Oakland on Strike!

[Mike is reporting from the ground in Oakland, former Oakland resident George contributed political analysis]

A major victory has been won. For only the second time in Oakland’s recent political history, mass action in the street has forced the hand of city government. If last time it was the rebellions that greeted the state murder of Oscar Grant that forced city and state officials to switch tack, arresting the shooter Johannes Mehserle and putting him on trial, the stakes have now changed and generalized in the local and national swirl of the Occupy Movement. Now, building on that history of resistance, but not without significant barriers in the near future, Oakland and the Bay Area is poised for a General Strike on the level of 1946.  Or beyond.

“Citizen’s Arrest” 

However, things didn’t look so good Tuesday night. As one of us stood in the increasingly desolate streets of Oakland at the intersection of 14th and Broadway, ignition point for rebellions past, the debates that emerged amid the hours of swirling tear gas from the OPD and 17 cooperating police agencies seemed to have moved backward since 2009, not forward.

A peculiar dialectic emerged, in which black youth out for a good time at the expense of police, had that fun doubled. When they would throw plastic bottles at the police in full riot gear, the young and mostly white liberals and peaceniks, in the street to support the displaced Occupy Oakland camp with little more than a peace sign, would preemptively and rapidly retreat in anticipation of another round of tear gas – before the police line had so much as shrugged.  This must have been immensely fun to watch on one level.

At this point, an older white man with a mega-phone, whose face was not a familiar one in local organizing or at the Occupy encampment of the past two weeks, began saying, “This is a peaceful movement.  Violent people are not part of this movement.”  He was pointing out the direction from which the plastic bottle had come and where, at this point, the only people of color in the intersection were standing.  The race and class dynamics of this, as well as the absurdity that someone was making this argument 30 feet from where a young Marine had been critically wounded by this same specific group of cops, was far more distasteful than the dozens of cans of chemical gas I can still taste writing this 36 hours later.  I walked up and, shouting down the man with the mega-phone, told him that he was doing the cops work and was dividing the movement.  I also told him that, while in the context of the moment I would agree that throwing bottles was counter productive, I would never play good protester / bad protester and point people out to cops, let alone show up here for the first time that night and appoint oneself king.  We don’t need cops and we don’t need any “Yurtle the Turtle” of unprincipled pacifism.

After shouting down the man with the bullhorn and an 18 year old kid who tried to shout me down, I was confronted by a young, white man who told me: “We are making a citizen’s arrest.” As he and a group encircling me and attempted to grab my wrists and arms I pulled free and walked away – to a mix of boos from that group and shouts of encouragement from other sections of the protest.  I had committed no crime and nothing anyone could construe as “violence”, aside from deviating from the worst of US pacifist history.  Far from the Civil Rights sit-ins or the work of the Catholic Workers, people who took risks for social justice that disrupted the existing order, this broader and more prevalent pacifism is not about “principled tactics.” It is about creating a false moralism built around comfort and privilege in which those who know all too well what real violence looks like are silenced, and those who act on a critical analysis of the existing social order are “criminalized” and discursively expelled from the presumptive liberal “we” of the movement.

It is baffling that people who take hours of rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and assorted chemical weapons still come back to the same exact police line that has been bombarding us with chants that they too are the 99% in an attempt to “win them over.”  It is even more so when they turn around and form a liberal peoples’ militia for the police State.  We all need to be clear on one thing: these cops are not your friends and even though we will disagree, our most basic strength is in solidarity.  At many other points in the last few days, that solidarity has started to grow and crowd out these tensions and disagreements among us.  We must build this solidarity to the point where it like a natural reflex in the movement.  All cops of the existing order out of Oakland!  Including the ones in our heads.

Who’s Gonna Run The Town Tonight? 

Just weeks ago, police chief Anthony Batts, the subject of a heavily trumpeted national search in 2009, resigned to protest the limitations the mayor’s office was placing on his leadership and attempts to reform the notoriously corrupt and violent agency. But it was not until another pro-police grouping, partly enraged by Batts’ departure, set into motion an effort to recall Quan from office that the Mayor acted, clearing the Occupy camp with the brutal force of 800 officers in the misty darkness of Tuesday morning.  The tables appear to have turned.

By cowing so unhesitatingly and obviously to the demands of the police lobby, Mayor Quan did a massive service to the movement, showing in the brightest light of day what many of us have known for years: that OPD runs Oakland. A parasitical and colonial force which draws its members predominantly from outside Oakland, the OPD nevertheless demands the lion’s share of the budget and political control of the city, and this is what Batts’ resignation meant more than anything: this still is not enough, we want more.

Perhaps Quan’s biggest error was to trust the OPD, a body that was already calling for her ouster in all but open terms. The military barrage they unleashed on the protesters will also mark a turning point in Quan’s legitimacy, in part because of Scott Olson, a 2-tour Iraq War veteran who returned unscathed from war only to be shot in the head by a tear gas canister by OPD. When other protesters attempted to rescue the injured Olson, video showed OPD coolly and callously tossing more flash-bang grenades to disperse the rescuers. At last notice, Olson had entered into brain surgery at Highland Hospital in an attempt to repair the damage. Without minimizing Olson’s suffering, however, it’s worth noting that his injury came in an attempt to reclaim Oscar Grant Plaza. Both shootings – Olson’s and Oscar Grant’s – were caught on video, and much could be learned from the intertwining of these two events in Oakland’s history.

