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Your Sentiment is not the Collective Truth, and The State is Only One of Many Enemies
A Response to After the Crest II: The Oakland Commune (http://www.crimethinc.com/blog/2013/09/10/after-the-crest-pt-ii-the-oakland-commune/)
“After the Crest II”, a recent article about Occupy Oakland, is framed as an objective historical “analysis”. It narrates a specific series of events that were momentous and emotional for some people, and that were followed by “a process of grief” lasting 1 1/2 years. For us, this is a highly biased and emotionally inflected account that does not represent our experience. For the authors of ATCII, there is one narrative, one set of wonderful things, one set of bad things, one sorry state of post-movement mourning. No doubt anyone who tries to tell the story of Occupy Oakland will have their own version that others will contest. And certainly emotions are important. But there is a degree of complexity and indeterminacy that characaterizes social uprisings, especially when they are brief, diverse, and intense, that is utterly smothered by this text. (1)
From the outset, ATCII presumes that everyone agrees that November 2 was the “high water mark” of the movement. But for many people, the two-week camp was the high point; for others, it was January 28 when the cops were forced to retreat in the face of our shields; for others, it was the weekly massive general assemblies where actions were set in motion, controversies were aired, and camp protocol was collectively hammered out; for others, it was west coast Port shutdown, or the massive march through the streets of Stockton that set off a wave of organizing there ( events this article does not mention). And for many of us, it was a combination of all or many of these things. These are not conjectures, this is what we feel and what others have told us. And so, to begin with, we ask for a little more humility and self-reflection in the act of writing such an assessment.
Aside from the more spectacular moments which led to confrontations with the police, the authors disregard or minimize, or mention only in passing, the many organizing efforts that arose in the wake of the camp(2), as well as ongoing struggles and collectives that pre-existed the camp (3). These efforts were, like the camp itself, attempts to produce “forms of life defined by mutual aid, self-organization, and autonomous action” which is how the authors describe the heart and soul of the camp, but they are lost to the narrative of ATCII.
History is not a line graph
We agree with the author’s characterization of what they call “the camp form”, which was about “producing a form of life defined by mutual aid, self-organization, and autonomous action. It was about defending spaces free from police, politicians, and bosses, and the necessarily violent conflict between those zones and the surrounding capitalist world on which the camps nonetheless depended. Oakland took this about as far as it could go within the framework of Occupy, establishing a zone that fed and sheltered hundreds of people each day—sometimes thousands—in brazen defiance of the city officials fifty yards away in City Hall and the cops “
But rather than consider the extraordinary solidarity and cooperation between peoples and groups that emerged during and since the camp and Nov.2nd, instead of analyzing the spread of radicalism that OO engendered and how people are working and could work further to consolidate it, the authors are concerned with the “sobering task” of narrating “the decline of Occupy Oakland”. There is a quasi-obsession with defining precisely, at what moment, according to the authors, the ”momentum was lost”. There is a determination to create distinctions between different tendencies and to establish identities that supposedly emerged as the movement declined post November 2nd. This is a dismally linear view of history and historical processes that ignores the many-layered dynamics that lead people to become radicals and revolutionaries and that teach us how to fight together and support each other. It also does nothing to problematize the distinction between ‘radicals’ or ‘revolutionaries’ (in ATCii described as “comrades”) and other people. Some of those other people are the people fighting against the police every day, all over Oakland. Some of these people do more to cultivate mutual aid and self-organization than the groups glorified by ATCII. This text ultimately reveals more about the “insurrectionist” and “left-communist” ideology of the authors than it does about the movement itself. Their account creates divisions and reinforces hierarchies between those who have resources and access to certain mediums, skills, and material goods, and those who do not, or who have less. It writes a history dominated by people like them.
Who Matters to You?
For example, the authors of ATCII carve up the post-Nov, 2nd movement into different factions: the “insurrectionaries and comrades” who organized J28, versus the mischaracterized “labor solidarity wing”, versus the “radicals and rebels” who held down the camp and launched other occupations around the city (The latter group is described almost tangentially in the article, despite its central role in OO, in our opinion). We, the authors of this response, took part in all of these things. We didn’t feel divided. Our feelings don’t matter more than the authors of ATCII, our point is only that there were many perceptions of this situation, and ours seriously conflicts with theirs.
Organizing with labor was particularly singled out and dismissed as “delusional” or “naïve.”(4) But was the attempt to organize a strike in conjunction with rank-and-file union members (not with “the union” itself) that succeeded in shutting down ports up and down the West Coast, (but failed in its plan to physically impede an international shipping company’s scab shipment) any more “naïve” and “delusional” than the organization of “militant” marches designed to create confrontations with cops without any other objective, when our numbers had already dramatically shrunk and the cops were outsmarting us at every turn? And surely the loose and confusing march to take over an enormous building in the Center of downtown Oakland (the Kaiser building), which was protected by swarms of police, was absolutely “naïve” (although it was nonetheless wonderful for many of us)!
On the other hand, we learn in great detail about a couple of small marches that were held previous to OO. “The relationships built over the summer by a small group” are described as though they were the most important factor in the creation of OO, rather than simply one of the many catalysts that set the movement going. Thus OO is described as the “blossoming of the potential” of a handful of (predominantly white) militants! Attributing so much importance to a small group of enlightened militants is typical of a certain self-aggrandizing, vanguardist insurrectionist approach. Insofar as it elevates the role of a marginal group of mostly white, educated, often middle-class or upwardly-mobile kids (many of them recently moved to the Bay area) while discounting the participation and role of other critical groups, it can be seen to contribute to a white supremacist narrative. The homeless and disenfranchised people who made up an enormous part of the camp, many of whom became powerful political agents for the first time, launching initiatives and projects within and without Occupy, are an afterthought in this piece. The Black and Brown organizers of Oakland who had been working for years and decades on anti-police-brutality, on prisoner solidarity, gang injunctions, education, the rights of Black women, queer and trans youth of color, are wiped away.
One sentence in particular indicates the condescension of these authors. “Once the camp was cleared, the Oakland Commune became a husk deprived of its central tactic and, arguably, its reason for being. This was the reason why the vigil clung mournfully to the plaza despite repeated battering by OPD.” The friends and fierce organizers who remained on the plaza did so because they literally had no place to go, and they had the highest stake in maintaining the ability to camp at the plaza. Also, many of these people had been living in and around the plaza before the camp, and now held this space that was already theirs in a new way. To describe these people as ‘clinging mournfully’, is extremely disrespectful, to put it mildly. And it makes a separation between “us”, the more radical, the smartest, the ones who understand the “limits” – the ones, incidentally, with houses – and “them”, those poor underdeveloped people who haven’t quite yet caught up with our level of consciousness, and hence do not observe the sad futility of maintaining the camp.
The article is at its most disturbing when it describes the camp as “mostly … teetering on the verge of breakdown”, leading the authors to the claim (horrifying, to us) that some “comrades” actually “welcomed the first raid”, in the hopes that “direct conflict with the state would breathe new life into a struggle slowly dying of internal conflict”. In this statement, which is not criticized or analyzed in any way, we discern the underlying ideology of the authors: it is almost exclusively direct conflict with “the state”, i.e. the cops, which is seen as the real struggle. This is why so much time is spent detailing the spectacular confrontations rather than analyzing the multiple “limits” of the movement.
Welcoming police repression is based on an a-historic and misguided idea that increased repression provides a better terrain for revolutionaries. The obsession with direct conflict with the police as a manifestation of the state reminds us of the worst of contemporary Maoism/insurrectionism. While the authors venture to paternalistically call so many other naive in their text, history shows that they have their head in the clouds, just like most everyone else. Or maybe even moreso, because they are so sure they have it right.
Much is said about the inability to conduct offensive actions. And we agree that this is an obvious “limit” that than any insurrection, any revolutionary movement has to overcome. The police are more militarily powerful than Occupy was, and the camp only survived as long as the police did not frontally attack us. Once they began their attack, it was clear that the OPD was almost always one step ahead of us with their street tactics, something we clearly need to reflect on . But in ACTII, way too much emphasis is placed on examples like the failure “to put up a meaningful defense” for the Traveler’s Aid occupation--as though it was possible to defend a building with a few hundred people against tanks, helicopters and hundreds of cops in riot gear armed and ready to deploy teargas, tazers and water cannons (and surely, if it came to it, lethal weapons)! In another example, ACTII criticizes the “inability to mount a defense against the cops”, as though you can really mount a “meaningful defense” with a handful of militants and without widespread support.
As For ‘Limits’…
The major “limit” described in ATCII is the lack of tactical strength vis a vis the police. Also mentioned but not explained is the “arbitrariness” of days of action, and Also mentioned somewhat in passing, the interpersonal issues and structural inequalities enabling “power relationships built on patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity to reassert … These were the underlying limits that led the Commune away from the reclamation of space that had provided the basis for its initial rapid ascent, and ushered in its six month decline.” Well, it’s nice the authors to throw something in there about patriarchy, white supremacy and heteronormativity but we’re pretty sure the reason the commune didn’t reclaim the space was because THE POLICE WOULDN’T LET US.
Lack of specific tactical advantage wasn’t the problem/”limit” – or at least, that’s a very narrow and mystifying way to put it. The problem sits in the longstanding attack on communities in resistance that has taken place over decades in Oakland, and that means, to militant communities of color, so that no autonomous power base has been able to maintain itself. This includes gentrification and the pull of a ‘radical’ culture that has contributed to the displacement and repression of Brown and Black militants and networks in Oakland. When ATCII critiques the lack of tactics and strategy, they imply that some people out there in the world are doing it right – but they also don’t explore the fact that the US is willing and able to dump more funds and support into policing its internal population than any of the countries we may idolize for their militant resistance. In this context, the relative advancement of the urban guerilla tactics of a few hundred or even a few thousand ‘comrades’ seems sort of beside the point, or a subset of the point.
