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Indybay Feature

East Bay | Racial Justice

Justice for Oscar Grant: A Lost Opportunity?
by Via Advance the Struggle
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 4:39 PM
The murder of Oscar Grant set Oakland on fire, but who put the fire out?
The working class people of Oakland, their consciousness set ablaze, found an inadequate set of organizational tools at their disposal to do the work that deep down we all know has to be done – confront the state (government) and its underlying property relations.
The primary organization available to them was a coalition of nonprofits; the secondary organizational tool was a self-labeled revolutionary communist
organization. Both played prominent but ultimately problematic leadership roles while Oakland youth lacked cohesive theory and organizational
structure through which to effectively challenge their oppressors.

Using the Oscar Grant episode as a case study in the role of political leadership in the Bay Area, we hope to reveal the most glaring shortcomings
of the left today. We believe new leadership is necessary, and hope that this document can contribute to its emergence.

I. State Sponsored Racism: Then and Now
II. The Struggle Begins
III. CAPE, Nonprofits and the State
IV. RCP and Revolutionary Organizing
V. A Victory?
VI. Lack of Organization and Lost Opportunity

I. State Sponsored Racism: Then and Now

The United States has been nurtured and raised in soil bloodied by socially accepted, state sponsored, racist violence. A study of the period 1868 to 1871 estimates that the Ku Klux Klan was involved in more than 400 lynchings. From 1882-1968, 4,743 lynchings occurred in the United States. Of these people that were lynched 3,446 were black. Blacks were 72.7% of the people lynched.1 One conservative report estimated 597 Mexicans were lynched between 1848 and 1928.2

What is important to note is the role of the state. The Force Act of 1870 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871 were also called the Ku Klux Klan Acts due to the fact that Federal law gave legal justification and protection
for racist violence to exist and reproduce itself. In 1948 the last legal lynching took place.3 Indiana Senetor Albert Beveridge, in 1900, openly said, “We are the ruling race of the world….we will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God of the civilization of the world. He has marked us as his chosen people…He has made us adept in government that we may administer government among savage and senile people.”4 Police then started engaging in systematic “justifiable homicide” in the new urban Black communities that formed after WWII. The murder of Oscar Grant is the most recent episode of this long oppressive history.

II. The Struggle Begins

January 2009 was a month of rebellion rising spontaneously from the streets. Everyone was furious about Oscar Grant’s murder by BART police officer Johannes Mehserle on January 1, 2009. On January 7th a protest was organized by a group of people at the Fruitvale BART. The protest was intended to remain peacefully at the BART station, but a break-away march took place. A couple of hundred people took over International Blvd and headed towards downtown Oakland. Anarchists, Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) militants, and Oakland youth led the break-away march and did not stand down to the police. Because the march was un-permitted it was able to turn through streets as needed to avoid police; this is called a snakemarch. When the march was headed towards the police station the police chased the crowd, and they regrouped in downtown Oakland on 14th and Broadway. There was a showdown, and the more confrontational elements moved into downtown Oakland and started breaking McDonald’s windows, throwing objects at the police, and smashing up expensive cars. The crowd was largely Black, young, and working class. The intuitive militancy of the Oakland youth went beyond the moderate politics of the original protest. When Mayor Ron Dellums came out to try to calm the crowd some Black youth chanted, “fuck Obama and fuck Dellums.”

KPFA radio host and Bay View Newspaper journalist JR described the event:
“I’m proud of Oakland people in general and youngstas specifically for standing up to the occupying army in our community:
the police and the city officials that support the system that lets the police kill us wantonly. The rebellion was just the beginning of a longer political education class in Amerikkkan politics and how it fails to meet the needs of its Black and Brown low income dwellers.”5

III. CAPE, Nonprofits and the State

The Coalition Against Police Execution (CAPE) was formed in response to the January 7th rebellion to provide leadership for the emerging
movement for justice for Oscar Grant. It was composed mainly of nonprofit activists. They immediately called for a protest the following Wednesday, January 14th. At the planning meeting one of the leaders emphasized
that the coming protest should have “a grandmother spirit where you go to the store and you come right back with the correct change.” The ‘grandmother spirit’ meant that the protest should not go off CAPE’s script and result in more rebellion. The day before this protest Mehserle was arrested, due to the rebellion the week before, and the possibility of more uprisings. Both CAPE and the system wanted to ensure that the January 14th protest wouldn’t get out of hand. At this time, many moderates said that the struggle had been partially won, while others argued for “systemic change” in the form of mandatory police sensitivity training. Others could be heard advocating armed resistance to the police.

The January 14th protest was a key turning point in the struggle. CAPE organized a sizable march from city hall to the DA’s office and back. At 7PM they started telling everyone to go home and that the protest was over. George Ciccariello-Maher, in his article “Oakland is Closed!” explains:

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.”6

After the last speaker, people marched back to the downtown city center where the organizers repeated their instructions to the crowd: the protest is over; it’s time to go home. However, people’s thirst for justice was not quenched by the symbolic march. Militant Black youth amongst the crowd were eager to confront the heavy police presence rather than simply go home as directed by CAPE. As groups of people congregated in the intersection of 14th & Broadway the militant energy was clearly felt by all, perhaps most of all by CAPE who seemed to expect it. As soon as people squared up in front of a line of riot police, CAPE activists immediately
intervened, linking arms and attempting to block the people from approaching the police.

In this context we should consider what Arundhati Roy argues about the “buffer” role nonprofits (or non-governmental organizations – NGOs) play in India:

NGOs give the impression that they are filling a vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential
way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. NGOs alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt political resistance. NGOs form a buffer between the sarkar [government] and public (2). Between empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.7

When CAPE activists, all wearing neon vests to distinguish themselves
as figures of authority, lined up between the people and the police, they played the exact role that Roy examines above: they became a buffer between the people and state. They faced the people, backs turned to the pigs, and tried to put out the fire of people’s emerging consciousness and militancy. We must ask: were the actions by CAPE leadership purposely directed towards squashing the energy on the night of January 14th? Or were they confused moves on the part of well-intentioned activists, whose strategy wasn’t able to incorporate the rebellious mood on the streets?

