Notes on Oakland 2011

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We expect his­tory to pro­vide us with expla­na­tions – to place the imme­di­acy of expe­ri­ence within a wider story whose terms will be pro­gres­sively elab­o­rated and illu­mi­nated. Polit­i­cal action, which aims at inter­ven­ing into his­tory and alter­ing its move­ment, has an entirely dif­fer­ent kind of truth – a sub­jec­tive truth pro­duced in the act of participating.

The events of yes­ter­day in Oak­land, on the other hand, strike me as unin­tel­li­gi­ble. And I am not sure fur­ther infor­ma­tion and spec­u­la­tion will shed more light on my expe­ri­ence. The actions we take to develop cer­tain pos­si­bil­i­ties present in yesterday’s “gen­eral strike” may pro­duce a lan­guage that will con­tribute to the intel­li­gi­bil­ity of future events.

It’s not sur­pris­ing when the pro­pa­ganda machine takes advan­tage of this kind of ambi­gu­ity to totally dis­tort real­ity. But it is obscene, idi­otic, and criminal.

Before I left for a night­time trip to Oscar Grant Plaza, the New York Times web­site had this as its lead­ing head­line: “Oakland’s Port Shut Down as Pro­test­ers March on Waterfront.”

When I got home last night the head­line had shifted to “Protest in Oak­land Turns Vio­lent,” with essen­tially the same text. As of this morn­ing, this head­line is accom­pa­nied by a photo of a man wav­ing a flag in front of a fire, with no expla­na­tion of the nature of the fire. It describes “a rov­ing group of about 100 mostly young men” who “broke from the main group of pro­test­ers in a cen­tral plaza and roamed through down­town streets spray­ing graf­fiti, burn­ing garbage and break­ing win­dows.” The police, we are told, warned these van­dals to dis­perse, and then fired tear gas.

All over the inter­net lib­er­als are warn­ing of agents provo­ca­teurs who are try­ing to dis­credit the move­ment, or con­demn­ing the dan­ger­ous anar­chist ele­ment that seeks con­fronta­tion with police. Such posi­tions could be debated if they had any bear­ing on reality.

I will try to recon­struct the day. My account will be impres­sion­is­tic; it will be marked with bursts of frag­men­tary analy­sis. The chronol­ogy is framed by three hege­monic elements.

Black Bloc

I arrived in Oak­land just in time for the anti-capitalist march at 2PM. “Anti-capitalist” seems like a broad umbrella term, and in some ways it is; there were red flags in the crowd, but also peo­ple with main­stream signs, includ­ing some who seemed to be from unions and non­prof­its, who are per­haps begin­ning to ask some fun­da­men­tal questions.

But “anti-capitalism” has a very spe­cific mean­ing at a protest. It typ­i­cally refers to the mil­i­tant wing asso­ci­ated with the 1999 WTO protests in Seat­tle, and it’s a good indi­ca­tion of the pres­ence of the “black bloc,” the nin­jas of the Amer­i­can left who wear masks and break cor­po­rate windows.

The black bloc was there yes­ter­day, and they met expec­ta­tions. I saw win­dows and ATMs bro­ken at Chase, Wells Fargo, and Bank of Amer­ica. Bank of Amer­ica had “1946” spray-painted on one of its totally shat­tered win­dows, to recall the pre­vi­ous gen­eral strike in Oakland.

I saw no police. I saw no arrests for prop­erty destruc­tion. I want to empha­size this, against reac­tionar­ies who smear the whole move­ment by reduc­ing it to one ele­ment, and against lib­er­als who think that police vio­lence sim­ply brought a minor­ity of extrem­ists under con­trol. Prop­erty destruc­tion did not start at mid­night when the tear gas came out. The major­ity of prop­erty destruc­tion – the only prop­erty destruc­tion I per­son­ally saw – took place in the after­noon with no police response.

Mor­al­iz­ing reac­tions to the black bloc are absurd, but I believe it must be eval­u­ated from the stand­point of strat­egy. Prop­erty destruc­tion is not the same as vio­lence against peo­ple, and if destroy­ing the win­dows of a bank reduced the preda­tory exploita­tion prac­ticed by these insti­tu­tions it would be eth­i­cally unim­peach­able. Unfor­tu­nately, I see no way in which it does that. Black-bloc prop­erty destruc­tion seems above all else to be a form of self-expression. It does not fit its tac­tics into a long-term strat­egy, and it does not move towards dis­man­tling the social struc­ture of cap­i­tal­ism, rather than the phys­i­cal struc­tures that some­times rep­re­sent it. Nei­ther does the highly secre­tive and elite group­ing of the black bloc pre­fig­ure com­mu­nist relations.