It seemed as though some did not get the message, and still believing that Occupy Oakland can only exist with the grace of the state began to again do the work of that state. When the crowds began to re-converge at 6pm Wednesday, Oscar Grant Plaza was a maze of tall fencing: Quan would make one last effort, albeit a weak one, to maintain order and her own dignity. Not knowing their own power, many simply followed these tangible, man-made orders in their midst, refusing to touch and some even actively protecting the fences. There was not a police officer in sight, and yet the police in the heads of many remained.

Drive the OPD out of Oakland by “Offing the Pig” in your own head  

As 3000 people began to crowd the fenced-in park, the only open space was the concrete amphitheater directly in front of City Hall. More than half of the Occupiers were cut off from the General Assembly that was about to start, forced down the sidewalks a block away. Tearing down the gates would allow for a democratic mass meeting, not to mention the fact that there was no risk of arrest and it is a public park. Beyond that, it is our park – whether they put a sign up to the contrary or put 2000 cops in it. This should not be a contentious proposition.  But it was.

A small group of us simply ripped open the fence and opened up a 50 foot hole.  Three times as many protesters grabbed the fence away from us and closed it back up, as a large crowd of people looked on.  Those of us who had come into the grassy part of the park were yelled at, called “vanguardist” and “agent provocateurs” for re-occupying a public park with a group of people who were here, ostensibly, to do one thing – occupy that same park.  The General Assembly met for a full hour, with well over 1000 people cut off from participation and over 100 feet out of earshot, unable to hear announcements and proposals, because on this moment we had more respect for a metal fence than for democratic assembly.

All of this filled me with an intense and contradictory mix of sadness and anger, but also hope.  Sadness, for the obviously large amount of growth we all need to go through to overcome our own limitations and lack of experience.  When we force the police to fully retreat, come back to the park with 3 times the numbers who have been there in the last weeks, and we stare blankly at a little fence and hurl insults at people who try to take it down, one wonders what our capacities are.  On the other hand, I was filled with immense hope.  The cops overplayed their hand and lost this round.  The park was ours, our numbers had doubled again, we would soon get 97% approval for a general strike, and I think we will actually win.

After a generation of free market class war, wars on the black and brown communities (a.k.a. the war on drugs and gangs), imperial wars and social atomization – we need to find the ability to imagine a better word and have the courage to make it real.  We have to harness those instincts to tear down every “fence” that we see along the way.

Yesterday’s fence was eventually torn down and carefully stacked in one section of the park.  The General Assembly allowed itself to actually become a General Assembly and we came together to put forward and approve a call for a General Strike on Wednesday November 2nd – no work, no school, shut it all down.  A mass speak-out against police brutality in Oakland’s communities of color has been autonomously called for 6 pm Saturday at 14th and Broadway to make central the long-ignored, and everyday, violences in Oakland and to build for Wednesday’s mass action. I am confident there will be tens of thousands of people in the streets and actions in every section of the city next Wednesday.  Oakland is home to the last General Strike in the US, which took place in 1946.  It will be home to the next.  From the immediate support we received from the around the country and world last night – from NYC to Egypt – it will not be the only one either.

This strike vote could be a Pyrrhic victory if we allow ourselves to divide ourselves.  If we allow non-profits to become the “soft power” of the police and mayor (as they were during the Oscar Grant movement) and shepherd us into irrelevancy we will have no one to blame but ourselves.  If we allow the mayor to appear to come back to the right side of history only to sell us out to the police one more time, we will have blown one of the biggest radical political opportunities in modern US history.  We are smarter than that and this is our time.

After the General Assembly, well over 1000 protesters boisterously chanted throughout downtown Wednesday night, chasing off small groupings of police with our mere presence.  We were able to stop once and debate taking the Bay Bridge or marching down West Grand.  We never reached an official consensus, but after discussion we organically decided that the bridge would be a trap and had no strategic value at that point.  This was a powerful moment. But it was a luxury created by retreated police force.  We should not always expect to have such time or space.  We can however develop a working “diversity of tactics” based on solidarity and knowing our real enemies.

Whether from the police or the mayor, or reactionary non-profits or union bureaucrats, forces will conspire to shorten our reaction time and force us to hone our emerging, radical reflexes, and attempt to play on old divisions.  They will undoubtedly attempt to co-opt our marches or message, divide us, or simply hang their dead weight on our evolving, organic and radically democratic strength.  History teaches us that movements and pivotal moments in history transform “regular people” who grow those movements to transform society and themselves.

The time has come to shut “their” city down for good and realize the vision of the Black Panther Party that was born in this town 45 years ago.  For the creation of a radically democratic and self-determined communities – in a vibrant movement that involves people from every race and class – in the conscious pursuit of the destruction of the existing social structures of race and class, as well as every other axis of oppression, that divide and oppress in this society – “All power to all of the People!”

Liberate, Decolonize, and Transform Oakland!

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

George Ciccariello-Maher is an exiled Oaklander who teaches political theory at Drexel University, and can be reached at gjcm(at)drexel.edu.