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Oakland’s Dirty War

As winter sets in, the Occupy Movement nationwide confronts a new series of challenges. Conspiring with the weather, however, is the threat of a shifting policing model currently being tested out in Oakland.

Coercive Attrition

The Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci spoke of a distinction between “war of position” and “war of maneuver,” between those gradual and occasionally imperceptible political struggles that occur every day and the frontal attack on power toward which they eventually build. While this distinction is necessary, it should not be overstated, and nor can we associate the war of position too directly with ideological struggle and war of maneuver with direct military attacks on and by the coercive apparatus of the state. Recent events in Oakland and the strategy of coercive attrition directed against the Occupy Movement make perfectly clear just how insufficient such a correlation would be.

Recent weeks have seen the Occupy Movement confronted with a war of attrition nationwide: as cold weather sets in, many cities have opted to wait out the movement, allowing excitement to fade and the movement to devour itself in the petty squabbles of disempowerment. Often, though, this strategy of passive attrition operates alongside a more aggressive approach. In Philadelphia, for example, a hands-off approach to the now-decamped Occupy Philly operates in tandem with ferocity toward those who step out of line in a transparent attempt to bully radicals into submission (as with the case of two housing activists currently facing multiple felonies).

But it is in Oakland more than anywhere else that friendly weather and sustained militancy have given rise to a different approach, one similarly premised on chipping away at the movement through attrition and fatigue but doing so in a far more repressive manner. One key ingredient to this peculiar constellation of forces is the empty vessel perched atop the city government: Mayor Jean Quan. Quan was discredited long ago and from all sides, hated by the left for unleashing the near fatal attacks on Occupy Oakland in October, and by the right (represented by OPD and the City Council) for not taking a harder line. Now, having opted to vacillate rather than stand on the side of history, she will simply be hoping to serve out her term and avoid an embarrassing recall campaign.

This vacillation has been nowhere clearer than on the question of the epic Port Shutdowns on November 2nd and December 12th, the first of which catapulted Occupy Oakland to the forefront of the national movement, and the second of which demonstrated a capacity for coordinated militancy not seen in this country for decades at least. Since it was Quan who took the heat for the unrestrained actions of police in October, one could hardly blame the Mayor for hesitating to unleash OPD and other forces against those blocking the port. But when Quan suggested that the city might not be able to prevent future shutdowns of the port, her critics in City Council found powerful echo in Governor Jerry Brown. But for now at least, OPD’s hands are at least partially tied, an the full-on assaults of many an officer’s dream go unfulfilled for now.

Blocked from engaging in a brutal war of maneuver, OPD’s strategy has been a different one, and what remains of Occupy Oakland’s presence in Oscar Grant Plaza has seen small raids with a handful of arrests several times a week. While some interpret this half-heartedness by the forces of order as a sign of impotence, the frequency, the timing, and the serious charges incurred in the raids speak to a more sinister strategy.

“Shit’s Gonna Pop” 

I arrived at Oscar Grant Plaza in the immediate aftermath of one such raid on Friday, December 30th, where rebels circulated through the plaza denouncing the most recent skirmish. Some still carried their belongings in the familiar plastic bags, souvenirs from a recent trip to Santa Rita County Jail. The rage is palpable and growing, with many pronouncing that “shit’s gonna pop” in somber tones, and another occupier angrily insisting that “they’ll see me in hell before they see me in jail.”

Just an hour earlier, a small OPD contingent had swept into the plaza and snatched a selected few who were gathered there. Those targeted included Brian Glasscock, an Occupy Oakland organizer well-known to Oakland Police as the sound operator for many Occupy events. It was for this reason, rather than any illegal activity, that Glasscock was identified by Lieutenant Hamilton, who had targeted him previously over sound system issues, and arrested for inciting a riot. “I think their strategy is to target those they know have been around doing things and throw them in jail hoping that something will stick,” Glasscock explained to me.

This strategy was perhaps clearest in the case of Tiffany Tran, a young occupier who faced felony charges under California’s Lynching Law. Just as police have recently begun to arrest Copwatchers who record their activities under felony wiretapping laws originally intended to control the police themselves, so too is this so-called “lynching” a case of inverting a law’s original intention. Originally designed to prevent Black Americans from being seized from the hands of police by lynch mobs, this law has been deployed recently to criminalize the practice of “de-arresting” those in police custody.

