Occupy Oakland talks about itself as the vanguard of the Occupy movement, which may or may not be true, and which may or may not be relevant. In American politics, Occupy is the vanguard. It has made every other act of protest seem more reasonable in comparison, by pushing forward and, at times, creating a point of crisis so immediate and vital that it forces the populace to address it – and then allowed it a space from which to do so. The success of those on the left who wish to create reforms – which are sometimes sea changes that smash the system in a different way than the “smashy smashy” of protest by property destruction – rely on those trash cans and bandanas. Vanguard or not, what happens in Oakland’s Occupy circles still has the potential to reveal the movement’s character, and the nation’s politics, on a larger scale.
May Day 2012 in Oakland was not, in fact, a general strike. That was never made more clear than when occupiers on an anti-gentrification march went in to a downtown restaurant and some of the workers pushed them out – because they wanted to work.
Much has changed for Oakland over the past six months. Last November 2’s general strike brought tens of thousands to downtown Oakland, shutting much of the city and the Port for work or business with a constant and joyful parade. That wasn’t a general strike in the strict sense either, but it was the will of the populace. When protesters in masks smashed bank windows and a Whole Foods on a mid-day anti-capitalist march, some marchers attempted to stop them, and loudly decried the action – and then, peaceful protest and work stoppage continued for another eight hours.
When protesters in masks marched on Bank of America on Tuesday, the people using the ATMs didn’t even look up as they finished their business.
May 1 was in many ways a success: a Workers’ Day with new potential facilitated by Occupy’s call for a general strike. Many unions, including Golden Gate ferry workers, registered nurses and Port longshoremen organized strikes; a few businesses closed down in solidarity. But on the whole, in Oakland, the framework was not clear; it felt unfinished. And the passion to create something in its place was missing – organizers even used the same tactical map they had last November 2. Occupy Oakland’s morning events drew less than 1,000 people to the streets. Still, protesters told me they thought it was “wonderful.”
How do we measure a movement’s success, especially in its infancy? What metrics could we possibly use? And how do we hold it accountable?
Today is the anniversary of the 1886 Haymarket Square bombing, where someone threw a stick of dynamite at police attempting to disperse a labor demonstration; the ensuing melee killed seven police and four demonstrators. It is also the anniversary of the Kent State massacre of 1970, where National Guardsmen used live ammunition to disperse a student protest, killing four and wounding nine others.
It is also Oakland’s 160th birthday. A city founded by squatters who staked a claim to land owned by rich conquerers in the first half of the 19th century shares its origins on the calendar with two points of America’s most violent domestic political history. I can think of no better time to recount its current state at the nexus of radical politics and militarized police. Exactly 160 years later, this is still the Wild West.
Despite a history of radicalism, the perception of the Bay Area has long been that the real political momentum lived in San Francisco, not Oakland. But over the past two decades, the cost of living in San Francisco has pushed much of its working class to other parts of the Bay Area, including Oakland.
The demonstrations following the police shooting of unarmed Oscar Grant on January 1, 2009, at an Oakland BART station put the city on the map in a way it hadn’t been before. Nearly 50 years after its Black Panthers claim to fame, mass arrests and downtown vandalism became synonymous with Oakland street politics.
Building occupations and demonstrations against austerity measures at UC Berkeley in 2009, protests to shut down BART in San Francisco following more police shootings on regional transit in 2011 and the Bay of Rage demonstrations in Oakland set the tone for Occupy in the Bay Area: confrontational and anti-police from inception, down to the renaming of “Oscar Grant Plaza,” as occupiers rechristened the grass and paved park in front of City Hall.
Most stories about Occupy take a basic tack of recounting conflict between protesters and police. This is how Occupy enjoys most of its attention from the general public: the violence of the protesters versus the violence of the police.
This creates clear narratives where, to be fair, there are none. May Day was incoherent. May Day was a man playing a banjo with a slight smile on his face while protesters banged on corrugated metal shields yards away, taunting lines of police in riot gear. It was flowers thrown at those skirmish lines, the sting of tear gas in the air. It was yellow paint on an Oakland police officer’s face, and blood dripping down the face of a slight, teenaged Occupy Oakland protester. But the blood came first.
There were great expectations for Occupy on May Day. May Day was supposed to mark a rebirth of the movement, the return of thousands to the streets, the recapturing of the nation’s imagination. Hopes were high. For a six-month-old movement, perhaps they were too high.
