which cause devastating and painful realities in our lives, are created by the state, and also protect the state by making it so difficult for us to stand in solidarity with each other. It is not a surprise that this would be such a dominant tactic of repression unleashed against our movement – which after all drew its strength from alliances and solidarities across these divisions.
Anti-Repression is Solidarity
We have focused on these different faces of repression so that we can more effectively withstand and resist them, by drawing on our best tool of anti-repression: solidarity.
One year ago, hundreds of cops in riot gear launching their chemical and “less than lethal” weapons didn’t keep us from the plaza. That kind of courageous standing up to repression is part of what made OO capture the national imagination. If that kind of overt violent repression didn’t stop us, what does it say about the power of these more insidious forms of repression that they appear to have such an immobilizing impact on our community? This Thursday marks the one year anniversary of October 25th – let us continue our legacy by standing up to repression in all it’s faces.
We will not be broken, we will not be baited.
Recent articles have quoted Shake Anderson and others as a representatives of Occupy Oakland apologizing for past actions of the movement. This includes an article in the Oakland Tribune and another by Kevin Zeese, an activist in Washington, DC.
Anderson and the Occupy Oakland Media Collective claim to be on an “apology campaign” to defend Occupy Oakland from the “Oakland Commune.”
First, the Oakland Commune is simply a nickname for the camp at Oscar Grant Plaza and the community that grew out of it, no more, no less. It is a term of endearment used by Occupy Oakland participants, not some separate shady organization.
The Occupy Oakland Media Collective does not represent Occupy Oakland.
Far from it.
From January to March, the Occupy Oakland Media Collective–then known as the “OO Media” committee–met in secret while pretending to have a transparent committee open to all, eventually expelling members of the committee who did not agree with an article they published on their web site. The article in question ridiculously and offensively accused an Arab-American activist in Occupy Oakland of being both a terrorist and a federal agent–based on “evidence” from a Department of Defense anti-terrorism document!–that was briefly published on hellaoccupyoakland.org.
The racist nature of this accusation was contradictory to everything the Occupy movement stands for. The Occupy Oakland General Assembly voted to distance itself from the group in March 2012.
- 1. Last Saturday, an offensive, irresponsible and dangerous article titled “Occupational Awareness” was posted on the OO Media web site. Occupy Oakland denounces the article. The article contains personal attacks on an individual in Occupy Oakland that are untrue and unsubstantiated, and that are extremely dangerous to him and to the movement. The article appeals and legitimates a fantasy of “terrorist threat” that has consistently been used by the state to repress and silence protest, and to create false “enemies,” and uses classic racist tactics of racial profiling to do so. This article is not only a serious danger to the person attacked, it is a danger to our movement and it requires immediate action.
Rather than abide by this resolution, the Occupy Oakland Media Collective renounced the General Assembly–which passed this vote of over 140 people with 90% supporting–and decided to go its own way. They chose to leave Occupy Oakland rather than apologize for their offensive behavior and now have a highly restrictive membership policy which is an affront to the open-air organizing that took place in October and November of 2011 at Oscar Grant Plaza.
The Occupy Oakland Media Collective now claims to represent Occupy Oakland, speaking on behalf of the movement claiming that the tactics of the “Oakland Commune” turned people off. But these new “official” representatives played no serious role in organizing any of the mass actions. However, they have done much to take credit for them and even, it seems, profit off of them.
Occupy Oakland does not have a position for or against vandalism and activists have varying attitudes toward this tactic. The Occupy Oakland Media Collective hopes to attract attention to themselves over this issue while doing nothing to clarify the distinction between a few broken windows compared to massive police repression, assault and arrests. The Occupy Oakland Media Collective is playing directly into the hands of the opponents of the Occupy movement in the media, in City Hall and even vigilantes who call on Oaklanders to “beat the shit out of anarchists/vandals.”
The only true representative of the movement is the General Assembly. The General Assembly has spoken against the Occupy Oakland Media Collective. They do not represent Occupy Oakland, so please do not quote them as doing so.
The General Assembly no longer has large enough attendance to reach quorum–requiring at least 75 people–so it cannot speak for itself. The Occupy Oakland Media Collective, which is literally a handful of people, have attempted to fill the void. They can do what they wish, but claiming to be Occupy Oakland is utterly disingenuous.
Many of the activists who made up Occupy Oakland have continued organizing around school and library closures, prisoner solidarity, feminist marches, anti-police violence protests, labor solidarity and other actions while the Occupy Oakland Media Collective does what it only knows how–increase its web traffic by claiming to be something that it is not.
Some seem to have willfully forgotten that the Oakland Commune banner flew over the camp at Frank Ogawa / Oscar Grant Plaza during it’s hey day. Lest this amnesia spread, let’s remember what the Oakland Commune did.
Before it was known as such, and before the first tents were pitched in front of City Hall, the Oakland Commune came together in Mosswood Park because the winds were changing, the spirit of Occupy Wall Street (inspired, at least in part, by what had taken place in the Bay Area not more than two years previous) was spreading to towns across the country, and it was time for Oakland to take part.
At the height of its popularity, the Oakland Commune fed over 1,000 a day at pretty much any hour with no exceptions made. Basic First Aid, mental and emotional support were also provided to anyone who asked, all of these being extended to those abandoned by city, state and national policies that go back at least as far as Reagan.
The Oakland Commune sought to shatter the illusion that we are a wholly united 99%, an idea that weakened the movement with each racist, misogynist and homophobic remark. Instead, it sought, though often admittedly failed, to provide safe spaces for women, queers and people of color. Where it did fail, it tried to rectify through mediation and facilitation.