To answer these questions we must examine closely the role nonprofits play in relation to the system’s power structure. Through their “buffer” tactics and diversions from confrontational struggle, Bay Area nonprofits effectively acted as an extension of the state. Nonprofit funding from foundations suffocates the development of a real revolutionary formation, keeping the politics of the nonprofit organization safely within the bounds of the rules of the system. In order to go further we must understand that the state is a set of tools that the ruling class controls, including courts, elected officials, and most importantly, a monopoly on the use of violence through the police, army, and prisons. A primary purpose of the state is to keep the working class in check, forced to either slave away making profits for capitalists, or self-destruct when their labor is no longer needed. The state achieves these ends through two main strategies: coercion (brute force which protects the system) and consent (ideological persuasion which keeps the system running smoothly.) Hegemony is achieved by the state, and the ruling class on whose behalf the state operates, through the combination of coercion and consent. As a key part of this strategy the state exercises hegemonic power where, by consent, non-state organizations actually take on the tasks of the state, as Roy argues above. CAPE demanded, in point three of their What CAPE Wants and What We Believe, that “a citizen review board to monitor excessive force, [and] supervise implementation of diversity training” should be a solution to police brutality. This liberalism is not the sole fault of individuals within CAPE, but rather the result of the historical evolution (or degeneration) of oppositional politics in the Bay Area, which must be understood in relation to the state.

The power of the state exists in places well beyond the police and the mayor; its ideological influence extends into institutions, such as churches, schools, trade-unions, and nonprofit organizations. Nonprofits may temporarily act against certain persons and decisions of the state, or even denounce certain laws. However, as a whole their political practices are colonized by the logic of the system, both through their material funding and their ideological visions.

The Black Panther Party’s political work in the 1960s focused on organizing to take control of black communities through “socialistic” service programs and direct confrontations against police brutality. But by the 1970s their political orientation shifted to getting elected into local government and running social service institutes that were partly funded by the local state. While “socialistic” community service programs started under the banner of “Survival Pending Revolution,” they soon became service based programs solely focused on survival, and became divorced from the revolutionary strategy they were once part of. This shift represented the displacement of the revolutionary fire the Panthers were born with by the acceptance of the duties and practices of the state. The Panthers degenerated into an organization whose revolutionary politics were completely subordinated to the practice of providing social services. This helped set the political trajectory of the Bay Area nonprofit left by making it acceptable to call social services resistance.

As we’ve mentioned above, the state doesn’t rule simply by the direct force of the police or the army, but also rules through ideologies, which validate its existence as a political and social system. For instance, working class youth of color are criminalized by the repressive side of the state, mainly the police and the courts. These same youth are also dominated by a “get rich by any means” ideology which leads to individualistic behavior. The correct balance of the gun and the dollar hypnotizes people into submission and ndividualism that ultimately keeps the machinery of the system running smoothly.

Antonio Gramsci wrote a famous essay entitled, Hegemony (Civil Society) and Separation of Powers: He states that the:

“unity of the state in the differentiation of powers: Parliament more closely linked to civil society; the judiciary power, between government
and Parliament, represents the continuity of the written law (even against the government).”8

What Gramsci is attempting to point out here, speaking in abstract terms, is that the system inherently seeks to incorporate opposition to itself within its own framework and parameters so that it doesn’t get out of hand. If we think about “parliament more closely linked to civil society” we must also think about the logic and laws of parliament becoming practiced in everyday “civil society,” especially within political organizations, such as nonprofits that consider themselves “left.” The more people and organizations become disciplined in the rituals and methods of the state, the more people are powerless against the state.

Gramsci continues:

“Naturally all three powers are also organs of political hegemony, but in different degrees: 1. Legislature; 2, Judiciary; 3. Executive. It is to be noted how lapses in the administration of justice make an especially disastrous impression on the public: the hegemonic apparatus is more sensitive in this sector [the public], to which arbitrary actions on the part of the police and political administration may also be referred.” 9

When police kill innocent Black and Latino working class youth one can easily see deep “lapses in the administration of justice.” Politically they, “make an especially disastrous impression on the public,” which is why the state will broker deals of power with groups such as CAPE who call for a, “citizen review board to monitor excessive force.” The state realizes that its brutal repression will be resisted and rebelled against by the people. For this reason it needs ways in which to neutralize the activity of the oppressed through political buffers and interpreters, such as nonprofit community organizations. Throughout the process of negotiation with the state, the nonprofits see themselves as doing “good work” on the part of the oppressed. They believe this work will shift the state towards the side of the people.

The problem is the state can never reform itself to be neutral or to be an agent against racist brutality or capitalist exploitation. The state’s historical nature is to be the brains and muscle for the Anglo dominated ruling class and the reproduction of capital. Nicos Poulantzas argues, “Through its activities and effects, the State intervenes in all the relations of power in order to assign them a class pertinency and enmesh them in the web of class power.”10 Every instance of social interaction, such as going to the grocery story, attending school, or getting married, is wrapped up in the web of business based social relations.

Poulantzas continues, the “State thereby takes over heterogeneous powers which relay and recharge the economic, political and ideological powers of the dominant class… [Class] power therefore traverses, utilizes and gears down that other power, assigning to it a given political significance.”
11 Even when community organizations, nonprofits, and individuals
come together to organize against state oppression their organizational strategies and ideological perspectives are still wrapped up in the webs of class power.

