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Activists and Anarchists Speak for Themselves at Occupy Oakland
Compared to the rest of the country, Occupy Oakland is still on fire.
Anti-Occupy graffiti in downtown Oakland, February 6. (Photo: Susie Cagle)
January 28 was not supposed to turn out the way it did. After Occupy Oakland failed to occupy its first two targeted buildings and had a short-lived street battle in front of the Oakland Museum, police in riot gear contained the march of nearly 1,000 in a public park. There was a dispersal order, but no means of escape. Protesters with shields attempted to push the police line, which responded with several volleys of tear gas into the crowd, still trapped. Instead of enduring the gas, the crowd pulled down chain-link fencing that separated them from the street and safety.
As marchers, both masked and bare faced, continued north, taking the street, they chanted powerfully, suddenly and without reservation:
As the move-in committee said Monday in a statement on January 28: "This time, the chant was not an empty one."
This principle, this fight, appears to be at the heart of recent critiques of "anarchists," "Black Bloc" and the tactics some choose to employ in political protest, especially in Oakland. Chris Hedges' "Black Bloc" takedown is only the most recent in a series of critiques bashing anarchists and "diversity of tactics" within the national Occupy movement since January 28th's fog of tear gas has dissipated. While previous criticisms came from the right or center of the political spectrum, these perspectives are arising from the left and mainly from journalists who have not been in the field to witness these tactics in action and within context.
"A lot of anarchists today who are actively involved at all levels of the occupy movement - if you want to talk about inspiration, they look to places like Greece," says Tim Simons, an organizer with Occupy Oakland.
But so does Hedges. In May of 2010, amid global financial faltering, Hedges celebrated the Greek insurrection:
But those strikes, riots and shut-downs in America are troubling to Hedges and other Occupy Oakland critics on the left. These critics focus on property destruction - such as the tearing down of those fences on January 28 - by perceived black bloc "hooligans" as a discrediting force in the movement, even while they understand the role of focused property destruction at, say, the Boston Tea Party, or in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's struggle against EGT in Longview, Washington.
What many activists find most troubling is not the conclusions those critics draw about tactical choices within the movement, but the lack of information they apparently have in arriving at these conclusions and a lack of interest in why those tactical choices were made in the first place.
For example, they find Hedges' conflation of political ideology and protest strategy, at its core, problematic, as well as his apparent misunderstanding of the local Oakland activist community.
Oakland's large, active, organized community of anarchists and other political radicals are just that: large; active; and, above all, organized. It is true that many are young, white and not Oakland natives, though they are residents. But many believe in community building and mutual aid. And many of those using black bloc at occupy protests are not necessarily anarchists.
Hedges "is really out of touch with anarchists today," says Simons, who dismisses John Zerzan, the anarchist ideologue Hedges points to as the Black Bloc forefather. "Anarchists were very important in creating Occupy Oakland. They were in some ways the initial glue that held the camp together" - the one Hedges applauds as having such "broad appeal" that cities were forced to shut them down using oppressive means. "Very quickly Occupy Oakland became much more than that, but you wouldn't have Occupy Oakland if it wasn't for those anarchists," says Simons.
The 99 percent is a poor class analysis, especially for troubled Oakland, but it does point to the broad coalition necessary to create change in America today. "In this situation, even to make the most modest gains, you have to bring about a force that's nearly a revolutionary force," says Simons. "We have to show that we can fully disrupt the system, even if we just want reforms."
Of course, many within Occupy Oakland do not just want reforms - they want revolution, insurrection, overthrow and smash. But there has been only one event where that group came out in a bloc and utilized the tactics that so trouble Hedges and other Occupy Oakland critics on the left and it happened in the middle of what is arguably still seen as one of the movement's greatest victories: the General Strike.
On November 2, an autonomously organized anti-capitalist black bloc marched through Oakland, destroying windows and other property at banks and, allegedly, strike-busting businesses such as Whole Foods.
The tactic, which emerged in the early 1980s in Germany among autonomist protesters defending squatters rights and anti-nuclear activism, hit America hard in the anti-globalization demonstrations of the late '90s, especially in the "Battle of Seattle," which resulted in heavy damage of multinational retail property in downtown. That November 2 march was arguably one of the most focused showings of stateside black bloc in a decade. That march resulted in the Oakland police calling in mutual aid, but it did not result in a discrediting of the national movement; tens of thousands still marched on the Port of Oakland hours later.