Also, the ‘white supremacy’ within Occupy Oakland deserves more than an oblique reference if the authors are trying to enumerate Occupy Oakland’s “limits”. One example worth noting is that the majority of mass mobilizations during Occupy Oakland (including the port shutdowns) were predominantly (although in no way exclusively) white. While there was perhaps a majority of people of color holding down the camp, and Occupy Oakland was very well received when it went out to do events in majority non-white neighborhoods like deep East Oakland and West Oakland, still the big marches did not reflect this. We are not equipped to fully explain why, but it’s important to note that the recent uprisings around the Zimmerman verdict saw mass mobilizations in downtown Oakland led by and composed of primarily people of color, in this case primarily Black people, from Oakland. Also, militant anti-police marches in Stockton, inspired and supported by Occupy Oakland, were organized and attended primarily by people of color, with the support of their white OO comrades. Something about the mass mobilizations of Occupy Oakland galvanized and unified a certain set of people who were not predominantly black and brown locals. Why? That’s an interesting question.
After the Crest II reproduces the division between intellectual labor and other forms of struggle that is still taken for granted by too many people, and it is also a “limit”. Both we and the authors of ATCII are fairly privileged people, relative to many of the strong movers and shakers of #OO. And whereas neither privilege nor oppression guarantees an apt analysis or perspective, all too often, people writing from positions of privilege (such as the authors of ATCII) tend to universalize their own experience and downplay the activities and influence of people much more severely oppressed than they. And we regret that the Occupy Commune failed in large part to disrupt the calcified ‘radical’ identities that Occupy Oakalnd began to destabilize. Instead it seems to be a period of retrenchment for many insurrectionists, left-communists, and white rebel-radicals This is evidenced by this narrative: the lack of respect and acknowledgment for others who do not share their sentiments and peculiar political program, and the the lack of complexity in their analysis of of the movement , even in the face of the explosion of complex activity that was Occupy Oakland.
Sure, we all miss the camp. But we, the authors of this rebuttal, don’t grieve for it. The real struggle continues, as it always does and always will until the final insurrection/revolution/uprising/whatever. And after that, there will be yet a new struggle, on new terms we cannot conceive. This is one of the most overtly politicized places in the country, reaching back far beyond the time of those who are credited by ATCII for the recent waves of militance. We are modestly hopeful, and deeply appreciative about what we have learned and been a part of over the last 1.5 years. We see many struggles and networks and deeply politicized conversations occurring all over Oakland, today. We also see those who are so overwhelmed by work or family or trauma or their own personal projects that they have moved into their lives away from politics, and that is often a good and important decision too. We also see those who participated in Occupy, but were frustrated that it usurped energies from other movements led by Black and Brown people from Oakland. We suspect, based on conversations when we run into people, that the vast majority of these people will rise up at the next opportunity to come together, as so many did during the Zimmerman protests. Movements always ebb and flow, comrades, until the big one, so let’s accept that as a given.
In this rebuttal our goal is only to complicate a narrative and point to some particularly disturbing aspects of ATCII, as well as to point towards trends in certain political spaces that relate to this document. Our ignorance of the density and complexity of Oakland politics is probably apparent, and we acknowledge it fully. (5)
(1) It is not ALWAYS white (straight, cis) men who write high profile articles in which they assume their emotional experience of a thing is illustrative of the general nature of the thing, but it is VERY OFTEN them.
(2) these include but are not limited to: several public campaigns and movements against police violence and racism of the OPD, the attempt (which was met with wide support) to organize a fare strike, foreclosure defense campaigns, a school occupation, an occupation of an abandoned library which continues to exist, farm occupations in Berkeley and later in San Francisco, a huge and first-ever anti police march in Stockton launching an ongoing struggle there, The Tsega Center, The Community Feed project, “Offensive Feminist” a queer feminist self-defense group, “Reading Rainbow” a radical early literacy program, the precipitation of struggles around race and class within codified radical spaces in Oakland, alternative First-Friday mini occupations of the Plaza.; The Bread and Roses Collective, multiple reading groups and politicized language-learning groups, Foreclosure and Eviction Free Oakland (FEFO); struggles against criminalization of prostitution...
(3)These include but are not limited to: Prisoner solidarity work; Oscar Grant Committee; Needle-Exchange programs; The Alan Blueford Committee: ONYX; The Black Riders Liberation Party; Bay Area Intifada; Grassroots Aids-support groups; Pelican Bay Hunger Strikers; The African Women’s Charity Organization; The RCA/Hot Mess Squat ; The Holdout; The Kenneth Harding Committee...
(4) In ATCII the authors describe the port shutdown as “organized only with supporting the union in mind”, and its worth mentioning that the union leadership was in direct opposition to occupy and its own rank and file members that were working with occupy on the port shutdowns and the near occupation of the port of Longview. Rather than working alongside the union, occupy activists undermined the union leadership and organized directly with the rank and file, not asking for permission to stage actions at the port. The organizers were subsequently black-baited by union leadership again and again in national news.
(5) As we were finishing this someone pointed us toward this amazing panel, "Decolonization is not a Tendency", from the Seattle Anarchist bookfair which we’d like to recommend as further reading on these topics (not that any of these people would necessarily agree with us) http://bayareaintifada.wordpress.com/2013/09/06/video-decolonization-is-not-a-tendency-2013-seattle-anarchist-book-fair-panel/: