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Occupy Oakland at a Crossroads

by MIKE KING

The historic and diverse protests that took place all day and into the night in Oakland on November 2nd marked a clear advancement of the Occupy movement.  Though it was not a full general strike, it took advantage of overlapping political opportunities to broaden and deepen a struggle that is evolving and expanding by the day.  The movement is organically evolving in stages that are taking place so quickly that it is difficult to fully capture.  One thing is clear: Oakland was a different place on Thursday morning than it was when people got ready to hit the streets on Wednesday.

Cynical or duplicitous evaluations tend to complain that the movement has no demands, or that it has too many demands, or that the demands are unreasonable.  It is not so much a matter of demands on the existing social relations and institutions; it is about abolishing some structures, transforming others, and creating new ones.  The fact that 20,000 people responded to an organic call to shut down the city that was unapologetically and unambiguously anti-capitalist is an honest indication of the overall politics of the movement.  Today’s question is: “What’s next?”  As Wednesday’s multiple and diverse actions demonstrated clearly, there is no lack of good responses or collective energy.  Because of the context, good ideas are becoming practical solutions.  Occupy Oakland is not done.  Looking at the solidarity actions in various US cities and around the world, the broader movement is not done either.

The crisis is more powerful than the forces trying to manage it

Wednesday’s actions, highlighted by the complete shut-down of one of the biggest ports on the West Coast, pushed the local movement from public occupation to mass movement.  It also broadened what “occupation” means in Oakland and foreshadowed a likely future of more occupations of empty properties.  The 9pm occupation of an abandoned center for the homeless was both symbolic and strategically minded, although the resulting skirmishes that resulted have been hotly, if not always strategically or contextually, debated.  The whole day of action was a pivotal moment in the Occupy movement, one that expanded the limits of what is politically feasible and inspired hope in others to push harder wherever they are.  Pivotal moments are generally a coming together of revolt and solidarity from below and contradictions and crisis above.  Oakland has found itself blessed with both in the same moment, with the former helping to exacerbate the latter.

Former Oakland Police Chief Batts stepped down in recent weeks due to a stated lack of autonomy and resources in a city where police murders of unarmed men of color are common, officers are unaccountable, and the OPD controls 2/3rds of the city budget.  The OPD wanted to have a free hand to destroy the occupation, which they would not get until after Batts resigned, which helped create an immediate stir for a mayoral recall campaign.  The picture is more complicated, as Homeland Security, other federal forces, 17 agencies of state police and local police forces coordinate in the Bay Area as an ongoing reality, geared to quickly respond to mass protests, as they did in the movement that grew out of the police killing of Oscar Grant.  The exact political reasoning and bureaucratic dynamics of the overall lack of aggression during the day Wednesday by police has yet to be fully examined.  The basic reality is that a gap between the Mayor and police forces, whatever its nature and however big it is (or was), created a political opening.  The lack of a sitting police chief, public backlash to the eviction of the occupation on the morning of October 25th, the (possibly deliberate) shooting of Marine veteran Scott Olsen that night, the re-occupation of Oscar Grant Plaza and overwhelming public participation the next night calling for a general strike, and the international visibility of the day of action all played a role in widening the political opening.  We forced the door open and have walked through it.  Now what?

The new face beneath the mask: wolves in sheep’s clothing

While the State could not manage its opposition or it’s own internal contradictions, the movement proved itself capable of gaining a much stronger footing by overcoming enough of its own contradictions on Wednesday.  We should not grow too comfortable that either of these two realities will remain true as we move forward and the stakes increase for both sides.  Whatever our temporary victories have been, numerous and complex tensions are arising, starting with debate over a police attack of the building occupation Wednesday night.  A messy public debate has arisen within and outside the movement over militant tactics. The exacerbation of this tension could likely result in the imploding of this movement, a situation that would be greeted as a blessing by both the Mayor and police locally, as well as the federal government, banks, and the 1%.

Publicly invisible as well as more overt counter-insurgency from multiple sources is underway that may destroy a popular movement through various forms of disruption, division and misinformation.  What may or may not be liberal “protest police” have tried to make citizen’s arrests, and groups of young people with bandanas over their own faces went through the anti-capitalist march on Wednesday and took pictures of people’s faces and initiated actual violence against anarchists attempting to destroy property.  Others are calling for a ban on any type of mask.