Despite frequent references to the radical legacy of Oakland, CAPE behaved as an extension of the state, “organizing” people to be peaceful, go home and not take militant action in the streets. Many progressive people in CAPE, who took part in the attempt to contain the righteous indignation and militancy of the people, would likely consider themselves revolutionaries. They see the political work of organizing resistance as building town hall meetings with religious forces, caravans to Sacramento demanding that politicians “pay close attention to the issue,” healing circles for Oakland youth, and press conferences. While all these are useful and helpful components of a holistic movement, they are very low level responses to injustice, and the state has the capability to absorb these actions as simply bumps on the road. It is useful to juxtapose this grouping of activists and their strategies against other serious organizers, such as Black Panther militants, Palestinian militants, IWW militants of the 1910s, and Chicana militants of the 1970s, all of whom politically organized against the state to directly challenge its power through militant coordinated resistance. Such militant coordinated struggles included engaging in “illegal” strikes, mass school walkouts, mass un-permitted marches, and organizing the community against the police.

Differences in tactics often represent actual differences in strategy, and strategy is guided by politics and ideology. Nonprofit activism has a “pressure politics” strategy, working under the assumption that US political
and economic structures are capable of meeting the needs of working class and communities of color through lobbying and advocacy. As long as the state exists it is necessary for progressive movements to make demands from it on behalf of the people. But the question is how do we make those demands; through what method of struggle? The methodology of pressure politics narrows struggle into the parameters of the existing state-based governmental decision making process. Simply put: they don’t address the systematic nature of oppression. They fall into the illusion that politicians are neutral and can be pressured to “do the right thing”.

CAPE activists argued that their actions on the night of the January 14th protest were an effort to keep the movement organized and not let it degenerate into chaos like what many people saw the January 7th downtown
riots turn into. We recognize that the movement does need organization,
and it does need leadership, but leadership and organization with a different strategy than that of CAPE. Despite the efforts to conjure up the “grandmother spirit,” January 14th ended up looking much the same as the previous week. The rebellious activity of January 7th and January 14th represent neither revolutionary uprisings nor meaningless destruction, but disorganized uprisings of the people against the state. The fact that it couldn’t move beyond press conferences and town halls on the one hand, and broken windows and flames on the other, only highlights the lack of organized militant leaders. Lost was the opportunity to channel such raw energy into mass un-permitted protests against the state, political strikes at workplaces, and city-wide synchronized school shutdowns. The problem was not too much militancy from the street, but rather a lack of trained militants with a clear analysis and a constructive plan that the mood on the street could relate to and follow.

IV. RCP and Revolutionary Organizing

The main “revolutionary” organized force that attempted to lead a more militant movement was the Bay Area Revolution Club/The Revolutionary
Communist Party (RCP). On January 16th, they called for Bay Area high school walkouts between 1pm to 3pm as a response to the Oscar Grant killing, and as a radical alternative to the moderate CAPE movement. The day of the walkout students from Berkeley High School, Oakland School of the Arts, Oakland High School and Oasis High School attended. They met in front of the Alameda County Court and held a speak out. Altogether, the crowd did not get beyond 50 people, with older RCP members maintaining a heavy presence. Chanting “the whole system is guilty,” the walkout transitioned into an un-permitted march through downtown Oakland. Along the way they tried to get other schools to walk out, but had no success. The crowd marched towards Oakland High holding up traffic throughout the way; at this point the Oakland Police Department moved in to attack. While high school students were beaten up, arrested, and sexually assaulted, RCP militants remained at a safe distance on the sidewalk. No RCPers were arrested.

The RCP summed up the event in the January 19th edition of their newspaper:

At the end of the march, four high school students from the protest were suddenly grabbed, brutalized and arrested by the Oakland Police Department which had maintained a heavy presence throughout the day, following the youth through the streets. This was an outrageous attack—brutalizing youth who stand up against police brutality! 12

Of course, any instance of police brutality is outrageous – especially
when the attack is directed at politicized youth, who are organizing against the police. The RCP’s analysis implies that the police attacked the youth for courageously taking the moral high ground against the system, while absolutely washing their hands of any responsibility for their own flawed leadership. This ‘leadership’ contributed to the students isolation and vulnerability to police attack, while the “vanguard” itself stepped to the side and played the role of spectators. The RCP is often accused of using young people as pawns in an elitist leadership’s pre-determined scheme, both as front line fodder and as tokens. This accusation usually demonstrates an anti-communist sentiment, which is problematic and anti-radical. However, episodes like this don’t offer evidence against this reading of RCP organizing. The RCP considers itself the vanguard (leader) of oppressed people, and they have a theoretical justification and understanding of their self-proclaimed position as the vanguard. This same theory simultaneously contributes to the clumsiness exhibited during their unsuccessful walkout.

The RCP claims in a document titled, Some Points on the Question of Revolutionary Leadership and Individual Leaders that “where leadership
is genuinely revolutionary leadership, the more it plays its leadership role correctly, in accordance with Marxist-Leninist-Maoist principles, the greater will be the conscious initiative of the masses.” RCP leader Bob Avakian recently wrote, “[political] lines reflect certain social bases. Or to put it another way, they represent certain classes . . . Lines are a concentration
of the fundamental interests and aspirations of different classes; different lines represent different class forces.” Despite Avakian’s clumsy, un-edited writing, it becomes clear that they believe their political lines (found in their newspaper) represent the aspirations of the oppressed and exploited – specifically, the working class youth of color they led on their disastrous walkout. Though political lines and perspectives are incredibly important, the RCP gets it wrong with its overemphasis on them.

The RCP’s ideology fetishizes the role that “political lines,” or political views on different questions, play in history. Their flawed view of the importance of ideology leads them to believe that the political lines produced by their main leader, Bob Avakian, automatically generate revolutionary advancements in struggles. The RCP understands the organizing and mobilizing of oppressed youth as a mechanical process: first, they study and understand the writings of Avakian (which are supposed to be the “correct” political line) and then they go out amongst the oppressed and spread the good word of Avakian’s thoughts. The ideological perspective and political lines of Avakian are supposed to be adopted by the people and then spread around to others, primarily through the sale of the RCP‘s newspaper. The result is a tautological (circular) form of revolutionary organizing with an ultimate goal of expanding their readership.