"That was at the height of the Occupy movement; that was as it was cresting," says Simons. "There was so much else going on, you couldn't isolate that and point to it as the singular problem. And now the militancy of Oakland is sort of like the only thing out there." The peaceful but militant blockade of the Port of Oakland on December 12, with its lack of union leader support, garnered Occupy Oakland more criticism than the black bloc actions on November 2.
Black bloc is not a lifestyle choice, but a tactical one. When a protester takes off their mask and unzips their black jacket - as many did after that November 2 march - they are no longer "black bloc." A protester who engages in black bloc tactics on one march may not choose to engage in them again on another.
Hedges condemns property destruction in political protest by condemning black bloc tactics, regardless of the facts. The "local coffee shop" vandalism Hedges contends was committed by black bloc was in fact one window of a corporate coffee chain smashed in that post-strike fog of war - and by someone not wearing a mask, not wearing black. The people who broke into City Hall on January 28, and many of those who destroyed property there, were also largely unmasked. And both of these acts came immediately after, as in within minutes of, violent mass kettling and arrest actions.
Of course, when Hedges and other critics pointed to Occupy Oakland's failures on January 28, they were not talking about black bloc - those torn fences and an autonomous and unfocused city hall melee were the only property destruction Oakland saw that day. No, they mean Occupy protesters who choose to stand up to the police. And for Hedges and others on the left hoping Occupy makes strides toward national change, standing up to the police is a public relations liability and those who do it should be "purged" from the movement - an arguably violent claim in and of itself.
"People want a boogeyman," says occupier Laura Long. "They want to know what's failing. And they want to blame it on someone." Mayor Jean Quan repeatedly points to Occupy Oakland's lack of a nonviolence resolution as justification for repeated crackdowns and arrests. As one Oakland occupier said recently, "Even if we had a non-violence proposal, they'd still shoot us." And people would still throw things, as they do at Occupy Wall Street, which has a stated nonviolent mission.
The "diversity of tactics" Occupy Oakland embraces are ostensibly meant to promote a range of protest. "There is nothing preventing those who want to from organizing non-violent direct actions autonomously with clear guidelines as such," wrote the January 28 move-in committee. "This is what we mean by diversity of tactics."
Those who promote the necessity at times for property destruction in protest point to the history of violent revolution worldwide. "Even Gandhi wasn't in a bubble," one occupier said. "Others were being violent around him. That revolution took all tactics."
Hedges writes that the "cliché of 'diversity of tactics' in the end opens the way for hundreds or thousands of peaceful marchers to be discredited by a handful of hooligans. The state could not be happier."
At least so long as they can squash those hooligans. "I think it was tactically embarrassing," says occupier Steven Angell of January 28. "Luckily there was little to no framing to it, except for, 'Fuck you, we're the Oakland Commune.' Which I don't know if that constitutes framing."
Hedges goes on to criticize black bloc protesters as using pacifists as "human shields." While Occupy Oakland has not passed a resolution stating as much, demonstrations have followed the St. Paul's Principles, which arose from protests at the Republican National Convention in 2008 - "a separation of time and place," according to Simons. This has held true since the November 2 General Strike devolved into a confusing mess of those diverse tactics, as some occupiers tried to take and hold a building, while others were more focused on lighting barricades on fire.
The much-covered weekly "Fuck the Police" marches, autonomous actions "in solidarity" with Occupy Oakland, explicitly acknowledge if not condone targeted property destruction and dissuade "peace police." Families with children broke off from the march to the building on January 28, before the brief street battle.
"There was no black bloc. The front lines of the street battle that captured all the images were peace signs. No one even mentions it: that was the image of clashing with the police," says Angell. "If that's what a black bloc is, that's depressing to me. I personally am not going to throw a brick through a window, but I have some investment in the black bloc as a tactic and if that's what it is, if that's it at its most threatening, then that's just really sad."
Angell promotes community organizing and substantive outreach as a way of growing the movement, but does not rule out the necessity of more militant tactics. Others who were shot at that day, including Simons, contend that "shield bloc" moved as one, and "really saved our asses" from further injury. "People were more aware and there was more communication that day than in past conflicts with police," says Simons. "In that way, it was a success."
