Building the Red Army: The Death and Forbidden Rebirth of the Oakland Commune

“Don’t fuck with the Oakland Commune.” Words which will live forever in history, to be remembered and repeated at every glorious defeat inflicted upon the heroes of the future by mayors, police officers, unions, churches, and children. A letter, signed by the Occupy Oakland Move-In Assembly, promised to respond to the inevitable eviction of an illegal building occupation by “blockading the airport indefinitely.” Tactics only dreamed of by al-Qaeda, within the reach of Occupy Oakland after just four months.

Yesterday these words were at the center of a material practice which brought our movement up against its limits. It’s not a bad thing to meet your limits. It means confronting the possibility and necessity of radical transformation. And this confrontation should be approached with all the courage and resolve on display when a young militant throws a tear gas canister back at a line of police.

Occupy Oakland Move-In Day was to be a historic event, an occupation of a privately owned building by a mass of people, announced well in advance. The literature indicated that “multiple targets” had been identified, and that the site would be “a vacant building owned either by a bank, a large corporation of the 1% or already public.” The goal was familiar: to establish a social center in the building for community use. And in fact a remarkable schedule of events had been planned, a “festival” which could surely have drawn in attention and support.

Every action in Oakland begins with a deceptive innocence, a rally at Oscar Grant Plaza. The numbers were impressive – the mainstream media reports 1000-2000 throughout the day – and a sign that a remarkable cross-section of the city had been waiting for this. But at the same time police were walking through the crowd with a photo album of prominent organizers, along with warrants for their arrest.

Apparently some of those arrested were returned to the rally, and the march set off in good spirits. From time to time you could look across the street and see lines of police on the next block. You could also look up and see their helicopters.

At a certain crucial intersection it became clear that police, who had a bird’s-eye view of our trajectory, were blocking the planned route. In front of us was a quagmire known as Laney College. This was the first moment in which a desperately-needed contingency plan was unavailable. Though the truck with the sound system and furniture was at an impasse, the crowd spontaneously surged onto the unfamiliar campus and had no idea where to go. It wasn’t hard for the police to block the most apparent exits.

Inevitably, there was a mic check and an attempt at a general assembly; the suggestion that we occupy a building on campus was met with appropriate derision by the already irritated crowd. We walked over an extremely narrow bridge and climbed up a hill to the street, where once again we met our friends in blue and had no idea where we were supposed to go. Eventually we walked on a large street to approach the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, which was surrounded by fences and cops.

The Kaiser Convention Center is a very large building. It is an obvious and excessively ambitious target. Whether it was a good idea to consider this building at all will be the subject of great debate in the future. What’s obvious is that doggedly pursuing this questionable plan after significant police interference was inadvisable. The front lines, the people with trashcan shields, took the initiative. They grabbed the fence and pulled it down to face the police, who shot off a smoke bomb. Because smoke bombs look a lot like tear gas, they’re a great way to cause a crowd to become even more chaotic. But people were already drifting away by then, trying to find some representative of the leadership to explain plan B.

Every step we made towards plan B brought us towards another line of police. The handheld garage-door barricades and trashcan shields gathered again at the front lines, with a mass in goggles and bandanas behind them. Ominous drumming on parked cars and buckets. An advance on the police, met with flashbangs and tear gas. The crowd advanced three times.

There was nothing much to do after that. A megaphone told us we were going to take back Oscar Grant Plaza, so we walked back there. After a brief moment of recuperation the organizers announced that we would be taking another building in 45 minutes.

I regret to say the atmosphere was triumphalist. It’s understandable that a clash with police has a marked effect on the adrenal glands. But there was nothing resembling a victory in this. The stated goal had not been achieved, and the police are familiar with the aggressiveness of activists in Oakland. They expect it. In fact, the Oakland Police Department is on the verge of federal receivership, an unprecedented move, because the OPD really likes violence, and seeks it out as part of a policy of state-sponsored gang warfare. And the insistence on “Fuck the Police” marches in Oakland leading up to yesterday could only shift the emphasis from the occupation itself to the clash.

