By Puck Lo
From the diffuse clouded sunlight, which looks and feels the same in January as it does in June, to the broken glass glinting on the sidewalks, downtown Oakland is as usual. The city barely skips a beat anymore during and after the now-normal political riots that clog otherwise empty, wide downtown thoroughfares, drawing relatively little attention from non-political passers-by beyond perfunctory updates on Twitter decrying the lack of parking due to #oo or contemplating the sometimes nearly monolithic young whiteness of these latest exhilarated, raging masses.
Since the diverted building takeover on Saturday and the police riot, kettling and violent mass-arrest of marchers outside the YMCA, interest in denouncing and trying once again to co-opt and control the unruly Occupy has returned with a vengeance. Recently dormant factions of the Bay Area’s Leftish communities and political intelligentsia, often genuinely well-intentioned, are issuing statements condemning so-called violence against buildings and other inanimate objects or taking issue with the insurrectionist strategy of facing off with police and antagonizing city officials. This unnamed Occupy strategy, coupled with the hyper-militarized state of Oakland’s police force, culminated on Saturday with some 400 arrests and hundreds of thousands in city dollars spent to terrorize the populace of our fiscally gutted, deeply unequal and gentrifying city.
Not surprisingly, every faction involved is staying on-message.
The cops blame the protesters. The Mayor blames the “fringe” protesters who are out of touch with and beyond the control of the non-profits who claim to represent authentic communities. Within activist communities, pacifists blame the rioters. Non-profits blame outside agitators.
And though I agree with their overall analysis, many of the same Occupy-ers and insurrectionists who seem to value above all else militant confrontation with the police (as much as someone unarmed can actually “confront” a heavily armed force who have state-sanctioned powers to kill) now act shocked that cops don’t follow the letter of the law, white kids can get arrested for walking down a street, and jail is not a good place.
Such “politicizing” experiences of spending a weekend in jail – celebrated in the manarchist culture of back-slapping camaraderie shared by those for whom jail is a rebellious and exotic adventure – only highlight some of the many ways that privilege and punishment land unequally on the differently raced, gendered and classed bodies who get swept up in mass arrests of the 99% movement.
Let’s be clear: I can’t think of any social movement that has overthrown dictators, ousted exploitative corporations, or catalyzed its populace to build alternatives to a corrupt system that hasn’t engaged in one or more of the following militant tactics: building and land expropriations, illegality, and strategic confrontation against police forces.
Are every one of those movements in other places and times somehow savvier, more tightly coordinated, better trained than our own fractious masses in the here and now? Certainly not. Of course there is much we stand to learn from comrades who have been fighting and winning social struggles against austerity and budget cuts around the world. But should we wait until political leaders and organizations organize Occupy into a winning campaign that privileges unity, compromise and conventional forms of electoral power over the messy business of experimenting with utopian forms of direct democracy? Hell, no. Judging by the enthusiasm that swept through Oakland to joyfully reclaim public spaces, side with foreclosed residents to prevent evictions and turn out in force in the foggy pre-dawn hours to hold picket lines, many of us are eager and primed for politicized engagements beyond the ballot box or the arduous petitioning for change that accompanies being told by political leaders and experts what is and isn’t possible.
Since its bizarre origins as an Adbusters brainchild, Occupy has seemed like an out-of-control bus with no driver behind the wheel, careening wildly and sideswiping political organizations, labor unions, wingnuts and everyone else. It inspired many in the world by calling the first General Strike in the US in decades. With reckless, visionary ambition and rather disingenuous co-optation it coordinated a multiple port shutdown on the West Coast. What it seems to have awakened in all of us, anarchists as well as Democrats and Stalinists, is our own control-freaky desires to hijack the bus we’re left resentfully chasing after – to shape, manipulate, denounce, and take over this diffuse, wildly disagreeable, polymorphous beast in accordance with our own political ideals.
Perhaps the most hopeful and exciting thing about Occupy, manifested in its many camps spread nationwide, ironically, is in fact its disorderliness, its inability to even just be cohesive. It does not heed leaders or pander to conventional forms of political power. Refreshingly, in our time of professionalized revolution and pragmatic bargaining, Occupy refuses to officially represent.
Occupy wants to be seen as amorphous actions and multitudes, dynamic and changing, not as a fixed set of actors with definitive agendas. But as the months tick by in Oakland, such a characterization seems increasingly disingenuous.
Occupy’s most visible bullhorn-carriers, spokespeople and tireless organizers are recognizable to anyone familiar with the Bay Area anarchist/ insurrectionist scene. Undoubtedly, Occupy supporters will insist that its main players are not majority white and neither are the other Occupy adherents, but one need only look at the protests themselves, or the photos that Occupy activists post.
Nationally, in the name of
the 99%, what has become the Occupy mishmash of a movement comes closer than any other recent social movement in my lifetime to advancing an agenda to expropriate some of the collective resources that have been stolen from all of us and administratively controlled by the State. Yet simultaneously, Occupy Oakland nonchalantly appropriates from many of the communities of color who are absent from its meetings and who bear the brunt of the fall-out from Occupy’s insurrectionist strategy of constantly escalating confrontations against the police.
Occupy Oakland’s high-drama performances of protest bravado raise the question: Does it matter who occupies land, who burns the flag, who storms city hall? Can we think about tactics and strategy separately from the actors who use them? In Oakland, are riots now a white thing? When white people riot in the name of people of color, is it still a white riot? Are meetings with the mayor doomed to be the authentic “grassroots people of color” approach?
Politics are always about, at its best and worst, power and representation.
The most exciting politics transform previously normalized and violent relationships, processes and systems from invisibility into articulation, to being controlled by and accountable to the people who have the fewest social privileges. In short, people who hadn’t had any control over their own lives now do.
At its worst, politics consolidate power in the hands of a few who claim to represent the interests of others who are excluded or tokenized.
In our messy world of inequities and contradictions, blindsided by subjective experience and trauma, the reality is that the most radical of anti-authoritarian projects are imperfect and fraught with confusing contradictions.
Occupy Oakland certainly is, and has been since the beginning.
I recall one quiet night there before the first police raid, when, with a mug of hot cocoa in hand, I sat with a friend on the concrete amphitheater steps with some forty others and watched a documentary about Iceland’s financial crisis. It was dorky; it was sweet; it was lovely. The air was still, the stars blazed warmly, and I felt an unusual sense of – dare I say it?– community. What had once been a lifeless, vacant space had been transformed into a free, welcoming public resource. We never finished the movie. A rumor about an imminent police raid cut the screening short, and many worried people packed up their tents and left.
Unfortunately, I remember far more nights at Occupy where my primary experience was gendered harassment – getting incessantly hollered at and followed in the plaza. One day a harasser followed me across the plaza and nearly halfway to my apartment building. When, weeks later, I encountered him again and demanded that he accompany me to a mediation tent, he refused while dozens of onlookers gawked blankly at me. One man approached me and told me that he was sorry that I was upset. Meanwhile, my harasser – a white, barefoot, dredlocked hippie – walked back into the relative anonymity in a throng of tents, looking nervously behind him at the confrontation he had just successfully evaded. Sadly, gendered harassment at the encampment was the norm and not the exception among my friends and most other women and queers I’ve talked to. And while the actions of individual assholes cannot be blamed on a leaderless social experiment, the total lack of interest from most Occupy committees and individuals to acknowledge or address the problem in isolated incidents as well as on a systemic level was truly disappointing.
The brief romance between Occupy and many in my communities terminated abruptly in late December when a group of local indigenous organizers asked Occupy Oakland to change its name from “Occupy” to “Decolonize” to respect the area’s history and Native activism. These organizers had recently organized a 108-day occupation and saved a burial site in a nearby city from destruction. They would have had much to contribute to the project in Oscar Grant plaza. But “Decolonize” was voted down. The Native activists from Oakland were accused of being divisive and irrelevant, and even of being undercover federal agents. While many perspectives exist and they do not fall neatly along raced lines, the experience was for me and others I know profoundly disheartening. Many people of color whose political work include an analysis of colonization stepped back from Occupy after this vote.
Of course, not all of those who were caught up in the police sweeps on Saturday are young, white or privileged.
