The Coming War on the Occupy Movement

As I begin to write this, Occupy Oakland circulates in a by-now familiar pattern: forced from the camp at the break of day, the occupiers reconvened as they have done before on the steps of the Public Library. Later, they will attempt to close a repeating circuit that stretches a short six blocks along 14th Street between City Hall and the Library.

This circuit, moreover, is one which draws its familiarity not only from recent weeks, but also from the early moments of what is a single cycle of struggle spanning years: it was down 14th Street that Oakland Police pursued us during the first rebellion, on January 7th of 2009, that greeted the murder of Oscar Grant. And it was in front of the same Public Library that I crouched behind a bush as an armored personnel carrier sped past, only to sprint off as heavily-clad militarized police-troops dismounted to chase myself and others on foot.

It has become all too apparent that the Occupy Movement is under attack, and that even my title is wholly insufficient: this war is not “coming,” this war has already begun.

Breaching the Limits of Tolerance

Writing from the perspective of a previous cycle of struggle, the radical Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse described the phenomenon of “repressive tolerance,” in which an ostensibly liberating concept and practice becomes distorted to suit the powerful and legitimate the status quo. According to the political theorist Wendy Brown, the discourse of tolerance serves to mark the powerful as normal while discrediting the “unruly” as somehow “deviant,” and thereby “legitimates the most illiberal actions of the state.” In other words, the repression that comes is not a distinct and corrupted form of tolerance, as for Marcuse, but instead embedded within the idea itself.

This lesson is of paramount importance to the Occupy Movement, but so is its opposite: even the most repressive of tolerance has its limits in the push-and-pull of forces vying for control, and Marcuse’s arguable pessimism on this point must be countered with the optimism of transgressing those limits.

This war began as most do, in the realm of hegemonic struggle where small shifts signal coming offensives. But walking the fine line of counterintelligence and counterinsurgency, the forces conspiring against the Occupy Movement have been anything but subtle. In a crude and thinly-veiled information war, lies are tossed about like the seeds they are, and the media duly parrots line put forth by police and city alike. This “chatter” (to turn the language of the counterinsurgents against them) begins to spread surreptitiously: that Occupy is unsanitary, now dangerously so, now downright violent.

By the time San Francisco Chronicle was citing “anonymous police sources” about the conditions of the camp (bearing in mind that the police were not even allowed into the camp), it was clear to many that a raid was imminent. For the second raid this morning, the warning was even clearer: another anonymous leak to the Chronicle, and a leaked email to parents at a local school about an “overwhelming use of force.”

The script is strikingly similar across the map, from Oakland to Portland, Atlanta to Philly: a Democratic mayor plays nice, claiming to represent “the 99%” and to support the Occupation’s crusade against big business. But at some point, as the chatter increases, the occupation goes badly wrong, becoming unacceptable and violent, unrecognizable to the Middle America for which it claims to speak. A murder, a suicide, a rape, and an overdose suddenly brim with political opportunity. With the stage set, all that remains is for the guardians of good order to step in to defend the common good.

The Students Step into the Fray

The Bay Area Occupy Movement received an unexpected shot in the arm last Wednesday when students protesting the creeping increase in fees in the UC system pitched a small number of tents on the grassy area in front of Sproul Hall. If Oakland Mayor Jean Quan drastically miscalculated when she unleashed the police in late October, the response by UCPD to this seemingly minor disturbance strays into the realm of the Epic Fail. Deploying overwhelming force, UCPD could be seen on video beating and spearing students with their batons, punching some in the face, and even dragging English Professor Celeste Langan down by her hair. Langan would later write about her experience, and another English Professor, Geoffrey O’Brien, was also injured by police on the day.

Such repressive tactics and blatant disconnect between the second-rate cops of the UCPD and the student body are nothing new. Amid the student upsurge of 2009, the UCPD came under heavy scrutiny for its handling of a wave of building occupations, and at least one lawsuit from a friend of mine whose fingers had been purposely broken by a sadistic officer outside the Wheeler Hall occupation. At the height of the repressive wave, I myself was one of many featured on the UCPD website in an openly McCarthyite attempt to foster a snitch culture on campus (website visitors were encouraged to send tips that would aid in identifying the dangerous student organizers). The website was eventually removed through legal action.

