Good Guys and Bad Guys in Oakland

Let me preface this by saying I haven’t lived in the EastBay since the 1980s. However, I visit somewhat regularly and have contacts throughout the region. Some are small businesspeople. Some are anarchists living in warehouses. Some are Marxists working at a college or in a factory and some are old friends who still live on the street. The first place I lived in Oakland was off of 14th Avenue in East Oakland near Bobby Hutton Park. Then I moved to Dwight Way in Berkeley next to the recycling center. From there, I moved to the Marina where I camped when I wasn’t on the road. Then I bounced around on a series of couches and bushes until I moved to Emeryville and then North Oakland near the Ashby BART Station. I relate this just to establish that I know the town a little.

The success of the strike action in Oakland has led to a very predictable situation. Debates around tactics and attempts to exclude various elements from the group because of their use of tactics unacceptable to others seem to be the causes of this situation. In short, there were a few dozen (from most reports) protesters that broke from the peaceful marches and broke stuff. Some of the attacks made sense from a political point of view, although not from a tactical one. For example Whole Foods is not a simple health foods store. Like most of the organic foods industry, it is a big grocery chain that acts a lot like Safeway that would like to have a monopoly on the health foods retail business. The reason for the attacks on the Oakland store was a rumor that the store manager did not honor the strike and refused to let his workers take the day off. This rumor apparently was false. Would I have joined in the trashing of the store? No! Do I think those that did were cops or should be ostracized from the movement. No!

As for most of the the other targets–banks, etc–I have no problem with trashing them at the appropriate time. Was November 2, 2011 the appropriate time? I don’t think so. The focus of that day was shutting down the port and that could only be achieved by amassing large numbers of people at the port’s entrances. To Occupy Oakland’s credit this action was a success.

On to the evening. From what I can garner from news reports and conversations, email interchanges and other exchanges with friends and acquaintances who hung in the November 2 actions all day and into the early morning of November 3rd, the action ended with an attempt to take over the empty and foreclosed Traveler’s Aid building in downtown Oakland. Great idea and one that was approved by the Oakland General Assembly in principle. According to a friend who was at this action, the initial building takeover went okay. The trouble began when the police gathered into formation and began to move down Telegraph to retake the building. The crowd was rather frenzied and the ensuing attack and reaction by the crowd only served to exacerbate the situation. Unfortunately, several people were injured on both sides and the building was lost to the defenders of the bank’s property. In press releases immediately following the clashes, the police said they moved in because they assumed that there were some in the crowd of civilians that were starting fires to burn down the building. While this was not apparently the case (why would you burn down a building you wanted to occupy?), the excuse flew until it was dropped for a better one. The underlying lesson here is that if people are serious about squatting foreclosed buildings and turning them into living spaces, then they shouldn’t try and occupy them at 3 in the morning while the cops are watching, tired and ready to kick some ass. Were the occupiers right to fight back against the police? It seems to me that if they hadn’t even more protesters might have been hurt by the cops. Should they have provoked the cops by occupying the building and allowing fires to be built in trashcans and so on? See my remark above where I question the idea of occupying buildings while a bunch of angry cops are watching.

Okay. That is the situation as I understand it. A very successful strike/direct action took place in Oakland on November 2nd. It was primarily peaceful, militant and moved the struggle against the excesses of monopoly capitalism forward. No matter how hard the capitalist media tries, it can not change this objective fact. This is where the overwrought focus on the actions of a few comes in. As far back as I can remember (and that’s at least back to 1968), the mainstream media has always focused on the more histrionic actions that take place at almost every protest worth its salt. My dad used to say that that’s what sells papers. He’s right of course, but there is also something more sinister going on. The intentions of those editors who encourage their reporters to highlight the instances of violence against property and clashes with cops is to discredit the movement that organized the protest. It’s not necessarily even a conscious effort by the editors. It’s just how they are “educated” to think. In fact, it’s how most of us are “educated” to think. Many of the people that actually participated in the protest read this media too. They then began to accept that media’s framing of the protest, forgetting what they know form their own experience: that the protest was not very violent and was very successful. This acceptance then too often turns into a moral rejection not only of the scattered violence that occurred, but a rejection of those the “peaceful” protesters think carried it out. Simultaneously, the police are let off the hook for the violence they provoke and create all on their own. After all, says the capitalist press, they were only doing their job. This may be true, but begs the very real question: what exactly is their job? A simple and honest answer is that for the most part their job is to protect and serve those that own the means of production. In other words, the wealthy among us. This doesn’t deny their humanity. It just makes it clear that their jobs proscribe a certain mindset. It is important to remember that police are not nonviolent any more than any other military force.

