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The Outside Agitator & White Vigilantism: A Reportback From Oakland
The following is a reportback from a small collective of participants and observers of the recent uprisings in Oakland which followed the Zimmerman acquittal. Here we have attempted to clarify and explain several issues which have been distorted by a number of sources concerning 'outside agitators,' the self-activity and organization of black youth, and the attack of white vigilante Drew Cribley.
The Outside Agitator & White Vigilantism: A Reportback from Oakland
Written on July 22nd, by a Collective in the Bay Area
“I'm tired of the marchin', the rallyin', the protestin'
We hoopin' and hollerin', still we gettin' no justice”
Dead Prez, ‘Made You Die’
In the past week, the city of Oakland, along with the rest of the nation, has been shaken by a series of large protests and small-scale riots in the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal in Florida. The Oakland Police Department (OPD) and City Hall were largely taken by surprise by the massive outpouring of grief and rage of local residents, and both struggled – as a result of several high-profile court settlements which have forced the OPD to reconfigure its crowd control tactics – to contain a growing unrest which picked up greater and greater momentum as each day passed.
Even as Oakland business leaders applied enormous pressure on the OPD to restore order, whether through the use of micro-policing procedures (such as the increased enforcement of pedestrian or minor traffic infractions, which closely resemble stop-and-frisk techniques) or full displays of force, (seen later in the week, in which mobile cadres were supplemented by snatch squads and vehicular surveillance units) City Councilman Neil Gallo lamented their inability to quell the sporadic uprisings, commenting that “protestors are better organized than our Police Department.”
And, of course, we have seen the predictable return of the ‘outside agitator’ narrative, in which both ‘white anarchists’ and other ‘vandals’ are characterized as representing an alien and invasive force whose interests lie only in terrorizing the residents of Oakland as a whole, and hijacking otherwise ‘peaceful’ demonstrations. Yet despite this focus on the threat of the white ‘outside agitator’ or ‘anarchist,’ the OPD continue to target and arrest more young black men than white ‘agitators.’ For example, of the nine individuals arrested last Monday night, only two were officially arraigned on felony charges. These two men are black.
As was also predictable a large proportion of Oakland residents have accepted the onslaught of the state's TV, radio and newspaper campaign wholeheartedly and the effects of this strategy have, to some small extent, been witnessed in the dwindling signs of popular revolt - in the space of one week. Some of that was to be expected as an embryonic movement decides whether to grow or even to exist. But as a Bay area collective we have observed other things in the streets and in the media during the last week that need addressing. Specifically, we would like to tackle two key issues:
• The emergence of black youth as organic leadership and the attempt to deny this reality
• The emergence of white vigilantism in the defense of private property and against black urban rebellion
We will, to the best of our abilities as participants and observers, attempt to provide a brief overview of the most significant events of the last week, address each of the aforementioned points individually as well as explain why they are significant and, finally, offer some thoughts on how we might best confront and overcome the difficulties we now face in the aftermath of these brief flare-ups.
A Basic Clarification of Recent Events
“Fuck all that bullshit, protesting for justice
I feel like the Black Panthers, let’s start a fucking riot!”
Zoeja Jean, ‘All Black in My Hoodie’
On the evening of July 13th, 2013 several hundred angry and saddened demonstrators gathered at Oscar Grant Plaza in response to the announcing of the Zimmerman acquittal that same day. During a particularly emotional speak-out, one speaker expressed her distress over the verdict, but told the transfixed crowd she was encouraged by the diversity of attendees, and was happy to see everyone there, “whether white, black, or brown.” After several other rousing speeches from attendees the speak-out began to taper off, and the crowd began to look around wondering what our next move would be. At this point, another speaker jumped atop the makeshift pedestal – a young, unnamed black man – and made a simple proposal: either we stay and continue talking, or we hit the streets and march. The crowd overwhelmingly responded that it was time to march. As we snaked through the downtown Oakland streets, numerous storefronts were smashed, small barricades dragged out and lit ablaze, and a BART patrol car destroyed. Folks driving by honked their horns in support and, on several occasions, individuals who had been waiting for the bus stood up and joined in the fracas. All told, the march would cause over $30,000 worth of damage in the downtown area and only one arrest was made.
On July 15th, scores of protests occurred across the United States, with large demonstrations taking place in New York, Atlanta, and elsewhere. But the most shining examples of militant black self-activity would take place in Oakland, Los Angeles, and Houston. While some groups in other cities called for Department of Justice (DOJ) intervention, court reform, or the repeal of Stand Your Ground laws, for many angry black youth in these cities, calls for ‘justice’ rang empty. Instead, these places would erupt in clashes with police, sporadic flash mobs and, of course, highway shutdowns which occurred almost concurrently.
