In the early morning on Tuesday, starting before 5 am, the police temporarily destroyed Occupy Oakland, sending in a riot squad of over 500 that outnumbered protesters almost 3 to 1. Oscar Grant Plaza (officially Frank Ogawa Plaza) was too geographically large and open to be adequately defended against the armed tactical operation. Despite swallowing a lot of pride in watching the space get torn apart and dozens submit to arrest, Occupy Oakland made big strategic steps by picking our fights, beginning to define the terms of our struggle, preserving our forces, and maintaining the moral high-ground against a ‘Socialist’ mayor who is now wedded, however abusively, to the Oakland Police Department. Twelve hours later 1000 people marched against the police as stuck commuters cheered them on. Whatever the former communist Mayor once knew about dialectics, she apparently quickly forgot when she took office.
The formerly leftist Mayor succumbed to OPD pressure by raiding Oscar Grant Plaza and signing on to support a youth curfew in the last few days, after Police Chief Batts stepped down two weeks ago due to tensions with the mayor. The City Attorney left for similar reasons earlier in the year. In a progressive town with a vibrant history of resistance, where Occupy Oakland has broad support, the Mayor has succumbed, without much visible struggle, to the forces that truly run this town – the police, the fear-mongering media that thinks ‘Oakland’ is simply a synonym for ‘murder,’ and the wealthy and upper-middle class that clamor for more and more law and order. The ruling class and political establishment do not much care that the cost of that law and order is the gutting, not only of peoples’ rights, but also schools, libraries, health clinics, jobs programs, after-school programs and more that the ruling strata don’t personally need to survive, unlike a large and growing number of people who are slipping from struggling to desperation.
The fact that a Mayor who is seen as ‘ultra-Left’ could preside over such a budget, one that cedes roughly 2/3rd of total city funds to the police, and then bend to the police when they ask for full control of the city, tells us a number of things. The real enemies of the majority of the city’s residents – the working class, working poor and dispossessed – are the people who run the city. Electing more ‘radical’ politicians is an utter waste of time. When the State destroys our occupation, or smears us, or race-baits white radicals, or sends undercover cops into our space, or tries to intimidate us, they draw lines that they cannot erase in the minds of the Occupiers. A chant of ‘shame’ directed at police who beat and arrested a man simply for taking video quickly turned to a resounding ‘Fuck the Police.’ They are the enemy, they made that point clear to everyone who didn’t already know. Now what?
“Every hour, every day, occupation is here to stay!”
As the sun was coming up in downtown Oakland Tuesday morning, many of the evicted Occupiers snake marched through downtown, out-maneuvering the police, as workers made their way to their jobs honking and yelling their support. One of us apologized to a white working-class man, in his 30s, in worn overalls whose old pick-up was blocked by our presence in the street; as he hooked a u-turn, he said with a smile that there was no need to apologize and that we should keep fighting. There was a controlled anger and an overwhelmingly clear look of determination in the eyes of the evicted that we would come back stronger. Not next week, but in a few hours. And we did.
A 4 pm re-convergence was called that became a march of over 1000. I believe that is the biggest number of people to come out at one time over the whole vibrant two weeks at Occupy Oakland. Early, after the main raid Tuesday morning, the Occupy movement re-took a smaller park in Oakland, Snow Park near Lake Merritt, that had also been held and was lost in a police raid earlier Tuesday morning. There are no public plans, but several Occupiers expressed a strong desire to re-occupy Oscar Grant Plaza. A few people I spoke with said the police would need to put up a fence, barbed wire and have 24-hour patrols to keep us out – at which point we would occupy something bigger and better. Tuesday morning was the end of the beginning. Tuesday night is shaping up to be the beginning of something more as police fire tear gas amidst their own periodic retreat.
Who Occupies Oakland?
The order of the day is to decolonize, transform, and liberate Oakland. This means being real about who actually occupies Oakland. Politically, economically, discursively, militarily – the Oakland police run this town. At one point Tuesday morning a phalanx of riot cops blocked us from the scores of other cops tearing down free schools, medical clinics, a kitchen, dozens of tents, our abandoned barricades – a whole mini-township and community that had been built over the last two weeks. A young protester yelled at the police line that they had brought a ‘fascist police state’ to the city. The truth is that all that happened was a geographical redeployment of an already existing militarized police force from the Deep East, Fruitvale, and West Oakland into downtown for the night. What the racially and politically diverse Occupy Oakland encampment faced in the early hours of the morning was a glimmer of the daily, lived experience of black and brown working class people in this city. From racial profiling gang injunctions to recently fast-tracked curfews, and ongoing killings of unarmed black men, there has been a police state here for many years – that means more than evictions, but life and death.
Oakland has long been occupied by a police force that lives largely elsewhere, in comfortable suburban homes bought and furnished by exorbitant salaries that start at $90,000 per year, for rookies, before overtime. The police are not part of the 99% – that goes without saying. They are obviously not in the top 1% of earners either, no matter how hard their Chief and union have been trying to get them there. Furthermore, the whole ‘99%’ language glosses over contradictions, erases oppression and paralyzes us, in a similar sense that consensus does. While we shouldn’t shun populism, we erase and reproduce a whole lot of inequality by using this frame. While the percentage may not be 99%, most of the people who live in this city not only want change – they need it. The first part of destroying inequality is shedding light on it. The first step to undermining it is recognizing privilege and oppression in a way that builds solidarity and trust through engaged political work all over the city. That work has begun and will continue.
From Speaking Truth to Power, to Becoming Our Own Power
We are in the initial stages of what will be a long series of struggles. We shouldn’t be wedded to any static plan or draw from outdated blueprints or de-contextualized (or unintelligible) theories. The inequalities we seek to destroy are primarily political – about power and self-determination – or the lack thereof. The general sentiment of the Occupy movement is about transcending existing political institutions, about ridding ourselves of politicians, not replacing them. I think that those of us who hadn’t come to the conclusion already are beginning to see that speaking truth to power is not a strategy, or even a logical impulse.
The movement from the occupation of public parks to the occupation of private property, workplaces, universities, shuttered public schools in many cities, foreclosed homes, etc. is a likely scenario in the coming months. Tactical escalation will necessitate political and organizational development to broaden our bases and begin to gain the active and engaged support of larger and larger segments of the broader society. The movement needs to align itself with the struggles of the most oppressed – making issues like police brutality and occupation in communities of color, persecution of immigrants and acute joblessness central – while also linking with university student struggles over fees, student loans, and cuts, and with workers inside and outside of workplaces. The State’s biggest fear is the coalescing of these populations and the existing movements around these issues. We saw this in the non-profit/police/media/politician mantra of outside agitators when anarchists joined the Oscar Grant struggle. Their biggest fear is in our solidarity, in our collaboration and potential cohesion. We need to figure a way to be their waking, spreading, ever-present nightmare.
The idea that 99% of the population in this country is going to support a just social order, here and now, is more than a little naive, but believing that simple protest and activism alone will transform this society is even more naive. We need to build our own political structures and our own politics, rooted in participatory and accountable democratic processes at the local level.
I am not proposing a vanguard party or even a platform. I am simply trying to push the conversation. We shouldn’t misread the Zapatista call to ‘make the road by walking it’ as being synonymous with the old deadhead slogan ‘Not all who wander are lost.’ We don’t have to march in line, but we don’t have time to wander.
If we, in fact, ‘want everything,’ lets figure out how to get it. And then get on with getting it.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and East Bay activist. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu