February 02, 2012

Why Is Occupy Oakland So Crazy?

NYPD riot cop November 17, 2011. He is keeping protesters out of the street without tear gas or tasers.

The enormous conceptual art project also known as Occupy Wall Street is in the news again, and this time it’s all about Oakland. Last week 409 people were arrested during confrontations with police. But in a march of 500 protesters that means almost everyone was arrested. And it’s weird because around the country, even in New York, where I am, the protests have all been nonviolent. So maybe it’s worth asking: Why is Oakland so different? Why are these kids throwing things at police when they know they might end up in jail? Moreover, assaulting an officer is a felony, and in California three felonies triggers the Three Strikes law, guaranteeing a life sentence when convicted of a third felony. That’s no joke. So, are these kids just stupid, or is there something else going on?

It’s important to ask such questions, especially because of the Riders scandal Ishmael Reed noted in his insightful New York Times Op-Ed piece last October. In 2000 a group of OPD officers were accused of routinely planting evidence, framing and beating suspects in West Oakland. They were also accused of falsifying their reports to conceal their actions. Eventually the city paid $10.5 million to settle a civil lawsuit filed by 119 people. That’s a lot of money.

And while the media breathlessly reports on how much is being spent to deal with Occupy protesters (who, by the way, are all volunteers), it might be instructive to reflect upon the OPD’s long history of giving generous amounts of overtime pay. Yes, long before Occupy Wall Street was a twinkle in its daddy’s eye, Oakland was hemorrhaging money like you wouldn’t believe. In 2007 alone, OPD’s budget for overtime was $26 million. That makes the overtime paid out for dealing with Occupy Oakland look like a bargain. And if we want to get really get honest, let’s look at the $1.2 million spent on Operation Verdict. This was the cost of the deployment of police to handle anticipated outrage over the involuntary manslaughter verdict of BART police officer Johannes Mehserle. At the Fruitvale BART station Mehserle shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant III in the back while he was facedown on the ground. Mehserle claimed he thought he was shooting him with his taser, but nobody, including eyewitnesses, believed it. Grant died the next day. But my point is not to blanketly condemn the OPD, rather to illustrate that it is expensive running a police department even in the best of times, even before the start of the financial crisis in 2009. So, during our current budget crisis, wouldn’t it make sense to minimize expensive armed conflicts with its own citizens?

Lack of foresight, or whatever caused the first tear gas incident, has the Oakland Police Department now facing a federal takeover due to its excessive use of force. So let’s ask again: why is the Occupy movement different in Oakland? It seems like the answer is that police see Occupy Oakland as some kind of radical foreign enemy. The truth couldn’t be more different. The reality is that Americans from all walks of life are involved. There are a huge number of artists, musicians, medical professionals, poets, students, gardeners, librarians, homeless activists, etc. out feeding people and trying to provoke discussion about social justice. But the unintended consequence of this teargassing business and these mass arrests is the creation of even more mistrust in the community. What is needed is not more conflict, but real leadership. Whatever happened to community policing, mediation, and gestures of trust?

But all of this is actually a side issue. Sure, Occupy Oakland may have some troublemaking knuckleheads, but the reason so many people are in the streets nationwide is because of rampant corruption of the financial industry, the illegal home foreclosures, the aggressive destruction of unions, skyrocketing tuition, corruption in the media, and the multi-trillion dollar debt that’s wreaking havoc on our national identity.

NYPD arresting a woman in a wheelchair on November 17, 2011. Note the absence of tear gas.

Yet there is a reason Occupy Wall Street advocates nonviolence: it works. Nonviolence shows self-awareness and seriousness. It’s something the voting public views as moral. Violence isn’t moral. So, why would people in an Art group throw rocks? Why would people in the Library group throw bottles? Why would a group called Visions and Goals want to assault police officers? It just doesn’t make sense. How does causing damage to property and harming people help? It doesn’t. So, the question is, who are these people who are causing these violent outbursts? My personal suspicion is they are not Occupy Wall Street protesters.