This does not mean, how­ever, that we should mis­rep­re­sent the com­po­si­tion and prac­tice of the black bloc. Dur­ing the attack on Wells Fargo, a man bicy­cled up to the bar­ri­cade, pointed, and said, “some of you are cops.” He repeated it know­ingly and biked away. Count­less peo­ple who weren’t there are say­ing this on the inter­net today. But to me it seems totally implausible.

First of all, two police infor­mants were iden­ti­fied. I have no way of con­firm­ing whether they were under­cover. But they sure seemed like it. A woman pointed at two rather burly men, one white and one black, with aggres­sive pos­tures and clothes that seemed exactly like what a police offi­cer would imag­ine a pro­tester to wear. She said they had been pick­ing up items peo­ple dropped to use as evi­dence; they could come up with no bet­ter defense than to say, “I ain’t under­cover,” and accuse the woman of not being from Oak­land. (She was not in the black bloc.) If these two men were police – which, given pre­vi­ous Oak­land Police Depart­ment (OPD) poli­cies, is not far­fetched – they were lit­er­ally the only police I saw that afternoon.

A few min­utes after hear­ing this exchange I saw a gath­er­ing in the street. One of these men had been encir­cled by the black bloc, who were shout­ing and pound­ing the road with their sticks. He left rather quickly. I have tried a few thought exper­i­ments, but I can’t quite under­stand why the OPD would send infil­tra­tors of vary­ing qual­ity into the march, turn them against each other, and then do noth­ing when the win­dows actu­ally got broken.

The sec­ond impor­tant point is that the black bloc did extremely orga­nized hits on spe­cific sites. It was not wan­ton destruc­tion. They attacked no local shops, no street lights; not even Star­bucks. They tar­geted banks and did so with effi­ciency and focus.

The only loca­tion they attacked which was not a bank was Whole Foods. They man­aged to splash paint on the win­dows; as far as I saw they had not actu­ally bro­ken the win­dow. It was when we passed by Whole Foods that I first began to hear the crowd chant, “peace­ful protest.” This was the main­stream of the crowd, the ones wear­ing union t-shirts or hold­ing signs about cam­paign finance reform, who had for what­ever rea­son decided to join the anti-capitalist march. Some of them phys­i­cally pro­tected the Whole Foods and the black bloc had to move on.

“Peace­ful protest” is a mean­ing­less chant, inco­her­ent and poten­tially reac­tionary. At best it is a call to present a media image that will please those who are already against you; at worst it is a defense of pri­vate prop­erty won by exploita­tion. The response from the black bloc, how­ever, was some­what incred­i­ble: “union bust­ing is disgusting.”

Black-bloc anar­chism does not tend to align itself with union pol­i­tics. But the idea that the black bloc should use focused prop­erty destruc­tion to defend the right of work­ers to union­ize gives a totally dif­fer­ent pic­ture than the one we see in glib lib­eral commentary.

What we will have to accept is that the black bloc is our clos­est cur­rent model of van­guardist orga­ni­za­tional prin­ci­ples, in a range of con­tra­dic­tory ways. They are a select coterie of indi­vid­u­als who attempt to enact the con­tents of their “advanced” con­scious­ness. What is miss­ing is the inter­change between the van­guard and the broader mass of work­ers – espe­cially the ele­ments of the broader mass that are alien­ated by these tac­tics. Those who call uncrit­i­cally for a party today will have to ask them­selves if they are pre­pared to embrace a line that runs from Stalin the bank rob­ber to the black bloc; I don’t mean to dis­credit lead­er­ship or under­ground activ­ity, but sim­ply to empha­size that his­tory does not fit neatly into our prej­u­dices. Those who reject orga­ni­za­tional struc­tures in gen­eral will have to ask them­selves if they believe it is con­sis­tent with anar­chist prin­ci­ples to impose their tac­tics upon the work­ers for whom they claim to speak. Per­haps seri­ous strate­gic answers to these ques­tions will bring more peo­ple into anti-capitalist marches.

Long­shore­men

The next event, at 5PM, was the march on the docks. The dock work­ers of the Bay Area were the ones who led the way in the 1934 gen­eral strike in San Fran­cisco, in the union that later became the Inter­na­tional Long­shore and Ware­house Union (ILWU). Oak­land was the first major Amer­i­can port on the Pacific Coast, and is still the fifth busiest in the coun­try. This is not only the site of a his­tory of mil­i­tant labor strug­gle, it is also a nodal point of global capitalism.

This was a far more diverse march than the one I had been in that after­noon. Not only was it extremely inclu­sive, with fam­i­lies, union mem­bers, and a whole range of young and old par­tic­i­pat­ing, it was far larger. I believe the police esti­mate was 7,000; some have gone as far as to sug­gest 100,000 par­tic­i­pat­ing through­out the day.