In Oakland, organizers had scheduled a rally and march in response to the national call-out issued by the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee days earlier. However a struggle quickly emerged within a small group of collectives over the question of destination and goal of the demonstration. Following several speeches and some internal debate, the local black nationalist O.N.Y.X. Organizing Committee seized control of march logistics and explained to the crowd that we would march to the OPD station. Upon arrival, they told us, we would continue to rally, then return to Oscar Grant Plaza. As the crowd of one thousand approached the intersection outside of OPD headquarters a large cordon of riot police blocked our path, forcing demonstrators into the middle of the major downtown intersection and effectively blocking all lanes of traffic. However, OPD officers did not block off the I-880N freeway ramp, choosing instead to concentrate all their forces on preventing approach to the headquarters. As O.N.Y.X. spokespersons urged the crowd to stay put and allow the rally to continue as they had planned, a small group of black youth on ‘scraper’ bikes ignored their pleas. These youths broke away from the intersection and charged up the freeway off-ramp.
Some of the O.N.Y.X. organizers motioned with their arms to come back and seemed to disapprove with the decision to take the freeway, but hundreds in the crowd began following up the off-ramp with great excitement. Several cars honked in support of the exuberant crowd. Once on the freeway, a large section of demonstrators formed a human chain across northbound and southbound lanes, effectively bringing traffic to an absolute standstill. After nearly a half-an-hour, OPD and California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers began to mount the freeway, and demonstrators scattered in a disorganized manner. When the police did not make arrests, concentrating on clearing the highway, marchers were able to regroup near Chinatown. This gathering weaved back through downtown Oakland, marched around Lake Merritt to Piedmont and eventually grew into a much larger march that would continue late into the evening, and culminated in an assembly before the steps of the Superior Court of Alameda County.
We Are All George Zimmerman: Drew Cribley and White Vigilantism
“The police said, ‘If they're breaking in your property,
do what you gotta do and leave their bodies on the side of the road.”
‘Roper,’ White Vigilante from Post-Katrina New Orleans
“And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function.”
James Baldwin, “A Report from Occupied Territories”
As demonstrators filed back toward Oscar Grant Plaza following a brief interlude in front of the heavily guarded courthouse, a large section of black demonstrators began filing home. Some remained, though, and another segment of the march began to ‘bloc up’ to prepare for another run through downtown Oakland. Several windows were quickly smashed, including one belonging to the Men’s Warehouse building. The OPD had quickly amassed near the courthouse, following behind the remaining protestors before launching a flash bang grenade and arresting several individuals, the majority of whom were black and brown. Following these arrests, a white man who was originally arrested on the most serious charges had them reduced to misdemeanors while a young black man would be arraigned on a felony.
Demonstrators fought back against OPD officers, and the police lines would soon retreat slightly. The march then continued its way back towards the ‘Uptown’ zone (a name given by developers to a recently gentrified section of downtown Oakland), where marchers would be met with a sight not seen in recent years. Outside of a nearby storefront along Broadway stood a string of predominantly white workers and business owners – side-by-side – wielding an assortment of blunt objects and weapons, including hammers, screwdrivers, wrenches, bats, and Tasers. In an instant, a young ‘bloc-ed up’ youth sprinted out of the march and attempted to knock out the window of Flora, a local small restaurant. This individual was met by two white waiters, one of whom attempted to grab the protestor and the other following with his weapon raised high. The youth, in an effort to avoid being hit, swung their small hammer and hit the first waiter firmly across the side of his face.
Much has been said about Drew Cribley, the young white Flora waiter who was hit with a hammer. In media coverage, Cribley is portrayed as an innocent worker who was trying to ‘deter’ protestors from breaking Flora’s windows when he was viciously attacked with a hammer. Even self-identified leftists and progressives have taken to Twitter and Facebook to condemn the attack as ‘anti-working class.’ Yet, what the media didn’t say is that Cribley was doing more than simply trying to deter protestors from breaking windows. In reality, Cribley and his co-workers decided to team up and arm themselves with wrenches and hammers to attack protestors, the majority of whom, of course, were black youth.
