Occupy Oakland at a Crossroads: Rebirth or Self-Destruction?
Over the last few months, I have been an active, critical, yet ultimately proud member of Occupy Oakland. Despite the sometimes-questionable tactics and lack of much diversity in this working-class, multi-racial city, I believed that Occupy Oakland was still a young movement and would mature into a more solid political force. Sadly, it seems, we still have a long way to go.
On January 28, Occupy Oakland's attempt to take over an unused public building turned into yet another painful, predictable street battle with the Oakland Police Department (OPD), with over 400 people arrested by night's end. The police's actions were more brutal than ever, from the tear gas and sound grenades to the unlawful mass arrest that has left many of my comrades still in jail as I write this. I stand unequivocally against the severe repression and the increasing police state that we find ourselves in. To my fellow Occupiers, though, it is time that we critically examine our own tactics. If we don't, Occupy Oakland is going to fizzle out quicker than Rick Perry's presidential campaign.
The events in Oakland on January 28 indeed occupied national headlines and local jail cells, but they almost certainly lost more supporters to the movement than they gained. Needlessly picking fights with the cops, vandalizing City Hall, and putting our own people in harm's way is not the path to social and economic justice. It is a losing, incoherent strategy, one that will continue to damage the public's support for Occupy until our claim that "We are the 99%" becomes a bad joke. Forget whether folks can survive endless police confrontations and court dates. The question now is: Can Occupy Oakland survive itself?
January 28: Great Politics, Terrible Strategy
On paper, the plan sounded simple. Occupy Oakland was going to "occupy a large, vacant building and convert it into a social center." This center would then be used for both political organizing as well as providing the free food, medical care, and other services that the movement did so admirably in its encampment days. As a matter of political principle, occupying an unused building makes sense: while over 3.5 million Americans were homeless at some point last year, over 18.5 million vacant/foreclosed homes sat empty.
The problem on January 28 was not the general principles, but the very real issues of goals, strategy, and tactics. Given OPD's aggressive history, I was skeptical of our ability to take and hold any building for any serious length of time. I was angry at the pre-action press conference where the event spokesperson made empty, impossible threats to "shut down the airport" if the city did not give in to our demands. And I was worried that most people in Oakland would see this as yet another Occupy action whose message was nothing more than "Fuck the Police." Despite these fears, I made my way to the protest, hoping against hope to be proven wrong.
I joined the crowd of over 1,000 people around noon at Occupy Oakland's regular meeting place, Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of city hall. We soon began marching, and thus began the first problem of the day -- 99% of the people in the crowd (yes, our 99%) had no idea where we marching to. The organizers for the action had kept the exact building they planned to take over a secret in hopes of outsmarting the cops. What that meant, of course, was that the cops knew exactly where we were heading. (Undercover agents are a cop's best friend.) So when we finally arrived at the intended target, the massive Kaiser Auditorium, it was surrounded on all sides by cops in riot gear. As many of us expected, it was clear that we had no hope of taking the actual building. What happened next, however, turned a small setback into a major, self-inflicted blow to the movement.
Battling the Cops: Really? This is How We're Going to Change America?
I do not know who threw the first projectile — whether it was a policeman's sound grenade or a protester's glass bottle — but honestly it does not matter. I mean, it matters in a legal setting, and the cops' actions were brutally violent and entirely unconstitutional. But we already know that, folks! This is the Oakland Police Department we're talking about. Even CNN knows that they are vicious and corrupt. So why are we provoking them? Why are people leading our march with "battle shields" and charging at their fortified lines that we have no possibility of breaking through?
After the initial standoff outside the auditorium, activists retreated back to Oscar Grant Plaza. Action leaders announced their intentions to march on a second, again undisclosed, building. By this time it was getting dark out, and anyone who has been around Oakland protests in the last few years knows that things get ugly when the sun goes down. And so they did. The remaining protesters marched through downtown, until the police surrounded them on all sides near the local YMCA. In true Orwellian fashion, the cops refused to allow people to leave the area and then arrested over 300 of them for "failure to disperse." Meanwhile, another small group of protesters somehow got into City Hall, where they proceeded to vandalize offices, break windows, and of course burn an American flag in front of all the waiting cameras.