Now we have to ask ourselves if we should continue to give the police what they want, which we do in ritualized form at every action. After all, it is these rituals that reproduce belief in the cops. The cops tell a lie. The lie is that their violence is autonomous and imposes its power to preserve an abstract order. What they never want us to understand is that cops are an element of the machinery of the capitalist state, and they exist within a wide network of institutions which allow the capitalist class to exercise social power. In Oakland their repression was used to evict an encampment which threatened to bring public space under proletarian control, and to drive out an attempted building occupation on a day declared to be a “general strike.” And if yesterday the OPD was forced to call upon the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and city police including Fremont, Hayward, Berkeley, Pleasanton, Union City, and Newark, their actions were structured around the defense of private property and its social system.

But the reinforcement of private property is not limited to police violence. It happens in schools, the legal system, social welfare institutions, non-profit organizations, trade unions, and countless other spaces. Since these institutions don’t use violence to defend private property, a struggle whose assault on capitalist power is as broad as that power itself will situate street confrontations within a wide spectrum of activity. In Oakland the class war did not begin with the occupation. It happens every day when the police are used against its citizens, many of whom are sent not just for a night in jail but to prison, if they aren’t shot in the back. And it happens every day when people are evicted from their homes, when they are subjected to discipline and humiliation in the workplace, when their schools are converted into training camps for Bill Gates. For many of these people, whose entry into political practice is required for the continuation of the Occupy movement, escalating the confrontation with police may not be highly desirable. Evasion is better.

And it is the subject of evasion which brings us to the next part of our story. I can’t claim, for a specific set of reasons, to have direct knowledge of what happened then. I can certainly assure you that I took no part in any illegal activities. But someone who isn’t me was there, and experienced it.

A much smaller crowd – maybe between 200 and 500 – followed a route past the Traveler’s Aid building, the site of the November 2nd occupation attempt, again followed by police. At a certain crucial intersection someone creatively knocked open a fire hydrant to produce a water barricade. The crowd swarmed into a park containing the Remember Them statue, with depictions of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, among others.

The next time Occupy Wall Street sends money to Occupy Oakland, the general assembly may want to consider investing it in a helicopter. With their helicopters the police knew exactly where to line up to kettle the entire group, who were blocked into this park, with little left to do but admire the sculptures, erected by the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, of men and women who committed civil disobedience and faced police in the past.

The police recited their order to disperse. Some people probably wanted to fight again, but the vast majority did not. They approached the lines of police and informed them that they wished to disperse. This had to be repeated several times; most times it was ignored, sometimes it was met with a response that they were waiting for instructions. When the instructions arrived the police informed people who wanted to disperse that they should move to another corner of the park and exit onto the street there. The crowd moved over to that corner, where a cop told them, “stay away from us,” and refused to allow anyone to leave.

Suddenly, at the other end of the park, a smoke bomb. People started running towards a fence, which blocked the only area without police. An advanced element knocked down the fence and the whole crowd ran, coming up against another fence and knocking that one down too.

A few people ran off and successfully dispersed. The others gathered and were kettled again. Part of this group made a remarkable escape through the YMCA, jumping over exercise equipment and exiting elsewhere. Another part of the group was arrested.

The action didn’t stop there. Another group, whoever wasn’t sitting in front of the YMCA with zipties cutting into their wrists, returned to Oscar Grant Plaza and simply decided to occupy City Hall, where they burned an American flag and fought with police again.

Earlier that day, as we sat in Oscar Grant Plaza waiting for the next round, I heard a number of people talk about the class war. War demands military thinking. Among the basic principles of military strategy is the one which dictates that you retreat when the enemy advances. This is as fundamental a principle as the one which dictates that you pursue when the enemy retreats. And any evaluation of the day will have to begin with the acknowledgment that up to 500 of our troops were captured.