As much as the Oakland Commune looked to Occupy to bring people together, it also looked to the decades of hard work that the people of Oakland have put into fighting foreclosures, imperial wars, racist police violence and austerity measures that unravel the few remaining public services in this cash-strapped town.
When the first camp fell, the Oakland Commune rallied while the Oakland Unified School District decide to shutter five schools in underserved neighborhoods and Oakland Police shot tear gas into a crowd of thousands, nearly killing Scott Olsen and firing rubber bullets at the people who came to his assistance.
The Oakland Commune fretted over whether the port-a-potties could be serviced before, during and after the November 2nd General Strike. That same day, and also on December 12th, the Oakland Commune came together to shut down the Port of Oakland in protest of Goldman Sachs stranglehold on the city (a stranglehold that the City Council itself would attempt to loosen with a vote to end the debt swap months later).
When the camps were gone, the Oakland Commune dissolved in body and spread to new spaces.
The Oakland Commune traveled with a thousand others to San Quentin to support one of the most successful and least reported successes of Occupy Oakland’s tenure, Occupy for Prisoners, and joined the farmers, professional and otherwise, to Take Back the Tract. The Commune supported the sit-in that occupied one of the aforementioned shuttered schools and helped open the Biblioteca Popular (now run by the community it serves).
The Oakland Commune continues on not only in the form of raucous street parties, but in the form of campaigns against fare hikes that threaten the most precarious of communities, assemblies of workers and the unemployed, in solidarity marches with the victims of police violence from Oakland to Montreal to Anaheim to Lonmin.
For all of these actions to which it lent support, the Oakland Commune sought no credit or claim.
While Occupy Oakland wouldn’t have existed without the Oakland Commune, the Oakland Commune continues on in a new forms. So while a few seem to be fighting hard for the name and brand of Occupy, the Oakland Commune continues to fight for a life worth living.
a first person narrative covering the days around May 1, 2012 in the Bay from Crimethinc
Saturday, April 28, Oakland
I’m back in the Bay for May Day, loitering outside the top-secret anarchist hideout. The streets of Oakland record sedimentary layers of resistance and defeat: “OCCUPY EVERYTHING” is painted across a canvas of faded tags, the slogan itself obscured beneath syringes and garbage. Deeper beneath that concrete canvas lies the pavement that the Black Panthers once patrolled, and below that the streets blockaded in 1946, during the last General Strike in the US. We stand above, upon the syringes and garbage, aspiring protagonists of the next chapter of the story.
Two by two, my friends are showing up from all around the country. We thought we’d finally superseded the summit model of anarchist action, taking up the diffuse model of social unrest already spreading around the rest of the world. But here we are again, converging.
This converging confirms that the window of possibility that opened with last fall’s surge of activity has closed; momentum has plateaued in the small towns, leaving the diehards to flow into the metropolises. Like Vietnam, Oakland is the site of a proxy war, patrolled by police who live in other towns and thronged by anarchists who move here from other states. This is where rulers and ruled contend to produce different visions of the future, which will presumably filter out through news stories and youtube videos to the periphery. Yet what happens here is determined elsewhere; Oakland wouldn’t be an anarchist hub without a steady flow of recruits from the Midwestern suburbs, nor could the Oakland Police keep the upper hand without funding and arms from outside. Both sides ignore the hinterlands at their peril.
Across the street, a half dozen rough characters pass lugging massive improvised shields, irregulars in a revolutionary army yet to exist. They look haggard; none of us recognize them. This could be Muenster in 1534, vagabonds trickling in from failed peasant wars for another showdown with the powers that be.
Coercive Attrition and the Occupy Movement
from Counterpunch: January 09, 2012
The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci spoke of a distinction between “war of position” and “war of maneuver,” between those gradual and occasionally imperceptible political struggles that occur every day and the frontal attack on power toward which they eventually build. While this distinction is necessary, it should not be overstated, and nor can we associate the war of position too directly with ideological struggle and war of maneuver with direct military attacks on and by the coercive apparatus of the state. Recent events in Oakland and the strategy of coercive attrition directed against the Occupy Movement make perfectly clear just how insufficient such a correlation would be.
Recent weeks have seen the Occupy Movement confronted with a war of attrition nationwide: as cold weather sets in, many cities have opted to wait out the movement, allowing excitement to fade and the movement to devour itself in the petty squabbles of disempowerment. Often, though, this strategy of passive attrition operates alongside a more aggressive approach. In Philadelphia, for example, a hands-off approach to the now-decamped Occupy Philly operates in tandem with ferocity toward those who step out of line in a transparent attempt to bully radicals into submission (as with the case of two housing activists currently facing multiple felonies).
But it is in Oakland more than anywhere else that friendly weather and sustained militancy have given rise to a different approach, one similarly premised on chipping away at the movement through attrition and fatigue but doing so in a far more repressive manner. One key ingredient to this peculiar constellation of forces is the empty vessel perched atop the city government: Mayor Jean Quan. Quan was discredited long ago and from all sides, hated by the left for unleashing the near fatal attacks on Occupy Oakland in October, and by the right (represented by OPD and the City Council) for not taking a harder line. Now, having opted to vacillate rather than stand on the side of history, she will simply be hoping to serve out her term and avoid an embarrassing recall campaign.