If they are anarchists and/or black bloc people, well, they throw rocks and vandalize property at every demonstration they go to. It’s kind of what they do. They think it’s fun. They think they are more hardcore than you and that nonviolence is weakness. They love to show up and bring their little circus to left-wing rallies around the country and leech on them. They do it in SF, too. They are not Occupy Wall Street. In fact, last Sunday on the march in New York (held in support of Occupy Oakland), a guy who was live-streaming OWS — Tim Pool — was attacked by a black bloc guy wearing a mask. Several people witnessed him trying to take the camera and then hitting Tim and then running off. Nobody knew who he was. This is a new development. Black bloc is black bloc, not Occupy Wall Street. Two different groups.

So, on one hand we have Cops Gone Wild, and on the other hand we have Black Bloc Gone Wild. Why don’t they get together and do a reality TV show and leave the Occupy movement out of it so Occupy can get some work done?


Comments (20)

  • @ Konrad & Charles – I hate to say it but I think discussions like these might be bigger than what we can accomplish in a comments section.
    @ nz – I’m thinking the best outcome for all of this is that people get talk to each other more and maybe find common ground.

  • Speaking of crap: here’s the performance artist (ob art ref) Lenny Bruce at The Fillmore (SF), opening for The Mothers (7/25//66), his last concert. The whole bit is about the origins of the law, but here’s the relevant quote:

    “Look. Here’s our problem, see, we’re trying to get some sleep and people keep throwing crap on us. Now we want somebody to throw them right in the craphouse. And I’m delegated to do the hiring here, and, ah, here’s what the job is.

    “You see, they won’t go in the craphouse by themselves. And we all agreed on the rule, now, and we firmed it up, so there’s nobody gets out of it, everybody’s vulnerable, we’re gonna throw them right in the craphouse.

    “But ya see, I can’t do it cause I do business with these assholes, and it looks bad for me, you know, ah . . . so I want somebody to do it for me, you know? So I tell you what: Here’s a stick and a gun and you do it — but wait till I’m out of the room. And, wherever it happens, see, I’ll wait back here and I’ll watch, you know, and you make sure you kick ’em in the ass and throw ’em in there.

    “Now you’ll hear me say alotta times that it takes a certain kind of mentality to do that work, you know, and all that bullshit, you know, but you understand, it’s all horseshit and you just kick em in the ass and make sure it’s done.”

    So what happens? Now comes the riot, or the marches — everybody’s wailing, screaming. And you got a guy there, who’s standing with a short-sleeved shirt on and a stick in his hand, and the people are yelling, “Gestapo! Gestapo!” at him:

    “Gestapo? You asshole, I’m the mailman!”

    Full transcript posted here

  • As others have said, there is no Black Bloc ‘group’ – there are a collection of people of all stripes (and races and genders and and and) who in different contexts choose to use those tactics. I don’t, but I also will defend such tactics and activists against the constant repetition of cliches and stereotypes right out of MSM reportage. Again, come meet us. These are NOT all ‘middle-class white kids’. The OO Tactical Action Group who organize the Fuck the Police actions was started by a bunch of young black kids from West Oakland.
    Ishmael Reed utterly embarrassed himself with that piece. No one here takes him seriously after publishing it. The ‘outside agitators’ are the cops – 93% of OPD live outside of Oakland. There is no evidence that OO is a bunch of white kids from other cities (unless you mean Cal students – god forbid they should be active in a political movement off campus). Business around Oscar Grant Plaza was UP during the camps. The Oakland Chamber of Commerce is made up of the 1% – all but one member represent banks or chains. Reed mentions the school closures but neglects to mention that OO brought hundreds of people to the protest and helped put that issue on the map. (and since followed up with another huge march and action focused on the school closures, involving local teachers and students).
    And again, given what OO’s accomplished – the first general strike in the US since 1946 (and organized in 5 days without organized labor), two port shutdowns, foreclosure defenses of minority homeowners, and numerous other peaceful actions, it seems that the impetus is on you to demonstrate how NV actions are tactically superior – beyond claims of moral superiority or the fact that some liberals freak out by a couple broken windows while the cops beat the shit out of us, and given that cities have organized with the DHS and FBI in coordinated attacks on camps all over the us, regardless of their stance on NV, where is the evidence that NV is a better tactic?

  • Clearly the OPD is out of control. To put it mildly. They’ve been brutalizing low-income people and people of color in Oakland for decades.

    And the answer to your question is simple.

    Q: “So maybe it’s worth asking: Why is Oakland so different? Why are these kids throwing things at police when they know they might end up in jail?”

    A: Because the Black Bloc are, for the most part, very comfortable middle- or upper-middle-class white boys who have enjoyed a truly staggering amount of social and financial privilege their entire lives. And it is precisely that privilege that fuels their behavior — as well as their thoughtlessness about how their behavior affects people who aren’t as privileged as they are.

    Let’s face it: they just don’t much care that they’re shitting where other people have to eat, and they don’t much care if Occupy Oakland, or Oakland itself, goes down in flames. If it does, they’ve got generations of white privilege and financial cushioning that they can peel back into at the drop of a hat. They may be slightly inconvenienced if things get unpleasant, but at the end of the day they’re not going to sink. And they know that quite well.

    There’s a reason you don’t see low-income kids of color among the ranks of the Black Bloc.

  • KPFA (Berkeley, CA) radio show “Letters and Politics” aired Feb 8th, 2012 in which “Chris Hedges and Kristof Lopaur of Occupy Oakland debate black bloc, militancy and tactics.”


  • If we can’t agree on what “good” means–at least in the course of doing Occupy work and organizing–then we ought not to be doing this at all.

  • @joseph – maybe two terms we can agree on are “cops” and “agent provocateurs.”

  • Chris, what Charles was saying was that the Black Bloc is not an organized group. I’d also like to point out again that Occupy isn’t, either.

    All of this is extremely messy and dispersed, and that’s what it needs to be to expand – and I think we need to keep in this in mind, and be wary of any terms we use that can constrict our understanding into something simplistic. This includes the words “front lines”, “violence” and even “good” in addition to “group”

  • Black Bloc exists, but it is a tactic, not a movement or group. Many/most people who employ it are anarchists, but there are more varieties of anarchists out there than you can shake a stick at (swing a billy club at?) I personally am in favor of non-violent tactics and avoiding vandalism. I don’t see the end game with an alternate strategy. That being said, I am leery of pointing the criticism inward and tearing the movement apart from the inside. We know who the real culprits of violence are. The police came out aggressively with extreme hostility on that Saturday. Perhaps one or two people threw a water bottle or a rock and gave the OPD to unleash hell. I got beat in the legs, while dispersing in a totally passive area of the march (my back to them, walking away, never any aggressive gesture or action toward them), blocks away from the stand-off in front of the museum (as did many others who were in the peaceful act of dispersing). The answer really is in your article. OPD. It is also worth considering the number of agent provocateurs who could be throwing bottles.

  • @Konrad – Thank you for linking to that article. I believe it is both good and healthy to be discussing all these ideas and doing it in such a public way. I wonder if the Tea Party corporation ever had such open debates about whether to carry semi-automatic weapons to the rallies of Democrats they disliked? As far as I understand they did not. In fact it’s just the opposite:

    On Jan 3rd (2010), Think Progress posted an unsettling video of Tea Party activists in New Mexico who openly carried loaded guns and assault weapons as a threat against “the government” and President Obama.
    Nearly 350 right-wing protestors crowded a New Mexico town’s busiest intersection yesterday to protest President Obama’s supposed anti-gun agenda and the “government takeover of our health care system.” While the event mostly looked like any other recent right-wing rally — complete with signs reading “replace the communists in DC” and “the sky is falling! A black man is president!” — what set this protest apart was that there “were plenty of handguns and rifles displayed.

  • @charles – Right – there’s no such thing as the Black Bloc. So all the photographs and videos of people in black wearing masks and throwing stuff aren’t real? I know a number of individuals personally who believe they are “Black Bloc” so you might want to tell them they don’t exist. They also happen to be self-described anarchists. I’d also question if your “front lines” are the same as Ishmael Reed’s front lines – as he describes in the piece I mentioned. It’s all there – he explains the situation from the perspective of a long time resident of Oakland. It’s worth a look.

  • Yes, please read Graeber’s response to the clueless Hedges. I’ve been involved with OO from the start, and I can tell you that there is no Black Bloc – it’s a *TACTIC*, not an ideology. Many of the anarchists involved (again, BB and anarchists are NOT the same – please stop making that mistake!) are some of the most organized, focused, and serious activists I know, and have been crucial to the success of OO from before the camp even began. They don’t ‘leech’ – they are the ones who built the camp, organized free food and health care and workshops. They don’t do this for fun of think of themselves a circus. Nor do they claim moral superiority like you do.
    Keep in mind that OWS kitchen kicked out homeless folks (terming them ‘freeloaders’) so please stop telling us how they’ve ‘worked’ (and ‘worked’ how? did they shut down a port? organize a general strike in 5 days? occupy and defend houses under threat of foreclosure?) Remember that occupying a vacant building would technically require ‘vandalism’. Tearing down the fence at 19th/Telegraph to escape a tear-gas OPD kettle was technically ‘vandalism’.
    Please come out to the front lines and meet us next time. You are more than welcome to demonstrate how the ‘moral superiority’ of non-violence ‘works’ by standing at the front of the line and taking your licks. Please explain to the elderly, disabled, children and undocumented among us how they should do this too, or how they should condemn shield-carrying anarchists from defending them.

  • FWIW this apparent “coda” has been answered by a brilliant cadenza. Since the nplusonemag.com site where it was originally posted has been knocked offline (midday PST 9-feb-2012), here is an except of David Graeber’s response to Hedges, kindly reposted by the folks at AKPress


  • Chris Hedges just published what appears to be the coda for this entire topic. A real smack down. He was a regular at Zuccotti park and frequently defended OWS on television. His piece is definitely worth a few minutes. http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_cancer_of_occupy_20120206/

  • @joseph – one unintended consequence of the Occupy movement is that it has created hordes of instant “experts” on anarchism, revolution and social movements. These “experts” are those who hear about Occupy on TV or read about it in the paper and then write articles about it or worse yet, hold seminars on it. Yet, by dissecting it as if it were an abstract theoretical thing, one misses the entire point of Occupy; i.e.; that one should get up and do something.
    And there is nothing worse than seeing activists completely ignore a neighborhood or its history. The Ishmael Reed piece in the New York Times deserves several reads, as he packs a lot of information and well-considered sentiment into it. Reed by the way, is the real deal, a genuine expert on these issues. He’s definitely someone to be listened to.

  • We should also take into account the actions called for through (not by- more on that in a line or two) Occupy Oakland – the shutting down of ports and the remaking of an abandoned government building into a social center. Neither of these are things that the city of Oakland can allow to happen – to do so would create a precedent too big to handle, and a confrontation for closing it later would be much more expensive and catastrophic.

    Called for through vs by – I think we also need to consider the level of organization within Occupy, and make a distinction between “movement” and “group”. I would argue that, without a definable structure, Occupy is able to expand beyond constrictions that are inherent in groups (Such as the Black Bloc, assuming that there is an actual organization with a group identity and tactics). I’ve written a bit on this here: http://arcdirector.blogspot.com/2012/02/occupy-as-form-joseph-thomas.html

    Lastly, I think the question of if violence or non-violence “works” is one that needs to be unpacked; I don’t believe it’s as simple as it looks at first. One question to consider is what Occupy would look like today – worldwide – if the first teargas-ridden conflict between OPD and OO had not occured. In that sense, a violent incident “works” to expose antagonisms. And, we need to be careful not to presuppose (and allow for) the right of a police force to use violence themselves. Occupy isn’t the only entity with tactics: and behind tactics we can (hopefully) see where values & power lie.

  • @B. zimmerman – Thank you for pointing that out. I made the correction. However, the OPD did indeed allocate $1.2 million for Operation Verdict.
    @GW – you might just be joking around, but this is from the Black Bloc entry in wikipedia:
    “Police infiltration
    Police and security services have infiltrated black blocs with undercover officers. Since all members conceal their identities, it is harder to recognize infiltrators. Allegations first surfaced after several demonstrations. At the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, amongst the many complaints about the police there was mention of video footage in which “men in black were seen getting out of police vans near protest marches.”In August 2007, Quebec police admitted that “their officers disguised themselves as demonstrators.” On these occasions, some were identified by genuine protesters because of their police-issue footwear.”

  • Geeeeee willuukers says:

    I thought the guy who assaulted Tim was an undercover cop

  • B. zimmerman says:

    Johannes Mehserle was a BART police officer, not Oakland PD

  • Well written, timely, and right on. Occupation in this country began by being creative, adventurous, courageous and fun. Seeing it turn into a reprise of the Days of Rage in the Sixties is not encouraging. Hopefully feckless Quan will be recalled/unelected, and anarchism or no, some well-aimed lawsuits directed at the OPD need to happen and fast.

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