In the 1895 Introduction to Class Struggles in France, Karl Marx’s account of the 1848 revolution and its repression, Friedrich Engels reviewed the effect of historical changes in warfare on the class struggle. “Let us have no illusions about it,” he wrote. “A real victory of insurrection over the military in street fighting, a victory as between two armies, is one of the rarest exceptions. And the insurgents counted on it just as rarely… The most that an insurrection can achieve in the way of actual tactical operations is the proficient construction and defence of a single barricade.”

Knowing that the barricade tactic was one of “passive defense,” and that the military always possessed equipment and training unavailable to the insurgents, the revolutionaries of the 19th century pursued other goals. “Even in the classic time of street fighting,” Engels wrote, “the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect. It was a means of shaking the steadfastness of the military.”

But at a certain point street-fighting lost its “magic,” even for this “moral” effect. After 1848 the police developed their own tactics of street fighting, and a whole range of changes tipped the balance in favor of the military. Their armies became bigger, and their weapons far more effective. Engels lists the smooth-bore muzzle-loading percussion gun, the small-calibre breech-loading magazine rifle, and the dynamite cartridge. He adds that the urban terrain had been transformed, with “long, straight, broad streets, tailor-made to give full effect to the new cannons and rifles.”

To this list we can now add beanbag bullets, CS gas, and helicopters. We are lucky that, unlike in Egypt, more traditional varieties of bullets are not currently on the table. But we can’t ignore the limits of the barricades; since the Paris Commune in 1871, which the Oakland Commune now recalls, the tactic of the barricades has been linked to defeat and the possibility of vicious and bloody repression. We have not suffered such a gruesome defeat. But coming up with a long-term strategy, beyond the short-term tactics, means that we acknowledge and learn from the defeats that we experience.

The alternative to street fighting that was embraced by the 19th century socialist movement, parliamentary contestation, is absolutely useless to us now. But even in the 19th century, when universal suffrage was a new democratic right, its use for revolutionary movements was not to enter into the administration of the capitalist state. Engels wrote that it “provided us with a means, second to none, of getting in touch with the mass of the people where they still stand aloof from us.” The dramatic increases in numbers – German socialists drew 1.5 million votes while it was illegal to even have a party meeting, and nearly 2 million votes after that – could compensate for the new military disadvantages. Street fighting, Engels argued, could play a role in the future if “undertaken with greater forces,” which could drop “passive barricade tactics” in favor of “open attack.”

A century later, insurrectionary anarchists and reformists like MoveOn vie for hegemony over the movement, each advancing street-fighting and voting not as tactics, but as the ultimate goals. And we have to be clear that it is an alliance between social democrats and ultra-leftists that has driven this movement, in spite of their public scorn for each other.

Their alliance, however, has opened a space for revolutionary responses to the crisis. These responses won’t be summed up in spectacular clash. They’ll be a process that will be with us through the ebbs and flows, beyond every defeat and within every victory.

The movement is currently in a lull. Everyone looks forward to spring, but there is no need to cling to escalation in period of quiet. No need, because it is precisely the time to expand, to engage in the less dramatic work of growing and incorporating the diffuse energies of the working class.

Reformists urge coalition building, as though the union bureaucracies could somehow lead a radical movement. While some purists refuse coalitions, the revolutionary response is infiltration and invasion. When we approach the unions we don’t seek their guidance; we seek to introduce class antagonism into those institutions, to construct a broad class power, menacing and inescapable for the bosses just as it is irresistible to workers who spend each day on the defensive.

Fences were torn down twice yesterday. The first time, a panicked and impotent attempt to convert a thwarted plan into a confrontation. The second time, as a tactical maneuver which played a precise and necessary role in evading the enemy. The determination and resourcefulness which enables such an escape could play a role in the army that not only defends the working class from capitalist brutality, but also defeats capitalist power. And at every action we are reminded that our historical task is to build the mass organization capable of drafting its strategy and guiding it to victory.

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 and author of Mistaken Identity.