Four days later, Occupy Oakland is in turmoil. Denounced this time not only by the city but many allies and Occupy participants themselves, the January 28 action has only further divided the already-tenuous movement in the Bay Area and around the country. Wall Street and the 1% don't need to worry about shutting us down -- we're doing it to ourselves. Or more accurately, a small group of fringe Occupy activists is doing it to the rest of us.
Calling out the So-Called Radicals
Occupy Oakland likes to think of itself as the radical wing of the Occupy movement. Indeed, the Oakland general strike of 40,000 people on November 2, as well as the Oakland-initiated West Coast port shutdown of December 12, were bold, courageous actions that inspired people across the country and the world. On a smaller scale, there is powerful, grassroots work being down every day: shout-out to Occupy the Hood, the Labor Solidarity committee, Occupy Research, and others. But there is a small, vocal element in the movement that is more interested in playing (and losing) cat-and-mouse games with the OPD -- and this element is destroying our popular base before we have even really built it.
The word "radical" means getting to the roots of the problem. I'm talking about the runaway capitalism, institutionalized racism, and imperialist war that dehumanize the 99% of people inside and especially outside our borders. Yes, the police are the private army of the 1%, but we will never defeat them at their game. Black bloc anarchists "playing revolution" in the streets cannot replace the hard but necessary day-to-day organizing that makes real change possible.
Contrast the January 28 debacle in Oakland with the powerful, movement-building Occupy San Francisco action across the bay just one week earlier. On January 20, Occupy San Francisco nonviolently shut down major banks and corporate headquarters. This is what "Occupy Wall Street" is all about, right? Protesters chained themselves to the Wells Fargo headquarters, turned one bank branch into a "People's Food Bank of America," and made a coherent message of people over profits. The San Francisco protest was definitely a militant direct action, but it was totally nonviolent. Perhaps most significant, over 50 community organizations (including labor unions, student groups, and immigrant associations) formally participated in the San Francisco action, coordinating with each other in one of the most strategic Occupy events I've seen.
Occupy Oakland had that type of broad-based unity back during the November 2 general strike. This past Saturday, however, I did not see a single union sign or student banner. We are losing our legitimacy, our numbers, and our energy. I know of two actions being planned this month around crucial community issues, school closures and city worker layoffs where activists had forged a coalition with Occupy to fight together. Both these coalitions are now in doubt, as many community members want nothing to do with the name Occupy. When it comes to fake revolutionaries versus actual community leaders, which side are we on?
What Next? A Call for Honesty and Tough Love
One of my main struggles with the Occupy movement is our failure to engage in real self-reflection. Part of this is understandable -- we are under so much heat from the police and the media, we want to maintain a united front. That front here in Oakland, though, is disuniting very quickly. Now is the time where we need to be brutally honest with ourselves. Who is Occupy Oakland -- and who is it not (yet)? What can we really achieve -- and what can we not (yet)? And yes, what the hell are our damn goals? These are tough questions that go beyond any one action's tactics, but go to the core of race and class, power and protest, integrity and strength.
This is hard work, and it will take time. It might mean that we won't be able to have actions every week, but that can be a good thing. Let us be humble about our youth, and reach out to those in our community who have been in the struggle for a long time. One downfall so far has been that many established organizers — the very people this movement needs for guidance and support — have been turned away by the arrogant rhetoric and juvenile tactics of Occupy's vocal minority.
Movement education, of course, is a two-way street, and Occupy has shown it has much to teach long-time activists as well. Right now, though, we have a lot to learn. Here in Oakland, we're fortunate to have great folks who could help us out: the Movement Strategy Center, Ruckus Society, Center for Third World Organizing, amongst others. Are we willing to humble ourselves and say, "Hey guys...a little help?"
At the end of the day, if Occupy Oakland and the broader OWS movement are really in this for the long haul, we need to practice some tough love. If we can stand with each other in the struggle, then we must also be open for self-reflection and honest critique. Occupy has opened the door for all sorts of progressive possibilities, but here in Oakland, we are letting a few foolish agitators hold us back in the doorway. If we don't change that up soon, the only thing Occupy Oakland will be occupying is its own coffin.