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"Oakland is Closed!" (Oscar Grant)
Arrest and Containment Fail to Blunt Anger in the Streets
"Oakland is Closed!"
By GEORGE CICCARIELLO-MAHER
Writing in the context of the Algerian Revolution, Frantz Fanon was a merciless critic of the moderating efforts of self-appointed political leaders. When confronted with mass rebellion, such leaders will immediately use the threat of violence as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the oppressors, promising to pacify the masses if reforms are made. As Fanon describes it in The Wretched of the Earth,
Of course, between colonial Algeria and postindustrial Oakland, there are undeniable differences. But while Fanon’s context is not our own, the acuity of his understanding of revolutionary political dynamics is unparalleled, and two weeks on from the police murder of Oscar Grant III by transit police officer Johannes Mehserle, his words bear heeding if we are to avoid succumbing to the divide-and-conquer strategies of the oppressors.
“An Intentional Act”
The rebellion which shook the streets of Oakland a week ago has irreversibly changed the political equation surrounding the murder, as rebellions tend to do. The Midas touch of popular action leaves little intact. Several days ago, rumors swirled that California Attorney General Jerry Brown was leaning hard on Alameda Country District Attorney Tom Orloff to conclude his investigation and charge Mehserle quickly in order to head off any potential disruption at a scheduled Wednesday rally. This pressure yielded quick results: Orloff issued a warrant for murder, claiming that “the evidence indicates is an unlawful killing done by an intentional act, and from the evidence we have there is nothing that would mitigate that.” Moreover with the Grant family claiming that he and other officers used racial slurs the night of the execution, many will no doubt push for a hate crime enhancement. Mehserle was duly arrested, not in California, but across state lines in Nevada. While this was ostensibly for security in the face of death threats, state lines are more effective against police jurisdiction than death threats.
It would seem that all was well in Oakland, but it’s worth asking how such pressure came to bear on the Attorney General and D.A. in the first place. Protest organizers insist on avoiding this thorny question, for fear that they may be painted with the brush of violence, but only those in bad faith could realistically deny that it was the street-level resistance of a week ago that led the state to act. Could anyone actually argue with a straight face that Mehserle’s arrest resulted from anything but the threat of continued rebellion on the streets?
“Listening to George Jackson”
But it is this most basic of truths that protest organizers from the newly-formed Coalition Against Police Executions (CAPE) have insistently ignored. After the events of last week, the ostensible organizers of the demonstration at Fruitvale BART were among the first to attack the anger expressed later that night. One organizer was brought to tears by the scenes on the television, claiming that his hard work had been “destroyed by a group of anarchists.” There is a distinct irony here, as those who peddling the “outside agitators” line were almost without exception absent on Wednesday, admitting that they watched events unfold on television. The insistence that it was “anarchists” who led the youth astray that night has been thoroughly discredited by those actually present, including KPFA reporter and Prisoners of Conscience Committee (POCC) Minister of Information JR, who insists that: “I have seen many reports talking about white invaders taking over the rebellion, which is b.s.” He adds:
Where did the “outside agitator” sound byte, with all its paternalistic and racist implications, come from in the first place? As one might suspect, it was the police who first deployed it, the media who followed, and the unwitting organizers who followed. At a “town hall meeting” led by black clergy and community leaders, CAPE organizers and other speakers were tacitly criticized for their criticism of the black youth who took to the streets to express a righteous fury, and for using the “anarchist” line to divide the movement. Representatives of both Baptist churches and the Nation of Islam pointedly emphasized that anger at Grant’s murder was justified, with Reverend Kane thunderously insisting that we shouldn’t blame the youth in the streets for “listening to George Jackson” and “uncompromising revolutionaries” instead of the prophets of nonviolence.
And another truth was affirmed at that meeting, which it should be noted represented a largely middle-class segment of Oakland’s black community: much like at the Fruitvale BART protest, it was these most militant voices who received the loudest applause. But while this was obvious to many onlookers, the lesson was not reflected in CAPE’s subsequent organizing efforts.
A Culture of Fear
In the run-up to Wednesday’s official demonstration, it became clear that those dissenting from CAPE’s strategy of moderation were unwelcome. While the organizing committee said that they welcomed a broad range of participants, all major decisions had been made beforehand, and the politics of reconciliation endorsed by the coalition was hidden behind an appeal to the desires of the Grant family (although a member of that family had expressed a different view at the previous town meeting). Those who dissented from the now-discredited claim of “outside agitators” were shouted down, and efforts to add an amnesty for all those arrested last Wednesday to CAPE’s list of demands were rejected out of hand.
