Debating our tactics in Oakland

November 9, 2011

Todd Chretien reports from Oakland on what happened after the general strike last week--and describes an important debate among activists about tactics and strategy.

IN THE aftermath of the Oakland general strike on November 2, a debate over tactics has emerged among supporters of the Occupy struggle. The discussion centers on the late-night attempt by a relatively small group of self-described anarchists to occupy a building that formerly housed the Traveler's Aid Society, a homeless advocacy organization closed by city budget cuts.

During the day, with tens of thousands of people participating in protests around the city--including a late-afternoon march to the docks and mass demonstration that shut down the massive Port of Oakland--the Oakland Police Department and Alameda County Sheriff's Office were powerless to intervene.

But when the Traveler's building was occupied, the cops moved in, displaying the same brutal and unjustified force they did a week before in their attempt to disperse Occupy Oakland, causing a near-fatal injury to Iraq war veteran Scott Olsen. The police operation against the Travelers' occupation resulted in more than 80 arrests and dozens of people injured. Another Iraq war veteran suffered severe injuries at the hands of police--he ended up in the hospital for emergency surgery to repair a ruptured spleen.

Tens of thousands on the march during Oakland's day of action November 2
Tens of thousands on the march during Oakland's day of action November 2

Once again, Police Chief Howard Jordan and Mayor Jean Quan--who never tires of repeating how much she "supports" Occupy Oakland's goals--authorized the use of tear gas, flash-bang grenades and clubs against unarmed protesters and bystanders.

The corporate media breathed an almost audible sigh of relief as they rewrote their headlines about Oakland's general strike.

As Asad Haider wrote in Viewpoint Magazine, by late evening, "the New York Times website had this as its leading headline: 'Oakland's Port Shut Down as Protesters March on Waterfront.'" Just hours later, Haider reported, "the headline had shifted to 'Protest in Oakland Turns Violent,' with essentially the same text...accompanied by a photo of a man waving a flag in front of a fire, with no explanation of the nature of the fire."

Local and national mainstream news coverage followed the Times' lead, hoping to obscure the Oakland general strike behind a cloud of tear gas.

The media were desperately looking for a way to change the message. Sometime around 8 p.m., the driver of a Mercedes Benz ran down two marchers, and we expected the media would start chattering about "why protesters can't keep the streets safe" and "this only goes to show we need the police."

A few hours later, though, the massive police operation against the building occupation provided the media with more dramatic images to change the story: a bonfire in the middle of Broadway, dumpster "barricades" and a game of cat-and-mouse between cops and masked anarchists.

THE STARTING point for anyone who wants to see the Occupy movement succeed must be to condemn yet another instance of Oakland police violence, and to demand that all charges against protesters be dropped. We also need to recognize that the mainstream media misrepresented the entire day of demonstrations with its late-night shift of story.

But saying all this does not preclude a necessary debate--even a sharp one--about strategy and tactics. This debate is taking place within the Occupy Oakland movement and should be carefully thought through by all movement participants.

There are really two components to the debate: a discussion about property destruction as part of demonstrations generally--and another about the attempt to occupy the Traveler's Aid Society building.

First, the question of breaking windows, spray-painting and tipping over trash cans, which took place not only during the late-night occupation, but at other points during the day of the general strike.

One anonymous statement on an anarchist website, for example, justified spray-painting the word "strike" across an Oakland Whole Foods by referring to the food store chain's undeniably anti-union, pro-gentrification management. "[I]t is a corporation like any other and failed to close for the general strike," read the statement. "Thus, smashy smashy."

One can still feel contempt for Whole Foods owner John Mackey while disagreeing with "smashy smashy" as a tactic to confront corporate greed. The authors show their ignorance about the most elementary notions of workers' action and the process through which Whole Foods employees can actually win a union. Instead of relying on the actions of Whole Foods workers themselves, these anarchists imagine that spray-painting six letters on the outside wall will contribute to the effort.

Ironically, the tagged Whole Foods was the very location where activists organized a flash mob parody to protest Mackey's outspoken stance against national health care. This action united employees, community activists and Whole Foods shoppers against management.

You don't have to go as far as Oakland hip-hop legend and KPFA Hard Knock Radio host Davey D, who said he would call "a spade a spade, or in this case, call a guy busting out windows of local businesses wearing all black...a provocateur--perhaps a hired goon to be an ally to the 1 percent."

But Davey D's condemnation ought to serve notice that there are people who feel very strongly that the "black bloc" anarchists aren't just misguided in their tactics, but their elitism is downright divisive.

Even worse, the anarchist statement goes on to equate smashing a few windows with the struggle of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) members in Longview, Wash., to prevent operators of the EGT grain terminal from breaking their union. "In this struggle," the anonymous statement says, "ILWU workers have fought with police and damaged property, largely EGT grain. We must ask ourselves why we choose to support these workers, yet demonize anarchists for breaking the windows of a bank?"

The ILWU workers are exerting their collective power through a mass mobilization in an effort to halt millions of dollars worth of commerce from being transported. What does that have to do with breaking a few windows?

If we want to struggle against the power of the bankers, we need to focus, as the Occupy movement has in city after city, on demonstrations that expose their corrupt practices; on strategies that activists are also using to stop foreclosures; and also on the example of Greek bank workers who organized unions and have taken strike action as part of the movement against austerity.

