Anticonclusion: Three Acts
The period starting in early 2009 and running through the fall of 2010 was marked by a series of high profile revolts that reshaped the local landscape of social struggle in the Bay Area. The anti-police rebellion that shook Oakland following the execution of Oscar Grant, and the clashes and occupations that occurred in response to massive tuition increases on and around campuses like UC Berkeley, brought together new constellations of affinity and organization amongst anarchists and anti-state communists. Yet by the end of 2010, things were eerily quiet in our cities, and the first months of 2011 showed little potential for serious mobilization and action. Overseas, in Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, the contagion of revolts against neoliberal austerity measures and repressive regimes spread like wildfire. At home, our networks were in a state of decomposition, and our tools for organizing and fighting were getting rusty.
It was during this dead time that a series of regional meet-ups brought together comrades from neighboring cities to discuss the situation of our common project as social antagonists. These discussions zeroed in on the growing wave of global austerity that was already beginning, inevitably, to crash down on poor and working people in California. The current crisis, as every headline writer knows, has allowed capital to declare a global state of emergency, permitting a violent acceleration of the conflict over dwindling surpluses. Inspired by anti-austerity struggles in Europe, African and Middle Eastern revolts against the ruling classes, as well as the recent movement in Wisconsin, we decided to stop being spectators, and start mobilizing.
But anarchists and anti-state communists in the Bay have, historically, played escalating or radicalizing roles within larger coalitions and social movements that have largely defined in advance the terrain on which we fought. In such a context, we find ourselves struggling alongside or, as is often the case, against other actors and forces (authoritarian leftists, reformist NGOs, etc.). This was the case during the Oakland rebellions and the student movement, as well as in previous rounds of mobilizations such as the anti-war movement. This time, things were looking different. Despite the massive impact an austerity budget would have across California, and growing popular resentment against banks and the financial system, there were few signs that a mass movement would materialize in response. Any actions we planned would be unfolding in a relative vacuum, and organizing in this context would, we knew, be a challenge.
This was the challenge we set ourselves: To hit the ground running, not from the cops, during someone else’s march, but head-on; and, in doing so, to set an example of how a militant, global anticapitalist response to austerity might materialize locally. Eventually, we agreed to plan a series of summer marches and disruptions—Anticuts—in Oakland. The choice was not idly made. Oakland is where a majority of comrades in the Bay live, and where the contradictions inherent in this capitalist crisis are especially visible and raw. The concentration of foreclosures in the corridor between Adeline and Market is obscene; the ratcheting up of police violence and everyday surveillance no less so. These actions were organized with an eye to the future, hence with emphasis on the process of organization, not becoming a group. Getting comrades together in meetings; fleshing out a position opposed to global austerity that doesn’t mistakenly pine, as the Left so often does, for the return of a Welfare State few of us knew; developing language that escapes the trap of seeking this or that local pittance putting someone else under the budgetary guillotine; writing collective communiqués; testing the waters for what types of alliances could be formed with other social groupings; strategizing actions; practicing tactical movement together in the streets; these were our weapons, for a time.
This would be a summer of building capacity, as opposed to expending all our energy in one spectacular event. Through this process, we hoped to carve new political space for ourselves, and become a consistent, and powerful, force able to build momentum and take decisive action. This is a project, we believe, made timely by recent events. Raising the debt ceiling doesn’t alter the fact that the sky is falling. From Oakland and Bayview to London, murders by the police reveal the true face of austerity. We have lived too long beneath the reign of capital; there is little joy left in watching it hang fire. We are happy to see it burn, but we want more. We want a world that knows no debt to these flames.
It was on this ground, and these terms, that we undertook the Anticut sequence. These actions broke molds—openly attempting militancy, in the absence of an existing social movement—and encountered limits. We see these limits as spurs, provoking further action. Still, these limits are worth spelling out, the better to act in the future.
In sum, we might say, the Anticut series showed we can organize ourselves, somewhat swiftly, and to good effect; banks are sacrosanct; and every step in the street will be met with summary arrest and police violence. Ergo we can make all the noise we want, provided we stay on the sidewalk. And, we can say with certainty, cops like our blog. If this seems glib, their baton blows, and our arrests, argue otherwise. Part of the organizing rationale of the Anticuts was to issue open calls for participation—publicly announcing time, place and manner—in hopes of reaching comrades and swelling our ranks with fellow travelers. This was, we must admit, at best a marginal success. While we gained a few friends, and staked a consistent, mobile presence in downtown Oakland, mostly we told the cops where to meet us. This helped us think better on our feet, but it also saw them swiftly evolve a strategy of containment. During Anticut 1, focused on articulating gentrification and austerity, they were impotent escorts watching us follow the money into the murmurings of art at the local “art crawl.” But during Anticut 2, intended to pit the lending of banks against the lending of libraries, they openly acted as capital’s thugs when we dared breach, for a moment, money’s waystations in Citibank and Wells Fargo. Finally, Anticut 3 was met with overwhelming force, albeit spent with a light touch, as they surrounded and kept a step ahead of us while we snaked in and out of the street to call attention to the murderous brutality of the prison system, in solidarity with the hunger strike that originated in Pelican Bay. We sketched a cartography of austerity in Oakland inside of which the police were perfectly happy to keep us contained.
No doubt OPD’s eventual strategy of containment without confrontation during Anticut 3 was due, in part, to the favorable press and political fallout following our book bloc. They were as brutally stupid as they were obviously uncomfortable surrounding a library in riot gear, playing the part of stormtroopers confronting, y’know, books. The librarians gave bravura performances, politely denouncing the platitudes of cops as agents of safety, while rightly extolling the unsung social services libraries offer: shelter for the homeless, contact with medical care, information, a haven from the police.
It became a haven for us, too, this routine—rally, march, scuffle or not, shuffle onto the sidewalk. The moments that resonated most with some of us, and those we met in the streets, were those that broke the mold. Moments of spontaneous disobedience, refusal to be pushed off the streets, and glimmers of newfound alliances. During Anticut 1, there was the gesture of temporarily occupying a parking lot, using what was ultimately the same form as the Art Murmur events but subverting the content. In this empty lot, we projected footage from struggles elsewhere making a brief social space out of a slab of asphalt. During Anticut 2, a scuffle with the police ended with a phalanx of book-shields facing off with lines of bike cops, unwilling to back down. During Anticut 3 we heard our noise demo echoed back to us by prisoners, banging against their cell windows, as we held the streets below. The climax, for many of us, was an impromptu dance party on Broadway at the end of Anticut 3, when we surrounded a sound system surrounded by a ring of cops ringed, in turn, by comrades and well-wishers whose solidarity forced the police to let us disperse. As minor a success as that was, it showed what we are capable of, together.
And yet. For all our appeal, and the accidental merits of tactical blunders becoming strategic successes, the mold we broke least was our fashioning of ourselves. Easily recuperated in the media—for once, it should be noted, not as “outside agitators,” or even “anarchists”—we became “demonstrators” against cops, for libraries, “protestors” who played a role in the local dance of budgets and batons. We made noise, and got some internet traffic. We honed our dance steps, and bolstered our organizational wherewithal. We made friends with librarians. We made some kickass books. We got our asses kicked. We didn’t protest enough; we showed too little nerve. We became Bay of Rage. This was not, exactly, our intention. We wanted more. We wanted to be a force in the streets, to hold them when we took them, to kill the sway killer cops have over militant resistance. We wanted to break molds. Including ours.
And indeed a dispersal, of sorts, has begun. The brazen, daylight snake march through San Francisco’s Mission district—in response to the most recent murders committed by BART police and SFPD—ended in an hours-long standoff with riot cops at the Powell Street cable car turnaround that drew a crowd of hundreds. They were not idle. Some were swept up in a kettle that swelled the crowd; others surrounded the police, threw objects at them, attempted to block the departure of paddy wagons, scuffled with baton-wielding pigs literally frothing at the mouth, or suffered arbitrary arrest simply for having been there. We take no credit for this march, but we can’t help feeling a certain affinity. Publicly announced on short notice, openly taking the streets, confronting police from the get-go, attacking cameras, de-arresting comrades, feeling our nerve grow as we see our escorts’ fray, trying to break police lines… These, now, are everyone’s weapons.
Thus we conclude: To be political today means to confront the police. All the neoliberal watchwords of the American Century are gone the way of credit, so much language gaming a system of ruthless exploitation enforced by state violence: War on Poverty, Free Markets, New Economy, War on Drugs, Globalization, Structural Adjustment, War on Terror…. The shuksters of security long ago blurred the invisible hand of the market and the iron fist of the state into a punitive couple that works to criminalize the insecurity capital itself requires. Homelessness is met with pernicious sit-lie laws; flexible labor with background checks and deportation; losing one’s home is made a disease of character; health-care goes to the highest bidder; public transit is increasingly militarized. Voters can rejoice. Every jumped turnstile is, today, a referendum on who points guns at whom.
