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As the Occupy movement around the country begins to get more involved in immigrant struggles, or around the struggles of people of color more generally, complicated questions of race and risk, tactics and differential legal consequences for people of color are arising. These are complicated questions that are not new, and certainly have no clear or easy answer. This May 1st in Oakland, the main May Day march is being organized by the Coalition for Dignity and Resistance, which is comprised mainly of various immigrants’ rights groups and some people from Occupy Oakland. They are planning a permitted march from the Fruitvale neighborhood in East Oakland to Oscar Grant Plaza, with a permitted event at the Plaza. It should be noted that this has been the march route every year for the last 6 years, and it has always been permitted, in an effort to provide a safe space for undocumented immigrants to protest. Nevertheless, there was a highly contentious debate around permits in Occupy Oakland for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that the last time a permit was taken out in the Plaza (again, without Occupy Oakland’s approval) it led to targeted raids on people in the Plaza for violating the stringent terms of the permit. These reasons were made clear to the coalition and Occupy Oakland has never supported any permits in OG Plaza. The concerns on both sides are completely legitimate. The question that has arisen and has yet to be adequately answered is, “How do we come together, from different experiences, identities and politics, and work together in a way that is mutually respectful without sacrificing core commitments to our respective movements?” Personalizing these differences is not constructive. These are hard questions. How do we provide security for people in our movements? What is security? How can militant direct action take place in a way that doesn’t turn vulnerable populations into police targets?
In the often muddy overlap between race and political position, it is easy to essentialize. For white radicals this can mean drawing a political line around not granting the State legitimacy by asking permission to protest, a position I generally agree with, but one that admittedly glosses over, at times, the differential policing and legal treatment of people of color, the undocumented in particular. For organizers of color, taking the most ignorant arguments of individual white protesters as representative of all white protesters is a way of avoiding political discussion. Insinuating that the legitimate concerns about permits, and their negative consequences for Occuppiers, Occupiers of color in particular, is ultra-leftist or dismissive of communities of color itself glosses serious issues of race and police power. The crux of the matter is far more complicated.
Police, Permits and Vulnerability in Context
Oakland’s recent history of permitted events in Occupy Oakland and the earlier Oscar Grant movement should inform this discussion. In the Oscar Grant movement, multi-racial street militancy resulted in young black men facing serious charges, while white protesters largely saw their charges dropped. A legitimate debate arose in the movement, which I never felt was adequately addressed, around what we should do about this. Many black organizers pointed to the contradiction that a movement oriented towards ending police targeting of communities of color, was leading to the incarceration of more people of color. Most of the white street militants never really engaged this debate. The response was largely that white anti-capitalists don’t have any control over what the police do and we must respect a diversity of tactics. Here we had a shining example of how the “non-violent” position and the “diversity of tactics” position both missed the mark completely and people in the movement simply talked past each other, or never really engaged in the discussion. The march on November 5, 2010, after the sentencing of Johannes Mehserle, was permitted to try to create a safe place for people of color to protest. The police revoked the permit at the last minute and, when we marched anyway, arrested over 150 people in mass arrests, a large number of whom were people of color. The movement faded and the lessons were only learned by a small number of people. Talking past each other, or essentializing each other, failing to address each other’s legitimate concerns amidst political difference, on political terms, will keep us repeating these mistakes.
Looking at the history of the immigrants rights movement and the young Occupy movement shows that while seeking protection through permits often does not work, hiding behind a diversity of tactics doesn’t work either. I hope we have it in us to develop a praxis around security that seriously questions permits but also dispenses with the philosophy of “anything goes.” The same State that wants to see us all gone will never deal with us in an even-handed way. This doesn’t mean that concerns about security are liberal or that they should be dismissed. How do we come to terms with this? How do we attempt to provide security, without that security being at the whim of a police force, city government and a system of law, that wishes us harm and that we all oppose? I’m not saying I have the answer, but I think collectively we could find one. Or make one.
Occupy Oakland has never taken out a permit for any event. However a small group did take out a permit for Oscar Grant Plaza without the endorsement of Occupy Oakland. Although the permit would have ostensibly allowed people to safely maintain a presence in the park, without police harassment, this turned out to be far from reality. The permit was used in a series of late night raids on the Plaza in late-December, and into January. People were arrested for possession of a blanket, sleeping on benches, and other petty infractions that were violations of the permit, but otherwise legal. Instead of keeping the police out, the permit invited them in. One man, Kali (Marcel Johnson), was arrested for possessing a blanket, denied psych medication in jail, and is now being charged with assaulting a corrections officer. All of this started with increased and targeted policing around the enforcement of the permit. Over 40 people were arrested in these raids, many charged with trumped-up felonies. They were disproportionately people of color, particularly those facing serious charges. These two examples clearly show how, in Oakland in the last few years, permits have not kept vulnerable populations safe. In fact, permits have been used as an effective weapon against the social movements that have pursued them, particularly targeting people of color in those movements.
