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Militancy and Counter-Insurgency: Occupy Oakland and State Repression
Occupy Oakland and State Repression
A crowd of several hundred quickly swelled to a couple thousand, as Occupy Oakland attempted to occupy the vacant Kaiser Convention Center. The goal was to use it as an indoor base for Occupy Oakland – a place to have General Assemblies and meetings, share food and get shelter for the winter. This was in keeping with what Occupy Oakland has always done, a goal that is simple, though not simple enough for the mainstream media to understand and honestly report. As in Argentina, Oaxaca, or Egypt, when society makes life unlivable for some and miserable for others, we will come together, decide what we need to do to meet our own needs in a directly democratic fashion, and do it. It is not surprising that people meeting their own needs outside of the control of the various forces that maintain the existing social order is going to be attacked. When people attempting to fill their own needs and the needs of the community are seen as socially unacceptable, the need for an entirely different social order becomes abundantly clear. From the diverse group of people who came out to take that space on Saturday, that understanding is not just held by a small group of militants. Despite the fact that the city government is run by corporate profiteers and liberal charlatans, and the federally coordinated police apparatus often looks far less intelligent than we usually give them credit for, the State knows the threat that exists in Oakland. They are responding accordingly. Saturday’s attacks are part of an ongoing counter-insurgency campaign to attempt to strip the movement of its substantial legitimacy, to intimidate, to harass, to divide, to contain, to co-opt, and to eventually destroy Occupy Oakland. The lines in this ongoing conflict are clear. The City’s overwhelming use of force and mass arrests, firing less-than-lethal weapons into marches with many children, the violent beatings, and the trumped-up charges in response to a peaceful attempt to make social use out of an unused building makes the State’s position clear. What is not clear is who will eventually win.
With all of that said, we are fighting them where they are strong with actions like Saturday’s. Oakland is known far and wide as the home of the Raiders, the birthplace of the Panthers, and the stomping ground of one of the most violent gangs in the country – the Oakland Police Department. We need to think about how to build a movement that is not just militant, but smart. Occupy Oakland is both of those things, but we need to be honing our strategic smarts rather than calling out the town bully in his backyard, on his terms. This should not get read as an effort to add to the mass media echo chamber shamelessly apologizing for the actions of the police; I’m bailing out good friends while I write this. Oakland is the birthplace of the Panthers, it is also, not coincidentally, a place that has a long history of counter-insurgency against social movements and communities of color. The police response Saturday; the media analysis; Mayor Quan’s call for people to support non-profits over mutual aid and to politically divide people by race in the process; Quan’s attempt to call on people in the US Occupy movement to condemn Oakland; trying to keep organizers going back and forth to court rather than organizing, etc. – all of this is counter-insurgency. Militancy alone will not win this war.
“Whose Legitimacy? Our Legitimacy!”
Oakland Occupy Patriarchy’s assessment and analysis illustrates both the public support the action received as well as the tactics of the police. The police used rubber bullets, tear gas, bean-bag munitions, at one point on a crowd that had an organized group of children in it. The police kettled a march at 19th and Telegraph, where protesters were able to escape, and kettled them again at 23rd and Broadway in front of the YMCA. YMCA workers opened their doors to protesters being violently attacked by police. Some people who allegedly took the shelter that the YMCA workers offered are facing felony burglary charges.
The Occupy Patriarchy article speaks to an instructive moment that took place as they were leaving the Traveler’s Aid building which is currently being renovated and that protesters unsuccessfully tried to re-occupy on Saturday. As the protesters were leaving, the renovation workers shouted their support, while full solidarity on that day was thwarted by cops, managers and financial obligations. Over 300 people are in jail and the occupation was not successful, but the “battle for hearts and minds” is up in the air. Mayor Quan responds by blaming protesters for the lack of police response to crime in Oakland over the weekend, a tactic she has used in the past and has since had to retract. A city that lays off city workers to fund an enormous police budget, and closes schools and cuts social services in order to spend millions on crooked bank deals or to fund housing foreclosures will try to patronize the people of Oakland while stealing their future. The people of Oakland are not stupid. The fact that there is an open, democratic movement trying to fill the innumerable political and economic holes of the neoliberal city, scares the hell out of the Mayor, Homeland Security and everyone in between. As well it should.
Counter-Insurgency: Oakland’s Iron Fist – Velvet Glove Combination
The goal of counter-insurgency is to employ as many tools as possible to destroy a movement – through misinformation and disruption, through discrediting and breeding conflict within the movement, and through employing various mechanisms of harassment, surveillance and force. It is a broad strategy that draws on riot cops, but it also draws on ministers, the media, non-profits and others to bolster the legitimacy of the State, while attacking or undermining the movement. It uses a combination of what they call “hard” and “soft” power, utilizing the both the State’s “legitimate use of force,” but also its power to control knowledge and communication, as well as the capacity to grant concessions in order to retain power.
Before Saturday’s violent repression of the attempted building occupation, the City released a statement laying all the counter-insurgency cards on the table. They drew on the “outside agitator” trope, trying to portray the Fuck the Police marches that have been happening, called for by the Tactical Action Committee (a group of young black men from Oakland), as mainly people, not just from other cities, but other regions and states. The release also argues that Occupy Oakland is a major reason for the city’s budget problems. To put this in context, the City of Oakland over-pays Goldman Sachs on their debt to the tune of $5 million every year (about $38 million total), while the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE) reports in a modest estimate, the city has spent $224 million foreclosing upon working class families in recent years, contributing to Oakland’s black population shrinking by 25% in the last 10 years. The city will have a budget deficit of about $50 million this year, after massive cuts to everything but the police last year, official unemployment is almost 10%, and the Mayor argues the $5 million dollars they have spent attacking Occupy Oakland in the last 4 months is not only justified, it is the primary reason the City finances are a disaster.
The City’s statement goes on to argue that they have a long lineage of addressing inequality, while, according to the US census, the metro-region has the 7th highest level of inequality in the entire country (Gini coeffecient). The city says it has a commitment to helping the poor, addressing the housing crisis, and creating employment – and then points to non-governmental organizations that provide social services, asking concerned citizens to support a range of non-profits, and reject Occupy Oakland. Non-profits are getting used by the City, here, to undermine the movement, offering a “legitimate” way to create social change.
One of the non-profits, Just Cause, participated in the Occupy National Day of Action Against Foreclosures on December 6, 2011. After the cameras left and Just Cause had stepped away, the house was eventually occupied by the Tactical Action Committee and others who were transforming the space into a community center, with community survival programs in West Oakland. The house was eventually attacked by the police and now lies vacant. When Just Cause was involved the house received little harassment, unlike Occupy Oakland’s re-occupation in the same neighborhood that same day. When black organizers who grew up in that neighborhood tried making it a vehicle of community empowerment and self-sufficiency it was promptly attacked by OPD. Non-profits mostly serve to fill the social services vacuum left by budget cuts, keeping people alive in an era of neoliberalism. At their best, they are still neither a structural solution to inequality or a political threat to the existing structures of power. This is the reason they are being called upon to serve as a political buffer that will try to claim ownership of legitimate community organizing in Oakland.
This is counter-insurgency. The ‘outside agitator’ argument, trying to paint the movement as violent, using certain non-profits as a buffer. For weeks the police have been raiding groups of people in Oscar Grant Plaza and giving them stay-away orders that prohibit them from being in the Plaza. This is the same type of technique the city has been using in North Oakland and the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland to harass communities of color (gang injunctions), and it is likely a civil rights violation. The second raid of Occupy Oakland’s camp, along with 17 other cities, was coordinated by Homeland Security. Mayor Quan’s Block-by Block “grassroots organization” has meetings they now call General Assemblies and some of its members attempted to set up a Mayor-Quan-sanctioned “peace camp” in November, before the second raid of Occupy Oakland’s camp. Yesterday the Mayor said she was going to call on the “leaders of the national Occupy movement” (whoever that is supposed to be) and ask them to condemn Occupy Oakland for not being non-violent. Corporations and labor law have threatened the ILWU with lawsuits if they collaborate directly with Occupy. The media has made committed efforts to drive wedges between unions and the movement. The mass media also focuses on property destruction or harp that the movement is dying, while never mentioning or covering our actions at workplaces or in the community reclaiming foreclosed houses. The Mayor, the City, the OPD, Homeland Security and other federal “political police,” selected non-profits, the media, union leaderships – this is modern counter-insurgency.
All of this seeks to drive wedges on tactics, race, politics, etc. and create further mistrust and hostility between non-profits, individuals and communities not largely involved in Occupy Oakland and Occupy Oakland – to breed conflict between people not in communication with each other to make future communication and collaboration impossible. The State wants to discredit, marginalize and destroy this movement and have it seem like it tore itself apart. The movement must come to terms with the counter-insurgency it faces and strategically navigate the trap-filled maze that has been put before us.
Militance, Strategy and the Quest to Beat the Bully
In the Fall of 1969, Weatherman had militant Days of Rage protests in Chicago. Despite much outreach and planning, 2000 cops outnumbered street militants 2 to 1. With little to no reflexivity, Weatherman concluded that everyone was bought-off by imperialism and soon left to pursue more militant action underground. The movement, today, should not commit itself to non-violence and doom itself to repeat the generations-long cycle of pacifist failure within the US Left. We need to learn from history, and our mistakes. We also need to see the nature of the strategies being used against us and strategically act accordingly. If we simply go directly at the State, making threats we have no capacity to back up, the State will keep coming at us until we are gone.
If the movement is a school-kid who just had his lunch stolen and the State is the bully that took it, if you go up and try to take it back he will likely punch you in the eye. Is it justified? No. Is the bully right, does he deserve your lunch? Of course not. Is the lunch-less kid somewhat responsible for his swollen face? Unfortunately, yes – because the bully’s behavior is thoroughly predictable. So does the State just get to keep eating our lunch? No. We could have a friend distract the bully and then take back our lunch. Or, better yet, we could go find all the other kids who have had their lunch stolen, meet up, come up with a plan – and then overrun him. That is a social revolution.
Revolution is about strategy more than militancy. Sitting with undocumented workers in the Fruitvale, sick people without healthcare Downtown, grandmothers who have lost their grandkids to police violence East Oakland, parents who are seeing their kids’ school closed near Lake Merritt, or families who have lost their home in West Oakland – and seeing what their realities are and what they want to do to change those realities through the Occupy movement is a bigger threat to the State than street militancy, not that we likely won’t need a bit of street militancy along the way. Pulling people together in a democratic movement to meet our collective needs, building relationships and solidarity, and then activating it – that is what it will take to take the bully down for good.
The State, through counter-insurgency, will do everything in its power to thwart our rage against the existing order, it will also stop at nothing to smother the love and solidarity needed to create a new world. Our love and our rage are our two greatest weapons. We have to find a balance between the two in our organizing and in our strategy, that takes into account likely responses from our enemies. If we simply want to box with the police in the middle of the street, we might go more rounds than some people expect, there will be cool videos to put on YouTube, but we will lose. And the media will be out front every time to whittle our ranks for the next fight. Instead of rehashing a de-contextualized and non-dialectic debate about non-violence versus a diversity of tactics, we should be debating the strategy that is going to take us from where we are to where we want to go.
[Critique aside, a primary obligation of any social movement is to take care of those targeted by the police. Occupy Oakland’s bail-fund is depleted and many people are facing serious charges. The link to donate is here.]
Mike King is a PhD candidate at UC–Santa Cruz and an East Bay activist. He can be reached at mking(at)ucsc.edu.