In defending Flora - a self-described "Art Deco restaurant" in the heart of Oakland - from the rage of black youth, Drew Cribley was defending the private property of his boss. By doing so, Cribley made the conscious choice, a choice that many white workers have made before him, to organize himself and his white co-workers to violently police working-class and black youth in order to preserve and protect the racial and economic order. In this sense, it was Cribley’s actions that were ‘anti-working-class.’ Like George Zimmerman, Cribley has been portrayed as a victim who acted in self-defense when he decided to physically confront those who were breaking Flora’s windows. But Cribley is neither a hero nor a victim. He is a white vigilante desperately attempting to hold on to what Dubois called the ‘wages of whiteness’ in the face of black rebellion and economic precarity.
So while we may never know why Drew Cribley decided to arm himself in order to defend the private property of his employer, we think it’s equally important to ask, why didn’t he join up with up those who were attacking Flora, or at the very least, why didn’t he stand aside? Above all, what we find most important in Cribley’s action is that he was not alone. On the night of July 15th other white workers in ‘Uptown’ emerged not to fight their bosses or sabotage their workplaces but, rather, to defend the private property of their bosses, through the threat of violence. In essence, some of these workers acted as a vigilante force (whether this was an intentional and coordinated effort is, to date, unknown and would require further investigation) who took it upon themselves to do what they felt the police wouldn’t.
While the media, the Chamber of Commerce and local business owners decried the Oakland Police Department’s supposed ‘hands off approach’ during the riots, they seemed to have no problem with the group of white people who decided to arm themselves to police rioters. This contradiction can only be understood as tacit approval of the use of a semi-organized, white vigilantism as a strategic tool.
The Outside Agitator and the Invisibilization of Black Self-Organization
"…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial "outside agitator" idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds."
Martin Luther King, Jr. "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," 1963.
In recent weeks, we have seen several variations of ‘outside agitator’ discourse deployed by different state actors and agencies, all with similar strategies of fragmenting and separating-out the ‘disruptive’ elements from those recognized as engaging in more appropriate or legitimate political activity. The OPD (and even co-founder of the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale) pointed their fingers at violent ‘anarchists,’ many of whom, according to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, had most likely come from San Francisco to “get off” on the spectacle created by their actions. And we should not omit Kevon Paynter, Kazuu Haga, and Black Men United who, in a particularly disgusting reformulation of the illegitimate/legitimate protestor dichotomy, insisted that “radical” black protestors were portraying “negative stereotypes” about black youth, and that it was these same images or representations which ultimately led to Trayvon Martin’s death.
But the most potentially destructive variation of the ‘outside agitator’ discourse has not come from the mainstream media or the OPD. In a recent Indybay article entitled “A Basic Explanation of Recent Events (July 13-15, 2013) in the City of Oakland (Classified),” the anonymous author (whether intentionally or not) uncritically takes up this discourse, essentially verifying an outright fiction – what’s more, a fundamental staple of counterinsurgency procedure – to champion the actions of ‘white anarchists’ which they claim make it possible for black people to revolt.
From the article:
"Given the brutal ways they are treated by the police, black people are less likely to commit random acts of vandalism in public. However, when people in a crowd begin to smash windows, write on the walls, throw rocks, burn garbage, and successfully avoid arrest, it encourages a sense of safety amongst all who wish to express their anger and rage. This sense of safety is founded on the trust amongst the crowd and the solidarity amongst them, but it is informed and shaped by the first acts of rebellion.
Let it be clear, the white anarchist outside agitator is not always white, nor are they always from outside Oakland. But they are often not from Oakland, happen to be white, and have a fixation on the most basic actions that have come to signify rebellion. Freedom inspires freedom, but some people are freer than others. Those with more freedom in this country can choose to either use it or squander it."
Now, we are in agreement that it is necessary for white revolutionaries or insurrectionists to evaluate their abilities to move and act in certain political situations in relation to those who cannot (or feel that they cannot) always do the same. These are crucial conversations and should be given serious reflection. However, taken to its logical conclusion, the author’s central argument boils down to this: without the vanguard activity of ‘white anarchists,’ black people would not have engaged in forms of militant protest. In this strange inversion of Fanon, what we are presented with is not just a profound erasure of the last half-century of political struggle in the United States (not to mention the last near-decade of revolt in Oakland), but simultaneously a re-articulation of the colonial relationship in which whites are recognized as active subjects or creators and ‘non-whites’ as passive objects, who can only become political subjects as a result of the acts of their benevolent gatekeepers.