A media disinformation campaign was intensified on Thursday and has attempted to supplant our victory by playing up internal tensions and manufacturing a crisis of “violence” – with various forces stoking fires and anticipating our demise.  Wednesday a veteran who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan was viciously beaten by a group of cops, whom the Guardian reports that he did not provoke.  Although he was injured to such an extent that he needed surgery on his spleen, all anyone wants to talk about is anarchists reacting to police violence.  A section of the movement that calls property destruction violence, and doesn’t raise an eyebrow when “peaceful protesters” like themselves are viciously beaten and left in agony in a jail cell without medical attention for hours, is not in a position of moral authority to be dictating terms or holding people accountable.  Or maybe they have the excuse that the corporate media feeding them this 100-year-old “violent anarchist” trope was not aware that the second veteran in a week from Occupy Oakland was undergoing major surgery after being viciously assaulted by police that same day.  Whether they did or didn’t know about the police beating of Kayvan Sabehgi, something tells me it would not sway them in their attempts to redefine and exaggerate the actions of their fellow protesters and to rationalize or excuse the actions of the police.

The Occupy  movement is the biggest social movement in the US in at least several years that is democratically initiated, self-led, and making clear, radical demands that connect with people outside the tradition Left.  As Wednesday’s crowd clearly showed, this  movement had a tremendous victory, but that victory is deliberately getting lost in public discussion.  We have quickly found ourselves in rough waters, rehashing old debates that have frustrated every social movement in modern US history, but with uncommon dynamics.  Historically, radicals usually try to transform reformist movements into transformative ones.  What we are seeing looks like the inverse.

Any type of tactic or strategy needs to be understood in its social and political context.  Evaluations of the usefulness of tactics should be partly based on how our opponents respond, and the costs and benefits of likely outcomes.  This applies to both anarchists and those condemning them.  If people want to engage in a better way to occupy buildings – property occupations were something that was called for in a democratic vote at the General Assembly – or do something completely different, they can do that.  People will eventually gravitate to what works.  Instead of engaging in strategic action of any nature or going through the democratic channels that have been created at Occupy Oakland – many are deliberately trying to bait radicals and divide the movement.  I have heard nothing in their argument that proposes effective alternatives or strategies, or even has an honest discussion of violence in our society.  Movement tactics can and should be debated, but police tactics within the movement are not debatable no matter where they come from or what their intent.  The lessons of COINTELPRO show us we shouldn’t loosely throw around accusations of “provocateur” because we do not like people, or uncritically accept media accounts of our movement; but we also should not create a culture that lets these tendencies grow, nor should we seek false safety by turning inward.  No one said that this would be easy.

The media and some currents of the movement are preoccupied with an effort to bait the radicals at the center of creating this whole movement as “violent” for destroying property and defending themselves against the police.  The morning Occupy Oakland was evicted a snake march with more than a few anarchists wove through the city for hours and destroyed nothing, despite plenty of justified anger and police provocation.  Later that night, when Scott Olsen was shot in the head from close range with a “less than lethal” weapon that almost killed him, and police ruthlessly attacked a crowd with a variety of similar weapons for hours, nothing was destroyed and the worst the cops got was some water and paint thrown at them.  People have shown up trying to make citizen’s arrests, trying to start chants that cops are the 99% (that get quickly shouted down by a large majority) or posing for pictures with uniformed police.  These same segments don’t understand the function of the police.

In a purely objective sense, the police are there to maintain the exiting order.  This means evicting protesters and shooting, arresting or beating peaceful protesters that do not disperse as they have done numerous times in Oakland.  A successful movement can debate tactics and how they fit into contexts or strategies, but a successful movement does not debate basic social facts or delude oneself about the nature of those who are paid and trained to stop us from creating a just society.  These tendencies normalize the role of the police in suppressing dissent, have no solidarity with the movement when it is attacked, and purposely or inadvertently extend police attempts to manage, divide or destroy the movement without offering alternative strategies.  A debate over a diversity of tactics necessitates that we share the same objectives – transforming social relations.  The fact that these shared goals of radical change are likely not universal makes this a red herring.

The variety of forces that are at play here either want to drive the anarchists and radicals out of the front of the movement and let something more palatable replace them or to sow such a division in the movement that the potential course of that (ostensibly) intra-movement conflict scares people who are not radical or militant away.  Those are the two traps that lie in front of us.  If we close our eyes and move forward we will find ourselves in one of them.  If we are smart we can walk around them with an ever-increasing number of people.

