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.


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.