The Fight for Autonomy in Oakland


In a pre-dawn raid Tuesday involving hundreds of officers drafted from seventeen departments across northern California, the notoriously aggressive Oakland Police violently raided
and wiped out that city’s Occupy encampment. By sunrise most of the protesters had fled beyond a cordon that stretched for several blocks back of Frank Ogawa Plaza, so far back that reportedly no media or bystanders could watch the scene unfold within. A communique from Occupy Oakland described the military-style eradication mission:

“Tear gas and flash bangs were fired into the camp where children were sleeping, people were beaten and shot with rubber bullets. The assault was also levied against our property in the camp, and the cops tried their best to completely destroy everything we had there. Almost every tent has been destroyed, many slashed with boxcutters, structures smashed, basically this was not an eviction, they came in to destroy everything we had.”

Upwards of 85 persons were arrested and dragged away with their arms zip-tied behind their backs, and charged with unlawful assembly and illegal lodging. Many Oaklanders close to those arrested report that the charges also include failure to disperse and crossing a police line, and that bail is set at $10,000. A smaller satellite camp just blocks away at Snow Park was also raided and torn asunder. Numerous first hand accounts circulating on the Internet tell of rampant acts of police violence during the blitz against mostly slumbering occupiers.

“Police used sound weapons and tear gas on the people there,” says one Oaklander.

“They kept the media and legal observers out, surrounded the camp and destroyed everything, including the kitchen, a free school/library, a childcare center, an arts center, and diverse cultural monuments to peace. People were brutalized and injured and many will spend the day in jail for attempting to envision a different society.”

From Washington D.C. (away on a lobbying trip) Oakland Mayor Jean Quan issued a statement after the police raid, recycling the city’s talking points that had been circulated days earlier in an eviction order, with no deadline, posted on the city’s web site: “over the last week it was apparent that neither the demonstrators nor the City could maintain safe or sanitary conditions, or control the ongoing vandalism.”

On Quan’s orders the police attempted to patrol the encampment from its beginning, but had been rebuffed by the occupiers who are serious about establishing their independence from the state and political parties in order to critique these corrupt institutions.

Reports of a sexual assault and then physical violence from within the encampment surfaced days ago from city officials. Speaking for city hall, spokeswoman Karen Boyd said a mentally ill homeless man attacked others within the camp and was forcefully expelled as a result. Whatever happened it’s clear that occupiers chose not to involve the police, for reasons that are clear to those familiar with the OPD’s violent reputation, but also because the encampment’s participants appear to be taking the challenges posed by state violence and austerity seriously, responding with efforts to autonomously care for and govern themselves.

The encampment therefore not only set up its own security system by which volunteers help one another keep the peace, but a major part of Occupy Oakland has included attempts to set up, albeit on a micro-scale, the very services the city government has been destroying in recent years: a free school, library, food kitchen, clothing distribution, child care, health care, and much more. The occupiers’ general assemblies (organized as facilitated consensus meetings) is its own autonomous version of hyper-egalitarian politics, contrasted against the extremely anti-democratic City Hall and Congressional processes dominated by corporate capital and the wealthy.

The mayor and several city council members initially praised the Occupy protests, specifically hailing the massive Occupy Oakland convergence and general assembly on October 10th because they misunderstood it as a critique solely aimed at Washington D.C. and distant centers of economic power. But from the very beginning Occupy Oakland took a radical stance and localized the terms of struggle. At the first rally cries of “fuck the police” peppered comments equally critical of local government and powerful Bay Area corporations which have pressed harmful budget cuts upon Oaklanders.

When the encampment sprang up that night and then so suddenly filled with hundreds of tents covering the entirety of the city’s proverbial Tahrir Square, Oakland’s liberal leaders began formulating their law-and-order position based on “concerns” over “safety” and “public health.” These same justifications have been echoed in the ultimatums of city establishments across America attempting to evict the occupations, some with violent police attacks equal to that just visited upon Oakland.

The irony, and perhaps a strategic victory of the Occupy Moment, is that these justifications and the subsequent police attacks, have exposed the hypocrisy of “main street” city regimes across the nation. They claim to stand for security, health, and order, when in fact they have facilitated a ghastly attack on the ever-expanding ranks of the poor, the foreclosed upon, the homeless and unemployed through the imposition of fiscal austerity and police militarization. The spread of occupation’s encampments from Wall Street to dozens of major cities has effectively broadened the terms of struggle to include longstanding human rights abuses of local governments and police forces against communities of color, the poor, houseless, youth and women.

