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Occupying Our Impasse

A wide coalition of housing activists, clergy, leftists, unionists, anarchists, and others in San Francisco staged an “Occupy Wall Street West” day of action in downtown San Francisco on Friday, January 20. (The Committee for Full Enjoyment was out too, including yours truly.) It was a cold and soggy day, but a couple of thousand people blockaded, sat in, and protested in front of more than a dozen corporate and government offices, notably Wells Fargo Bank headquarters, Bank of America’s west coast main office, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Then on Saturday, January 28, Occupy Oakland staged their “Move-In Day” and marched on the long-empty, publicly-owned Kaiser Auditorium, intending to make it their new social center. Famously now, the Oakland police used teargas and flashbang grenades to repel and disperse the Oakland occupiers. By the time the long day was over, over 400 people had been arrested, many of them in a blatantly illegal round-up of 200 people when police trapped them on Telegraph Avenue in front of the YMCA.

On both sides of the Bay the political confrontations sought to break the ice on the new year by reaching new stages for the local Occupy movement. A day of horizontal direct action and disruption in San Francisco; a dramatic attempt to claim an empty public building in Oakland, followed by a day of police violence. In local circles, while some participants are publicly confident that both efforts in SF and Oakland were “successful” in basic ways, many private conversations I’ve been in have wondered whether or not the local movements are losing broad support. Some people accept the mass media framing of the violence in Oakland as caused by the demonstrators, or at least blame protesters for answering police brutality with anything other passivity or evasion. Others find the tried-and-true sit-ins and blockades staged in San Francisco as ineffective symbolism or even as boring theater, and question the preponderance of left organizations, nonprofits, and unions.

Since the eviction of the Occupy camps late last year, thousands of people have been talking, planning, and wondering what would 2012 bring? How could the best of the past months’ experiences be carried forward and even expanded upon? How could we top the November 2 “General Strike” and Port protest that drew tens of thousands of people into a daylong festival that occupied a good part of Oakland’s downtown before heading over to the Port and stopping shipping for several shifts? Fewer people turned out for the December 12 Port Shutdown in Oakland, though it was still effective for part of the day, along with allied actions in a half dozen other cities. Still fewer came out in the January 20th rain in San Francisco, or a week later to “move in” to the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland. Signs of trouble? or just to be expected, given the time of year, the nature of the events, etc.?

Maybe, maybe not, only time will tell for sure. But it’s possible that a concerted media campaign to amplify the militant self-defense actions of Oakland protesters has scared away some people and dismayed others. I saw a defender of militant action quoted on a Facebook post that said it was probably a good thing if it scared some people away, since “he couldn’t trust a lot of people politically anyway.” I wonder how prevalent this kind of vanguardist delusion is? What’s been interesting up until now is just how many people have been ready enthusiastically to embrace overtly anti-capitalist rhetoric, albeit amidst a great deal of traditional populism too.

The horizontalist San Francisco Day of Action found itself trapped in what one friend recently dubbed “Big Government Anarchism.” Dozens of self-organized affinity groups, committees, nonprofit activists, and some trade unionists staged their own interventions all over town. In seeking to “crack the corporate piggybank” the Wall Street West occupiers demanded an end to bank evictions and foreclosures, and to put an end to corporate personhood. Targeting threatened homes is practical and as real as it gets. But in the clamor for justice and fairness, there lurks an unspoken faith that social priorities can be changed by a change in government policy. If the government would radically reduce its spending on wars, overseas military bases, corrupt weapons systems, an ever-expanding spook bureaucracy, and a growing prison system, we’d be safer and we’d have money to spend on all kinds of social needs, from housing to health care and food security for all. Take away corporate personhood and an electoral democracy of over 300 million people can become genuinely representative. Really?

Isn’t this the kind of wishful thinking that leftism has crashed on for the past few decades? We already know how uninspiring existing left-wing politics has been for a long time, with repetitive demands for “Jobs” and “Peace” inevitably falling on deaf ears and dwindling turnouts. The Occupy Wall Street West effort took place alongside the remnants of Occupy SF and had some cross-participation, but broke no new ground. January 20 repeated a combination of techniques that stretch back to the Hall of Shame and Warchest Tours of the early 1980s combined with some of the blockading and protest styles from that same era that have traveled through history by way of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and the shutdown of San Francisco at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. These anarchistic interventions can effectively paralyze business as usual for some hours or even days, but fail to connect with a transformative politics. The direct action tactics are used to voice moral disapproval of speculation, profiting, war-mongering, ecological damage, now adding corporate personhood to the list.  But taken as a whole, the tone of these protests combine to suggest that in a different government we might find the answers, hence “big government anarchism.”

Occupy Oakland, by contrast, is populated with the self-proclaimed radical wing of the Occupy movement, and consists of many anarchists and small-c communists who avoid making demands that would reinforce the government/nonprofit paradigm of social change. They set out to get a building to have a new home for the Oakland occupation. Organizers hoped that they’d be able to gain entry to the Kaiser Auditorium and hold it for at least a few days to show what they could do with such a space. The authorities and especially the Oakland Police had no intention of allowing any autonomous space to get started. Occupiers had prepared for the now expected police violence by bringing shields and developing a high degree of internal solidarity among themselves. This served them well throughout the day, pulling people back from arrest from time to time, and managing several mass escapes from police encirclement. A lot of teargas and flashbang grenades were thrown by police that day, and hundreds of constitution-busting, pre-emptive mass arrests were made, most of which will never lead to any criminal charges being filed.

Earlier this week pundit Chris Hedges published an essay called “The Cancer in Occupy” that has rocketed around the internet and is generating a huge backlash. The best response I saw so far is at the AK Press blog, written by Don Gato, which he wrote for his own blog.

Chris Hedges launches into a frontal attack on the “Black Bloc movement” and its supposed chief theoretician John Zerzan of Eugene, Oregon. Hedges apparently thinks that the violence in Oakland last week, and in various occupy evictions during the past months is deliberately provoked by “Black Bloc” demonstrators. There is no doubt that the Occupy movement is struggling now with tactics and strategy after its brutal evictions late last year, and has not yet found a winning formula to begin thriving and growing again.

I’d have to say that Zerzan and the “Black bloc” are pretty irrelevant to Occupy Oakland. I personally know many people who have been deeply involved the whole time and on the front lines in many of these police attacks, and Hedges’ weird editorial is nonsense. The diverse people behind masks and shields are far from homogenous or hegemonic, but they are trying to push beyond the acceptable tactical limits of the past.

Don Gato makes the intelligent points that “black bloc” is a tactic not a movement, and that hardly anyone—anarchist, communist, or otherwise inclined—is a follower of John Zerzan. (Zerzan and I go way back, to the early days of Processed World when he was getting ready to decamp San Francisco for Oregon and was still obsessively posting flyers in the neighborhood glorifying lone gunmen (who went berserk and shot dozens of people on campuses, malls, or wherever it was happening) as exemplars of an unmediated revolt against the unfolding collapse of industrial society.) Zerzan is one of the main people who have pushed neo-primitivist politics, arguing against the category of “technology” in its entirety, objecting to any use of tools in a future free society as an inevitable reinforcement of capitalism. His thinking has been absolutist and absurd for decades and while he’s had a few moments of influence and fame (notably by inspiring the Unabomber’s rantings), he’s never aspired to be anyone’s leader, and never has been.

Hedges, who invoked Zerzan in a narrative where he really doesn’t belong, had developed a certain credibility over the past months, in part because of his bashing of Obama and the pusillanimous Democrats, and his unbridled enthusiasm for the riots in Greece against austerity and the financial dictators there. Don Gato does away with most of his worst stupidities, but there’s a good “postcolonial reading” of him too.