The path we walked along was dot­ted with sev­eral sta­tion­ary trucks that had come to pick up ship­ments. It is cer­tainly pos­si­ble, as some reports sug­gest, that there were truck dri­vers who were angry. But I didn’t see any of them, and I saw a lot of truck dri­vers. Most of the ones I saw were honk­ing their horns, smil­ing, tak­ing pic­tures, and rais­ing fists.

As we marched, we had to nav­i­gate the huge and com­plex geog­ra­phy of the port, and our num­bers were divided as we went on. Peri­od­i­cally we stopped and the peo­ple at the front called mic checks. Nobody could hear the human mic. Deci­sions had to be made, but it was hard to under­stand what they were, and who was going to make them. I got the impres­sion that the lead­er­ship was dis­cour­ag­ing us from going to the docks, and wanted us to return to down­town Oak­land to build an ongo­ing strike there; oth­ers did not get the impres­sion that they were biased in either direc­tion. We also seemed to be debat­ing whether to go to the bridge to march to meet Occupy San Fran­cisco. Some­times other peo­ple spoke, and one per­son said that the dock work­ers needed our sup­port. Peo­ple chanted, “shut down the ports,” and we headed that direction.

Dock work­ers sign up for jobs and get tick­ets indi­cat­ing the time of their shifts. There are some reports that many work­ers sim­ply did not take jobs yes­ter­day morn­ing. But oth­ers did. When we finally arrived at the port there were police at the very end of the path, but the impor­tant space was the park­ing lot where the work­ers were wait­ing. We gath­ered in that space and did sev­eral mic checks. Some­one who seemed to know how the union worked reminded us that like most other unions, ILWU work­ers could not sim­ply choose to join a gen­eral strike; but they do have a con­tract which allows them to refuse to cross picket lines. He said we needed to form a picket, poten­tially for a cou­ple hours, until the union sent an arbi­tra­tor to deter­mine whether the work­ers could go home.

We went to talk to the dock work­ers, who were all watch­ing the scene with inter­est and wait­ing to see the result. They were happy to talk to us. One told us that we had to stay until mid­night; bet­ter, until 3PM the next day; best, until the week­end. He explained their sched­ul­ing and sug­gested that we needed to inter­rupt sev­eral con­sec­u­tive shifts to seri­ously inter­fere with the ship­ping sched­ule. The dock work­ers had already been engaged in a slow-down, for sev­eral weeks – or months, I don’t remem­ber. Since they were being pushed to put a larger por­tion of their pay towards med­ical ben­e­fits, they were using every pos­si­ble tech­ni­cal­ity in their con­tracts to avoid doing tasks, and gen­er­ally just dri­ving too slowly.

He hadn’t heard about the Occupy move­ment until he got a call about a poten­tial work stop­page. So he turned on the TV to learn more. “We’re in the same strug­gle,” he said. “We all work for them.”

We stayed on the picket until the arbi­tra­tor showed up. The night shift got can­celled, but work­ers on another berth whose 8PM shift was can­celled were being asked to report to work at 3AM. This didn’t mat­ter, our con­tact explained; since their tick­ets said 8PM, they could sim­ply refuse to come.

The picket line parted so the dock work­ers could drive home, which they did to cheers and applause. They did not join the picket – this is a rea­son­able choice, since they have lives to live that were momen­tar­ily lib­er­ated from work. I was immensely proud to have par­tic­i­pated in a picket that allowed two shifts to refuse to work, and to have shut down this cen­ter of the global mar­ket for prob­a­bly 24 hours – to have actu­ally, in some small sense, inter­rupted the daily oper­a­tion of cap­i­tal­ism. But I did won­der how the mil­i­tancy of the dock work­ers could be incor­po­rated into the gen­eral move­ment beyond that day, and how we could have been bet­ter pre­pared to find them and work with them.

Tear Gas

First you hear the car­tridge crack­ing through the air. By that point you should already have your mask and gog­gles on. It’s not so much that the air changes, as the funny feel­ing that your throat and eyes have sud­denly started to mal­func­tion. The atmos­phere is filled with the chem­i­cal par­tic­u­late but also a spon­ta­neous cama­raderie, home­made reme­dies passed around and peo­ple lead­ing each other to safety. It is hard not to recall the words of Anto­nio Negri in Dom­i­na­tion and Sab­o­tage:

Noth­ing reveals the immense his­tor­i­cal pos­i­tiv­ity of the work­ers’ self-valorization more com­pletely than sab­o­tage, this con­tin­ual activ­ity of the sniper, the sabo­teur, the absen­tee, the deviant, the crim­i­nal that I find myself liv­ing. I imme­di­ately feel the warmth of the work­ers’ and pro­le­tar­ian com­mu­nity every time I don the ski mask.

But this time it was not sab­o­tage that counted. Let’s all take a moment to remem­ber that the police launched the tear gas at mid­night. The black bloc did not set up tear gas can­is­ters at 3PM to explode later in the day. If you blame the black bloc for police vio­lence that hap­pened nine hours later, I don’t know what I can do to help you.