With the arrests, a scheduled New Years Eve noise demonstration outside the North County lockup gained new significance. A rowdy and celebratory crowd gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza to bid adieu to an epic year in militant style, before occupying the intersection of 14th and Broadway, ignition point for many a rebellion past. As we awaited the arrival of the sound system (that Glasscock was supposed to operate), we gulped the obligatory champagne from nondescript containers. The sound system soon arrived, some faces were covered, a massive banner was unfurled that sums up the spirit of the night as bluntly as possible–“Fuck the Police”–and we were off.

A block from our destination, attention inevitably turns to OPD headquarters, where a small phalanx of riot police stand guard behind closed doors. The scene was striking, as two occupying forces faced off against one another: one, an occupying army imported from the suburbs to oppress, the other, exuberant and brimming with the optimism of a new society in the works.

Arriving at the jail, cheers rebounded off the thick walls, their echoes doubled as imprisoned comrades began to flash lights inside to make it clear that we were being seen and heard inside. But there was no question of being seen or heard: soon, the ground was shaking with M-80 blasts and fireworks were launched from the middle of the street, exploding directly outside the windows of the jail. One previously injured protester reclined in a bike-drawn-cart, decadently sipping whiskey and enjoying the show. Astonishingly, there was not a cop in sight.

Requiescat in Pace, Habeas Corpus

While the charges thrown at protesters have been consistently ridiculous and few have stood up in court, Glasscock insists that “if nothing sticks then they’ve at least fucked with that person’s week.” And in this case, the police strategy was to hold those arrested for almost an entire week: strategically arresting protesters on a Friday, and before a holiday weekend no less, meant that the habeas corpus guidelines requiring that arrestees be charged within 48 hours of arrest were flexible at best. Since this refers to 48 business hours, neither the weekend nor the Monday holiday were included, and anger mounted outside the courtroom late Tuesday afternoon as it became increasingly clear that the authorities would wait until the last possible minute to drop the charges.

Walter Riley, lawyer for those arrested and father of rapper Boots Riley, who has played a key role in the Occupy organizing around the port shutdowns, complained loudly that the actions of the police and the District Attorney constituted a transparent attack on habeas corpus, and that more direct pressure needs to be brought to bear to make it clear that we won’t accept such strategies. But given the national offensive against habeas corpus embodied in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), local authorities might rightly sense that no federal authority will leap to defend the occupiers. It was little surprise when, despite this extended display of punitive power, the charges against all those arrested were later dropped after some had spent nearly 5 days behind bars.

But there would be little time for celebration when those arrested were released on Wednesday, as OPD again swept into the plaza later that evening in a repeat performance of the prior week. Again, there were a handful of arrests. Again, these were highly targeted, with eyewitnesses recounting how police broke off to arrest occupiers who had crossed the street to avoid a conflict. The vocal and militant Tactical Action Committee seemed to be the primary target, with some of the previous arrestees overhearing guards talking about how they wanted to get one member in particular. And again, the charges would have been laughable were they not a part of a broader and overarching strategy of containment.

Targeted Terror

One occupier known as Ali had become a clear target for repression due to his visibility, and even those arrested on the 30th had overheard officers discussing how the hoped to get their hands on him. On Wednesday the 4th, OPD seemed determined to do just that, chasing Ali across the street to arrest him. When they did so, he explained to me, officer Phan reached into his back pocket before feigning surprise and insisting that he was “going away for a long time” because they had found him to be in possession of ecstasy. Some in the Anti-Repression Committee believe that it was only the presence of the Livestream camera, and the fact that Ali immediately began to shout about the attempt to plant drugs, that prevented the charges from being successfully fabricated. Ali was later charged with misdemeanor obstruction.

