Who's Behind the Mayhem at the Occupy Oakland Protests?
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During an Occupy Oakland camp meeting on November 3 – the morning after a boisterous but peaceful day of protests in Oakland devolved into a barrage of teargas and “less lethal” bullets after nightfall -- about a dozen “occupiers” expressed their frustration with the vandalism that had marred the evening; acts of mayhem committed by a small number of people among the thousands who took part in the protests.
“Who are these people?” asked one protester who would only identify himself as Dave. “They're not staying here with us, they're not participating in the GAs [general assemblies] and as far as I'm concerned, they're not a part of this movement.”
Another protester spoke of how the broken windows and spray-painted graffitti had overshadowed the “beautiful thing” they'd accomplished during the day. “We shut down the fucking Port of Oakland,” she said, “and all the news is talking about today is this bullshit that went down last night.”
Another activist spoke of the sense of vulnerability she felt, as police have come to rely on a handy group of “black bloc anarchists” to justify their violent responses.
Indeed, on November 10, I spoke with an Oakland police officer about the department's crowd control strategy that night. “My feeling is that if you want to protest or whatever, that's fine by me. But when things get out of control, then public safety has to step in.” He said the police had learned that “things were getting ugly” that night, with “this small group of troublemakers breaking windows and spray-painting buildings.”
I asked him to clarify at what point the decision had been made to intervene with a large number of riot police, and he responded, “I can't tell you all the details.”
The occupiers' sentiments that morning represent a virtually unreported aspect of the increasingly tense situation in Oakland. In most media accounts, it is simply assumed that the vandals are a part of Occupy Oakland. In the prevailing narrative, “black bloc” anarchists wreaking havoc go hand-in-hand with the occupation.
Even decrying the work of “anarchists” is misleading. The majority of self-identified anarchists with whom I have spoken do not advocate vandalism or violence. They see it as harmful to their aims. A “street medic,” who says her “values are anti-capitalist, anti-hierarchical and incorporate an anti-oppression framework,” writes that while she doesn't believe “property destruction is violence” or agree “with the idea that cops can be provoked,” she nonetheless condemned the “tactics” of November 2:
"The breaking of windows and vandalizing of businesses which supported the strike was utterly stupid and counterproductive; and watching black bloc-ers run from the cops and not protect the camp their actions had endangered, an action which ultimately left behind many mentally ill people, sick people, street kids, and homeless folks to defend themselves against the police onslaught was disturbing and disgusting in ways I can’t even articulate."
Similarly, not everyone I've seen trying to mix it up with police wore black masks – it's an over-simplification. What that small minority seems to have in common is their youth. There are angry young people in Oakland whose "revolutionary" zeal is unchecked by the wisdom that accrues with life experience.
Another unreported reality is the lengths to which protesters have attempted to police their own. On October 25, I saw several activists physically intervene when a group of about eight young men decided to flip over a police car. On November 2, another group restrained a man who was throwing objects at a line of riot police. “Those fuckers shot me!” he shouted, as they pulled him away from the scene.