This vacillation has been nowhere clearer than on the question of the epic Port Shutdowns on November 2nd and December 12th, the first of which catapulted Occupy Oakland to the forefront of the national movement, and the second of which demonstrated a capacity for coordinated militancy not seen in this country for decades at least. Since it was Quan who took the heat for the unrestrained actions of police in October, one could hardly blame the Mayor for hesitating to unleash OPD and other forces against those blocking the port. But when Quan suggested that the city might not be able to prevent future shutdowns of the port, her critics in City Council found powerful echo in Governor Jerry Brown. But for now at least, OPD’s hands are at least partially tied, an the full-on assaults of many an officer’s dream go unfulfilled for now.
Blocked from engaging in a brutal war of maneuver, OPD’s strategy has been a different one, and what remains of Occupy Oakland’s presence in Oscar Grant Plaza has seen small raids with a handful of arrests several times a week. While some interpret this half-heartedness by the forces of order as a sign of impotence, the frequency, the timing, and the serious charges incurred in the raids speak to a more sinister strategy.
“Shit’s Gonna Pop”
I arrived at Oscar Grant Plaza in the immediate aftermath of one such raid on Friday, December 30th, where rebels circulated through the plaza denouncing the most recent skirmish. Some still carried their belongings in the familiar plastic bags, souvenirs from a recent trip to Santa Rita County Jail. The rage is palpable and growing, with many pronouncing that “shit’s gonna pop” in somber tones, and another occupier angrily insisting that “they’ll see me in hell before they see me in jail.”
Just an hour earlier, a small OPD contingent had swept into the plaza and snatched a selected few who were gathered there. Those targeted included Brian Glasscock, an Occupy Oakland organizer well-known to Oakland Police as the sound operator for many Occupy events. It was for this reason, rather than any illegal activity, that Glasscock was identified by Lieutenant Hamilton, who had targeted him previously over sound system issues, and arrested for inciting a riot. “I think their strategy is to target those they know have been around doing things and throw them in jail hoping that something will stick,” Glasscock explained to me.
This strategy was perhaps clearest in the case of Tiffany Tran, a young occupier who faced felony charges under California’s Lynching Law. Just as police have recently begun to arrest Copwatchers who record their activities under felony wiretapping laws originally intended to control the police themselves, so too is this so-called “lynching” a case of inverting a law’s original intention. Originally designed to prevent Black Americans from being seized from the hands of police by lynch mobs, this law has been deployed recently to criminalize the practice of “de-arresting” those in police custody.
With the arrests, a scheduled New Years Eve noise demonstration outside the North County lockup gained new significance. A rowdy and celebratory crowd gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza to bid adieu to an epic year in militant style, before occupying the intersection of 14th and Broadway, ignition point for many a rebellion past. As we awaited the arrival of the sound system (that Glasscock was supposed to operate), we gulped the obligatory champagne from nondescript containers. The sound system soon arrived, some faces were covered, a massive banner was unfurled that sums up the spirit of the night as bluntly as possible–“Fuck the Police”–and we were off.
A block from our destination, attention inevitably turns to OPD headquarters, where a small phalanx of riot police stand guard behind closed doors. The scene was striking, as two occupying forces faced off against one another: one, an occupying army imported from the suburbs to oppress, the other, exuberant and brimming with the optimism of a new society in the works.
Arriving at the jail, cheers rebounded off the thick walls, their echoes doubled as imprisoned comrades began to flash lights inside to make it clear that we were being seen and heard inside. But there was no question of being seen or heard: soon, the ground was shaking with M-80 blasts and fireworks were launched from the middle of the street, exploding directly outside the windows of the jail. One previously injured protester reclined in a bike-drawn-cart, decadently sipping whiskey and enjoying the show. Astonishingly, there was not a cop in sight.
Requiescat in Pace, Habeas Corpus
While the charges thrown at protesters have been consistently ridiculous and few have stood up in court, Glasscock insists that “if nothing sticks then they’ve at least fucked with that person’s week.” And in this case, the police strategy was to hold those arrested for almost an entire week: strategically arresting protesters on a Friday, and before a holiday weekend no less, meant that the habeas corpus guidelines requiring that arrestees be charged within 48 hours of arrest were flexible at best. Since this refers to 48 business hours, neither the weekend nor the Monday holiday were included, and anger mounted outside the courtroom late Tuesday afternoon as it became increasingly clear that the authorities would wait until the last possible minute to drop the charges.
Walter Riley, lawyer for those arrested and father of rapper Boots Riley, who has played a key role in the Occupy organizing around the port shutdowns, complained loudly that the actions of the police and the District Attorney constituted a transparent attack on habeas corpus, and that more direct pressure needs to be brought to bear to make it clear that we won’t accept such strategies. But given the national offensive against habeas corpus embodied in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), local authorities might rightly sense that no federal authority will leap to defend the occupiers. It was little surprise when, despite this extended display of punitive power, the charges against all those arrested were later dropped after some had spent nearly 5 days behind bars.
But there would be little time for celebration when those arrested were released on Wednesday, as OPD again swept into the plaza later that evening in a repeat performance of the prior week. Again, there were a handful of arrests. Again, these were highly targeted, with eyewitnesses recounting how police broke off to arrest occupiers who had crossed the street to avoid a conflict. The vocal and militant Tactical Action Committee seemed to be the primary target, with some of the previous arrestees overhearing guards talking about how they wanted to get one member in particular. And again, the charges would have been laughable were they not a part of a broader and overarching strategy of containment.