This flawed understanding of the importance of Avakian’s ideology
contributes to a truncation of revolutionary organizing which leaves out consistent work amongst the oppressed. Organizing struggles amongst students against cuts to education, workers for better working conditions, or tenants against slumlords is labeled as “economistic” (aka, not political enough). The result is that nonprofits wind up asserting leadership over these struggles, and narrowing them into reformist directions which do not challenge the state. These nonprofit leaders and organizations become more closely linked with the oppressed, while the RCP remains largely marginalized and known in oppressed communities mostly for their fly-by-night newspaper sales. By allowing nonprofits to take leadership of these “economistic” struggles, the RCP loses the opportunity to expand the consciousness of the people involved in these daily class struggles, as well as the opportunity to advance them in a revolutionary direction against the state. By refusing to engage in the day to day struggles working class people face they lose the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships amongst the people. This lack of political roots amongst working class communities leads the isolated, self-proclaimed vanguard to overestimate its ability to call for “massive resistance,” such as the high school walkout they dreamed of happening on January 16th.

The RCP would likely respond that the value of political roots in the working class lies solely on the correctness of the political line leading the way, which is the crucial starting point for meaningful action. Accepting
this argument at face value, one would have to question the “correctness”
of their line, and its pedagogical transmission, when it has failed so miserably to get through to the minds of the working class people of the Bay Area. The RCP is stuck between their stubborn dissemination of a “correct line” that never connects any real dots, and an adventuristic concept of action that is limited to protest activity. Intelligent, frustrated, sensitive youth get caught between a rock and a hard place.

The leaders of the RCP’s failed January 16th protest expected to ignite the masses with a big bold move, but they failed. To put it in theoretical terms, they overvalued their own subjective factors (the “correctness” of their political line and small march) and underestimated objective factors (the fact that they had no significant roots amongst the oppressed, and therefore a limited basis from which to call for “massive resistance”). We are criticizing them, because in exalting themselves as representatives of communism and revolution they discredit these worthy goals. They sow distrust amongst the “masses” for all so-called outside agitators. We should redefine political line as the relation of revolutionary theory to militant organizing that actually advances struggles.

V. A Victory?

On June 18, 2009, BART police officer Mehserle was arraigned for murder. A police officer has not faced murder charges in California for nearly 15 years, which made some activists and organizations shout victory. It is a victory but a small one. The legal system did not charge Mehserle with murder out of a moral obligation; it did it as a response to the militant protests and rebellions that took place on January 7th and 14th. Now that Mehserle has murder charges against him the question remains: will he be convicted? The disorganized rebellion that broke out in LA in ‘92 happened after the four pigs who beat Rodney King were acquitted. If Mehserle is acquitted there will likely be more disorganized rebellions in Oakland, but we need more than that to put an end to this oppression.

VI. Lack of Organization and Lost Opportunity

“Now if we do want to live a thug life and a gangsta life and all of that, ok, so stop being cowards and let’s have a revolution.”

- Tupac Shakur, beaten by Oakland Police in 1992 in downtown Oakland.

Some activists in CAPE and most of the RCP would agree that we need a revolution to end oppression and exploitation. If we are serious about making a revolution then we need to be serious about taking criticisms
and criticizing ourselves. So far we’ve been critiquing CAPE and the RCP openly and without holding back. Some might say that we don’t have a basis to criticize them since we didn’t provide alternatives at the time; but this logic misses the point. We will continue to have opportunities to connect revolutionary perspectives to spontaneous uprisings by the people, but if we don’t understand and learn from the mistakes of current organizations, then we will be doomed to repeat them and the system will keep on winning. Criticism of existing organizations is a necessary step in the direction of building the type of organization that can respond to movements of the oppressed and help guide them in a revolutionary direction, instead of fumbling or capitulating to the system.

* * *

What was not known by any section of the Bay Area left is that a couple of days before the January 16th walkout, thirty Oakland high school students from three different schools met at Fruitvale BART, and discussed organizing a city-wide walkout of all schools in Oakland demanding justice for Oscar Grant. The walkout was to be organized autonomously by the students, rather than by nonprofits or revolutionary vanguards. It was scheduled for the following week. However, the fresh initiative that could have been the beginning of a lasting movement coming directly from the working class youth of Oakland would not have a chance to bloom. Some of the key student leaders of this meeting spent that coming weekend in jail; they were arrested at the RCPs fiasco “walkout” protest on January 16th. Robbed of its organic leadership the city-wide walkout was cancelled. Meanwhile, the RCP organized another protest a few weeks later, which drew a few hundred people and marched peacefully to the police station before ending with the vague message that people should “go back and organize their communities.” Other groups such as By Any Means Necessary (BAMN), UHURU, and No Justice No Bart tried to have militant protests, but each one did not bring out a critical mass; even though No Justice No Bart shut down a couple of BART stations momentarily on a few different occasions. All of us missed the window of opportunity to provide leadership to the movement. The RCP and CAPE had their timing correct, but not their political lines.

If Oakland’s flash of rebellion against the murder of Oscar Grant demonstrates anything, it is that neither the nonprofit sector, nor self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” have roots amongst the oppressed. Both can and will be overrun and shoved aside by the spontaneous militancy of the people. No amount of “Please go home!” and conjuring of the “Grandmother spirit” by the nonprofits stopped a militant section of Oakland youth from confronting the state through random destruction of property. No amount of “the whole damn system is guilty” and RCP newspapers turned these same youth into revolutionary cadre either. The challenge is to develop an organization that can match its strategy and tactics to the mood of the masses and infuse the spontaneous movements that develop from that mood with a more conscious and political view of their world. In defense of the RCP, they tried to figure out how to get revolution into the popular discourse, and attempted to mobilize people in a confrontational way against the state rather than passively serve it. It is also crucial to point out that no other radical organizations that claim to represent the oppressed and exploited working class people of Oakland or the Bay Area have any significant political base in these communities either. There are no obvious self-labeled revolutionary organizations in the Bay Area that surpass the RCP in terms of numbers, visibility, or consistency. But this observation only reinforces the fact that the radical left is in ruins 35 years after the demise of the Panthers.