The tactical questions Hedges raises on Occupy Oakland's behalf are not unjustified. The radical inclusivity that Occupy Oakland champions in its diversity of tactics has and does alienate those dedicated to wholly nonviolent protest. But just as after the failed building occupation on November 2, Bay Area occupiers are questioning their strategies moving forward. Governments meet force with force - this is the tactic they understand best and may be the best argument against premature insurrection.
A full plastic water bottle lobbed at police in full riot gear, whether it hits one of them or not, is enough to legally warrant the shooting of less lethal, rubber-coated steel bullets at a crowd. Occupiers, of course, threw more than just water bottles on January 28 - glass bottles, bricks, lawn chairs - but police, according to their own statements, sustained no injuries beyond two small cuts and one bruise. They sent more than one protester to the hospital that day for broken bones, internal bleeding and nerve damage. No one can agree on who attacked first.
The buildings Occupy Oakland marched toward were not targeted for destruction, but for squatting, for organization and for political and community building. And the protesters who came armed with plastic, wood and metal shields, who both moved on and defended others from the police, were not a bloc, were not dressed in black and did not move as one unit.
But Occupy Oakland was outmatched on January 28 and their efforts were met with overwhelming force.
"They got the sexy spectacle, which is what a lot of people were after, I think," says Long. "And a lot of occupy groups from all over got to have their fantasy happen elsewhere - they didn't have to live through the danger, but they got the sexy imagery of their comrades going through this sort of battle scene." And they didn't get their building.
When is, as Occupy Oakland says, "smashy-smashy" used for ostensibly political purposes and when is it an emotional reaction?
As one anarchist occupier said at a general assembly after November 2, "It's a lot more violent to foreclose on somebody and throw them out of a house than throw a rock through a window. And if that's how people deal with things, then that's how they get it out and we can't tell people how to live."
That institutionalized violence against people, especially people in Oakland, is something these critics gloss over. Some in Occupy Oakland call a consistent pacifist protest approach a "position of privilege" - a position taken by those who have not been in a situation where they have needed to defend themselves against violence, be it economic, physical or otherwise.
"Violence," "defense" and "fighting back," are subjective and malleable terms. To some, chaining oneself to a door in a blockade of a bank is a violent act. What of taking a street in an unpermitted march? That's criminal, too.
"I have no interest in being a 'peaceful protester,'" says Angell. "We're all criminals. People need to accept that." But many within Occupy reject this notion, stating that they are standing up for their First Amendment rights - rights that, for example, do not allow for the blocking of public streets, of banks, of ports.
Hedges and others state that images of peaceful protesters attacked by police will be enough to win the war of public relations, to win hearts and minds. For Hedges, pepper spray is something to be savored. When things "get violent," the onus is on occupiers to keep the peace; the moral authority lies with those engaging in political protest, those seeking change, as opposed to those maintaining the status quo. When the public sees that righteousness, this logic goes, they will be turned. Lay your bodies on the gears, protesters, be ground up and hope for the best. Hope for the cameras.
At this still-early stage in the movement, Occupy is a PR war. But to win that PR war, Occupy Oakland must rely on that information being consistently and accurately reported. The major networks and newspapers had few reporters out on January 28. Even the most spectacular planned events that capture media attention in this mid-sized, economically-depressed city are still reported in a way that mainly reflects the city's accounts of events. The 24-hour vigil at City Hall Plaza, the foreclosure defenses, the squats of foreclosed buildings, the pop-up gardens and tongue-in-cheek homemade boats on Lake Merritt - none of these actions captured the camera's gaze until the police came, until arrests were made.
The actions of black bloc occupiers in Portland this week have received far less coverage than the shields of Occupy Oakland. Smashy fits Oakland's narrative of violence, not Portland's.
"A riot is the language of the unheard," said Martin Luther King. And Oakland is a city of the unheard, a city of tremendous institutionalized violence, a city of empty and blighted bank-owned homes, a city that saw riots and mass arrests just a year ago in response to police brutality, all before Occupy has a name or public face.
Regardless of where that riotous energy is focused next, Hedges and others would be well served to spend some time in Oakland and its occupation in order to better cover it.
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