One occupier known as Ali had become a clear target for repression due to his visibility, and even those arrested on the 30th had overheard officers discussing how the hoped to get their hands on him. On Wednesday the 4th, OPD seemed determined to do just that, chasing Ali across the street to arrest him. When they did so, he explained to me, officer Phan reached into his back pocket before feigning surprise and insisting that he was “going away for a long time” because they had found him to be in possession of ecstasy. Some in the Anti-Repression Committee believe that it was only the presence of the Livestream camera, and the fact that Ali immediately began to shout about the attempt to plant drugs, that prevented the charges from being successfully fabricated. Ali was later charged with misdemeanor obstruction.
A member of the recently-formed Anti-Repression and Solidarity Committee (ARC) of Occupy Oakland explained to me that the movement has seen in recent weeks a broad arc of repression, beginning on December 28th with the clearing of a small camp established in West Oakland by the Tactical Action Committee, followed the next day by the raid and arrests at an occupied house on Mandela Parkway. The most recent raids were but an upping of the stakes, she explained, adding that “I think the idea is that if they can bog us down in as many legal battles as possible, we won’t be able to restart this movement… Why would they come and raid the plaza when it’s just an info table and a food tent? They’re afraid if they don’t get rid of it it will just get bigger.”
Laleh, also a member of the ARC, feels that beyond merely the organizational toll taken by the targeting of key committee members, the police strategy is one of terror. “The fact that they have been chasing particular people and ignoring others has had a psychological effect, instilling a terror in people that wasn’t there before.” If these were isolated cases they could be accidental, she argues, but the fact that groups have been repeatedly arrested, slapped with charges, and held for days only to see the charges dismissed “makes the strategy clear.” The District Attorney needs to step in and restrain the OPD, she insists.
This strategy also includes both fishing for parolees and attempting to provoke prisoners. “Everyone who is coming out is reporting targeting and segregation while in country jail, all kinds of physical abuse, taunting by COs, and even sleep deprivation,” Laleh explains, and all this in an effort to get a reaction that can lead to more charges (this seems to have been at play in the case of an occupier named Khali, who is being charged with assaulting an officer after his psychiatric medication was reportedly withheld for days).
Thankfully, though, not everyone is terrified, and an anonymous ARC member sees signs of the breakdown of the strategy of attrition both by occupiers and by the police themselves: at a “Fuck the Police March” called in response to the arrests, OPD officers clearly went beyond what the city had hoped, knocking a woman off her bike and beating her, firing rubber bullets, and allegedly breaking another marcher’s arm. More importantly still, the OPD’s strategy of low-level warfare “isn’t scaring people, it’s only making them angrier.”
When the Philadelphia Police Department wanted to destroy the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), they did not feel hindered by legal niceties: police arrested the RAM membership nearly every day on imaginary charges, knowing full well the toll taken on movements by even demonstrating the falseness of the ridiculous. Now, faced with the Occupy Movement, it would seem as though some local police agencies are once again taking a page from the PPD playbook on coercive attrition. Legality and its opposite thus march hand-in-hand, as a movement is harassed with impunity.
After Winter, Another Spring Looms
We press toward spring in this age of riots, closing an annual circuit opened in North Africa, but with no end in sight to the global cycle of struggle unleashed by Mohamed Bouazizi’s literal self-sacrifice. As I depart Oakland, this sinister war of position continues unabated, but and impending war of maneuver looms almost as certainly as the sun sets over the Golden Gate Bridge.
January 1st marked the 3rd anniversary of Oscar Grant’s murder by BART officer Johannes Mehserle, an event which opened a more localized cycle of struggle that in many ways laid the organizational foundations for Occupy Oakland’s peculiar militancy while teaching those in the streets a lesson in their own power. This year, organizers, myself included, marked this somber day with a march of several hundred between two popularly baptized locations: beginning in Oscar Grant Plaza, we retraced in reverse the path of the 2009 rebellions, covering miles of familiar ground before arriving at Oscar Grant Station (Fruitvale), where he was killed. Family, friends, and activists took to the stage at the memorial, remembering Oscar and the struggle bearing his name, and promising to keep up the fight by establishing an automatic response system with demonstrations at 14th and Broadway every time the police kill.
Monday at 5am, the momentum of the Port Shutdown will stretch its roots into fertile local soil, as Occupy Oakland will staff a “hard picket” of the American Licorice Factory in support of striking workers. If this uptick in worker militancy doesn’t prompt a frontal assault by the state, then the planned takeover of a large building on January 28th likely will, and if not this, then perhaps the impending blockade of the Port of Longview in Washington State, or the growing anger at ICE’s “silent raids” taking their toll on undocumented communities across the Bay Area.
Wandering around Oscar Grant Plaza, one phrase is on many lips: “There’s always spring.” But in this land of perpetual spring, seasons are but metaphors, and as the kindling is stacked ever higher, any of these moments could provide the spark. Spring looms, heavy with the promise of the future, but foreboding in the guarantee that its birth will be a violent one.
George Ciccariello-Maher is an exiled Oaklander who lives in Philadelphia and teaches political theory at Drexel University. He can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.
‘It was war, and we had the police scared’
Rioters speak for the first time about why they took part in the summer 2011 disturbances, the most serious bout of civil unrest in Britain in a generation. Paul Lewis presents the findings of a Guardian and London School of Economics study that reveals how the riots were sparked by poverty, injustice and a visceral hatred of the police
As a site of resistance, “Wall Street” is a metonym for a system, a transnational apparatus of capital and political oligarchy. We don’t have to get too specific, because we all know what we mean when we say “Wall Street” (even if we don’t agree on what that thing actually is). And so while that particular part of Lower Manhattan might be a focal point of a gigantic process of accumulation and dispossession, “Wall Street” is still just a concrete symbol for that larger and much less tangible process. The fact that so much financial work is actually done elsewhere is not that important; to “Occupy Wall Street” is to attack and de-legitimize the thing it symbolizes, the ordering structure that builds and rebuilds the world around us, that the rest of us have no choice but to inhabit and endure.
