Santa Rita, I Hate Every Inch of You

Twenty-four hours into my incar­cer­a­tion in Santa Rita Jail, I found myself in yet another tac­ti­cal con­ver­sa­tion, dis­sect­ing the numer­ous fail­ures that had led to the ket­tling and mass arrests of about 400 Occupy Oak­land demon­stra­tors. This is one of the few upsides of a mass arrest. After get­ting the rowdy activists off the streets, the police find them­selves host­ing a three-day strat­egy con­fer­ence inside the jail. When­ever a con­ver­sa­tion begins to get stale, the guards show up and shuf­fle peo­ple into new dis­cus­sion groups, and the debate begins afresh.

For the most part, the atmos­phere in my cell was not one of defeat, but rather of rig­or­ous self-crit­i­cism. This is a nec­es­sary moment in the growth of any move­ment – com­ing up against the lim­its of the premises that under­lie a prac­tice – and it seemed to be get­ting under­way just hours after that prac­tice had col­lapsed on the streets of Oak­land. This was decid­edly not the unre­flect­ing group of mil­i­tants that Chris Hedges has recently accused of a patho­log­i­cal aver­sion to strate­gic thought.

Out­side of jail, the con­ver­sa­tion seems to have been some­what dif­fer­ent. The focus within the move­ment over the past week has increas­ingly been on the bru­tal­ity that we expe­ri­enced in jail. We were denied food and nec­es­sary med­ica­tion, lead­ing to seizures; we were abused both phys­i­cally and ver­bally; we were crammed into over­crowded and inad­e­quately ven­ti­lated cells in which the tear gas that still clung to our clothes made breath­ing unbear­able. All of this is true. This was a trau­matic expe­ri­ence for many of us, and the sup­port from cheer­ing crowds wait­ing with cof­fee and cig­a­rettes when we were released was pow­er­ful. This col­lec­tive heal­ing is impor­tant; it builds sol­i­dar­i­ties.

But we need to be care­ful. The dis­course about police bru­tal­ity that has been dis­pro­por­tion­ately fill­ing the Occupy echo cham­ber this week is an essen­tially lib­eral one, and it tends to mask other prob­lems that sur­faced on Sat­ur­day. There is always some­thing tau­to­log­i­cal about the com­plaint that one was treated badly in jail. It’s jail, after all. To focus on the bru­tal­ity of the expe­ri­ence as though this is some­how excep­tional is to mis­un­der­stand the basic func­tion of jails and police forces in soci­ety. The vio­lence that we came up against on Sat­ur­day is the vio­lence that is required daily to main­tain and repro­duce soci­ety as it is presently con­sti­tuted. What we expe­ri­enced for a few nights, while awful, is sim­ply daily life for the unpaid prison labor­ers who cleaned out our cells when we went home.

I know that this will not strike most of the peo­ple that were arrested on Sat­ur­day as a par­tic­u­larly con­tro­ver­sial point. Many of them are no strangers to the penal sys­tem them­selves. Indeed, Oakland’s rad­i­cal edge within the Occupy move­ment largely comes from the fact that the quo­tid­ian vio­lence that is required to repro­duce cap­i­tal­ism is closer to the sur­face here than in many other com­mu­ni­ties.

But there comes a point at which these con­ver­sa­tions can hin­der fur­ther thought. I don’t want to nor­mal­ize or apol­o­gize for the bru­tal­ity of the sys­tem, nor do I want to lapse into a debate over what con­sti­tutes an “authen­tic” expe­ri­ence of this bru­tal­ity. Nev­er­the­less, we as a move­ment have to stop and ask our­selves what con­ver­sa­tions are being dis­placed by this exclu­sive focus on police bru­tal­ity. More than that, we have to look at this focus as itself a symp­tom of deep con­tra­dic­tions in our prac­tice, which we have been unable to come to terms with.

Chief among these is the fact that up until now Occupy has expe­ri­enced its growth spurts as a result of con­fronta­tions with the police. The gen­eral strike in Novem­ber was in large part made pos­si­ble by the exces­sive force with which the police evicted the campers at Oscar Grant Plaza. Sim­i­larly pub­lic instances of bru­tal­ity at UC Berke­ley and UC Davis led to mas­sive mobi­liza­tions on all cam­puses across the UC sys­tem. The basic premise under­ly­ing Saturday’s action was in keep­ing with this pat­tern. By pick­ing a suf­fi­ciently ambi­tious tar­get and cast­ing the action in suf­fi­ciently antag­o­nis­tic rhetoric, a con­fronta­tion was with cops was assured.

Orga­niz­ers were ready for this. I was ready for this. If “Move-in Day” was suc­cess­ful, so much the bet­ter – if not, the inevitable clash with cops would unmask the absur­dity of a sys­tem that would use such force to keep an empty build­ing from becom­ing a com­mu­nity cen­ter.

The prob­lem is that police forces can adapt. On Sat­ur­day there was no dra­matic image that crys­tal­lized the bru­tal­ity of the police state, just a whole lot of the stan­dard vio­lence that is inher­ent to the nature of polic­ing. Even the tear­gassing of chil­dren is, by this point, more or less nor­mal. Whether we admit it or not, we were implic­itly rely­ing on the spec­ta­cle of police bru­tal­ity to catch national atten­tion. This didn’t hap­pen as it did in Novem­ber. And it couldn’t hap­pen, pre­cisely because it already hap­pened in Novem­ber.