Many Black young adults at the January 7th CAPE protest talked about their parents being Panthers, and the need to directly take on the system. But how? First of all, Oscar Grant was a butcher and a UFCW union member. Why didn’t supermarket workers have a one-day strike protesting the killing? What about BART workers and city employees; why didn’t they have a one-day strike against the oppressive state? Sounds farfetched to expect strike action in response to state violence? Maybe here in the US, but not in Greece. There, the police murder of a 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos triggered reactions which, very quickly, evolved from protests to riots to a general strike in which 2.5 million workers were on strike in December 2008. Within days the killer cop and police accomplices were arrested, but even this concession didn’t trick the movement into subsiding. The police murder set off the uprising, but the participants connected the murder with the issues of unemployment, neo-liberal economic measures, political corruption, and a failing educational system. Aren’t we facing similar problems in Oakland and in the US? Why can’t we imagine a similar response from our people? Much of the answer to this question lies in the fact that we lack organizations that apply revolutionary politics in such a way that builds deep organizational roots. As a political perspective, people have to know who their real enemy is and who their real friends are. Who is working into the popular consciousness proper targets such as big capitalists and the state, not small shopkeepers and automobiles? Who is organizing collective mass actions rather than acts of healing and social accountability.

Oakland had the last general strike in American history, which was started by women clerks in downtown Oakland. On December 1, 1946, police tried to break the strike, but their attempt backfired, because train operators, without notice, went on strike and told their fellow workers to do the same. A general strike rippled through Oakland. Workers started the strike on their own, and unions only jumped on board in order to maintain their control so the struggle wouldn’t get out of hand. The strikers had a major street party in downtown, and the whole city was shut down for days. Dave Beck, International vice-president of the AFL Teamster Union, said in the Oakland Tribune Dec 5, 1946 “The [Oakland general strike was the] first move in a revolution that could lead to an overthrow of government.”

The Black Panther Party are another example. They mobilized thousands of people, in disciplined formations, chanting “off the pigs” and “its time for revolution” in front of the District Attorney office in downtown Oakland. Black neighborhoods in Oakland were self organized against the police. The Party, with political roots in the ghetto, was capable of mobilizing serious militant protests against the city and state against racist brutality. Less known is the Black Panther presence in the workplace. In 1970, the Black Panther caucus of the NUMMI auto-parts plant in Fremont, led a wildcat strike against a contract agreement the United Auto Workers Local 2244 had made with the company. The Panthers had roots in the community and in workplaces, which represents a serious model of political organizing that we need to adopt and advance now.

During the explosive month of January 2009, it would have been possible to organize a major unpermitted protest of many thousands of Oakland residents to march through working class neighborhoods to demonstrate that the people are against the abuses of state. This could have been done in a way that invited people out to join the demonstration, and called for more lasting organization and working class collective action. One can imagine how the response to the Oscar Grant murder might have become the seed for a new militant organization in Oakland. People were angry and they were ready to take action. A city wide walkout, one day strikes, and a mass unpermitted snake march were all possible.

Why didn’t anything more militant take place in January 2009? The possibility was there, but what was missing? . . . There was no organization.
There was and is no group that parallels the Panthers today. The Bay Area left is incredibly weak, divided, and nonprofitized. Activists go from protest to protest, from event to event, with far too little strategizing about how to advance struggles beyond building quantitatively bigger symbolic protests and events. No organization has roots in the Oakland working class nor has militants implanted amongst working class youth of color. No group has developed militants capable of leading strikes and city-wide actions. Huey P Newton would have looked at the young rioters as potential Panther recruits. As we’ve said, riots are disorganized insurrections.

The Bay Area left has proven that they are incapable of leading successful struggles. Where have we seen a successful struggle in the last 5 years in the Bay Area? Huey visited all the different left groups and found all of them narrow, weak, overly theoretical, and knew that something
new, fresh, and militant, needed to be created.

Three decades after his party’s demise, we again face the question of what is to be done and again the answer is to develop an organization comprised of militants from the oppressed that trains them intellectually as leaders of a mass movement to overthrow capitalism. Only through consistent day-to-day work can such an organization connect itself with the working class. The nonprofit sector has a better understanding of what kind of “consistent, day-to-day work” an organization must do to earn the trust and respect of the working class, while the RCP calls any orientation toward the working class and its immediate interests economistic, opportunistic,
and bowing to spontaneity. We need to confront the day-to-day substance of capitalist exploitation wherever it occurs, and do this with the people who are actually experiencing the exploitation first hand. True revolutionaries provide tools to this end through educating and exposing the exploited to the lessons of history, expanding the parameters of the possible (thinking outside the capitalist box), and presenting strategies and perspectives on how to struggle. This should all be done in a manner that makes working class people not only actors but ones who produce and reproduce the training process amongst their peers.

Let us not forget the lost opportunity Oakland had for the hot month of January 2009. Thanks to the militant direct response by the working class youth of Oakland, Oscar Grant will always be honored as an unwitting martyr in our struggle for freedom. We know that his life was laid down in fertile soil, but we know that there are too few seeds being planted in that soil and too little water to nourish what seeds already exist. In the years ahead of us we can sense a re-birth of radicalism coming out of an intensifying crisis. It is time to shed old dogmas, careerist approaches to organizing, and collaboration with the government. Its time to turn back to the people, to the working class, and to be what Obama is clearly not – true socialists, true radicals, truly anti-racist, militant community organizers. What better place is there for taking up such a task than the city that gave birth to the Panthers and had the last general strike in US history? We will see new opportunities arise and we should be organizationally prepared to link our revolutionary visions with the people’s spontaneous energy.

