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The Bay Area has always been the outlier in American politics, often for the better and occasionally for the worse. In the case of Occupy, the Bay Area’s unique situation highlights the challenges facing the movement from both its relative “left” and “right” flanks. The downside of this Bay Area specialness has been exposed like our earthquake fault lines after two actions, one in San Francisco on January 20th (J20) and another in Oakland on January 28 (J28).
San Andreas fault on the right are the institutional actors, nonprofit corporation centered advocacy groups and organized labor with varying degrees of connection to the state, the Democrat Party and its corporate sponsors. The Hayward fault on the left includes the dwindling ranks of sectarian leftists and the more predominant militant blacque bloque anarchoids, which exist outside of the constellation of power affiliated with the Democrat Party. The attributes of labor and the nonprofit corporations are clear, but this anarchist would hesitate to ascribe the term ‘anarchists’ to the militants in Oakland.
Despite of decades of activism and nominal public support for goals, professional activists have failed connect with and mobilize sufficient numbers of people to create critical mass and raise political power, although those years were not entirely fruitless in building some base capacity from which Occupy benefits now. Power, for its part, succeeded in coopting activists into the nonprofit corporate sector beginning in earnest during the early years of Clintonia. Organized labor, long an ugly stepchild of the Democrat coalition, has been in slow free fall for the past three decades but less so in the Bay Area public sector. Since labor abandoned unorganized workers, it has forfeited its relevance to most of the 99% and is paying the political price now. The nonprofit corporate sector has been corralled into either green washing at the federal level or token poverty maintenance at the local level.
Taken together, the political agenda of labor and the nonprofit advocacy corporations has been narrowed over time so as to prevent appeal to a majority of the 99%. The siloing of activists into single issue politics focusing on “the most vulnerable” has led to a phenomenon I call “activist goggles” where self referential activists see their activism from their perspective rather than from the perspective of the constituencies, if any, that they claim to serve or as the general public sees them.
The nature of the “right wing” of Occupy in the Bay Area, the paid activists in nonprofit corporations and labor, are well described by Theodore Kaczinsky, the Unabomber, who made the cogent observation that the psychology of contemporary leftism is plagued by two dysfunctions: oversocialization and feelings of inferiority. These two phenomena combine to explain why Bay Area radical politics is so dysfunctional and out of step with any appeal to the mainstream that gives Occupy lift nationwide. Oversocialization means that activists care much more about playing nice with each other than with committing the faux pas of challenging activist error to learn from mistakes moving forward. Feelings of inferiority are related to identity politics, where the only worthy objects of activism are those who are “most oppressed,” or are “most vulnerable,” irrespective of whether these identity groups identify themselves as members of the group or identify oppression as a member of the group as a primary concern.
It is from this dysfunction that the notion of Occupy/Decolonize springs. Occupy is unique because the activists found themselves lagging behind popular support. Distressed by this turn of events, the activists scurried to put themselves in front of the people. Clearly, they presumed, the people could not possibly chart the course of their own liberation because they simply did not get the issues of race, class, gender, sexual identity, the single-issue identity smorgasboard of siloed politics.
So the activists set to work demolishing the Occupy/99% message which had captured the public imagination, insisting that the largely white middle class occupiers were disrespecting the American original sins of Native American genocide and slavery. Thus, the effort to rebrand Occupy as Occupy/Decolonize and to insist that every identity needed to have safe space in order to be able to function in a group. Nevermind that the Decolonize brand had none of the currency that Occupy did with the non-activist public and that the means to tell the story of Decolonize to bridge that gap simply does not exist. Decolonize, although valid politically, is a branding and message that does not connect, the wrong tool for the task at hand.
Not wanting to speak for women or people of color, I do not hesitate to speak for my own “identity,” LGBT. The insistence on both sides of the bay is that LGBT are oppressed and in order to function in a mixed group, we need protection from various identity-appropriate phobic oppressions.
From occupy patriarchy, an OO affinity group that has the following points of unity:
1. This capitalist society is based on a racist, white supremacist, patriarchal order. Our organizing must confront and attack the structural racism and white supremacy in this city and our own spaces.