Things became more serious on the topic of security, which organizers deemed the “top priority.” While you might have thought this meant securing the well-being of the marchers in an atmosphere of rampant police violence, this was in reality more about securing the public image of CAPE from public and media criticism. Security was placed in the hands of a self-selected committee, and headed by a private security officer with a private security mentality: surround the march entirely and intersperse unidentified informants to root out possible troublemakers. A solitary protest, insisting that we not “recreate police structures” or facilitate a “culture of fear,” was ruled out-of-order on procedural grounds and met with a deafening consensus of silence.
But one error stood out above all others: the organizers’ open neglect for the obvious fact that the attention paid by Mayor Dellums and D.A. Orloff to the case, the national media attention it garnered, and the subsequent arrest of Mehserle were only the result of last week’s rebellion.
“I See A Lot of Warriors Out There”
The official march gathered outside City Hall in Frank Ogawa Plaza, with speakers including Mayor Ron Dellums, rapper Too $hort, and CAPE leadership, all of whom emphasized the “peaceful” nature of the gathering. Much like last Wednesday night, Dellums was greeted by a mixture of sparse applause and booing, despite being introduced by CAPE leader Dereca Blackmon as an ally in the struggle for change. More than 1,000 outraged Oaklanders then proceeded down 14th Street, walking in the footsteps of those who had taken to the streets in a more militant fashion a week prior. After gathering outside the office of the D.A. and hearing several more speakers, the crowd turned to return to City Hall, led by the roaring engines of several motorcycles blaring hyphy hip-hop for an energized crowd. Police and march security darted here and there, attempting to defuse any disruptions.
Upon returning to City Hall, marchers were corralled by CAPE security into Frank Ogawa Plaza once again, and all remained calm for the moment. But despite the best efforts of the CAPE organizing committee, it was clear that not all speakers shared their analysis of the events leading up to the state’s decision to arrest Mehserle. The final speaker insisted that not even arrest or conviction was sufficient, since “that pig was just doing what pigs do.” It was police policy that needed to be changed, and continued militant action was the only way that this could be accomplished. As he concluded, the speaker added a knowing observation alongside a plea: “I see a lot of warriors out there,” he said, “and I just want to ask you to make sure that the babies and the children get home safely tonight.”
But this radical message would be redirected and distorted through CAPE’s nonviolent lens, as a representative would immediately insist that, “you heard the man, let’s all go home with our children and keep it peaceful.”
As the crowd left the plaza, CAPE security cordons sought to direct people across Broadway on 14th and onward toward home, but many had not finished for the evening. As the crowd poured into the street and made clear its intention to remain, a line of riot police formed behind the security cordon. The same chants heard a week ago made an encore appearance, specifically, “No Justice, No Peace, Fuck the Police!” In an ingenious display of pageantry the security force channeled this unrest into a gesture of victory, convincing the police to stand down momentarily.
But this symbolic victory was to be short-lived. The street remained crowded with even more protestors than a week prior, and those gathered had clearly not been pacified by Mehserle’s arrest. When it became clear that the crowd would not disperse voluntarily, it was announced that the police would return in 10 minutes, and that the streets needed to be cleared. And when this still didn’t work, march security took it upon themselves to move the crowd, forming cordons, linking arms, and physically pushing the angry demonstrators off the streets. If Herbert Marcuse was concerned with “repressive tolerance,” here was a case of repression under a scarcely tolerant veneer.
Not all of the security team agreed with these tactics. Some had even broken from the “official” security orientation in disagreement, and when the streets were being cleared, others removed their vests and refused to participate in this policing of the streets. The clear irony of the situation was this: here were representatives of those same “community leaders” who had a week prior denounced the “manipulation” of the city’s youth, physically pushing those same young people off the street.
If the effort required to physically push peaceful demonstrators off the street was not proof enough that the self-appointed security apparatus did not represent the will of those angry youth present at the rally, then what happened a moment later would make this astonishingly clear. After a conflict between protestors and fundamentalist Christian provocateurs, the security force made the amateurish mistake of leaving unattended those whom they had just put so much effort into moving off the streets.
Without a minute’s delay, the crowd returned to the street, this time at 13th and Broadway. A few more sweeps with security cordons proved ineffective, and seemed only to agitate some of the protestors, who entered into open conflict with the security team (with the mainstream press claiming that there was even a physical confrontation at one point). As a last-ditch effort, some security officials were seen consulting directly with police and a city councilperson, but toward what end it remains unclear. Realizing that they had clearly lost control of the situation, and in an effort to publicly wash their hands of the rebelliousness, CAPE’s security detail made a very public retreat.