A member of the recently-formed Anti-Repression and Solidarity Committee (ARC) of Occupy Oakland explained to me that the movement has seen in recent weeks a broad arc of repression, beginning on December 28th with the clearing of a small camp established in West Oakland by the Tactical Action Committee, followed the next day by the raid and arrests at an occupied house on Mandela Parkway. The most recent raids were but an upping of the stakes, she explained, adding that “I think the idea is that if they can bog us down in as many legal battles as possible, we won’t be able to restart this movement… Why would they come and raid the plaza when it’s just an info table and a food tent? They’re afraid if they don’t get rid of it it will just get bigger.”

Laleh, also a member of the ARC, feels that beyond merely the organizational toll taken by the targeting of key committee members, the police strategy is one of terror. “The fact that they have been chasing particular people and ignoring others has had a psychological effect, instilling a terror in people that wasn’t there before.” If these were isolated cases they could be accidental, she argues, but the fact that groups have been repeatedly arrested, slapped with charges, and held for days only to see the charges dismissed “makes the strategy clear.” The District Attorney needs to step in and restrain the OPD, she insists.

This strategy also includes both fishing for parolees and attempting to provoke prisoners. “Everyone who is coming out is reporting targeting and segregation while in country jail, all kinds of physical abuse, taunting by COs, and even sleep deprivation,” Laleh explains, and all this in an effort to get a reaction that can lead to more charges (this seems to have been at play in the case of an occupier named Khali, who is being charged with assaulting an officer after his psychiatric medication was reportedly withheld for days).

Thankfully, though, not everyone is terrified, and an anonymous ARC member sees signs of the breakdown of the strategy of attrition both by occupiers and by the police themselves: at a “Fuck the Police March” called in response to the arrests, OPD officers clearly went beyond what the city had hoped, knocking a woman off her bike and beating her, firing rubber bullets, and allegedly breaking another marcher’s arm. More importantly still, the OPD’s strategy of low-level warfare “isn’t scaring people, it’s only making them angrier.”

When the Philadelphia Police Department wanted to destroy the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), they did not feel hindered by legal niceties: police arrested the RAM membership nearly every day on imaginary charges, knowing full well the toll taken on movements by even demonstrating the falseness of the ridiculous. Now, faced with the Occupy Movement, it would seem as though some local police agencies are once again taking a page from the PPD playbook on coercive attrition. Legality and its opposite thus march hand-in-hand, as a movement is harassed with impunity.

After Winter, Another Spring Looms

We press toward spring in this age of riots, closing an annual circuit opened in North Africa, but with no end in sight to the global cycle of struggle unleashed by Mohamed Bouazizi’s literal self-sacrifice. As I depart Oakland, this sinister war of position continues unabated, but and impending war of maneuver looms almost as certainly as the sun sets over the Golden Gate Bridge.

January 1st marked the 3rd anniversary of Oscar Grant’s murder by BART officer Johannes Mehserle, an event which opened a more localized cycle of struggle that in many ways laid the organizational foundations for Occupy Oakland’s peculiar militancy while teaching those in the streets a lesson in their own power. This year, organizers, myself included, marked this somber day with a march of several hundred between two popularly baptized locations: beginning in Oscar Grant Plaza, we retraced in reverse the path of the 2009 rebellions, covering miles of familiar ground before arriving at Oscar Grant Station (Fruitvale), where he was killed. Family, friends, and activists took to the stage at the memorial, remembering Oscar and the struggle bearing his name, and promising to keep up the fight by establishing an automatic response system with demonstrations at 14th and Broadway every time the police kill.

Monday at 5am, the momentum of the Port Shutdown will stretch its roots into fertile local soil, as Occupy Oakland will staff a “hard picket” of the American Licorice Factory in support of striking workers. If this uptick in worker militancy doesn’t prompt a frontal assault by the state, then the planned takeover of a large building on January 28th likely will, and if not this, then perhaps the impending blockade of the Port of Longview in Washington State, or the growing anger at ICE’s “silent raids” taking their toll on undocumented communities across the Bay Area.

Wandering around Oscar Grant Plaza, one phrase is on many lips: “There’s always spring.” But in this land of perpetual spring, seasons are but metaphors, and as the kindling is stacked ever higher, any of these moments could provide the spark. Spring looms, heavy with the promise of the future, but foreboding in the guarantee that its birth will be a violent one.

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)drexel.edu. 

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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.

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