2. Women, Trans people, Queers, Fags, Dykes, need a space that is OURS. We are marginalized, harassed, and attacked in other spaces all the time.
I would note that we are in San Francisco and Oakland and that the year was 2011. If one cannot function in a mixed group as LGBT under these circumstances, than there is something else going on than vanilla oppression. Our forebears (and twinks) got up, stood up and fought for rights that we take for granted today under much more difficult circumstances than we find ourselves in today. The Compton’s Cafeteria riot where trans folks successfully challenged police repression in the Tenderloin district a full three years prior to the Stonewall riot is a prime example. Anyone who urges a categorical abandonment of militant tactics closes the door on future Stonewalls or Compton’s, and that is not acceptable. This also preaches to the converted, its tired leftist language that describes valid politics is the same language that has failed to appeal broadly to the 99% and is self-referential.
No, there is a psychopathology operating here that Kaczinsky accurately described, that certain individuals see themselves as inferior and perpetual oppressed victims and others are so oversocialized that they feed that perception and exacerbate a vicious cycle of marginalization. Many LGBT, people of color and women operated within Occupy San Francisco (OSF) during the encampment without incident. Some 20% of what appears to me to be victims of the “play date” generation require this extra support. Perhaps it is because they failed self esteem class? As Kaczinsky noted, the upshot of this is that we can never move forward until the very last person has gone through therapy and gotten the support to stand up. That is clearly untenable.
My feminist wo/mentors taught me in the 1980s that it was incumbent on those with privilege to clean up the messes in their communities because the oppressed should not be bothered with that. Men must challenge men on sexism, hets must challenge hets on homophobia, whites must challenge whites on racism, cis must challenge cis on transphobia. It is by supporting those with privilege to call out their cohorts in real time that we create safe space by making these moments teachable. Through a process like this, Occupy may facilitate a social revolution similar to the Mexican construction of “La Raza” a century ago, transcending the straight, white, Christian male America once and for all, hopefully with much less bloodshed.
The professional activists whose stock in trade is mediation between communities and power require people to feel as if they’re constantly under attack, and that empowering the activist is the way to feel safe. As Kaczinsky also noted, when this dynamic presents, designated victim groups often end up worse off after the activist intervention than before. That is certainly the case in San Francisco’s gentrifying districts, where a bevy of professional activists has sold out their disappearing claimed bases yet still continue to get paid. Absent connection between activist and claimed constituency demonstrated in the ability to turn out numbers, the legitimacy of representational claims is diminished. I have found that most non-activist members of these communities look askance at the political analysis and proposed solutions of activists on their behalf.
This nonprofity crowd had sought traction in Occupy in November but was rebuffed and allowed to form an “Action Council” that was delegated no authority by the OSF GA because occupiers had observed their uncanny ability to lose election after election, campaign after campaign, because their activist goggles blinded them to any connection with San Franciscans. They appear to believe that most white San Franciscans are hiding their hoods and sheets, that anyone who makes more than $50K is a closet Ayn Randian who hates the poor, that anyone who is straight must be a blatant homophobe. Fear of the majority of San Franciscans is not a viable political basis.
So when the J20 day of action rolls around, the nonprofit corporate activists and organized labor jump on it, rebrand OSF as Occupy Wall Street West (OWSW) and proceed to graft their failed agendas and narrow pet priorities onto OSF with the intent to shut down the financial district. There were some creative actions during the rainy day, but there was no strategic plan to crimp profit accumulation and cause real pain to the 1%. At best it served as a placeholder to signal that Occupy is still here.
As the day wore on and the crowd dwindled as the clouds burst open, a labor and housing action converged on a hotel slated to be replaced with a new hospital. The California Nurses Association and SEIU had designs on organizing workers at that hospital made that a campaign point. Homes not Jails saw the abandoned hotel as housing for the homeless. The claim was made that the hospital was for the 1% although SEIU’s city worker health insurance is accepted by that hospital group. The nonprofit corporate activists see the project as a way to extort “community benefits” which means that the money keeps flowing to keep the ineffective activists employed while their constituencies end up worse off. Siege was laid to the building, and it was occupied. A banner was hung that read “Decolonize your mind Occupy your heart.” Yes, we are in California, but most can’t comprehend that without reading through activist goggles.