Radical British poet William Blake was deeply inspired by the American slave revolts and the Haitian revolution. He wrote:

Let the slave grinding at the mill run out into the field
Let him look up into the heavens and laugh in the bright air:
Let the unchained soul, shut up in darkness and in sighing
Whose face has never seen a smile in thirty weary years
Rise and look out; his chains are loose, his dungeon doors are open;
And let his wife and children return from the oppressor’s scourge
For empire is no more and now the Lion and Wolf shall cease. 13

The exploitation which slaves revolted against still exists today. We are born into a world dominated by the accumulation of wealth for the few, with the accumulation of stress, exploitation and oppression for the many. Despite this, as we’ve seen in Oakland, we have the power to rebel against this oppression. As Blake states the “dungeon doors are open.” The time is ripe for a new revolutionary movement to be born and break through the walls of oppression and exploitation. We don’t have all the answers, but through collective dialog and struggle we can find them. There are more than enough reasons to make a revolution, and the challenge is to discover how to strike back against the system so powerfully that all the chains that bind us are broken.


1) The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950. Temple University Press. Philadelphia. 1980;
Lynching Statistics Berea College. Course on Chesnutt
2) Carrigan, William D. Journal of Social History , Winter, 2003
3) Author Mike Davis in film Bastards of the Party.
4) P.46. Westin, Rubin Racism in US Imperialism (Colombia SC: University of Wisconsin Press, 1972)
5) Eyewitness report by POCC Minister of Information JR. POCC. Oakland Rebellion. January 14, 2009
6) George Ciccariello-Maher. COUNTERPUNCH. Arrest and Containment Fail Blunt Anger in the Street “Oakland is Closed!” January 16, 2009.
7) Arundati Roy, Le Monde diplomatique. Help that Hinders. November 2004
8) P. 246. Gramsci, Antonio. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. 1975
9) Ibid.
10) P.43. Poulantaz, Nicolas. State, Power and Socialism. 1980
11) Ibid
12) “Rebels of Oakland High.” Revolution Online. January 19, 2009.
13) P.348. Linebaugh, Peter and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra. 2000.

Comments  (Hide Comments)

by Anarchist
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 6:33 PM
"We believe new leadership is necessary"

Right about there is where I stopped reading this article. I am so fed up with hearing people w/ nothing to offer but the same old crappy alternative of replacing old leadership with new leadership. The system it self is the only god-damn thing that needs to be replaced around here. You're replacement alternative falls on it's face every time a black man get's shot or a politician fails to keep his or her promises once elected. The system does nothing but fail us everyday. We need a system that is self governing. Simply replacing one bully with another isn't going to solve all our problems. To say we need new leadership is to say we are too dumb to think for our selves and there for we need someone else to manage our lives. I reject this notion and resent this insult! I hear people from everywhere wanting to throw out the old system and replace it with something that's humane and friendly to the environment. I happen to now agree that Authoritarian capitalism/state capitalism is primitive behavior and there for we are way behind in the evolutionary process. I say it's time that we catch up to where we're supposed to be. Time to evolve!

Read up on anarchism and socialism. Put the 2 together and what do you have? Peace, love and equality!

How to get to a state of peace, love and equality: anarchistnews.org, infoshop.org, friendlyfirecollective.info, resistg20.org

We're gonna have to pull the problem out by the root, not the branch as we've always done. That way the problem will never arise again and then you'll have a chance to rebuild your community.

As long as greed runs the system and it's fascist police run the streets at night we have no freedom and there is no future.
by Big L
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 9:51 PM
Leadership isn't about making people follow you - leadership is about helping others develop their own capacity to be autonomous, self-organized, leaders.

Militant anarcho-syndicalists in the IWW like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Lucy Parsons, and Ben Fletcher were leaders in this sense - they provided perspectives and organizational structures through which working class people could effectively challenge their oppressors.

How do you explain this through your simplistic rubric of "all leadership is authoritarian"?

Even the websites you listed are websites of people who are leaders. Leadership can a beautiful thing, and is in no way automatically or essentially authoritarian or demagogic (though of course those kinds of leaders are easy to see all around us.)

Maybe if you read the pamphlet all the way through instead of jumping to conclusions and assuming its definition of leadership you might have actually understood and engaged the perspective contained within.

by veillifter
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 10:23 PM
Leadership isn't about making people follow you - leadership is about helping others develop their own capacity to be autonomous, self-organized, leaders.
by @
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 10:37 PM
There's a protest being put on by No Justice No Bart tomorrow (thursday july 17th) at 5 pm at the 12th street BART station in Oakland. I hope the author of this article can find the time to make it out.

With Mehserle's trial underway but none of his accomplices in any trouble, now is the perfect time to show that the Oscar Grant movement is still a force. The new information about Tony Pirone's racist slur should be enough to mobilize people who haven't been out since January. This information has to be spread to the people of Oakland, as there's no way the corporate media will report it.
by student
Wednesday Jul 15th, 2009 11:30 PM
as a highschool student who was partially radicalized by the walkouts and was actually there I can say that your account was incorrect and frankly insulting. the revolution club was out in the streets, pushing against the police with all the students. after the students underwent obvious profiling (gee the police never do that, do they?) and everyone watched the sickening displays of brutality, members of revolution club went on to do jail support. as someone who has done some work with the RCP and I definitely have issues with them it gets pretty ridiculous watching the community of apathetic radicals insult them over and over again for actually being out there and actually organizing and putting the work in. raising problems with their line on a theoretical level is one thing, but these people are stellar organizers and some of the best we have in the bay right now
by "student"
Thursday Jul 16th, 2009 4:12 AM
thanks "student" for that insightful comment... jeez.
by Gerrard
Thursday Jul 16th, 2009 9:19 AM
Hey, Anarchist, I had a different reading on what Advance the Struggle meant by "leadership." I think they are also interested in getting at the root of the problem, and try to address this by putting out ideas for radical actions besides protests - especially strikes. A leader is not necessarily the appointed or elected or de facto leader of some organization (hierarchical or not), a leader is also someone who can make good tactical decisions in the moment and be able to explain these opinions and give them broader appeal. A leader is anyone with both long range vision and hard-headed, practical suggestions in spontaneous situations. A leader gets to this point through experience on the street and through reading, as you suggested. We all know that organization of some kind is necessary to get anything done, and we all know that people are capable of making revolutions without professionals. But we can't make them without intelligence and reflection - these are foundations for the self-governance we all desire.
by golly
Thursday Jul 16th, 2009 8:48 PM
talk about armchair quarterbacking

