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May Day 2012 was a day when Occupy made clear to enemies, critics and co-opters alike that the Occupy movement is far from dead. All across the country rallies, marches, and direct actions put the 1% on notice for what will undoubtedly be a hot Spring and Summer. Beyond protests, the Occupy movement is developing a praxis, in and between cities, around ongoing political work around various social crises: foreclosures, police violence, school closures, public transit and workplace struggles. The police are attempting to hone their praxis as well after paying a political and financial price for police abuse and over-aggressive tactics against street protests. The broader efforts to divide the movement – from liberal mayors holding up “good protesters” in order to legitimate violent assaults on the “bad protesters,” to the recurrent attempts of the mainstream press to discredit the movement and keep people at home rather than in the streets, to the co-optive efforts like the 99% Spring (now, apparently, “99% Power”) – have all surely put dents in the movement, but they have not destroyed it. In some respects they have sharpened the movement and aided in its political development and practice. We are still in the streets. And so the police are searching for new and better ways of dealing with us that don’t entail creating public sympathy for the movement or weighing down police departments like Oakland’s with over 1000 Occupy-related police abuse claims while they have one foot in federal receivership. While we caught glimpses on May 1stof what is to come in the first warm months the Occupy movement has had in the US, we also got a clear picture of what local and federal police have been planning.
The Bureau Unleashes its Spring Fishing Expedition
The FBI has been using entrapment for years as a primary tool against radical social movements and other targets. Probably the biggest case of entrapment in and around the Occupy movement is the case of five anarchists in Cleveland, Ohio being held for allegedly planning to blow up a bridge. The five men were approached by an undercover FBI agent in October when they voiced concerns that an Occupy demonstration was not militant enough. The agent developed a relationship with them, allegedly planned to blow up a bridge with them, and then sold them dynamite. The men were arrested on May 1st, after allegedly planting the inactive dynamite on the bridge. This news brought about the cancellation of Cleveland’s May Day demonstrations, and on May 2nd the City announced Occupy Cleveland’s permit to camp would not be renewed. The alleged action of a small group of people tangentially associated with the Occupy movement has quickly been used to disrupt protests and delegitimate the whole local Occupy. We have seen this technique recently, in 2008, at the RNC in Minneapolis. The FBI surely has its tackle box, rod and reel ready for fishing expeditions on the edges of the Occupy movement all over the country. The press and politicians will undoubtedly use this to further define anarchists and other militants as “domestic terrorists,” a charge already levied by Ignacio de la Fuente, a strong candidate to replace Jean Quan as Oakland’s Mayor.
Targeted Police Harassment: Snatch Squads and Probation Holds
On the same day that a Federal judge issued a mandate to the Oakland Police – to review the more than 1000 existing complaints against it from people in Occupy Oakland within the next week, or face daily or weekly fines – the OPD trotted out some new toys and new measures to control crowds. The city, which has told the judge it does not have the resources to deal with the complaints, unleashed the new tank it bought from Blackwater security (Xe) in a no-bid contract for over $300,000, paid for by Homeland Security. At least one officer was carrying an M-4 assault rifle throughout the day. The tanks and assault rifles will likely join the city’s LRAD (Long Range Acoustical Device) in a pile of high-priced toys that collect dust and get rolled out to demonstrations, more as phallic symbols of potential violence than tactical equipment likely to be deployed.
The OPD’s new crowd control tactics were largely successful at dealing with a relatively small crowd for an Oakland action. To avoid the use of kettling large groups of protesters, the OPD used undercover agents and snatch squads to target people thought to be key to Occupy tactical teams, and divide groups of protesters from the inside out. Observing the noon skirmish at 14th and Broadway, it was clear that the new counter-protest formations that the OPD was using were not something the officers were well trained in. At times the officers looked like sophomores at the first day of junior varsity football practice. Nonetheless, the snatch squads, along with flash-bang grenades with stinging gas in them, were effective at arresting people who had committed no crimes, while creating chaos on the street – a chaos initiated and controlled by the police. In the evening the police successfully split protesters into several small groups downtown, a dispersion that largely mitigated militant action after dark. Despite a couple of torched police cars, the police violence seems to have taken more of a spotlight in the press the day after May Day.