The discussions reverberating online and in Occupy camps around the country over the trashing and clashes with police that took place in Oakland are instructive for a multitude of reasons. The primary debate is around the question of trashing. The opposition to this action that essentially involves breaking stuff runs from those who see it as a tactical error at this point of the movement to those that have a moral repugnance to it. Among those in the latter camp are those whose repugnance has led them to label the “trashers” as everything from moral cowards to provocateurs to punks and scum. This type of reaction is not only as juvenile as the name-callers consider the trashing actions to be, it misses the point. The fact is, there will always be an element in every movement worth its salt that sees trashing as a legitimate act. Some in that element may well be cops, but most are just impatient, often frustrated, and individualistic at least in terms of the longer view. They should not be ostracized (unless they are cops) but informed about the need for thoughtful actions appropriate to the time and place. Those that say they will divorce themselves from the movement unless the movement disowns the “trashers” are being every bit as selfish as those they want removed.

Another criticism from the people opposed to trashing and fighting back against the police is that those who are doing this must be outsiders and not from the “good” protesters’ Oakland. This kind of comment is mostly silly. We aren’t fans at a sporting event. This isn’t about Oakland or New York or Asheville, NC or Berlin. It is an international struggle. There is no home team. The opposition is organized internationally. The Occupy movement and those that support it must do the same. Your Oakland is my Oakland just as much as the planet Earth belongs to us all. There are no geographical outsiders, only ones defined by their class. I am in solidarity with Oakland and Berlin and every other place where, like the song says: working men (and women) defend their rights.

The issue about trashing is first and foremost, like Boots Riley continues to insist in his Facebook posts, a question of tactics. It will not be solved by dividing the movement into those who support one tactic and those that don’t. It is a serious question that should be discussed, but the stance that those who are not pacifist or nonviolent do not belong in the Occupy movement is a bullshit stance encouraged by those that wish to see the movement fail. The true violence that goes on every freaking day is precipitated by those that the movement calls the 1%. That is the thought we need to keep at the front of every conversation about violence. Not as a justification for violence by protesters, but as a reminder of the real purveyor of violence on this planet.

I want to borrow a line or two from an old leaflet I have hanging around. It was distributed back in 1984 after San Francisco police attacked a protest against Henry Kissinger (talk about purveyors of violence) and beat dozens of them. After the protest, mainstream media attempted to divide the protesters into good protesters and bad ones. The good ones were the ones that obeyed the police when they told people to move away from the hotel where Kissinger was speaking. The bad ones were those who didn’t and remained to resist the police charges and attacks.

“The media works with the government to red-bait and attack militant demonstrations. We need to reject such charges. They are attempts to force us to give up our militancy and independence and to accept the state’s terms for protests.”

The protest on November2nd, 2011 in Oakland was militant. The trashing that occurred during the day did not add to that militancy and was tactically inappropriate. The most militant action was achieved by thousands of people closing down the Port of Oakland in a nonviolent direct action. The clashes with police early the next morning were the result of the tactically poor decision to try and occupy the foreclosed Traveler’s Aid building while a bunch of angry, tired and ready-to-rumble police and protesters faced off on Telegraph Avenue. The idea to squat empty buildings is a great one. Sometimes it is appropriate to break bank windows. From my perspective, November 2nd in Oakland was not the right time for either of these actions. At the same time, the fact remains, the day of action/general strike was an outstanding success for the movement.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.