But repression breeds resistance, as we well know. As I write this, the November 15th system-wide student strike is but a few hours away, and the mass participation of students in the Occupy struggle promises, if they can successfully link with their counterparts to the south, to offer a much needed injection of energy and numbers.

The Indestructible Oakland Commune

The days following the Oakland General Strike and port shutdown were dominated by a debate that never should have been. Rather than crowing about an unprecedented and unexpected chain of victories, in which Occupiers forced the city to back down and re-took Oscar Grant Plaza only to then embark on a massive if not truly General Strike, which saw up to 25,000 people swarm and shut down the Port of Oakland, some within the metaphorical Occupy camp naively took the bait offered by the city and the police, and amplified by the media. The press talking points went something like this: an otherwise powerful day was sullied by the actions of a small few who broke windows at a bank and assailed the Whole Foods in my old neighborhood.

While this iteration of the “nonviolence” debate was won on many fronts by those promoting nuance and diversity of tactics, this was nevertheless a powerful foothold for those seeking to oust the Occupation once again. Within a matter of days the chatter had increased once again, City Council was almost unanimously urging its removal, and the formerly remorseful Jean Quan, fresh from a visit to Scott Olson’s bedside, was once again urging the Occupiers to vacate. Councilwoman Desley Brooks, whose opportunism apparently knows no bounds, went from sleeping at the occupation (or at least publicly emerging from a tent) to condemning the occupiers in a matter of mere weeks. (Such stage-managed populism is something of a forte: Brooks had previously unleashing her goons on myself and others for apparently undermining her carefully crafted image of sympathy with the people.)

As City Council turned against the Occupiers, and as the City Administrator threatened to go around the Mayor to approve a raid, Quan was apparently disconnected and feigned impotence: as a leaked email from her husband put it, “she does not set policy for the city… council does.” The very same Mayor who had approved the devastatingly brutal raid a week prior finally signed on to allow the same police, under the same police chief, with the same participating agencies, to move in and clear the camp.

This was too much for some within the Quan administration to handle. At 2am, Quan’s chief legal advisor Dan Siegel resigned via a twitter message. Siegel, who I am proud to count as a friend and a comrade, and whose civil rights law firm has tirelessly defended protestors in the past, has been for years fighting the struggle within the Quan administration against all odds. He has chosen to take a principled stand at exactly the right moment.

As Occupiers massed at the Public Library, only to march once again up 14th Street to again seize Oscar Grant Plaza with no resistance from police, the same Plaza the Mayor had just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to clear, it is clear that she has been defeated once again, and decisively so. One wonders what could possibly be next for Quan.

Occupy Philly’s “Wrong Turn”

On the opposite coast, the same script plays out. After initially expressing support for Occupy Philly, and evidently fooling many Occupiers in the process, Mayor Nutter was re-elected by a wide margin last Tuesday, freeing his hand for a radical change in course. The previous week, the Radical Caucus of Occupy Philly had brought forth a proposal to the General Assembly which simply stated that the Occupy camp would not voluntarily leave in preparation for a scheduled construction project in Dilworth Plaza, and would resist eviction. The proposal seemed to shock many who had been lulled into the false sense of security that liberal tolerance provides, but after extending discussion of a modified proposal for an entire week, a four-hour General Assembly decided almost unanimously (150 to 3) to remain in Dilworth Plaza and make preparations for nonviolent civil disobedience in the event of a raid.

Nutter’s first move came in a Sunday press conference, in which he announced his intentions to the world in so many words. “Occupy Philly has changed,” he insisted, and so to must the city’s relation with it change. Conditions had deteriorated, fire codes had been violated, and communication, according to the Mayor, had been unilaterally severed. The shadowy force behind this subtle and unwelcome change, according to Nutter, was the Radical Caucus, a frightening group that had taken over and is “bent on civil disobedience” (I only wonder why he didn’t follow suit with other cities in referring to “violence”). If the central pretext for eviction in other cities has been murder, suicide, and overdoses, in Philly it is rape: Nutter highlighted a sexual assault at the camp as an indication of just how far the movement had fallen.

