Cracks in the Glass – Belated Reflection on Nov 2nd.
“A part of this bank belongs to me too, so this is a little piece that belongs to me and my family, and my people here. That’s why I want to keep this as a memory of today when the people of Oakland stood up against the banks”
Geraldo Dominguez uttered these words during the November 2nd Oakland General Strike in the foreground of a city in revolt. With his child near him an ABC 7 cameraperson managed to catch Mr. Dominguez collecting shards of broken glass in front of a recently destroyed Wells Fargo. In his hands he held the material memory of a day of intense and direct struggle. A day when thousands of people converged on downtown Oakland, snake marches shut down banks and business all over the city, thousands marched to one of the busiest ports in North America to shut it down, thousands celebrated the short lived occupation of a foreclosed building and downtown was imbued with a spirit of resistance well into the early hours of the next morning.By now the events of November 2nd have been analyzed and reflected upon by many. However, it is important to understand these events in the most honest terms, reflecting on the real content of the activity and the political configurations of Occupy Oakland that produced them. There is no better place to begin formulating this understanding than with the Occupy Oakland General Assemblies.
From the very beginning the General Assembly of Occupy Oakland has been contentious political and logistical ground. As the main coordinating body of a decentralized and leaderless movement, the General Assembly has often acted to help facilitate logistical questions of the camp that are necessary to reproduce the space its self (i.e. the coordination of various internal committees, security, etc). There has never been one concrete political line for the whole of the Occupation. For this reason there have only been a few actions done in the name of Occupy Oakland but many done in relation to it. This formula has existed to constantly encourage autonomous actions within and outside of the camp that do not require consensus from the General Assembly. This has allowed for both infrastructure within the camp and political activity surrounding the occupation to take a life of its own, be completely decentralized, prevent cooption by small groups and breathe as many voices and actions into the movement as possible. Without the encouragement of autonomous activity and initiative not only would the camp its self not be so vibrant and politically relevant but November 2nd would not have been as successful as it was. The basic outline of November 2nd was coordinated through the General Assembly as was the call to march on the Port of Oakland in solidarity with the ILWU and their struggle against EGT. However the snake marches through out the day, bank shutdowns, speakers, mini-rallies, the nighttime building occupation and other activity were not. It is both due to the impracticality of coordinating everything in a large General Assembly and also a reflection of a common understanding and sentiment that has been central to Occupy Oakland from the beginning: autonomous activity, actions and initiative are not only welcomed and encouraged but absolutely essential to the proper functioning, expansion and relevance of Occupy Oakland.The centrality of autonomous activity has been reflected in the variety of positions, sentiments and forms of activity that have circulated through the Occupy Oakland encampment since it’s beginning. These various sentiments and forms have influenced the direction of the camp as a whole in different ways. Since the beginning many anti-capitalist, anarchist and other militant ideas have been integral in all areas of the camp. This has separated Occupy Oakland from other occupations around the country. For example, where as in Zucotti Park at Occupy Wall Street the police presence is constant around the periphery, at Oscar Grant Plaza from day one the police were not allowed anywhere near the camp. Multiple times since the camp’s inception police have attempted to come into the camp and solidify a presence to control and monitor the situation. Every single time this happened groups of anywhere from 20 to 100 people virulently and bombastically forced the police to leave. It was quickly understood that the police were not welcome at any time and their presence would produce a response from the camp. During one of the first general assemblies it was officially decided that no politicians or political parties were allowed in the camp nor would they be supported or endorsed by Occupy Oakland. Weeks before the Occupation began Democratic Party front group Moveon.org organized a labor rally and march in the plaza. They had scheduled the mayors of Berkeley and Richmond to speak. Upon learning this information the General Assembly immediately decided that it would not allow these politicians to speak at the rally and forced Moveon .org to relocate their speeches elsewhere. In another situation the City of Oakland attempted to subvert the aims of the camp by criticizing the Occupation on many fronts. Everything from tents to the kitchen became points of criticism and used to justify the immediate termination of the camp. When a letter from the city expressed this it was set aflame on stage during a General Assembly. In another situation a few days after the militaristic police raid on Oscar Grant Plaza Jean Quan herself tried to speak at a General Assembly after the initial time for speakers was over. She was immediately booed off the stage and chased back into City Hall. With all of these actions and others alongside the brutal actions of the police, Occupy Oakland became the frontrunner of the entire Occupy movement pushing it in ever more radical directions eventually resulting in the call for a General Strike on Nov. 2nd.