The Myth of Effective, “Sanctioned Non-Violence”
The strength of any movement, regardless of tactics, is its ability to disrupt the smooth functioning of the existing order. A key way that the police have sought to contain protest movements for the last four decades is through the normalization of permits. I was interviewed by Kevin Fagan of the San Francisco chronicle in the lead-up to the December 12, 2011 West Coast Port Shutdown. His questions and the article he wrote centered around, “how do we get protesters to obey police orders and peacefully submit to arrests like they did in the 60s?” He kept asking, “How can we have good relations between the police and protesters like we had in the 60s?” My head filled with images of Fred Hampton’s apartment, police dogs, FBI surveillance and political prisoners. What Fagan and his quoted police sources were alluding to, the “good, permitted, obedient” protesters of the early Civil Rights movement, is a complete historical farce. People were non-violent, people did submit to arrest, but within a very explicit strategy of taking personal risk in mostly un-permitted civil disobedience designed to expose the violence inherent in the existing order. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letter From Birmingham Jail” while being held for protesting without a permit. His words in that letter reflect his pacifist position on the law, permits, and social change very clearly:
“Sometimes a law is just on its face and unjust in its application. For instance, I have been arrested on a charge of parading without a permit. Now, there is nothing wrong in having an ordinance which requires a permit for a parade. But such an ordinance becomes unjust when it is used to maintain segregation and to deny citizens the First Amendment privilege of peaceful assembly and protest.”
There were no “free speech zones” at Civil Rights protests in part because of the overtly racist nature of the State, but also because a large part of the point was that people don’t need to ask for free speech, they have it inherently already. The attempts to suppress that free speech laid bare the bankruptcy of the Jim Crow South in a strategic way that advanced the movement. King makes clear that that was the strategy. The norms of permitted marches, and non-violent civil disobedience coordinated with police came years later, as police sought to prevent disruptive tactics, whether they be militant or pacifist. Through negotiated management the police were able to take personal risk out of the equation and obtain undue influence over social movements, which has consistently deprived many movements of their ability to effectively disrupt everyday life, regardless of the tactics used.
I am not suggesting undocumented immigrants put themselves at further risk, or that permits are a bad idea in all contexts, but we should see them as what they are, and in historical context, and weigh their costs and benefits. Are there ways in which we can keep vulnerable populations safe at protests while not counting on the police to do it for us? Four years ago, there was a large ICE raid the day after the May Day marches in the Bay Area. The community mobilized and responded, which was followed by another ICE raid the following day. These raids did not come at the marches or protests, they came after. By no means can it be argued that the permits led to the raids. It seems likely that they were timed as a means of harassment of the immigrants’ rights movement and a flaunting of the State’s power to target immigrant communities, even within the various sanctuary cities of the Bay Area. While permits are not to blame for ICE’s actions, they cannot provide the type of security they are being pursued to provide.
Occupy Oakland has never sought permits, despite the fact that we also have many people in the movement who are police targets, often racialized police targets. I have already mentioned Kali, who is looking at years in prison. An undocumented Occupier, Francisco “Pancho” Ramos-Stierle, was arrested and eventually released after public outcry. A victory, but not something we should count on in the future. We have had two people of color charged with lynching, for allegedly trying to free themselves from police custody. We have three people, two of them black, facing a hate crime charge after being attacked by a white counter-protester. Kerie Campbell, a single mother, recently had a court take her children away because she took them to Occupy events. We have unconstitutional “stay away” orders on many people from Occupy Oakland, preventing them from attending meetings and protests. We have been and will continue to resist these various repression efforts, which have only been aided by the one permit that was taken out. Another permit in Oscar Grant Plaza will surely compound these problems.
Again, I am not making an argument about militant versus pacifist tactics, but about the efforts we use or don’t use to attempt to protect the people in our movements and the likely outcomes of those efforts. This isn’t an argument to have a “diversity of tactics” march with large numbers of undocumented immigrants. I would not be surprised if we saw a bit of non-strategic militance in Oakland on May Day (away from the march), as we have seen in major Occupy actions in the past. Ironically, the biggest action Occupy Oakland be involved in, on a May Day full of various actions, is mass civil disobedience to shut down the Golden Gate Bridge, in solidarity with workers who are planning to strike that day. This is about effective, strategic disruption on one level, but this critique does not disregard the precariousness of immigrant communities or suggest that everyone should be at risk. It is an understatement to say those same communities are at risk just trying to work and live in this country. More fundamentally this critique is about the inherent problems involved with seeking state-sanctioned tools to protect people that inadvertently turn into highly effective instruments of police repression. We are all in the streets, in large part, because the State is not an arbiter of justice. Entrusting the State with legitimate jurisdiction over our actions does not guarantee security – it guarantees insecurity and future repression.
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist, currently writing a dissertation about counter-insurgency against Occupy Oakland. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.