"it's everyone else's fault"

I don't think I read a single "I" statement, or even a "we", in that entire post. it sounds like it was written by someone who simply read about various protests rather than participated or helped organize anything.

and enough about january already anyway, sheesh. while this lengthy piece fails to acknowledge it, the struggle has continued and could actually use you more in the fight than critiquing others from on high

sorry but critiques from uninvolved outsiders aren't going to spur a revolution. if you really care about justice, get out there and do something. don't sit on your ass until the "perfect" situation falls into your lap courtesy of some so-called leader
by sounds
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 12:09 AM
Who's to say that the folks who wrote this weren't involved in the rebellions and riots? Why would you assume that there isn't an effort to put the words into practice?

Seems that one of the main points is that the RCP and CAPE were the organizations most capable of responding to Oakland's upsurge, but for various reasons weren't able to develop the struggle beyond their own organizational limitations.

One important part of building a struggle is learning from mistakes of the past and criticizing them in order to not repeat them. It's not possible to put forward an alternative organizational structure or approach towards radical organizing without looking at what's been done before.

Sniping at the sidelines is definitely not helpful, but this is more of a thoughtful and developed analysis of what went wrong (while still giving props to both groups for the positive contributions they did make) than simply saying "it's everyone's fault."

It's easy for activists and organizers to get defensive when openly critiqued, but perhaps a more healthy and humble approach would actually consider and engage the argument made in order to see if there's any truth to what it's saying.

What's going to happen when Mehserle gets acquitted? Will we, self-proclaimed, revolutionaries be in a more strategic position than we were in January? Will Oakland have coordinated actions in communities, schools and workplaces? Will the opportunity be taken to actually challenge the system and win?

These seem to be some of the main questions put forward in the piece, while many of the comments here seem to absolutely ignore them. Coincidence?
by SFred
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 1:56 AM
I was only out there for the 2nd riot, but I know for a fact that the Advance the Struggle crew was actively out there for both nights of rioting.

Their critique is pretty dead-on about the irrelevance of the RCP's implanting themselves as the vanguard, as well as CAPE's role as the police auxiliary.

Well done!
by Daniel M
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 8:57 AM
I think it would be good if activist discussed this political piece. It does seem that part of the problem is liberal NGOs and crazy "communist" groups run the show and something different needs to develop.

though even if it is true, that was 6 months ago. check your calendar

what have they been doing since, cooking up this self-satisfying diatribe?

any real movement critique is going to include some sort of honest look inward and there's nothing even close here

besides, the analysis is weak. even cape is not happy with cape, so not so sure what the author(s) think is so groundbreaking there. posts on indybay were criticizing them along similar lines waaay back in january. cape called two demos and then were down for the count as a coalition. a lot has happened since then and cape is little more than a historical footnote at this point, along with the two dozen anarchists out on the 7th and the one dozen out on the 14th. also, cape never claimed to be some sort of revolutionary or direct action group, so it's unclear why the author(s) are so disappointed that cape didn't act as such. and to blame old farts in green vests for preventing a wider uprising is just ridiculous.

again, get out there and do something. you want direct action, well do it. you want to organize youth or build for the next rebellion, then do it. stop waiting for "leaders" to deliver for you. write about what you yourself are doing now and you might have something of value. lead by example, not by whining about others or nothing will ever change
by ASK
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 1:38 PM
Doubt it; what makes you think such conclusions are not being pushed? Such details are not going to be exposed on the internet.
by missing the mark by a mile
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 1:59 PM
The REAL lost opportunity is that the spontaneous combination of anarchists, the RCP, and Oakland's black youth temporarily forged in January was not maintained and built upon for the future. That is hardly CAPE's fault. And anarchists are more to blame for this than the RCP - the RCP has at least stuck around to see things through, having been at nearly every related meeting or event while anarchists can hardly be sighted at any justice for Oscar Grant events and they are certainly not organizing their own.

This is the REAL lost opportunity, not the NGO's grandmothering that Advance the Struggle attacks in their misguided analysis. Anarchists just walked away after the 14th and were left with the label in the community that they are merely window breaking provocateurs rather than sticking around and building up productive working relationships with non-anarchists, relationships that might have changed some perceptions, turned some heads, and perhaps even "revolutionized" Bay Area politics.

Local anarchists more often than not choose to self-select rather than work with people of color who may be more accustomed to operating along hierarchical lines. This my way or the highway approach leaves Bay Area anarchists where they’ve always been as activists, a marginalized group forever scratching its collective head about why others don’t follow their example. While anarchists do a good job of pointing to the APPO or other similar groups as examples of cross pollination, anarchists in the U.S. are currently absolutely terrible at building alliances with any more than a handful of african americans and that’s why you constantly see anarchists pointing to the Panthers 40 years ago – it’s the only thing they can think of to say, “See, I like black people. I have a black friend.”

And so you are left with nostalgic zines like Unfinished Acts and blog articles like this one that fetishize two nights in January and want to blame NGOs, commies, and people in green vests rather than themselves.
by Responding to last post
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 2:05 PM
That is just plain uninformed. Anarchists have continued to be part of this movement and are core members of some of the groups that are engaged in this. Are we looking at the same movement?
by SFred
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 5:19 PM
The vests look yellow to me, and all the wannabe cops aren't so old.