This double regulation of the poor—poverty wages and withdrawal of social services on one side, unemployment and prison on the other—enforces a tightening spiral of misery that is promised relief solely through forms of immiseration less and less on offer. All that is made equal, now, is the right to inequality. 90% of welfare recipients are mothers; 93% of inmates are men (and overwhelmingly black and Latino, as everyone knows). Capital doubly exploits these fractions—by confusing a generalized insecurity everywhere felt as the daily toll austerity exacts, with the “feeling of insecurity” we are nightly sold on the 6 o’clock news—in the threat this or that marginal social group poses, we are told, to profit margins. Immiseration is thereby made to appear less miserable, and more secure than the gross totals of lives lost to the ghetto and informal drug economy. In reality, these are simply inverse situations, equally necessary if unequally policed, of the precarious labor capital demands and the surplus populations it sloughs off into slums. Thus precarity is, more and more, both a necessary condition of wage-labor, and a punishing effect of austerity meted out brutally to those with no jobs at all.
And yet: The choice at the polls is never between austerity and its opposite. It is, at best, between this austerity (cut social services now, military spending later) or that austerity (cut military spending now, social services later). Even Iceland—the last case for democracy—understood its electoral fuck you to the IMF as a simple refusal to do the work of deciding who pays how much. Someone must pay. The only question is who. And how.
Thus the situations in Europe and the Middle East are, for us, as instructive as they are stark. Our choices are one and the same: austerity or civil war. All the clashes and teargas in Syntagma Square did not prevent the banks and Greek Parliament from conspiring to pass austerity measures a day before California’s “balanced budget” introduced austerity—virtually without resistance—here. $1.7 billion from Medi-Cal, gone. $1.5 billion from welfare-to-work, gone. $1.4 billion from the UC and Cal systems, gone. $750 million for disability services, gone. To note this is not to take away the riotous force of recent examples. It is, rather, to note that they are not enough. It is not enough to be exemplary. It is not enough to yearn from afar to engage the police in running street battles with our friends, though we enjoy a good riot. It is not enough to see markets forced into volatile paroxysms, as this or that state readies its army to march into the capital. Today’s firesales help shore up a rickety status quo that only makes our absent future apparent. Everything must go, but not simply into anarchic ruin, much less the hands of predators able to weather the storm. As certain as we are the capitalist world holds no hope of satisfying the needs it creates, we are certain we want a world that sees the meeting of needs as a minimum, but not a limit. Omnia sunt communia, or bust.
So let us be clear. Last week’s farcical raising of the debt ceiling fortifies the barrier beyond which wealth lies. Yes, oil and gas companies retain tax exemptions, while graduate students subsidize the entry of low-income undergraduates into a vicious circle of diminishing returns. Yes, the wealthy are free to go idly about their business while Medicare and Medicaid don blindfolds to await trigger cuts at dawn. Yes, the debt ceiling compromise slashes unemployment extensions, even as real unemployment soars beyond 10% and it remains legal, in 48 states, for employers to publicly advertise the exclusion of applicants not currently employed.
And no: The situation that confronts us is not the difficulty of attaining this or that fiscal exemption, this or that line of credit or lifeline. It is the general impossibility of life under the reign of capital. Debt is not a tale of glass ceilings. It is the reality of the glass floor—below where we drift in the cruel insecurity of austere dicta and abstract data intensifying precarity by the minute—through which we see, on a daily basis, a brutally threatening criminalization of life. The recent murders of Charles Hill and Kenneth Harding by BART and SFPD were not cases of the police unwittingly doing their job (perhaps) too well (again). They simply did their job: They eliminated threats, in their eyes, to the precarious orders of property and white supremacy.
Everywhere we see the same image: us against them. Whether in opposition to regimes that, for decades, openly hoarded social wealth while violently denying the most basic social benefits to its producers; or against the brutal withdrawal of social services where they were, briefly, made permissible by states that profited from propping up openly repressive regimes; today’s revolts expose the unilateral imposition of austerity by police. Everywhere we turn we see fires revealing the martial law of value. There is no contestation of this set of facts that does not confront, directly, the janus-faced state of capital and its police. Bay of Rage is one mask this confrontation wore. We remain a forum for things to come. As we write, a fourth night of riots in England highlights what is in the offing. Our looted futures confront us as shopping malls, Footlocker, transit fares, ghettoized ethnicities, freeways, jobs that don’t exist, loans that did, everything we want to abolish, murderous cops, all capital’s armies of last resort. Even the most dismal scientists can’t help but see in these events a chain reaction in which police violence criminalizes the jobless workers whom capital’s great migrations have left behind. There is no such thing as a vote against austerity. Austerity is, simply put, how we are forced to live. Or die. We have decided not to die.