Many in Occupy deny that, at its core, the movement at this stage is a war of public relations. But the media is what brought attention to those first tents at what became long-term encampments; it is what rallied the world around Scott Olsen after the raid on Occupy Oakland in October; and it is what helped to energize the public around the November 2 general strike.
Occupy Oakland’s reasoning against fighting the PR war is mostly: “We won’t win, anyway.”
One week before May Day’s planned events, the Oakland police held a press conference to announce that they were “reforming” their crowd-management strategies around Occupy prior to May 1 demonstrations.
“We are looking at changing our tactics in terms of how we approach [the protests] to be much more assertive in terms of not allowing unpermitted marches throughout the city,” Chief Howard Jordan told reporters at the conference. Jordan spoke of using “small teams” to extract “unlawful” individuals from the crowd; these kinds of “surgical arrests” have been called for in past police operations plans for Occupy demonstrations.
Jordan stated that crowd control provisions had been, “updated to meet current state standards.” Those provisions were a result of a lawsuit brought by civil rights attorneys and protesters who were injured and arrested at an antiwar protest at the Port of Oakland in April 2003. Some of these claims specifically mentioned Jordan’s involvement in the 2003 protest.
When attorneys expressed concern over the policy changes, an Oakland city attorney said that the new policy as written had not, “in any way modified or changed the policy requirements respecting the use of force” and that the changes would be, “postponed until after the May Day events.”
The Oakland police, for all the criticism they have received, responded with new tools, tactics and, it seemed, confidence, as they marched into the middle of Occupy’s first large peaceful convergence of the day to arrest a woman for an unknown crime. The mood of the crowd changed instantly.
The old crowd-control policy indicates that officers in charge of crowd management should first ask, “Will police action likely improve the situation?”
As police made their arrest, the crowd gathered around them, chanting and throwing paint-filled balloons and eggs. Police set off tear gas and flash-bang grenades; they later called these deployments “very effective,” though they ultimately had to make several more arrests before backing out of the crowd.
A public information officer confirmed to reporters in the afternoon that the department was indeed using its new crowd-management strategies.
The standing Oakland Police crowd-control policy also bans the use of motorcycles and other vehicles as tools of force against crowds.
“Motorcycles and police vehicles may not be used for crowd dispersal,” it reads. Throughout the day, Amtrak police using off-road vehicles charged crowds of protesters on the streets and on sidewalks. Later in the evening, an Oakland police officer on a motorcycle charged up onto the sidewalk and chased me as I ran for about 400 yards.
Chief Jordan has maintained that police go after “violent” offenders at Occupy events. On May 1, there were 39 arrests made in Oakland, most of them for “willfully” obstructing police officers.
On May 1, occupiers often chanted, “This is what a police state looks like.” But to a large extent, I think this is what a confused state looks like. Some see conspiracy; I see mostly chaos.
In the weeks leading up to Occupy Oakland’s May Day, posters began appearing around town. There were few, if any, large banners. The painted street art was clearly executed quickly: “May 1 General Strike” scrawled at random points in West Oakland by an inexperienced hand, the letters wobbly. It seemed an indication of how much energy was being expended on planning.
The week just prior brought several bigger May Day disappointments. First, an initial plan to blockade the Golden Gate Bridge with workers there was cancelled without explanation. “Our situation has changed,” said Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition organizer Alex Tonisson. On Monday, a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) “Wisconsin-style” occupation of San Francisco City Hall similarly began with big talk and ended in a fizzle, when union members left after only three hours “occupying” the building. Later that night, a “ruckus street party” in San Francisco’s Mission District smashed restaurants, residences, the police station and several cars parked on the street.
Organizers “wanted to set the tone” for May 1. In the ensuing confusion – black bloc? provocateurs? Why smash low-income housing and working peoples’ cars? – they may well have done so. On Thursday night, Occupy SF split as a result, leaving two general assembly decisionmaking bodies: one for Occupy SF, and one for “nonviolent” Occupy SF.
The crowd grew heated again around 8:30 PM, when police arrested an occupier for violating a restraining order that kept him away from City Hall. Protesters with shields moved to the front of the crowd, chanting and rattling their gear. When they moved toward police, police charged and grabbed the shields away. An unlawful assembly was declared, and five minutes later, police charged on the entire crowd, pushing them north and arresting anyone too slow to get away.
I caught up with one occupier a few blocks north, who told me, “When you push forward with shields, you should make sure there are people behind you.”