It’s not like there hasn’t been a lot of thoughtful analysis from many participants in local movements. Josh Healey writes in “Occupy Oakland at a Crossroads: Rebirth or Self-Destruction?”:

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.

In another thoughtful essay, “Santa Rita, I Hate Every Inch of You”, Jeb Purucker writes about the experience of being in the nearby county jail with hundreds of others later that night:

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.

Later he gets into his real point:

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.

… 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.

Sure, there are some hotheads who like fighting cops. We have the same problem in Critical Mass, going on for years now. But they are extremely few. The framing in the mass media is always to blame those few and to discredit the whole movement and all its myriad perspectives because somehow the violent few are given the power to represent all others. We just have to push back against that misframing and insist that there is a whole other narrative that looks at the same events very differently, and primarily in terms of the mindboggling waste of public resources by Oakland officials (who have been laying off thousands of city employees, closing public schools, etc., while spending $2-3 million on policing Occupy Oak). Now they got their money’s worth by using hundreds of police in an all-day assault on peaceful demonstrators whose primary goal at the outset was to occupy an empty public building and use it for something tangible during the next weeks and months.

Everyone knows that if Occupy gets a foothold in a publicly-owned building it will indeed be a launching pad for a whole series of aggressive demonstrations and further assertions of public rights, public commons, etc. More or less what we hope for, eh? And that’s the primary reason why Oakland will spend any amount to stop them from re-establishing a permanent or semi-permanent base. Scattered and dispersed, Occupiers are much easier to control and keep on the defensive. Moreover, they have to work five times as hard just to converse with each other, let alone do anything beyond that. Much of the community of homeless and protesters that grew together during those heady autumn days is dispersed. Without a place to meet, eat, get basic medical attention, sleep, etc., it’s really hard to create the synergies that helped Occupy escape the boundaries of typical leftist protest. Now it’s kind of stuck replicating old forms, like marches, protests, cat-and-mouse evasion of police efforts, or in San Francisco on Jan 20, a panoply of decentralized “direct action” blockades and sit-ins in front of banks and other corporations and government offices.

The theater of protest is beginning to take its toll. Quite deliberately framed as a spectacle of violence, it plays in mass media and suburban living rooms as proof that the police are needed, even when they are the prime instigators of violence. For those far from the immediate scene, it’s easy to blame protesters for “causing” violence, since the police aren’t riotously shooting off teargas and grenades on a daily basis… something must be triggering them. And voila! Masked anarchists are tearing down fences, running through streets, sometimes hurling teargas canisters or bottles at lines of approaching riot police, proving a postieriori the need for riot police! It’s all very frustrating for people who set out with the intention to nonviolently occupy a wasted public resource and use it for genuine community needs, who are now spending a lot of time backpedaling and trying to clarify that it was a police riot against legitimate dissent, as opposed to the widely disseminated lies.

Another note rising from the cacophony of post-event analysis and criticism is the oddly macho pride emanating from some of the Oakland comrades. The words “ferocity” and “ferocious” are used to proudly describe the demonstrators on January 28 who withstood the police assaults. Echoing the romanticized portraits of the Durruti Column in Spain’s Civil War, or any of a number of other glorified revolutionary moments in the past, this kind of pride is understandable, inevitable, and part of the problem because it starts to promote street fighting as an arena in which to achieve standing in the community, to earn one’s stripes, so to speak.

I think the problem is, how to derail this whole trajectory? What tactics can we use that are based on a strategy of outflanking and eroding police and state violence? Marc Salomon’s piece “Occupy Reality” makes a number of interest points too, but I was especially glad he quoted Sun Tzu, “So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.” Salomon offers a strong critique of both San Francisco’s J20 actions and Oakland’s J28:

So when the J20 day of action rolls around, the nonprofit corporate activists and organized labor jump on it, rebrand OSF as Occupy Wall Street West (OWSW) and proceed to graft their failed agendas and narrow pet priorities onto OSF with the intent to shut down the financial district. There were some creative actions during the rainy day, but there was no strategic plan to crimp profit accumulation and cause real pain to the 1%. At best it served as a placeholder to signal that Occupy is still here. … As on J20, J28 was not aimed to grow the movement, it was aimed to privilege tactics over strategy in a way that ended up like the Monty Python peasant sketch: “come see the violence inherent in the system, help, help I’m being repressed.”