This is why it has meant something very different, from the beginning, to “Occupy Oakland.” In a just world—in the world the occupiers are trying to usher into existence—there might be no such thing as “Wall Street” at all, and certainly not in its current form. But Oakland is not a center of finance and power or a locus of political privilege. There is a “here” here. No one really lives in Wall Street, but those who “Occupy Oakland” do so because they already did. As a result, when we “Occupy Oakland,” we are engaged much less in a symbolic protest against “the banks” or “the 1%”—political actions which are given their shape by the political terrain of protesting abstractions—and much more in a very concrete struggle for a right to the city.
Wall Street of the Waterfront
The Occupy movement is barely more than two months old and already showing signs of growing up. Seeing their encampments thwarted, they are responding with a coordinated counterpunch themselves. The Occupy groups in California, Oregon and Washington state are moving together against the US centers of the global economy—the ports of the West Coast that handle some 60% of the country’s international trade—and their 1% owners.
Inspired by the massive participation that shut down the Port of Oakland during Occupy’s “General Strike” Nov. 2, the movement’s chapters in San Diego, Los Angeles, Oakland, Portland, Olympia, Tacoma and Seattle all plan port shutdown actions on Monday, Dec. 12. They hope to amass picket demonstrations so large that the dockworkers of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), long the radical labor vanguard of the West, will invoke the part of their contract allowing them not to cross the line because it is a health and safety risk.
This type of community picket action for political purposes has a long and venerable place in ILWU history. Back in 1939 longshoremen honored a picket line set up at the Port of San Francisco by the local Chinese community to stop a load of steel being sent to then-fascist Japan for its war effort, at that time focused on mainland China, but soon crossing the Pacific. Again it was used in 1977 against a South African ship in protest of that country’s apartheid policies, in 1997 against a ship loaded by scab labor in support of the dockers in Liverpool, England, in 2003 to stop a ship being loaded with war materiel bound for the just-declared war on Iraq, and most recently just a couple of years ago against an Israeli ship in protest of the Israeli military attack on the Turkish ship bringing medical and construction supplies to Gaza.
This time the Occupiers are doing it to highlight the nasty anti-union tactics of a major international food and grain conglomerate, Export Grain Terminal (EGT), whose majority owner, Bunge Ltd. is a multi-national company busting unions from Texas to Bulgaria to Argentina and is also deeply involved with corporate takeover of food systems, displacing local agriculture with soybean monoculture. EGT is trying to break the labor standards and jurisdiction of the ILWU by bringing in scabs to load their grain ships at the Port of Longview.
In Southern California, at the huge port complex of Los Angeles/Long Beach, the Occupy blockades are adding another political target. They will focus on the terminal of one of the worst offenders of the 1% on the Coast—Stevedoring Services of America (SSA)—to highlight the plight of the port truckers. These “independent contractors,” mostly immigrant workers who haul the shipped containers to warehouses and other points of destination, have been trying to organize into the Teamsters for over a decade so they could bargain and raise their pathetic pay. But in one of the most telling 99% versus 1% stories, the West Coast employer group, the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA), a group of some 80 multinational, multibillion dollar shipping and stevedoring companies, has been able to thwart them, using US anti-trust laws.
The coordinated action is bold. It could signal a new direction for the Occupy movement: engaging in mass direct actions outside of established institutions to both support local labor practices and strike at the heart of the global economic apparatus.
For a young movement these are some sophisticated maneuvers.
Still, growing pains endure. The ILWU International officers in San Francisco are claiming to have nothing to do with the Dec. 12 action and even oppose it. Officially they must distance themselves from the action call to protect themselves from being sued by the PMA for the damages of the action. But they are going beyond the legally required disclaimers.
On Nov. 21 the union’s officer put out a memo to their members saying that a public demonstration is not a picket line according to the contract and does not have to be respected. This is in contradiction to the historic practice of the ILWU and “The Ten Guiding Principles of the ILWU,” which states:
“Unions have to accept the fact that the solidarity of labor stands above all else, including even the so-called sanctity of the contract. We cannot adopt for ourselves the policies of union leaders who insist that because they have a contract, their members are compelled to perform work even behind a picket line. Every picket line must be respected as though it were our own.”
On the ILWU website, the union’s International President, Robert “Big Bob” McEllrath, claims such “third party” actions violate the union’s “democratically led process.” Oddly, this statement runs below an earlier, Oct. 5 post by McEllrath, a “solidarity statement in support of ‘Occupy Wall Street.’ There he says “Like you, ILWU members in Longview have been arrested, beaten and pepper spayed (sic). We know that justice won’t be won by asking greedy employers for permission or waiting for politicians to pass laws. That’s why we hope that you’ll stand your ground on Wall Street while we do the same in Longview—because An Injury to One is an Injury to All.”
Further irony abounds. Occupiers were inspired by the ILWU longshore workers in Longview taking “direct action” against EGT and its attempts to load grain with scab labor. The Longview longshoremen literally put their bodies on the railroad tracks, stopping the train and dumping its grain. President McEllrath participated in one of the actions himself, and was arrested by the local cops.