Anyway, this more revolutionary-than-thou oneupmanship is just macho posturing. Same with saying "What have you done in the last 6 months?" As though rebellions can be jumped started with the right (Leninist or Anarchist) ideas. Just take them down off the shelf, or out of the sectarian newspaper, mix in some water, and wammo! Instant rebellion.

As though keeping food on the table and a roof over your head is below you revolutionaries who are being held back by those of us with survival issues. Dealing with mass layoffs doesn't register. Why not? Are all of you beyond this world and the survival issues of those of us who have to punch a clock to live? Or those of us who hustle or scam to stay alive?

Also, as though the Lovelle Mixon and Parnell Smith killings never happened.

Whoever said we need dialog hit it right on the head. Stop the grandstanding. Advance the Struggle's analysis is damn good. If you want to critique, trying probing deeper to the conditions of the working class of Oakland. Things like the fact that nearly 80% of African American young men under 25 in East Oakland are unemployed.

Or the 3 zipcode zones, 94603, 95605, and 94612 are among the highest in the U.S. for foreclosures and evictions, as well as having some of the highest homicide rates nationally too. It's pretty fucking hopeless there. All this finger pointing about this group is meaningless, or that group doesn't do anything is what is the real armchair analysis.

I'd rather read critiques like Advance the Struggle's than listen to anonymous righteous rants giving all the answers.

Questioning and analyzing more, and denouncing less will do wonders for a collective dialog that could possibly lead to collective action. Anyone game?
by ...
Friday Jul 17th, 2009 6:47 PM
hmmm. isn't that what this piece is, denouncing CAPE and the RCP??

questioning one's self might be of value, but that's not what this piece is. it's another in a long line of finger-pointing exercises that lead to nowhere productive. again, there's nothing about the ATS's failure in there, just other people's

the vests were green, lime green. perhaps the yellow street lights make them appear a different color. and so you know, the people who wore them were from Critical Resistance and Jews for Palestine. you should have been there
by Hello
Wednesday Jul 22nd, 2009 3:09 PM
I think the point was the leaders of this movement failed. They filled a void. But they failed. This includes all the trendy non-profits that are so cozy in the Bay Area left but in actuality never really shake things up. Unfortunatly Critical Resistence and Jews for Palestine got swept up into the CAPE collaborationist politics. There was a mountain of popular, and often "of color" non-profits. Just Cause Oakland, POWER, EllA Baker, and list goes on and on, were all part of this. Something new needs to be built as their is an honest realization of the failure of all these nonprofit groups that claim to be so radical and anti-racist.
by Get Going
Thursday Jul 30th, 2009 11:12 AM
It's so sad to me that folks would sit around and clearly spend long amounts of time on this piece that lacks foundational components of solution.
Wonder why Bring the Ruckus is irrelevant, might not have to look much further. For so much about the black working class in Oakland, you don't relate to us at all except in your theoretical positioning. At least CAPE tried to take, from what I saw, very different people with very different politics and make something happen. The RCP continues to be our in the streets and frankly they aren't perfect but folks in my hood know them a lot more than ya'll. Also I commend both folks for being open about who they are and stepping up. On your site and click who we are listed are quotes from and the names of Freire, Lenin and Luxemburg, how can you seriously claim that your being bold and offering transparent criticism when ya'll won't even put your names to your analysis.
If anything is wrong with the Bay Area left it is not the intentions of leftists to act and learn and try try again, frankly it is a lack of vision that your article perhaps only exasperates.
by familia
Thursday Jul 30th, 2009 12:18 PM
HOW DARE YOU talk about our Oscar as a "lost oppertunity" you have no idea what we are struggling to do, the activist people who have stayed close to the family, what we are working to do in honoring Oscars legacy. Also insulting the interfaith leadership who has supported us with time, energy, materially and spiritually- you should be ashamed! You are wayyyyy out in left field and maybe that is why your revolution is so very far away. Be about it, cuz none of us know you, your not relating to us. Your critismisms are so shallow, why don't you join with the rest of us forces in doing somin, you could make a difference, add your insight instead of posting horrible condemnations.
Bring the Ruckus is dumb for this. Same tired hateration and not engaging in a face to face dialog. Every sat we are still grinding away at olivet baptist. If you are saying your about it then be about. Also how come ya'll didn't step up and don't step up into leadership ummmmmmmmm?

by Oakland Land of Rebellion
Friday Aug 7th, 2009 6:00 PM
I think people are dealing with this piece in a very non-political way. The whole point is that there needs to be a new organization- to win- and successfully fight the system. If you think Anarchist, non-profits, church leaders, and the RCP is going to do this, well your criticisms make sense. If want real change, you also need a real organization. This organization doesn't exist. It needs to be created. Other wise there will be more Oscar Grant situations.
by san Jose flossy
Monday Aug 10th, 2009 1:42 PM
What would winning be? You think it's the moment for revolution? That is dumb and short sighted. There was a lot won in this moment that continues to have impact. Keep dreaming but while you do- build organization and stop bitching about other people trying. Bring the Ruckus Oakland is not relvent and they seem mad about it. Wonder if they think this will build their organization? Fringe folks mad they can't step up and provide leadership? Seems to me.
by seems to me
Monday Aug 10th, 2009 5:43 PM
It's interesting - or maybe just plain sad - that most of the criticisms attacking the writers of this piece sound so emotional, angry, and snarky. The piece itself does not come off as personal attack, but rather as no-holds political critique. Saying this or that about "how mad" "fringe people" are doesn't engage the content of the piece (which is actually making a point) but rather tries to shit on the character of the writers. Is this a defensive form of response? hell yeah. Drop the defensiveness and step up and reflect on what's said, unless you feel you have all the answers in which case you've got nothing to learn...but judging from what's happened in Oakland that's far from the case.
by oakland folk
Saturday Aug 15th, 2009 8:06 PM
It is indeed sad. We attack each other instead of building with each other. This article and reviews are interesting as they point to the same thing.