To be clear: the internal security team were neither infiltrators nor police (as some had suggested last week), but merely an unfortunate example of what happens when well-meaning, nonviolent organizers adopt a police mindset and step in to play the role of the oppressors in an effort to blunt popular rage. And to be even clearer: there is nothing wrong with popular security or revolutionary discipline, but when imposed on those most affected against their will, popular sentiment will either prevail or suffer repression.
“Oakland Is Closed, Go Home”
After the security team withdrew, it was only a few short minutes before a young black protestor took five flying kicks at a bus stop window, thereby setting the tone for what would follow. As the first glass disintegrated onto the pavement, a crowd of youths of all colors rushed in as if on cue, venting its rage on a nearby Wells Fargo. Within seconds, a half dozen teargas canisters landed in the vicinity, and the crowd scattered. Either by design or sheer contingency, most ran into the City Center Mall, demolishing a number of storefronts, but these were not the “mom and pop” businesses that had borne the brunt a week ago, but instead mostly large chains. (The press, never above even the most ridiculous of contradictions, would later refer to the destruction of “Oakland landmarks, like Jamba Juice and Radio Shack”).
The best among the security volunteers had remained, encouraging the crowd to stay smart, to stay in groups, and to avoid arrest. After the police had enforced a degree of calm, heated debates broke out on the sidewalks, which clearly reflected the class cleavages that divided the majority of the marchers from those who took to the streets afterward. One man was enraged by the efforts of well-dressed black onlookers to disarm his anger: “you can’t tell me shit! These motherfuckers sent me to the hospital, I had tubes coming out all over my body! We’re the ones that are suffering!” Another, who identified himself as a close friend of the late Gary King, confronted an apparently middle-class black woman who attempted to restrain him. Infuriated, he singlehandedly confronted an entire line of riot cops, cursing and spitting on their visors, and was very nearly assaulted in response.
If age and class clearly distinguished those who attended the march from those who remained in the streets, then we are right to wonder which of these groups has a more acute awareness of police violence. While many in “the community” more generally certainly hoped for a peaceful response to the murder of Oscar Grant, those who voted with their feet for militant action were largely those most affected by police repression in Oakland.
OPD again decided to make a tactical withdrawal, hoping a hands-off approach would defuse tensions, circling the city in cruisers with their right rear doors slightly open for easy deployment. But when the remaining protestors refused to disperse, police returned on motorcycles, one making the apocryphal loudspeaker announcement: “Oakland is closed, go home.” A small group of police gathered near a crowd of young black men, and when the signal was given they advanced into the crowd, dividing it in two and arresting a young man for no reason whatsoever, in what appeared to be an open provocation. The rest of the night, small lines of riot police physically pushed small groups of protestors up the street, back and forth, until one-by-one they relented and decided to call it a night. Some 18 arrests have been reported in total, with some bystanders claiming to have been arrested for no reason.
“The Bullet or the Bullet”
In a written response to the murder of Oscar Grant, revolutionary Bay Area rapper Paris had the following to say on the subject of a “peaceful” response to police murder:
Rather, Paris insists that only militant action will be able to create any change: “I’ve heard the calls for calm after our brother’s murder and to stop the violence...and I disagree… If an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind, then I guess we’ll all be bumpin’ into shit, ‘cause this has to stop now.” Whether we agree or not with Paris’ strategic prescriptions, at the very least he has grasped better than many the political dynamics that have unfolded in the case of Oscar Grant. The city only responded when threatened with continued militant action in the streets: it is this that explains the sudden interest that Mayor Dellums , the District Attorney, and the state Attorney General showed in the case, and it is this alone that explains the hasty arrest carried out Tuesday.
There is little that the moderate leaders fear more than “this impatient violence of the masses,” and they will go out of their way, according to Fanon, to dismiss and discredit it: “The official leaders, draped in their years of experience, will pitilessly disown these ‘adventurers and anarchists’.” Fanon himself was no friend of anarchists, but nor did he approve of a self-appointed leadership that would kidnap the popular will. While initially effective, those leaders promoting the strategy of moderation and conciliation would soon find themselves obsolete, outpaced by the action of the masses, who discover their own strength by using it. “The consciousness of the people rebels against any pacificiation. From now on the demagogues, the opportunists, and the magicians have a difficult task.”
The events of the last week are but a warning, both to the powers that be in Oakland and the United States and to the self-appointed leadership of resistance movements. To the city, county, state, and nation: arrest is not enough, conviction will not be enough. And to the CAPE leadership, in the Fanonian spirit of unity: don’t be so rigid as to be outpaced by the masses in the street, and if you are, accept your obsolescence with grace.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at UC Berkeley. He lives in Oakland, and can be reached at gjcm(at)berkeley.edu.