What mat­tered instead was this “self-valorization,” a term closely tied to the estab­lish­ment of “occu­pied self-managed social cen­ters” in 1970s and 1980s Italy, when young rad­i­cals went beyond refus­ing work; they squat­ted in aban­doned build­ings and estab­lished cul­tural spaces, some of which still exist today. This was the autonomous pro­duc­tiv­ity that the police came last night to sup­press. A group of activists had occu­pied a build­ing that used to house the Trav­el­ers Aid Soci­ety, a non­profit that pro­vides shel­ter and ser­vices to the home­less. Due to fund­ing cuts the orga­ni­za­tion had lost its lease; the build­ing was abandoned.

The occu­piers wrote:

In this aban­doned build­ing that once pro­vided ser­vices to those in need, we open the Occu­pa­tion Cri­sis Cen­ter… We are reclaim­ing space that has been unused, used against us, left empty while we sleep out­doors, while we cook and orga­nize and strug­gle outdoors.

This morn­ing, they wrote more about their plans:

We want this move­ment to be here next Spring, and claim­ing unused space is, in our view, the most plau­si­ble way for­ward for us at this point. We had plans to start using this space today as a library, a place for classes and work­shops, as well as a dor­mi­tory for those with health con­di­tions. We had already begun to move in books from the library.

I did not enter the build­ing, but some com­rades did. The space was being recon­structed; some­one brought speak­ers and a dance party started on the street in front of it. By the time I arrived, about 11:30PM, the mood was shift­ing; every­body knew the police were on their way. The Alameda County Police came first and were later joined by police from around the Bay Area (includ­ing, as far as I know, the OPD).

The pro­test­ers were not attacked for engag­ing in van­dal­ism. They were not attacked for prop­erty destruc­tion. They occu­pied a build­ing; they erected bar­ri­cades to defend the build­ing; they lined up in front of police to defend the building.

I don’t know when the fires started. We were hit with tear gas at least three times, start­ing a lit­tle after mid­night. We stood in Oscar Grant Plaza and took off our masks, and a woman came by and told us a fire had just been lit. This was the first I had heard about fire, but I had not actu­ally seen the front lines where the police were. What’s impor­tant to under­stand is that reports were com­ing in through Twit­ter and else­where that police from around the Bay were mass­ing, with full riot gear, with their badge num­bers blacked out. The occu­piers were on the defen­sive. The goal of light­ing fires was to use smoke to reduce the effects of the tear gas. Whether this was done after the tear gas was launched, or before, in antic­i­pa­tion of a bru­tal attack like the one last week, strikes me as com­pletely and rad­i­cally irrelevant.

I left at about 1:00AM, after which the vio­lence esca­lated and the police swarmed upon the camp in Oscar Grant Plaza. My under­stand­ing is that they ejected the occu­piers by enter­ing the build­ing by the roof. Some pro­test­ers fought back, and at this point appar­ently broke some win­dows and threw bot­tles at police. The police reacted by shoot­ing bean­bag bul­lets, hit­ting an unarmed home­less man in the leg, and launch­ing flash­ing grenades and more tear gas.

I have no fur­ther details about the extent of the prop­erty destruc­tion that took place early this morn­ing. What I do know is that it was a response to police violence.

What mat­ters here is that police vio­lence was not a response to any act of van­dal­ism. It was an attempt to repress the occu­pa­tion of an aban­doned build­ing, and its con­ver­sion into a social cen­ter for the occupation.

We are at a moment when occu­pa­tions are seri­ously con­sid­er­ing an expan­sion of strate­gies. Every­thing in this move­ment points to the occu­pa­tion of spaces that are in a state of dis­use caused by fore­clo­sure and bud­get cuts. The state is attempt­ing to delude you into think­ing that it uses vio­lence to pre­vent destruc­tion. Do not let them mis­lead you. Last night it used vio­lence to pre­vent the pro­duc­tion of a new space. And if you let it put the blame on Oak­land, you will help it one day bring that vio­lence against you. You will help them defend capital’s destruc­tion, the fur­ther hol­low­ing of the urban land­scape and the expul­sion of human bod­ies onto des­o­late streets.

I sug­gest refus­ing to blame Oak­land, but simul­ta­ne­ously shelv­ing prop­erty destruc­tion as a tac­tic. The police didn’t care about it. The banks have money to repair their win­dows. What threat­ened the state was the cre­ative restora­tion of the city. Imag­ine a strength that could force the state to retreat: a mass move­ment that walks out of work and occu­pies everything.


Asad Haider is a grad­u­ate stu­dent at UC-Santa Cruz, a mem­ber of UAW 2865, and an edi­tor of View­point.

Author of the article

is an editor of Viewpoint.