But now, facing a $250,000 fine (that is being appealed) and further court injunctions that include threats of arrest and huge fines on both the union and individuals involved, the ILWU is apparently turning to its attorneys to pull them out of the mess.
Still, the Occupiers didn’t plan this all by themselves. A number of ILWU rank-and-file activists have been working with them and explaining the ropes. The president of the Longview local, Dan Coffman, has visited Occupy San Francisco and Occupy Oakland, speaking at their demonstrations. He has not publicly called for the port shutdowns, but he has told the crowd in Oakland that they have been an inspiration to him and his members.
In the past this is the kind of community picket the ILWU would have—with a wink—embraced. The best way to get a rogue employer to stop violating the ILWU’s contractual jurisdiction is to make it costly for other members of the employer group who are playing by the rules, and make them enforce the contract among themselves.
But given the legal noose knotted for them, it seems the ILWU would prefer to control all aspects of this fight rather than build alliances in the community, even if that may hurt them in the future. They are planning their own Coastwise port shutdown when EGT’s first grain ship docks in Longview, currently scheduled for sometime in early January.
We will soon see if Occupy can mobilize enough people to create the critical mass necessary to invoke health and safety—especially at the distant and huge LA port—what tactics the police will use against a serious economic challenge, and how the ILWU rank-and-file longshore workers respond.
Steve Stallone is the Secretary of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. He was the Communications Director of the ILWU from 1997-2007.
By Matthew Edwards
This is an unfinished work – a snapshot of history as it occurred, experienced by me, reported on social media, or retold by trusted comrades. It will lack the finality of hindsight. Contained within is my account of the Oakland Insurrection, as it has unfolded over the past days and weeks. Both the insurrection and this essay are works of hope. I hope that we push forward on the streets of Oakland, the Bay Area, and everywhere else, to the limit of what is possible – beyond occupation and the proposed general strike to “total freedom” for us all.1
Inspired by the uprisings across the world and fueled by the increasingly precarious economic conditions across the United States, a callout was made for an occupation of Wall Street. On September 17, 1000 people occupied the financial hub of the United States and arguably global capitalism. Within days, dozens of towns and cities had their own version of the #Occupy movement – with varying degrees of encampment, protest, and organizing space; within weeks, hundreds of cities were occupied; within a month, over a thousand worldwide.
Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by many Bay Area residents, was occupied on October 10. Logistical planning started a week before the occupation date, with #OccupyOakland fielding a fully functional canteen, childcare, medic, sound, and general assembly area on day one, with person of color (POC), gender, and queer safe spaces soon to follow. #OccupyOakland had the same populist rhetoric regarding the problematic “homogeneous” nature of “#Occupy…”, but pushed the “99%” critique in a decidedly anti-capitalist direction. Coupled with this was a distinctly anti-police and anti-state tone that also translated into anti-oppression organizational forms.
On October 21 the city of Oakland presented the general assembly, the official organizing body of #OccupyOakland, with a letter of eviction, citing “public safety.” The words of OaklandCommune, posted October 19 on the Bay of Rage website, beautifully foreshadow what transpired on October 25 and 26when the police made good on their threats:
Social rebels from around Oakland have descended upon Oscar Grant Plaza and have created a genuine, autonomous space free of police and unwelcoming to politicians. Whereas other occupations have invited the police and politicians, or have negotiated with them, Occupy Oakland has carved a line in the cement. That line of demarcation says: if you pass this, if you try and break up or over shadow this autonomous space, you are well aware, as observed over the last couple of years, what we are capable of.
The Bay Area’s history of social resistance is well documented, and it’s important to remember the context behind the militancy seen around #OccupyOakland. The general events these social rebels are referring to are the uprisings and demonstrations that have occurred over the past three years in the Bay Area, responding to police violence and “austerity.”2 To understand the events of the past week, one must understand the atmosphere in which these actions took place. The most relevant of these demonstrations revolve around three sets of riots that followed the murder of Oscar Grant III on January 1, 2009.3
One week after Oscar’s murder by police, January 7,2009, a rally at the Fruitvale BART station transitioned into a march that eventually evolved into a riot, with running street fights against police. The action resulted in 100 arrests and hundreds of thousands in policing costs and property destruction. Johannes Meserle, the officer who killed Grant, was arrested one week later – a day before thousands marched through Oakland, serving notice to the police that their actions had consequences.
A series of low and mid-intensity direct actions and marches occurred over the next 18 months until the verdict day, July 8, 2010, when Meserle was ostensibly acquitted for murder and found guilty of involuntary manslaughter for shooting an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant in the back. Police preparations, dubbed “Operation Verdict,” were one of the largest local buildups of state and federal police forces in recent history.4 The buildup actually seemed to intensify popular opinion against the police. Operation Verdict not only failed to stop another riot, where hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property was destroyed, but also failed to arrest as many demonstrators as the riots of a year before. Sentencing day, November 5. 2010, saw an evolution of police tactics that stopped the march before it morphed into something greater. The march was kettled and everyone was arrested in mass, all later to be released without charges.
Oscar Grant’s Legacy
I would like to recognize that Oscar Grant was a real person; with a daughter, family, and friends. I would like to recognize this because the human element can get lost when we make martyrs out of casualties. The actions around his death were living laboratories for many Bay Area residents, specifically youth and political radicals – anarchists, anti-authoritarians, and anti-capitalists. For some, this was the first time they had tasted tear gas or felt the sting of a rubber bullet. The January 7 riot was a hurried affair, with people quickly learning how to stay together, erect makeshift barricades, or set fires to necessitate getaways.