In Oakland, as in all of the occupy encampments, the terms of struggle have become sharply defined not just by national political issues like imperial wars and brutal income inequalities, but also by locally specific struggles over urban space, homelessness, gentrification, struggles against police brutality, and efforts to save schools, libraries, parks, and health services from the agents of austerity. The budget slashers implicitly criticized by the encampments and the social services they provide, and explicitly criticized during rallies, sit in Oakland’s City Hall, just as as they reside in distant seats of federal power. Their economic benefactors reside in the posh gentrified condos of Jack London Square or exclusive enclaves like Piedmont, just as often as they live and work in the world’s financial centers on Manhattan Island and Connecticut’s Gold Coast. The occupiers in Oakland and every other city understand this and have expressed the ugly truths of these injustices through municipal budget cuts and police militarization.

Over the last year Oakland has grappled with a budget deficit of $58 million (quite large in a city of just under half a million with a half-billion annual budget). Compounding the pain of budget gaps in prior years, Oakland’s most recent spending plan has required deep cuts to city services, including public safety and sanitation. Schools, parks, libraries, and nearly all other branches of government have been starved since 2008, and all this came atop several decades of post-Civil Rights Movement divestment by capital and the middle class from the inner city.

The twisted irony then is that the same public officials who pulverized the Occupy encampment over concerns for public safety and health haven’t been able to provide these rights to Oaklanders for lack of resources on the one hand, and an unprecedented, several decades long build-up of the police and prisons on the other. In one moment the nakedness of the emperor has been revealed for all by a spontaneous commune of tent dwellers whose brilliant weapon was to claim their own right of autonomous self-government and self-care in the absence of a welfare state.

Oakland’s immediate fiscal pains are primarily due to a collapse in property tax revenues and flattened sales tax receipts resulting from the economic depression beginning in 2007. Unable or unwilling to turn against the masters of local and state government —among them some of the same uber-wealth elites and corporate monsters who have colonized politics so thoroughly at the national level— city leaders like those in Oakland have been forced to watch neighborhoods literally fall to pieces. They wring their hands while families suffer the further deprivations of impoverishment, and bicker among one another about how to allocate increasingly dwindling funds and workers, while the city endures the desperate and hopeless violence of alienated and criminalized young men who see no future for themselves.

Few cities in California have been struck harder by foreclosures than Oakland. The predatory sortie of home seizures led by banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America have included 28,000 Oakland residences in just three years. Most of these stolen homes are concentrated in the city’s vast eastern neighborhoods populated by Black and immigrant communities. Many of these displaced families have been pushed into slummed rental housing, while some have become homeless. Their plight is the Oakland’s for the decline in real estate values which has accompanied foreclosures, and in many ways caused the dispossession of the masses, has erased $12 billion in real estate values across the city, 1% of which previously filled municipal coffers.

Many of these families have been struck equally hard by the state’s unemployment crisis, causing a cyclical decline in consumer spending, leading to fewer sales tax revenues. With no recovery in sight Oaklanders have turned to their local government in a time of need only to find schools closing, libraries cutting hours, infrastructure crumbling, and all other aspects of the public sphere and the safety net being pulled out from under them. And yet the city’s leaders have issued statements condemning the protesters of this austerity campaign of being unable to shelter and care for one another?

Just this year the city underwent a wrenching public debate about whether to shutter most of its library branches and lay off staff, while massively reducing hours at the main library. The proposal brought hundreds of Oaklanders to City Council meetings to plead for libraries. Money was ultimately found in the budget, but Oakland’s library system remains a woefully under-funded resource suffering from decades of divestment. Many low-income residents use the libraries to hunt for jobs, search the Internet, educate themselves and their children, and even just to get off the streets.

