Occupy Oakland is DeadYesterday afternoon's gambit was a disaster
Yesterday afternoon's gambit was a disaster (hellaoccupyoakland.org/j28-movein-day-weekend-action-occupy-oakland-building-takeover/). The three of us who were there together noticed right away that there weren't enough people. A majority of those at the march didn't know that the closed/abandoned Kaiser Convention Center was the target of the Move-In. The cops knew and were already waiting for us; what they didn't know was which route we'd be taking -- no wonder they were only lined up behind us! The attempt of a self-selected and purportedly stealthy central committee to keep the target a secret was doomed. To believe that such a crucial subcommittee (in terms of planning something that's clearly illegal) would not be infiltrated or under more intense surveillance than the rest of OO was an unfortunate coupling of naïveté with smug self-assurance.
There had been a lot of chatter about what Move-In Day was supposed to look like. Part of that included a sense that there was more than one target on the agenda, that there was an alternative in the event that the primary target was not possible to take, let alone hold. This turned out not to be the case. There were no diversionary tactics, no scouts reporting on the deployment of OPD at the Convention Center, no contingencies in place. Rather than showing some tactical and strategic flexibility and strength, for example, by regrouping and announcing that we were to move on to a Plan B or C (someplace aside from the target of November 2 ; see: http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/11/03/18697018.php), whatever leadership (or vibe in the crowd) existed decided instead to confront the cops in a semi-collective flexing of militant muscle. Such posturing is self-defeating, bringing to mind that other debacle of earlier in the week: the now-infamous press conference, in which threats were made against the city in the case of any repression being used against the Move-In.
When the organizer on the sound truck announced that the truck would be staying near the north entrance of Laney College and told folks to continue through the campus, the festive momentum which has always accompanied the techno music being blared through its speakers evaporated. OPD had already blocked off all the entrances/exits on the side of the campus facing the Convention Center, had already lined up their white vans along the street outside the building, and had made it clear from their massive presence around the building that they would not tolerate anyone coming within reach of the fence, let alone the Center itself. If a combative mood had existed with any consistency, it was quickly dissipated by the bottleneck effect of wandering through a maze of hideous architecture meant to disperse people. With no clear path to the objective, this effectively broke the march into several discrete clusters, in which none of the participants could tell what was supposed to happen next. By the time we made it up and around the campus, we were a full block south of the target building, and it took us another ten to fifteen minutes to catch up with the front of the reconstituted march. We missed the first volley of tear gas.
The declaration that the demonstration was an illegal assembly soon followed, and the march continued back toward the north end of the Oakland Museum (directly next to the Convention Center), where a line of masked Occupiers with shields pushed their way toward a line of riot police. Behind us and around the corner, the cops who'd first fired the tear gas followed us at a safe distance, widening and reinforcing the perimeter away from the Convention Center, clearly with the eventual plan to kettle at least the more confrontational demonstrators. The cops being faced down by the shielded Occupiers fired tear gas, "bean bag" rounds (which are filled with buckshot, not beans), hardened rubber projectiles, and flash-bang grenades. Despite some initial panic, the line held, the Black Bloc doing precisely what it's supposed to do; the most positive development of the afternoon (independent of the many other strategic failures) is that folks now have a better idea of what it means to have a flash-bang grenade go off nearby. It frightens you once; it's quite startling and unusual, meant to instill fear and panic, but then the novelty of this form of intimidation wears off. All the chemical and so-called less-than-lethal weapons used against us were ultimately ineffective; we only ran when charged by the cops swinging their batons.
It was at about the same time that another squad of riot cops tried to ambush us and kettle the demonstrators who'd stayed about a half-block behind the front line. They were not successful, but they still used their usual intimidating and chilling tactic (because of its deliberately random and arbitrary quality) of pushing and striking people who don't move quickly enough out of the space over which they are trying to reassert their de jure control. Two bicyclists were forcefully pushed over on the sidewalk, entangling each other -- and one of us -- in their twisted wheels and frames. Batons were swinging wildly, one blow striking the young woman next to us; she was trying to get up and keep moving when the cop struck her directly across her back as hard as he could. Fortunately she was wearing a backpack (presumably not perceptible to the cop, who was clearly intending to do nothing else but hurt her badly), and the blow was cushioned and dissipated. In the middle of the street, there were about five or six riot cops who, in their zealousness to inflict damage on people, had rushed beyond their defensive line. One cop was especially brutal, clubbing a young man several times after he had fallen to the ground; she swung her baton like a baseball bat, with both hands. Soon, she and the others next to her realized they were overextended, and retreated to the line, and the entire line then retreated another 30 yards to reform their phalanx and secure the intersection.
The level of gratuitous brutality against people who are not posing any discernible threat to them is more proof -- if any more were actually needed -- that the cops are professional bullies, who enjoy inflicting physical punishment on defenseless and unthreatening people.