There were two actions that I felt were the highlights of the day. The first was Oakland Occupy Patriarchy’s rally at Child Protective Services (CPS). The rally was in solidarity with Kerie Campbell, a central figure in the Children’s Village during the encampments, who recently had her two kids taken away by a judge because she had taken them to an Occupy Oakland picnic, which was full of unwholesome activities like face painting, puppets, games for kids, and good food and music. Other parents within Occupy Oakland have also been targeted and surveilled by CPS, and an entire contingent of families were threatened with arrest for child endangerment for having their children on the Move-In Day march back in January. But the rally at CPS wasn’t just about Occupy Oakland families – it was also a way to build solidarity and make connections with working class people in the city who have endured similar policies for years.
The action brought forward testimony from a number of people in the community illustrating the racist and classist nature of Child Protective Services. One older black gentlemen spoke about how he has been fighting for 15 years to get his kids back, and has been continuously denied despite taking all the required classes, meeting all the other requirements, and jumping through all the necessary hoops. A young man of color from Occupy Oakland, Momo, who recently got out of jail after serving two months on a probation violation for being arrested during a police raid on the plaza, spoke at the rally about his own experiences in CPS. He pointed out the coincidence of having the probation office right across the street from CPS, since so many kids end up there right after they turn eighteen, just like he did. (A former student of mine in the Prison University Project in San Quentin made the same point in a class paper – he argued that, in his experience, the child protective system destroys families, fills kids full of trauma, and puts them on a fast track to prison.)
Another highlight of May Day, also centered around State repression, was the Anti-Repression Committee’s action at City Hall, designed to draw attention to the stay-away (restraining) orders that people within Occupy Oakland have been given, ordering them to stay 100 or 300 yards away from Oscar Grant Plaza and other locations. These unconstitutional stay-away orders have been given to people who have been arrested and charged, but not yet convicted of any crime. They criminalize people’s very presence in public parks or on public streets, much like gang injunctions criminalize a range of otherwise non-criminal behavior for those named in the injunction. During the action at City Hall, people wore masks with the faces of some of the dozens of people who have been given stay-aways, and the Anti-Repression Committee issued a stay-away of its own to the OPD and city officials for their attacks on the movement and their harassment and brutality in communities of color.
In a certain sense, Occupy Oakland has been getting a taste of the harassment that is “normal” in much of the city. The neighbor of a friend of mine can’t see his kids because he has a stay away from a block that includes his own house, for a ticketable violation (infraction) while on probation. This type of ongoing harassment, trumped-up charges, and using people’s probation status as a means to preemptively target them and bring them back to jail is a longstanding practice to control the poor and communities of color. We are seeing these techniques applied to Occupy Oakland, again disproportionately against people of color. Kali Johnson is awaiting trial on felony charges stemming from a misdemeanor arrest for being in Oscar Grant Plaza while on probation and during a police raid. The felony charges are for a supposed assault on a corrections officer after Kali was denied his psych medication and was severely beaten in jail. And of the 25 arrests in Oakland on May 1st, one was Momo – arrested for allegedly violating his stay away order from Oscar Grant Plaza. He could very well be held in jail again on a probation hold. Police targeting of working class people of color within the movement will continue to increase the risks involved in their political organizing. It will be something we continue to fight back against as well. The Anti-Repression action at City Hall made clear to the powers that control the city and the people of the city that Occupy Oakland is not just about addressing the repression against the movement, but the longstanding harassment and police occupation of many neighborhoods in Oakland as well. Some of us will be supporting the march against police brutality this Saturday being called by the Uhuru movement, and Occupy Oakland will continue to stand against gang injunctions whether they are directed at our “gang” or not.
A Page from the Old COINTELPRO Playbook
This strategy of arresting people on minor offenses, exploiting or creating probation restrictions on activists, and then arresting them some more – sending people back and forth to jail in an effort to preoccupy them or break them – is not new. Ward Churchill and Jim Vander Wall, in The COINTELPRO Papers, recount the strategy used by the FBI against the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM) in the late 1960s. After finding no evidence of criminal activity by RAM members, the FBI pursued other means to neutralize the group.
“[T]he director [J. Edgar Hoover] points with pride to an anti-RAM COINTELPRO operation undertaken during the summer of 1967 in which RAM members were ‘arrested on every possible charge until they could no longer make bail’ and consequently ‘spent most of the summer in jail,’ even though there had never been any intent to take them to trial on the variety of contrived offenses which they were charged.” (pg. 112)
This is clearly what the State is doing to Momo, Truth, Kali and dozens of other activists from Occupy Oakland. When the FBI sends agents here talking about blowing up bridges they will be hard pressed to find someone stupid enough to work with them. But they have a very big bag of tricks we need to educate ourselves about. Occupy is not going to stop. The State won’t stop trying to kill it either. The outcome of this death match is unknown, but the terrain of state repression is becoming quite clear.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.