Last month a coalition of hundreds of angry parents occupied an Oakland Unified Schools Board Meeting demanding that they withdraw plans to close five Oakland schools. Predictably the schools on the closure list serve predominantly working class Black and Latino students. The closures, say board members, would save $2 million annually for a school system hard pressed for resources. For the city’s majority, schools are not just places of learning for their children, they are part of the safety net. Thousands of children are fed through free or reduced cost school meal programs daily. Schools provide health services to children and act as a day care for busy parents. Many schools are social anchors of working class neighborhoods that are enduring extreme job losses, foreclosures, crime and police violence, and other symptoms of growing economic inequality.

When Occupy Oakland organized its own free school, child care center, lending library, and food services, it wasn’t just looking after the logistics of a large encampment. The occupiers were critiquing the failure of the City of Oakland and State of California to create a just and humane society. In no area has Occupy Oakland’s efforts to exist autonomously from City Hall proved more difficult, but also more revealing than security.

Police have never been associated with public safety by the nearly half of Oaklanders in whose communities the cops patrol more as an occupying force than as public servants. But even for the city’s middle class the police have proven a continual source of problems. White and middle class Oaklanders have variously bemoaned the police force as understaffed, and incompetent among other things. Due to the city’s fiscal contraction the force had been reduced to 640 officers from a previous high of about 800. The lack of manpower and money for the OPD has led Oakland’s middle class neighborhoods to worry that the violence which daily afflicts working class Oaklanders in the flatlands will begin to spread into their privileged enclaves in the hills. The unfortunate response of the middle class to this dynamic has been to spend money on private security forces, or to support the now decades long political shift away from the welfare of schools, health care, and high wages, to the warfare of draconian laws and prison building.

In the largely Black, immigrant and working class expanses of West and East Oakland the cops are widely despised because of their itchy trigger fingers and rough methods. The Riders scandal of 2000 exposed the Department’s brutality and corruption to a national audience when a clique of officers was accused of routinely fabricating and planting evidence and wantonly beating citizens. But it didn’t take a scandal and civil suit to set much of Oakland’s Black and immigrant communities at odds with the cops. Remember that the Black Panther Party, founded in Oakland, was organized in part to police the police. The Riders scandal only set in motion the latest official turmoil, leading to a federal consent decree with 51 reforms required of the OPD by the US Justice Department.

The day after Occupy Oakland’s encampment began OPD Chief Anthony Batts suddenly quit as result of an ongoing feud with the Mayor and Council. Batts claimed the city’s political leaders had hamstrung his efforts to curtail crime, but in reality the Mayor and Council have been torn over controversial policing methods such as gang injunctions and curfews —more of the warfare approach to dealing with social strife borne of gross inequality— and the obvious need to build social justice through humane city services. The OPD’s consent decree has been extended because of the department’s inability to comply and reform itself, and now the threat of federal receivership has been floated. Oakland’s police have proven incapable of protecting and serving the people.

And yet it was the claim of Oakland officials that the Occupy Oakland Encampment could not police itself that partially led to Tuesday’s police raid. “We’ve had three days now where we’ve had incidents where people have been hurt,” Mayor Quan told the press days before the raid. “We really can’t let the encampment keep going.”

In a way it’s like saying “we can’t let Oakland keep going.” Oakland suffered 95 murders in 2010. The city is awash in threats to public health stemming from a desperate poverty and inequality that is as much the result of local political decisions as national laws and economic forces. Oakland’s people need help. In the very least they need the space and peace to help themselves. Occupy Oakland’s organizers were attempting to create this kind of political space. Their mere presence, and the mere phenomenon of people helping to feed, educate, care for, and protect one another, autonomous from the state, and in the shadow of City Hall, was apparently enough of a front to City Hall’s increasingly bankrupt authority to warrant an attack by the police.

Last night Oaklanders responded to their eviction by attempting to retake Frank Ogawa Plaza (which they have renamed Oscar Grant Plaza after the young man murdered by BART Police in 2009). The Oakland Police repelled the occupiers by rioting with their armaments of tear gas, sound weapons, and rubber bullets. For now the ideals of autonomy and mutual aid in the shadow of the warfare state have been expelled from Oakland’s central square, roaming about the city’s streets.

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist who splits his time between New Orleans, Albuquerque, and Navarro, CA. He can be reached

Darwin Bond-Graham is a sociologist and investigative journalist. He is a contributing editor to Counterpunch. His writing appears in the East Bay Express, Village Voice, LA Weekly and other newspapers. He blogs about the political economy of California at