The three “strike stations” Occupy Oakland organized for May 1 were the group’s main contributions to the day of labor activism. The anti-gentrification station, ostensibly organized to receive calls on a hotline from people facing problems at their workplaces, ended up on a circuitous march around local businesses before meeting up with the anti-capitalist station, which had protested and shut down several branches of national banks throughout the morning. The best organized of these stations was put together by Oakland Occupy Patriarchy, which organizes separately from Occupy Oakland. Their action targeted Child Protective Services (CPS) for what they called patriarchal criminalizing of non-heterosexual nuclear families. Despite a loud counter-protester, the event was focused and effective.
The strike stations framework left large gaps for passionate autonomous actions, but the passion that ran Occupy Oakland in those early months has given way. For some, it was a fall fling and a bad breakup; for others, that early infatuation has become a deep love – one which requires work to maintain.
Throughout the day, there was a significant presence of black bloc protesters, masked up, wearing gloves and carrying shields, but no property was damaged early in the day. When bank and CalTrans windows were smashed later that night with poles, wrenches and skateboards, the protesters in question were not all masked, were not all wearing black and were likely not all anarchists.
Chaos over conspiracy.
Oakland has been hosting a permitted immigrant rights march every May 1 since 2006 as part of a national move to make May 1 a day of undocumented worker resistance. This year’s Dignity and Resistance march was organized by a large coalition of activists from many different groups, including Occupy and groups such as Decolonize Oakland, which had broken away from Occupy in prior months over differences in tactics, identity and philosophy.
Several thousand marched this year from Fruitvale, where Grant was killed in 2008, to San Antonio Park in East Oakland. From there, much of the crowd continued on to meet Occupy at City Hall Plaza – but many did not.
The largest crowd in downtown Oakland on May 1 reached about 3,000 people. Toward the end of the rally, a woman came on the sound system and said she planned to camp in the plaza that night. There were only scattered cheers.
Occupy has received criticism for co-opting the Dignity and Resistance march with its own message. The anarchists and the labor movement owned May Day 1; they bought it with that dynamite in 1886, for which they paid with their lives. Arguably, the labor movement paid for it with its teeth. Everyone since then has co-opted their day.
The Occupy movement in many ways is transparently postmodern. The media has been both its success and its downfall, expecting it to grow and sustain beyond its youthful means.
Occupy, though, is not always representative of what has come to be the brand-like identity of “Occupy,” and nowhere is this more true than in Oakland. Organizers inspired by the movement have been breaking away over the course of months to pursue their own projects within their own structures.
But Occupy’s sometimes allegiance to its brand over its ideas stands to hinder the movement more than pundits on the left decrying smashed windows. The power of decentralized organizing is ostensibly to inspire the masses beyond a central hierarchical point. Even in Oakland’s Wild West, many still want to follow what they perceive to be rules of the group, to ask for permission.
Occupy describes the movement as “leaderful,” but most of Occupy’s May Day in Oakland was a series of reactions.
“Diversity of tactics” has come to be a code for what Occupy Oakland most often calls “smashy-smashy”: focused and less-focused property destruction that often takes the form of broken windows and painted graffiti. This practice set off a protracted debate about what constitutes violence and protest, a debate that took place both within and outside of Occupy Oakland after the destruction of the November 2 general strike.
There were several corrugated metal and plastic garbage-can shields at Occupy Oakland and dozens of masked protesters. Critics say these people kill the movement’s credibility, that they must be “purged” in order to keep Occupy a peaceful movement focused on economic inequality and that evil 1 percent. Occupy Oakland has remained about as radical as it was on November 2 when protesters smashed those bank windows – the destruction has not escalated. They just have more shields now.
I asked one Oakland activist recently about Occupy’s power to reform, though its stated goal is revolution: “It has the power to push the center, but it could also create a conservative backlash,” I said.
“Sure,” he said. “But that conservative backlash will in turn create another backlash that will push the center, too. Either way, we win!” He grinned.
We wouldn’t expect Occupy to get the vote out for Barack Obama or Buddy Roemer or whoever else were this not an election year. Occupy does not need to elect candidates they approve of to public office because Occupy cannot and should not be everything to American political reform. But this fall, Occupy won’t be the crisis; election politics will. That is what stands to eclipse interest in Occupy rather than stand beside it and create more space for a broader range of politics. America may well be occupied, but it also just doesn’t have any more room.