This is a terrible falsehood. How can we accept such an absurd proposition when the events of July 13th and July 15th, not coincidentally the occasions in which the most militant demonstrations took place in Oakland, tell us different? How could the author, if they were in fact present, so willfully ignore and invisibilize the most significant emergence of black self-organization and organic leadership since the Oscar Grant rebellions? We must be clear about one thing: if there was any feeling of ‘safety’ or power created in the streets of Oakland in the last week, it was largely made possible by the self-activity of these presumed ‘fearful’ black youth – not by a self-appointed white vanguard force.
This is not to say that black youth acted monolithically, nor are we attempting to diminish the acts and leadership of our ‘white’ anarchist comrades. But we hold that it is this re-emergence of self-organization of black youth in Oakland that will, as we saw during the Oscar Grant rebellions, help reshape the trajectory of class and social struggle in the coming years. Additionally, we believe it is an unavoidable task for all those consciously engaging in a revolutionary or an insurrectionary project to encourage, learn from, participate in, and help to strengthen the autonomous, organic self-activity of all working-class and poor peoples. And if we make the mistake of positioning ourselves on the wrong side of these developments, we will be faced with great difficulties indeed.
Some Concluding Remarks
“Sick of the ride
For the other side of town
When I find a way to shut 'em down”
Public Enemy, ‘Shut Em Down’
Throughout the course of this long-form reflection and analysis – however incomplete or fragmented – we have attempted to clarify and explain several issues which have been distorted by a number of sources. We have tried to emphasize the spontaneous self-organization and activity of black youth as crucial formative elements of recent events. Whether this activity continues to grow and develop into a broader political tendency is another question that remains unclear at this point. Without reservation, we believe that if it were not for this leadership we would have been faced with an entirely different set of circumstances - or defeats. No one who was present in the streets in the last week feels like these were battles without a cause.
Therefore, just as we fight to establish a counter-narrative to the state and mainstream media discourse which deliberately distorts the nature of a struggle for vengeance, we also feel compelled to fight against a false characterization of these uprisings amongst our own comrades, if necessary, especially to the extent that they persist in invisibilizing the self-directed activities of people who are also comrades, friends, and family.
We have also sought to demystify the actions surrounding and involving the attack of white vigilante Drew Cribley. The emergence of white working-class vigilantism and the temporary alignment with management against working-class and poor black rebellion are not – historically speaking – altogether new developments. Yet these moves, set against the backdrop of a continuing crisis in city leadership and policing, are likely to open up new and complicated terrains of political conflict (especially if these manifestations become generalized in some recognizable way) which will require careful conversations about how we engage future campaigns and how best to defend one another in the process.
These questions take on a greater relevancy in Oakland as we quickly approach July 26th, a day which has been declared a national day of action to “Block for Trayvon.”
From the call-out:
"The murder of a black teen is not the exception, but the norm; we are coming to fists with normal life in America. Hence, #hoodiesup must disrupt the places that sustain this normal: cities, highways, trains, ports, social media—all the flows that compose the false harmony of America. The sit-ins in Pittsburgh and Florida, the marches blocking streets around the country, the highway takeovers in Oakland, LA, and Houston, all share a wisdom: every place that politics and commerce carry on as if nothing has happened is ripe for disruption. Block everything!"
While we strongly support actions and calls to disrupt the flow of labor and capital, we also know – as direct participants and observers – what it took in 2011 to mobilize for a general strike in Oakland and, later in 2012, for a shutdown of the West Coast Port system. It was an effort of thousands of people, of scores of planning meetings and hours upon hours of outreach. This call to action leaves us with less than a week to cobble together a coherent strategy and plan for attack, one which must be especially well-honed if we are to find ourselves in direct conflict with a police force (aided by a growing manifestation of white vigilantism) becoming increasingly concerned with losing control of the Oakland streets.
We can’t help but wonder if, in our particular context and political situation, whether it would make more sense, strategically, to exercise patience and wait for the beginning of August when BART workers will likely strike for a second time in several months? We ask all in Oakland to seriously consider this question. Such an approach, properly navigated, would open up many opportunities for a much wider social strike and establish crucial linkages between the BART worker’s struggles – many of whom are black – and the recent ruptures created by the actions surrounding the Zimmerman verdict. At the junction of these seemingly unrelated political battles we see the operation of a similar logic of economic exploitation and white supremacy and, if we hope to offer a serious challenge to this power, we must seek creative and potent mechanisms of resistance that sustain and embolden us in our fight. We hope that we have constructively provoked our comrades, and we look forward to discussing and debating these issues in the coming days.
See you on the barricades.
Contact: Oaklandunity510 [at] gmail.com