That OO has been dying a slow death from at least the time of the second clearance of the Plaza is obvious to anyone looking at it critically. The almost imperceptible (at least to those who weren't expecting it) aggregation of power/influence by a self-selected coterie of professional Leftist intellectuals (academics and other specialists in revolt) has been ongoing, the seeds of this bureaucratization predating the occupation of the Plaza. The lack of long-term strategic thinking (which began with the choice of the Plaza in the first place -- OO immediately kettled itself in an indefensible location) and/or the reluctance to learn any strategic lessons, has thwarted activists on the Left for generations. The leadership (elected, self-appointed, whatever) can't seem to wrap its collective mind around the fact that they keep repeating the same failed strategies and tactics that crippled the New Left , the anti-nuke movement, the Central America solidarity movement, the anti-Iraq War movement, and now the Occupy movement. Despite the pro forma adherence of most organizers to (the appearance of) participatory democracy, the centralization of tasks, power, and knowledge, coupled with the allure of celebrity has been too enticing for certain personality types and individuals to avoid. The pre-OO movements represented minorities (some more sizable than others), yet our predecessors in them behaved as if street theater and the conceit of moral superiority would be able to influence politicians to alter their policies, whether through the unmasking of their hypocrisy or some other ploy meant to turn regular people against them. How many more times must we endure invocations of Gandhi and MLK?
Occupy comes along and through the completely incoherent -- but shrewdly deployed -- marketing slogan "We are the 99%," it suddenly it looks like Occupy has the potential to be the largest minority movement of contestation seen in this country since... ever. The participation of everyday people from all different economic and social classes was a large part of the contagion of festivity and openness that characterized Occupy Oakland in its initial and most vibrant phase, the high-point of which was the first Port Shutdown -- and that ended with the second clearance. It wasn't just the usual suspects: the sanctimonious, mostly white, mostly middle class, vaguely anti-capitalist, professional activists.
The usual suspects, unaccustomed as they are to having to engage in a political environment based on widespread personal involvement, personal investment, and personal commitment -- and perhaps more importantly, unaccustomed to interacting with people previously uninterested in such things -- couldn't come up with any strategies to keep those regular folks interested in continual participation. Their bureaucratic tendencies began creeping into the open with their cozying up to Organized Labor, an early self-destructive move (for Occupy as a whole, not for the leadership, for whom it was an astute career move); the failed Labor Solidarity March in mid-October that was supposed to end at the encampment was an early indication that this strategy was doomed, while the recent fist-fight and condemnation of outside agitators in Washington was only the latest.
But the appeal of Occupy was that the inherent crises of capitalism are finally affecting almost everyone (save the mythical 1%); it was beginning to look like critically -- even radically! -- examining capitalism itself in a more mainstream context was no longer taboo; it was beginning to look like a class-based critique was becoming acceptable discourse. With the usual professional Leftist intelligentsia more firmly in control of the content and direction of Occupy Oakland tactics and strategies, however, the likelihood of a return to that initial wide appeal -- based on the workable and attractive principles (although not without their unique problems) of non-hierarchical decision making and the refusal to issue demands -- seems practically non-existent. The potential gateway that Occupy offered for truly radical critiques and ruptures -- especially and specifically those offered by avoiding the usual Leftist trajectory of becoming bogged down in the sectarian squabbling and false opposition to capitalism of Party Marxism -- is now more remote than ever.
The militant posturing that raised the stakes of confrontation at last week's press conference was one more example of how out of touch the self-appointed grandstanding leadership has become. What were Oakland's Mayor and Police Department supposed to do to save face? Was there any other response anticipated by OO's leadership than the usual brutality we've come to expect from OPD? Whatever happened to the strategies of those who know they are less powerful, like ridicule, like picking battles we can occasionally win? We already know who will lose in those frontal confrontations, but apparently the Occupy bureaucrats can't be bothered to remember something so mundane as the history of radical movements.
Whatever potential support the Move-In might have had from the primarily good relations OO had developed over the past three or four months with regular people in Oakland, around the country, and around the world was flushed away. Who reported on or quoted the statements of the other subcommittees? Will those other statements even be remembered? Everyone centered on the stupid threats to occupy City Hall, the Oakland International Airport, or to shut down the port again. The much-touted presence of the Children's Bloc at the Move-In march was a collection of activists who happen to have kids. We didn't see many of the regular folks we'd encountered at the Plaza participating at yesterday's rally and march; the hundreds of demonstrators appeared to be almost exclusively experienced activists. The thousands more who would have been required to take over and defend a building the size of the Convention Center never materialized, and the blame must be put squarely on the numerous strategic miscalculations and failures of the self-appointed organizers of the Move-In as well as the wider de facto leadership of OO.
It is not strategically wise to issue a threat you can't back up. It is not strategically wise to boast of your plans, especially when you can be reasonably certain that the cops will escalate their response. It is not strategically wise to aggravate or otherwise provoke bullies -- especially a gang of professional bullies. It is not strategically wise to put all your eggs in one basket and not have a contingency plan in place, just in case. The train wreck was guaranteed, and that's what we got yesterday in downtown Oakland.
No matter how many images of the cops kicking the shit out of Occupiers on January 28th (and next time) circulate on mainstream and social media, no matter how many positive experiences everyday people had at OO events or just hanging at the Plaza prior to the second clearing, no matter how many attempts there are of Occupiers to lick their wounds, regroup, and try again to move OO to the next step and take over a defensible building, the participation of regular folks is certainly now over. Regardless of the million problems that existed in Occupy Oakland (whether from the abuse of modified consensus, or the lack of willingness to discuss what it means to reclaim public space and move toward disrespecting private property, or the naïveté of most of the regular folks), the active participation of those regular folks was the only thing keeping OO from devolving into yet another absurd Leftist spectacle of half-assed dissent and truncated opposition.
It is certain that some rump of OO will continue to carry on, but the thrill is gone.
Occupy Oakland is Dead; Long Live Occupy Oakland!
-- an affinity group affiliated with the Anti-Bureaucratic Bloc
January 29, 2012 (antibloc2012 [at] gmail.com) @Indymedia