Evolving praxis

Shortly before I moved to the west coast almost 10 years ago I was having a conversation with a Bay Area radical who had lived here for a while.  I was young and excited to be moving somewhere with such a great and diverse radical history and a persistent hub of radicalism.  He basically told me the radical scene was good but it was less than the sum of its parts.  I soon came to agree.  There are a lot of incredible people, a vibrant radical culture, and great political projects from almost every facet of the radical Left that is truly unique and often amazing.  However, there are longstanding and prevalent norms of insularity, ultra-sectarianism, non-strategic activism (in a pejorative sense), and a lack of organization or political work that reaches beyond the pre-established Left, in a more heightened way than most places.  In short, a bubble.  This analysis is usually dismissed as sectarian itself.

Despite the fact that I will also be denounced as a charlatan for saying this out loud – I think the bubble is bursting.  A broad swath of the radical milieu have built a radical, democratic and non-sectarian project that everyone is watching, working together with the same objective, seeing commonality instead of difference, and making a push to transform the world rather than simply “transforming ourselves” or the Left.  Furthermore we have created a space that is both non-sectarian and where radical democracy intrinsically marginalizes the folks who think the revolution is in their newspaper.  For once the revolution is an open meeting, it has an organic direction and it is showing few signs of ending.  We should collectively step back and appreciate the significance of this historical opportunity.  We are delving into a discussion based more on media-driven emotion than fact, that is intended to chase us back into our respective holes.

In many places at many times, radicals devolve into sectarianism, navel-gazing theory excursions to nowhere, or sometimes engaging in projects more to justify calling oneself or one’s scene “political” than to actually effect change.  We often sit within a dialectic of political hopelessness and lack of obvious political openings that never substantially evolves.  Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the best of us find ourselves waiting around for an ill-defined change to arrive that never does without ever figuring out why.  Oakland has broken out of that cycle, hopefully for good.  This scares the hell out of those in power – as well it should.

Solidarity must drive movement progression

The multiple weaknesses of the existing social order often open up the political space for the creation of a new one.  The Occupy movement has grown out of both the chasms between the rich and poor and the expanding gaps between the needs of the people and policies of existing institutions.  The retreat of the welfare state’s mitigating effect on the contradictions of capitalism has steadily increased economic pain and political disempowerment across the bottom 8o% of the economy, obvious felt hardest by the growing number of unemployed, homeless and uninsured sick.  The brazenness of those in power and their obvious miscalculation of people’s ability to understand the society they live in have created a crisis of legitimacy in terms of government and capitalism.  From my perspective, the Occupy movement is increasingly occupying that space of legitimacy in the minds of millions of people.  The next step seems to be to fuse mutual aid and counter-power to engage the contradictions in our society, not to mitigate them, but to build a new society.  Occupy Oakland has always had a kitchen with plenty of hot food, a library, children’s area, free bike repair, and a well-staffed medical clinic.  There was a children’s march on Halloween with dozens of kids and a piñata that, after much struggle, succumbed to the inevitable forces of history – and candy loving kids.  I think half the town probably has at least one of the multiple designs of the incredible “Occupy Oakland” posters that are almost constantly being screen-printed.  The same “violent anarchists” getting dragged through the mud, self-organized most of this.

The movement is not an intentional community or intended to be a home, though it is a home for many people who don’t have a house to live in.  Wednesday night’s occupation of a former homeless clinic that surely wasn’t closed for lack of need, located around the corner from Oscar Grant Plaza, is likely the first of many occupations in Oakland.  The General Assembly passed a proposal that calls for the occupation of vacant housing and buildings.  This country is full of foreclosed homes with people living in the streets or in their family members’ basements or on a friend’s couch; closed schools or under-funded schools and kids without hope; and empty factories whose disconnected workers are on the streets or in a cell.  The public outcry for radical social change is no longer just a want but a need.  It is no longer held by the few, but by the many.   This many is steadily expanding what seems possible.  The ascending nature of the movement and the fact that its ambitions have always been explicitly radical provides hope that it will overcome internal divisions and attempts to sow confusion and contention.  Wednesday’s actions were a success.  We have a choice to either overcome the differences that have arisen in this moment through even-handed debate, collective action and solidarity or we can let those differences divide and destroy us.  I suggest building on our victories rather than disingenuously fighting over the tactics we used to achieve them.

Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist.  He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.