I’m not a pacifist, and I don’t advocate sticking to legal behaviors necessarily. But to walk into frontal confrontations with the heavily armed and highly motivated authorities, who can then count on a tidal wave of press mischaracterizations to back them up, is just strategically flawed, and tactically hopeless. I think many people are coming to grips with this, but the lingering euphoria of a well-placed rock, or a mass breakout, or a dearrested comrade, feeds militaristic fantasies that ultimately will be suicidal.

Hit-and-run, high mobility, surprise—all of these are strong weapons for the current movement, and hard for the police to handle, since they are large, lumbering bureaucracies. Trying to take and hold space, though a surprisingly effective tactic during the early months of Occupy, is going to be very difficult now. Instead of fixating on that, why not start thinking about other ways to meet people’s needs? Robin Hood comes to mind, the self-reduction movement of Italian women in the 1970s comes to mind (where they’d go in and take what they needed at local supermarkets en masse, leaving what they felt they could pay, or nothing at all), even something as simple as pelting politicians and corporate heads with rotten vegetables when they appear in public!

Perhaps more important is to refocus our efforts on the original impetus for this moment: the system is broken. Democracy is a complete sham (and shame) at national and state levels, and is barely alive at the local level. “Representation” is a hollow claim and the surge towards General Assemblies and other forms of consultative, consensual directly democratic processes is palpable. Economic life is increasingly precarious, and most work is a waste of time if not actually making the world worse! The ecology of the planet is being wrecked in large and small ways EVERY DAY, and the work we do collectively is the main cause of it! We have to change what we do, and how we do it, and it’s urgent that we get on with that transformation. And of course, we’re all atomized and divided in ways that make it hard to build social solidarity and engage in mutual aid. The beauty of the Occupy camps was the space they made for those kinds of new relationships to flourish.

So we need to create space where everyone is invited in, yes all 99%, and everyone is expected and encouraged to contribute to figuring out how to get out of this mess. The November 2 “General Strike” in Oakland was a space that invited tens of thousands to be part of the conversation, and that’s the only way this potentially revolutionary movement can really grow. If the movement becomes a weird urban chess match between motivated protesters and heavily armed police, it will increasingly be reduced to a spectacle with an all-too-predictable outcome.

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One Response to “Occupying Our Impasse”

  1. 1
    david s:

    Marc’s note about nonprofits and unions taking over Occupy SF and rebranding it Occupy Wall St West is based on a very false Examiner article that more that a few disgruntled activist swallowed without actually talking to anyone to find out that Occupy Wall St West was and action..
    Chris,
    Lots of critique (interesting as always)but where your proposals?; how do we “create space where everyone is invited in, yes all 99%, and everyone is expected and encouraged to contribute to figuring out how to get out of this mess?” a chunk of the 99% are actually in unions and community groups and Jan 20 and many other occupy efforts are experimenting, trying to do this. A lot of the folks in Occupy Sf who have stepped up were not “activists” 6 months ago. J20 did bring together an bunch of folks who don’t usually do anything together. non-union immigrant workers confronting the boss who stole/did not pay their wages, homeowners fighting foreclosures, students, dancers, neighborhood occupy groups, hotel workers, homeless folks, financial district workers, etc. A core demand that the banks we blockaded stop evicting/foreclosing peoples homes is not “big Gov’t Anarchism” and there are a bunch of folks who would not be in their homes right now if we had not done pushed on the banks. Winning concrete victories that make our lives better while mixing up with all kinds of different people and groups and talking about the bigger systemic roots seems like a good place to experiment right now.

    cheers

    cheers, David

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