Lost in the messaging and media coverage was any connection to the 99%/1% dynamic or of the symbolism of Occupy Wall Street. J20 might as well have come with a disclaimer: “No finance capital was hurt or injured by this action.” The upshot of that evening’s actions was to block autos and transit on Van Ness Avenue non-strategically only keeping the 99% from getting home to their families with no effective communication of political content. And nowhere to be found was the one critical element that every Occupy action must have, an appealing invitation to join us.
Fast forward one week to Oakland on J28. In the city where the OPD and FBI were found to have framed Judi Bari and Darryl Cherney for bombing themselves in 1991, where the OPD had disregarded US District Judge Thelton Henderson’s order to conform to generally accepted practices of policing and civilian controls, Occupy Oakland (OO) decided that it wanted to occupy the Henry J. Kaiser convention center for use as a an ongoing OO community center and it advertised its intentions. The goal is critical as one unique organizing tactic that helped give OWS lift was the face-to-face organizing nexus of the occupation proper. And that is why the federal government ordered the encampments demolished nationwide.
With the OPD’s record of lawless brutality and the clear federal mandate that no occupations be tolerated, what exactly did OO expect for the OPD to do when informed that OO intended to break the law and occupy a public building, throw rose petals in their path and welcome them?
What is astounding was the role of the blacque bloque in this. For practicing militants they seemed to have a very poor grasp of the relationship between strategy and tactics. Absent hundreds of thousands of people or a few dozen automatic weapons, there is no way that a few hundred can go up against the police without things turning very ugly for occupiers. When one finds oneself on such a situation, there is nothing wrong with strategic retreat.
Sun Tzu offers words of wisdom freely available over the interwebs:
“O divine art of subtlety and secrecy! Through you we learn to be invisible, through you inaudible;”
“The spot where we intend to fight must not be made known; for then the enemy will have to prepare against a possible attack at several different points;”
“So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”
“Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.”
“He who can modify his tactics in relation to his opponent and thereby succeed in winning, may be called a heaven-born captain”
As on J20, J28 was a self-referential action planned by and for those whose vision is narrowed by activist goggles. It ended up taking steps that a reasonable person could have seen leading to a violent confrontation. And it did so without obtaining the informed consent of participants that they were being led into an arrest scenario.
As on J20, J28 was not aimed to grow the movement, it was aimed to privilege tactics over strategy in a way that ended up like the Monty Python peasant sketch: “come see the violence inherent in the system, help, help I’m being repressed.”
How could this be done better next time? First, identify ten trusted occupiers to pick a building to occupy. Have each of those ten occupiers pick nine trusted friends to total one hundred. In secret, devise a plan to converge on a defensible building that presents the police challenges to retake. Leak other buildings scattered around town as decoys for occupation. Work with the blacque bloque to create a militant diversion a good distance away from the target building. Call a public march where the blacque bloque agrees to avoid towards another of the decoy buildings but closer to the target structure. Have the one hundred trusted folks converge on and take the target building while the blacque bloque is going at the cops across town. Once the building is secure, tweet out the location to the peaceful march to consolidate and defend the occupation.
This is one instance of how to use a diversity of tactics to cooperate to achieve goals. Occupy makes gains not by serving the most needy in society or catering to oversocialized activists working through their feelings of inferiority while viewing the world through activist goggle tunnel vision. Occupy wins by appealing to a broad enough coalition of Americans that Occupy becomes unarrestable and indigestible by power. It is in this manner, by the 99% uniting to work together as equals, with the slaying of privilege baked into the process, every space is an ongoing safe space, that we can overcome the constraints of siloed single issue politics, the dead end of identity politics, and recreate the dynamic where the people are way out in front of the activists who will eventually come along or or be left behind.
Marc Salomon can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.