During the General Strike an anti-capitalist march was called for to meet at Telegraph and Broadway at 2pm. This march was attended by over two thousand people and was a product of autonomous initiative. While it was not called for by the General Assembly it was attended en masse and was intended to be in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, against the police, and demonstrate a political will antagonistic to capitalism its self and taking inspiration from the political culture brewing in Occupy Oakland. During this march individuals took it upon themselves to directly attack banks and the Oakland Whole Foods. The banks have been on the receiving end of criticism and one of the main targets of discontent for the entire Occupy movement. Whole Foods is a product of gentrification in Oakland, a symbol of pacifying green-capitalist consumer politics and also, it was reported, planned on taking punitive action against any workers who attended the strike. It was during this march that differing tactical positions were explored than had been at snake marches and bank shut downs earlier in the day. These tactics included sabotage and property destruction. Certain tactical choices made on a march autonomously called for outside of the General Assembly were decisions made by participants in a specific situation. This is no deviation away from the basic formula for how tactical decisions had been made in the past – those present in the situation decided to act how they felt it would be appropriate to act. Those people in the march who attempted to physically restrain others tactical decisions acted as authoritarian as the police themselves. Those who engaged in direct attacks on the banks and Whole Foods were not a “fringe element” or acting in contradiction to the motives and aims of Occupy Oakland. They were as much a part of it as those who sit in front of the police upon their encroachment or those wanting permits for demonstrations. They are not on the periphery of another wise “peaceful movement” – they are an integral component tactically, strategically and politically. During the march it was not uncommon to hear cheers and see jubilant smiles by many at the sound of a bank being destroyed. It was as though those in attendance saw the impossible before their eyes – people actually fighting back. To say that this activity was a deviation forgets the principles and logic upon which tactical and strategic decisions through out Occupy Oakland had been made – autonomously.
Another autonomous act that took place on the 2nd was the occupation of a foreclosed building on 16th street in the evening hours. By the time the march from the Port had returned people had taken it upon themselves to occupy a building that once housed a myriad of social services. While this act its self was not (and did not have to be) passed by the General Assembly it came in the wake of an initiative passed by the General Assembly a few days prior. This resolution committed to materially and politically supporting any occupations that were to occur in Oakland and beyond. This lends a certain political continuity between the General Assembly and the building occupation – those who acted were acting both autonomously and in direct line with the political content of the Occupation its self. This occupation also expanded Occupy Oakland from being held just within the parameters of a plaza into other locations of social life thus increasing the contentious political and strategic content of the movement its self. The space was intended to house workshops, a library and more occupiers. It also was supposed to undermine the authoritarian social relations of capitalism predicated on private property and the state. The state becomes irrelevant when people in large numbers provide for one another and do not allow any room for the state to promise their own services. By taking over this building people collectively bit the hand that feeds because that with enough initiative at the right moment the state and capital fade into irrelevance. It is with this material acknowledgement that those in the building intended to stage and continue with political attacks. Realizing this the police began to assemble and move in to both quell and stop the situation before it continued. It must be reiterated that this action was autonomously organized and in line with a resolution passed by the General Assembly and was not a deviation from other escalatory autonomous activity through out November 2nd.
Upon learning that the police were advancing, barricades made of garbage bins, tires, pallets and other debris were quickly erected on both sides of 16th. The intention of the police operation was to prevent the expansion of the Occupation outside of the plaza. The intention of the barricades was to defend the newly acquired space and make police advancement more difficult. As they moved forward scuffles began between those in the streets and the police. As a form of self-defense a barricade at 16th and Telegraph was lit aflame. The police attacked people, injuring and arresting many. The space was lost however the struggle in the street showed that it would not be taken away without a fight.
After the police solidified their lines at each of the barricades and forced people out of the newly acquired social space a large and diverse crowd retaliated in downtown Oakland. Various businesses were looted, covered in spray paint or attacked. This was not random but the product of a direct police advancement and threat. 14th and Broadway became the epicenter of an earthquake, with redecorated walls, and shattered glass all under a banner that read “Death to Capitalism”. These acts were not merely acts of naïve destruction for its own sake. They were expressions of anger and resistance that cannot be contained within the formula of a march and three word chants. They were an explosive reaction against this society in an attempt to reclaim and recreate everything that has been stolen. Through material destruction and the fire of burning barricades the ashes and debris of this society began to, if even for just a night, reconstruct the world anew.
November 2nd showed the world what is coming. The terrain of unemployment, gang injunctions, school and library closures, a murderous police force and poverty gave birth to the radical essence of Occupy Oakland. Building occupations alongside struggles with the police will not be unique to Oakland for long – they are the beginning of what is to come. It is because this society cannot provide that these measures are not merely coming from a political consciousness but out of direct material necessity. It is this necessity, so apparent here in Oakland, for housing, food and protection from the police that has made Occupy Oakland everything it is. As these conditions continue to spread in ways as of now unseen, so too will resistance to them. Buildings will be occupied. Police will be fought. Banks will be attacked. From broken glass to abandoned buildings everything will be reclaimed.
Geraldo Dominguez held in his hands the broken pieces of a world stolen from all of us, of a broken society constituting the foundation for something else. A society of profits, value and property that we create but cannot hold, that we produce but cannot touch. That is ours but so far away. This separation is the reason that spaces and buildings are occupied in the first place – it is through occupation and reclamation that we can take back our lives from a system predicated on separation in all areas of life. Mr. Dominguez held pieces of glass that stood as an omnipresent reminder of this separation until they shattered on the ground. It is then that they became a memory of struggle, a piece of history, a broken looking glass capable of staring into a world of possibility. November 2nd was a day he and all of us could see clearly through the cracks in the glass.