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.
That night, a chant from the crowd reverberated off the buildings on Telegraph Avenue in downtown Oakland: 'Don't throw shit! Don't throw shit!'
But that view is not shared by everyone at the camp, and the “leaderless” and “horizontal” nature of the Occupy movement makes self-policing difficult. An “open letter” from a self-described “anarchist participant” in Oakland's November 2 general strike pushes back on what he or she calls “a great deal of slander” in this debate:
"Isolating people based on their ... symbolic defiance of exploitative property by making absurd claims of them being “Outside agitators,” as if it they are somehow separate from the many people who have been actively involved in building [the movement,] should not only be considered an attack on solidarity, but an attack on movements of the people. What divides movements of the people, weakens movements of the people."
At the encampment in front of Oakland's City Hall, now a month old, one can easily fall into a protracted philosophical debate about whether vandalism constitutes an act of violence, and the degree to which destroying property is an appropriate tactic to use in an ostensibly nonviolent movement. “Diversity of tactics” has become a catchphrase of sorts among many occupiers; a euphemism for allowing pointless and self-defeating acts of destruction to go unchecked.
It's an interesting academic discussion to have in a graduate seminar in political philosophy, but it betrays a blind-spot within this “leaderless” movement that threatens to end the occupation in Oakland. The debate ignores the fact that these tactics, regardless of their legitimacy, are totally counter-productive for advancing the movement. Breaking windows has a negligible impact on the bottom lines of corporations. The people who were hurt when someone smashed the windows of Tully's Coffee on the corner of Frank Ogawa Plaza were the low-wage baristas who weren't paid for the shifts they missed while the store was undergoing repairs.
It also infuriates the local community, dividing the occupation from its natural supporters, and gives law enforcement ample justification for its harsh crackdowns.
Tai Moses, a longtime resident of Oakland (and a former managing editor of AlterNet), is as sympathetic to the goals of the Occupy movement – holding banks accountable, addressing spiraling inequality and the pernicious influence of money in our political system – as anyone. But in an email exchange, she expressed sentiments that are becoming increasingly common in Oakland. “For people like me,” she wrote, “who live in Oakland, who have invested in our struggling downtown, who are heartbroken and furious when people masquerading as 'protesters' vandalize our city, break windows, and hurl insults and provocations at police, it is the issue. The people doing these things are the same people who descended on Oakland during the Oscar Grant demonstrations. They didn't care about Oscar Grant and they don't care about Occupy Oakland -- they just want to destroy property and set cop cars on fire. They want violence. And they end up front and center on the news as the face of the demonstrations, when in fact their goals have nothing to do with the goals of the occupation.”
And Oakland has two occupations – one associated with a national movement, and the other a horde of journalists who have invaded the city. “If it bleeds, it leads,” goes the cliché, and the vandalism has become the focus of an enormous amount of media attention.
There's an intense distrust of the media within Occupy Oakland, a distrust that expresses itself in the naive belief that media narratives are fixed and unmovable. It is certainly true that protests in this country are greeted with skepticism by the corporate media. But it's also the case that ample “b-roll” featuring damaged windows, graffitti, the burned-out wreckage of jury-rigged barricades and masked people throwing things at riot cops provides an enormous amount of grist for the mill – a fact totally denied by that faction who believe that a “diversity of tactics” trumps smart media strategy.
Oakland officials are gearing up for another crackdown on the camp, justified in large part by recent acts of vandalism. But it won't be the end of the occupation. The good news is that there's an increasing awareness among the majority of occupiers that they must redouble their efforts to self-police.
It remains to be seen how successful those efforts will be. The future of Occupy Oakland may just rest on who ends up with the upper-hand in an often contentious internal debate over the role of mayhem in the streets connected to an ostensibly peaceful revolution.