I spent my Saturday night answering the National Lawyer’s Guild hotline, hearing firsthand accounts from panicking people who were being surrounded and then tear-gassed by police outside the YMCA. They had been told to disperse only after they had been corralled. Included in the mix, along with many others, were the young women from Palestine Youth Movement who had been planning on bringing a proposal the following night to the Occupy Oakland General Assembly to support Palestinian liberation by boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning Israeli corporations.
And of course jail is a bad place.
On Saturday I heard from many in jail about people bleeding from the head, and a woman whose hands had turned purple and swollen from her too-tight handcuffs. One of the lawyers at the Guild later characterized the mass arrests and the conditions of captivity over the weekend – the bruises, welts and blatant denial of prescription medications to those needing them – as “sadistic.”
On Sunday night, while hundreds who had been arrested the previous day still languished in jail, I sat on the cold stairs at the General Assembly. The crowd around me looked like who I’d expect to find at the bike messenger punk bar in San Francisco. When occasional lulls fell – when the facilitator paused, or when votes were being counted – individual men (always men, it seemed) would bellow, in chest-thumping pep rally fashion, “OCCUPY!!!”
“The system has got to die!!!” another male voice would scream. “Hella hella OCCUPY!!!” And the crowd roared its approval.
A small group with many of the usual suspects stepped up to propose that the General Assembly endorse a call to “Occupy May Day.” After narrating the constant refrain that “the whole world is watching Oakland,” the proposers read off a statement calling for a General Strike on May 1st in the tradition of celebrating the Haymarket martyrs and in solidarity with “immigrants, people of color, workers, queer and trans people.” It was once again a moment where the people named as recipients of solidarity were mostly absent.
Ultimately, what I ask is this: What would the tactics of occupation, expropriation and redistribution look like if they were truly available to and representative of Oakland’s varied communities, who have specific and unique cultures and different historical trauma?
What if all the people who have been mistreated by police officers for the first time on Saturday think about what it might be like if one couldn’t engage arrest and jailtime so flippantly, if indeed most of one’s daily life, mobility, identity and race was shaped by the ever-expanding nexus of administrative and judicial systems of control that make up the prison-industrial-complex? What if the project of “the 99%” centered those experiences and concerns in its vision for confronting state power? (Indeed, the National Occupy Day in Support of Prisoners on February 20th provides us an opportunity to make good on that potential.)
Perhaps Occupy Oakland does not have the ability to change itself to meet all the needs I list above. It is likely Occupy Oakland and I want different things. I don’t wish it gone. On the contrary, I wish a similar encampment or project existed in every plaza, on every block, in every foreclosed home and abandoned building. I will continue to cautiously and critically support the movement inspired by Occupy as best as I can, and hope that over time there will be more such projects to support, some of which will truly speak to my communities and be more relevant to our needs and experiences. Occupy politics have done a lot to invigorate thousands of people across the world, and in Oakland, it seems to have imbued many (white men, it seems, in particular) with a sense of agency and urgency to engage and reshape the world into one that is – at least in name – more just. In the “mainstream,” Occupy Wall Street has changed what newspapers cover, and how economics is talked about. Occupy has become to Debt what verbs are to nouns. That is momentous. Thanks to Occupy Wall Street we can all get away with a little more when we’re fighting against the current in the straight world.
Here at home, I hope that all of us decolonizers and revolutionaries and other sorts of militant dreamers who are passionately excited about direct democracy and autonomous self-determination might figure out how to engage critically and compassionately in this moment and continue the work in our own lives, learning and adapting as we go. I hope we resist the bait that will be offered to us by politicians and leaders who want to turn us against radical and militant tactics, who will condemn building takeovers and blame Saturday’s police riot on the people who were gassed and arrested. I hope that those of us planning for the Occupy May Day General Strike will prioritize and support direction from and respectfully collaborate with the multitude of women, men and students who left work and school to march down the streets of Fruitvale back on May 1st in 2006, sometimes risking livelhoods and deportation to take a stand. I hope that Occupy’s horizontalist forms and utopian militancy might inspire us queers, migrants, people of color and other radicals to believe that our wildest dreams can be political platforms, to re-imagine a political landscape outside the paradigm of state power and move past the impulse to define justice as legislative equality.