July 8 saw the forces of the state prepared and still unable to stop scores of “crews” smashing shop windows.5 Communication and coordination appeared to improve between the various demonstration participants. Masks were worn and code names used. It was apparent that even just a few “battle hours” dramatically increased a collectivity’s “street” effectiveness, i.e. the ability to create social unrest and get away with it. Through these events, it was revealed that street demonstrations, with riots in particular, did have an effect on, if not public policy, then at least civic discourse.
There were failures as well. Media and state forces conspired to create the concept of the “outside agitator” – the anarchist from afar whose only purpose was to smash. The actions of property destruction seemed to overshadow the context in which they were used. The tactic itself was the perfect expression of the powerlessness that people felt in demanding, from an unjust state, some sort of “justice.” It was an action of tantrum, saying, “in this protest zone, in this space of social rupture, I only have the ability to destroy.” A statement like that, while unifying for the participants within that instant of “social rupture,” has little to no organizing potential. And so the movement went from active conflict to history. Its steam and momentum were lost. However, with its passing came a time of tactical and strategic reflection, the results of which were practiced on the streets of Oakland under the banner of #Occupy only a week ago.
The efforts and effects of the anarchist tradition in the Bay Area cannot be ignored, neither in the case of Oscar Grant nor #OccupyOakland. There are hundreds of anarchists active in “street level” actions; hundreds more working in various corporate, non-profit, alternative, and other industries that bring money, logistical support, and experience when needed; and hundreds still who are engaged in their own projects, communities, and building families.
The presence of such a high concentration of anarchists at radical or potentially explosive demonstrations has influenced how people protest. To be sure, not every person at a demo is an anarchist, far from it, but many have adopted anarchist practice. Masking up, wearing black, and working in teams has created a safer and more disciplined force. The attendance of anarchist street medics, propagandists, and experienced street fighters adds a level of infrastructural and logistical support that makes actions on the streets feel supported and emboldened. Traditionally organizing on egalitarian and non-hierarchical planes, as well as a familiarity with consensus process, have facilitated the creation of a strong general assembly. The creation of solidarity groups for those arrested at actions, and access to the legal network that years of Bay Area activism created has been key in movement progress. In both social movements the anarchist presence has been an important, though by far not the only, element to any success.
This is not to say that an anarchist presence in the Bay Area has not had its troubles in recent years. The attempt by the state to brand anarchists as “outsiders” failed in the buildup of Operation Verdict, but did highlight racial and class issues that people are still confronting. Furthermore there was a successful attempt to brand anarchists has violent, although this was just one more step in a process dating back hundreds of years to redefine “anarchism” in the negative. Still , the only contact that many people have had with anarchists is the images presented by the media of “black-clad hooligans destroying things.” The insurrectionary anarchist current that is alive within the Bay has showed itself as a trend of attack, security culture, and tightknit networks. In the past it was inward focusing and only surfaced in times of action, although the presence of many insurrectionists at the general assemblies and their use of violence in a form different from that of property destruction does give credence to the idea that this trend is maturing.
Insurrection and Strike
Throughout the week, preparations were made within the #OccupyOakland space for arrival of police enforcing the eviction notices. The plan was to construct and defend barricades to keep the Oakland Police Department (OPD) out for as long as possible. Over the past two weeks, the police made only a handful of incursions into the autonomous space. The response by those camped was always forceful yet disciplined, with the distilled message being: “get out!” As a result there was little worry about the question of “when” “they” would come. “They will come when they do,” one camper told me with a shrug the night before the eviction. On Tuesday October 25, at 4:30 AM, hundreds of riot police from over a dozen different agencies descended upon the camp. After calling a dispersal order, police waited for five minutes before throwing concussion grenades, launching tear gas, firing pepper and rubber bullets, and hitting people with batons. The night concluded with around 80 arrests and some serious injuries.
A call out was made for 4 PM the same day to meet at the Oakland Library for a march to Oscar Grant (OG) Plaza. A diverse crowd of over 1500 people arrived. They marched around Oakland, swelling in numbers as people came into the streets. The police attacked with gas, less-than-lethal rounds, and batons. Demonstrators responded with bottles and paint balloons. Police snatch squads grabbed and beat protestors in full view of the crowd, with a handful having to be taken to the emergency room.6 The march continued to OG Plaza where lines of riot police stood behind metal barricades blocking all possible entrances. A standoff ensued.
At roughly 8:30 PM a crowd of 500 assembled at 14 and Broadway. After repeated warnings the police attacked. The gas attack was the worst of the day. Injured protesters littered the intersection, including Scott Olson, two-tour Marine veteran, who took a teargas canister to the head. Others were blinded and choking on the gas. Numerous burn victims from the gas canisters ran for cover; at least one of them needed plastic surgery on her foot. The crowd recomposed within minutes, playing cat and mouse with the police, rallying and taking the streets outside the barricades, fleeing from police attacks only to form again.
The chatter of excitement and anger was easy to understand. Groups of people were swapping stories from the days events. The gas was loosing its fear effect; these crowds were not dispersing. Teenagers were laughing at each other’s snot and tear-soaked faces. Older people were talking about the 1960s; “gas nowadays seems more potent,” they said. Anarchist and other radical medics were helping gas victims. By about 10 PM it was obvious that even though the group had failed to retake the plaza, they had in fact won two important victories. #OccupyOakland was effectively in control of all of downtown Oakland save OG Plaza. Or, to put it differently, the police had lost the initiative: they had lost their mobility and the ability to dictate terms outside the range of their weapons. By controlling the plaza they abdicated control of the rest of downtown Oakland to the occupiers. Declaring victory on the ground, the hundreds of occupiers began to disperse to ready themselves for the next day.