If the repetition of this same strategy, discredit then evict, across the country were not enough to doubt the Mayor’s words, Occupy Philly itself was quick to respond. At a counter-press conference yesterday, speaker after speaker dismantled Nutter’s claim, piece by piece. The most shocking revelation came from the Women’s Caucus, which was quick to highlight the opportunism and hypocrisy of focusing in on the sexual assault as a pretext to attack the Occupation. As a representative of the Women’s Caucus told the press, “We asked police for help with the eviction of a sexual predator. The police said, ‘It’s not our problem. Get your men to handle it.’”

If anything, the Mayor’s slander has strengthened the resolve of those who will defend the camp from eviction, and here’s to hoping it will open the eyes of some who have claimed that the Mayor was on the side of the Occupation from day one. (The so-called “Reasonable Solutions Committee,” which had spearheaded efforts to hand the Plaza back to the city, appears to be beyond all limits of reason. Its members are now both circulating a petition to repeal the GA’s decision to remain, deemed a “Petition for the Logical” with characteristic condescension, while simultaneously betraying the Occupation as a whole by unilaterally applying for alternative permits from the city).

The Politics of War

From the messy dialectic of the spreading Occupy Movement emerge some expected developments. Solidarity develops among the occupiers, who draw strength from the successes and rage from the repression of their comrades, learning crucial and radicalizing lessons from both. Police and city administrators similarly close ranks (sometimes together, sometimes against one another) gripped with the fear that their power is splintering, that the movements have become ungovernable, that they are slipping the yoke and refusing the straitjacket. A climate of mutual polarization, radicalization, and warfare sets in.

But other unexpected dynamics surface as well, some of which play into the hands of the Occupiers. As Occupations spread from Oakland to Berkeley, the sheer number of available police becomes a question, as individual forces rely on mutual aid programs for costly, large-scale eviction efforts. Word emerges that Oakland’s efforts to remove the camp were sped-up due to the constraints imposed by the impending student strike tomorrow. Here the fallout from the brutality of the first Oakland eviction blows back on the police forces themselves: citing the excessive force in Oakland, Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to block mutual aid assistance between the Berkeley PD and UCPD.

And even those more than willing to participate in brutality have begun to demand more booty and protection: in the run-up to the second Oakland eviction this morning, the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department demanded not only $1,000 per officer per day, and the City of Alameda also demanded increased legal protection in the case of a repeat of the brutality that left Iraq veteran Scott Olson critically injured at the hands of an ACSD officer. This increasing legal scrutiny, financial strain, and sheer numerical limitations bode well for the future of Bay Area occupations and those across the nation.

I use the language of war consciously, not out of some desire for violent conclusion but out of a recognition that violence is already there. As our Egyptian comrades made clear in a statement in solidarity with Oakland, “It is not our desire to participate in violence, but it is even less our desire to lose.” Despite the asymmetrical nature of the war that confronts us, the implements are the same: few can deny the shocking militarization of police departments in recent years, or that this heavy weaponry has been all but openly deployed against the Occupiers. If Clausewitz famously argued that war is politics by other means, a formulation which Foucault slyly reversed, the practical reality of the Occupy Movement is that the two are much more difficult to disentangle from one another. Every word from the mouth of these Democratic Mayors, every leak whispered from a cop to a reporter is a rubber bullet in potentia.

I use the language of war because we will not back down, and because as a result, the war will be brought to us.

But more importantly, I speak of war because this is not a one-sided affair, and we should not allow our opponents to strip us of our status as equals simply because we do not respond in kind. Our power is nothing to scoff at, although it circulates in a manner largely distinct from that which we oppose. Just two nights ago, Occupy Portland swelled into the thousands to defend Chapman and Lownsdale squares, facing down riot police, forcing their retreat, and winning the night in the most absolute of terms. Last night, the plaza was cleared and campers removed, but traces of such a stunning initial victory remain in the confidence and compromise of the occupiers as they regroup and go once more into the breach.

And as I finish, I receive late word from Oakland that the occupiers have re-taken Oscar Grant Plaza without more than a symbolic police presence, and even later word of a massive crackdown of Zucotti Park in Lower Manhattan. Another skirmish lost, another battle won, but the long war stretches out before us like an interminable horizon.

George Ciccariello-Maher is an exiled Oaklander who lives in Philadelphia and teaches political theory at Drexel University. He can be reached at gjcm(at) 

George Ciccariello-Maher is Associate Professor of Politics and Global Studies at Drexel University and the author of We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, also published by Duke University Press.