When this nar­ra­tive of vic­tim­iza­tion was not imme­di­ately forth­com­ing, we kicked into high gear to man­u­fac­ture one. This is ulti­mately what under­lies the focus on bru­tal­ity. It’s not that any­thing that is being said about our expe­ri­ences in Santa Rita Jail is incor­rect, and of course we need to denounce police bru­tal­ity wherever it exists. The National Lawyers Guild class action law­suit should go for­ward, and for those who had their first mate­rial encoun­ter with the vio­lence of the state, the lessons learned last week­end can only have a rad­i­cal­iz­ing effect. But we also need to under­stand why this essen­tially lib­eral dis­course about rein­ing in police excesses has become so hege­monic amongst rad­i­cals. It points to a deeper prob­lem within Occupy: so many of our actions are premised on pro­duc­ing nar­ra­tives for lib­eral con­sump­tion. Scott Olsen was one such story. The attack on stu­dents on the “Mario Savio Steps” in Berke­ley is an even clearer exam­ple. These can be use­ful orga­niz­ing tools when they present them­selves but they can­not be the basis of the actions we plan from here on out.

I don’t want to gloss over the huge advances that Occupy Oak­land is con­tin­u­ing to make. There has been a chronic prob­lem with build­ing occu­pa­tions in the recent past. Typ­i­cally, the bulk of plan­ning goes into the actual takeover of a build­ing, while the ques­tion of what to do with the space once it’s occu­pied is an after­thought. Saturday’s action marked an advance inso­far as there was clearly a tremen­dous amount of work that had gone into “plan­ning for suc­cess.” A sched­ule of events was made, mate­ri­als were gath­ered, and it seemed like there were the num­bers to sus­tain an indef­i­nite occu­pa­tion. But at a more fun­da­men­tal level, suc­cess was not the point. It was more or less a con­tin­gency plan for what to do in case we acci­den­tally suc­ceeded. The roman­ti­cized con­fronta­tion was still the uncon­scious premise of our actions, no mat­ter how many peo­ple out­wardly believed we would win the day.

In the hold­ing tanks of Santa Rita, we dis­cussed these ques­tions. Many of us were com­ing to grips with the recog­ni­tion that we went into Sat­ur­day think­ing that there was a crew of rad­i­cals in Oak­land who had it all fig­ured out. All we had to do was show up at their event and things would go off with­out a hitch, which is how it had worked at the gen­eral strike and the port shut­down.

This logic broke down on Oak Street. Sat­ur­day clearly demon­strated the lim­its of a mode of orga­niz­ing that has thus far been suc­cess­ful. Up until now, Occupy has involved a con­tra­dic­tory and unsta­ble mix­ture of lib­eral and more rad­i­cal ele­ments held together by a thin tis­sue of sto­ries of injus­tice and vio­lated “rights.” This fact has led to end­less unpro­duc­tive dis­putes about the role of “vio­lence” in our move­ment, of which Chris Hedges is just the most recent and banal exam­ple. The prob­lem is that if our unity can be reduced to our shared vic­tim­iza­tion, we are reliant on police and civic offi­cials to con­tin­u­ally give us these sto­ries. As police tac­tics adapt, and as the demands we make of the sys­tem become more rad­i­cal, this will become increas­ingly dif­fi­cult. The basis of the con­nec­tions we make within the move­ment must involve a deeper sort of rad­i­cal­iza­tion. The cen­tral antag­o­nism is not between the police state and the peo­ple, but between labor and cap­i­tal. The anti-police repres­sion marches that are now hap­pen­ing weekly in Oak­land, while focused on a cru­cial issue, tend to side­line this larger point. To the extent that this dis­course dom­i­nates our prac­tice, we are oper­at­ing with exactly the same lim­ited and mor­al­iz­ing con­cep­tion of our movement’s unity as our lib­eral crit­ics. The roman­ti­cized pic­ture of the bru­tal repres­sion of peace­ful demon­stra­tors that Hedges fetishizes is on a con­tin­uum with the images of vic­tim­iza­tion in many of our own actions. We need to tell a new story.

After we expe­ri­enced the mate­rial lim­its of this type of orga­niz­ing, some very nec­es­sary con­ver­sa­tions began in Santa Rita in earnest. The focus on the bru­tal­ity has its uses, but to the extent that it stands in as a sub­sti­tute for this more sub­stan­tial self-crit­i­cism, it allows the ten­u­ous alliance between adven­tur­ism and human­i­tar­ian lib­er­al­ism to per­sist. While we are all jus­ti­fi­ably angry at the Oak­land Police Depart­ment and the Alameda County Sher­iffs, what comes out of this expe­ri­ence needs to be more than sim­ply a strength­ened con­vic­tion that we hate the cops. If we don’t swiftly move towards the self-crit­i­cism that we need, the oppor­tu­nity will be missed.

Jeb Purucker is a grad­u­ate stu­dent in Lit­er­a­ture at UC Santa Cruz and a mem­ber of UAW Local 2865.

Author of the article

is a graduate student in Literature at UC Santa Cruz and a member of UAW Local 2865.

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