The second victory was not seen until the next day, when media outlets had no choice but to broadcast images of the night’s insurrection. Grabbing the media’s attention as well was the grievous injury to Scott Olson. Surviving two tours in Iraq to come home and be shot by OPD sealed the police’s fate in the realm of public opinion. Not only had #OccupyOakland succeeded in controlling the streets, they had also won over hearts and minds. As of this writing it looks as though Scott will recover and not become a martyr for any cause, just another victim of police brutality.
A general assembly was called for 6 PM on October 26. The police were nowhere in sight, but some reported that they were massing at a nearby parking garage. They were never to mobilize in any show of force. Bike patrols were passing back information, and a general feeling of safety permeated the camp. The metal fence that had been set up by the city was taken down, and once again the plaza was in the hands of #OccupyOakland. A proposal was submitted for a general strike in Oakland on November 2. The proposal passed by 96.9%; 1484 votes for to 77 against, with 47 abstentions, more than enough in Oakland’s modified consensus of 90% for the proposal to pass.
After the vote, 2000 people attempted to march for the downtown Oakland BART station to travel to San Francisco, where it was reported that the SF occupation was to be attacked by SFPD. The station was closed by BART officials, so the 2000-strong group marched through Oakland, stopping once at the OPD headquarters to yell at the police, once at the Oakland jail chanting in support of those incarcerated, and once under a freeway overpass, to discuss whether the group should cross the Oakland/Bay bridge to support #OccupySF. The march decided to retake OG Plaza instead.
A truly startling realization emerged among many of the anarchists present at the general assembly. As thousands of people discussed the general strike proposal, others were circulating and intermingling, talking about the victory of the night before. A major theme of the discussion was the fact that so much had been gained without resorting to property destruction. A tacit understanding developed amongst many of the radicals that no one was going to physically stop any of the “wrecking crews” from smashing windows, but people understood that much of the previous night’s victory could be attributed to the images of police violence against protestors and the counter-violence of protestors against the police. If there is an insurrectionary imperative to attack the state, that idea seemed to gain support, at least among those in the general public who watched the live stream. The march on October 25 showed how the protestors had done due diligence in their attempt to remain “peaceful”; they responded to police violence with defensive force, instead of the less understood (and less direct) tactic of attacking property. A violence of low-intensity self-defense actually gained #OccupyOakland international support.
In the OG Plaza riots, the impotent violence that resulted in Meserle’s arrest also doomed the movement to remain marginal. People have many unresolved issues with property destruction. It is my presumption that those in command of the police forces on the night of the October 25 expected to see protester-initiated property destruction. Broken windows have the power to retroactively rationalize the use of police violence. The destruction of the camp and the attack on the march would suddenly seem understandable once the nightly news flashed images of broken glass. Unfortunately for police command, the radical and urban #OccupyOaklanders did not fall into their trap. There was no need; confronting OPD and Alameda Sheriffs Department was enough.
There was a very real feeling that if the OPD had changed its tactics on the night of October 25, and – instead of holding positions and gassing protestors – went in for arrests, the police might have started a fight that they were not prepared to win. There were roughly equal number of police and #OccupyOaklanders, around 500 each, but the police were spread out, covering the perimeter of OG Plaza, while the demonstrators were able to focus all their numbers in one location. Even more impressive is that on the night of October 26, with the police lacking the authority to act in response to #OccupyOakland’s retaking of OG Plaza, the occupiers were able to push the police out of their autonomous zone and defend it. This cohesion and the strength of will it produced is a direct result of the reflections, lessons, and tactical considerations that grew from the OG riots. Those initiating confrontations with police did so with discipline, and, dare I say it, style.
There has been a lot of talk about a lack of demands as a weakness of the #Occupy movements. I hear their demands loud and clear. The critique of capitalism, opposition to state power, clear revulsion towards the police, redefinition of social and power relations, independent organization, cooperation, and the attempt to reconfigure our existing world into one that is healthy for all; these are demands that are being made by those occupying. The idea from the beginning was to create. In acts of creation power is returned. We have held our ground, defended a space that is our own. Now we are organizing not just for ourselves but also for others. A general strike will occur. The next question is clear: what other cities will follow?
See you in the streets.
Matthew Edwards is a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz, and an organizer in the Bay Area. A native Californian, he has been involved in radical politics since refusing deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002. Comments can be sent to anewhope AT riseup.net
1. This phrase appeared on a massive banner by a contingent of Greek anarchists at the 2009 G-20 in Germany. While not explicitly Insurrectionist, the Greek anarchist tendency of spectacular street battles has become synonymous with the Insurrectionary Anarchist milieu that has dominated North American discourse in recent years.
2. For an amazing collection of news stories dating back over 10 years, see indybay.org.
3. The first murder of 2009 was committed by a police officer against an unarmed person of color.
4. It is also important to note that the National Guard was mobilized.
5. One could also use the term “affinity group,” but an affinity group is an expressly political form of self organization that may not necessarily apply to all those who ran together that night.
6. It is important to point out that the police were not the only perpetrators of violence that evening. One arrestee was punched, elbowed and pushed to the ground by an Oakland fire department member who also made derogatory sexual and racial comments towards him. Later in sheriff custody at the county jail he was beaten by at least four correctional officers.