THE SECOND issue is the attempted occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building. In many ways, the tactics used in this action snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

As a statement by some of the occupiers makes clear, the action was intended:

to use the national spotlight on Oakland to encourage other occupations in colder, more northern climates to consider claiming spaces and moving indoors in order to resist the repressive force of the weather, after so bravely resisting the police and the political establishment...

The building we chose was perfect: not only was it a mere block from Oscar Grant Plaza, but it formerly housed the Traveler's Aid Society, a not-for-profit organization that provided services to the homeless, but, due to cuts in government funding, lost its lease.

This statement is correct--and the point is very important considering that winter is fast approaching, the Occupy movment's access to inside spaces is an important next step to consider. In fact, as the authors note, the Oakland General Assembly is on record as supporting occupations of foreclosed or abandoned properties.

In my opinion, and that of everyone I've talked to who took part in the strike, if the action had been openly proposed to the General Assembly and then announced publicly on the day of the general strike, thousands of people would have supported it--and it could have been successful.

Why do I think that? The November 2 general strike saw up to 15,000 people march on the Port of Oakland, shutting down the evening shift in solidarity with the longshore workers, members of ILWU Local 10.

In 2003, when some hundreds of antiwar protesters marched to the docks in a similar attempt to picket out the ILWU members, they were attacked by Oakland police with rubber bullets and pepper spray, dispersing them.

What made it different this time? The mass mobilization of November 2 consisted of contingents of hundreds of teachers, city workers, Teamsters, firefighters, students and the unemployed, not to mention their families, including young children. The demonstrations reflected Oakland's multiracial population.

Political leaders were afraid of this show of unity and strength--the beginnings of an expression of working class power--and they doubtless ordered police to stay out of sight.

My estimation is that if police had chosen to attack the mass picket or try to prevent it from reaching the docks, they would have been overwhelmed by thousands of people pushing through their lines--and they would have risked an even more costly job action by the ILWU than shutting down the port for one night.

The march and picket of the port was the most radical action of the day. It was the most powerful. And to those who think that any criticism of the later building occupation comes from activists who want to restrict protest to legal actions, the port demonstrations defied the law in any number of ways--only with thousands of people, which made it impossible for the police to attack.

The port march and picket showed in concrete terms how mass, direct, democratically organized action can not just protest, but succeed.

Rather than seeking to build support for using these mass tactics for their proposal for the Traveler's occupation, the organizers of the late-night action made three crucial mistakes.

First, they substituted conspiratorial methods in place of democratic decision-making. Thus, while they invoked the authority of the General Assembly to justify their actions, they didn't participate in the decision-making process of that body, and simply attempted to impose their fait accompli on everyone else.

Second, they naively underestimated the danger of the police. As they write in their statement, "the ferocity of the police response surprised us." This statement is almost too incredible to believe. Either it signals a failure to understand the nature of the forces of the state, or it is a disingenuous, after-the-fact admission that the occupiers put hundreds of people in danger without preparing them in the least.

What did they expect the police to do? Especially since they planned their action for late at night, after 90 or 95 percent of the participants in the day's demonstrations had left the downtown? The police couldn't have asked for a better situation in which they could take revenge for their humiliations earlier in the day.

Third, the Travelers' occupiers sought to replace the power of mass unity with the supposed heroism of an elite.

They even go so far as to imply that the police attack on the occupation was a consequence of their small action being more dangerous to the system than the closure of the port: "Whereas the blockade of the port--an action which caused millions of dollars of losses--met with no resistance, the attempt to take one single building that was unused, met with the most brutal and swift response."

IT IS vital to separate out the mistakes of the Traveler's attempted occupation from the importance of occupying public spaces, workplaces, and foreclosed or shut-down buildings--and the growing sentiment in support of this kind of militancy.

One long-time street medic, who described herself as a "woman and a queer person," related being caught up in the confrontation between occupiers and police. She described her conclusions at the Decolonize Everything website:

My concern was with the ill-conceived tactics used to occupy the building, in that it looked like an anarchist glamorshot [sic] instead of a committed and revolutionary act to actually acquire and hold that space. I am tired of direct actions being done in a way that turns them into photo-ops and nothing else...I want to win. I want our building occupations to last."

Peter Olney, the director of organizing for the ILWU, is proposing longshore and building trades unions to organize their members on the following basis: "If you do not go out on a job you go out to a home defense...Home defense should become part of the daily routine of the hiring hall."

As Olney notes:

Inspired by the Occupy movement, over 100 people showed up today outside the homes of two African American families in the Bay View, one of the traditional Black neighborhoods in San Francisco...A high point was when a jubilant and visibly moved Black homeowner came out to her door and called the assembled group "her angels of mercy."

Far from needing secrecy and late-night antics, these eviction defenses are more effective when they are organized openly and publicized to the widest extent possible.

The Occupy movement is strongest when it unites the greatest possible number of working-class people for action.

We showed we could shut down the port for a day. Now we have to learn how to shut down the foreclosure machine, house by house, until we are strong enough to impose a moratorium on evictions.

We mobilized to protest the Oakland school board's decision to close five elementary schools. Now we have to build enough support from teachers, students and parents to occupy the school board until they reverse those closures.

We are mobilizing thousands on November 9 and November 16 for statewide demonstrations to protest outrageous tuition hikes and severe cuts in funding for higher education. Now we need build open, democratic forums on campuses for students, faculty and staff to join in and become organizers.

Mistakes are inevitable, but our strategies and tactics should all be put to the test of whether or not they further our ends--of raising the confidence, organization and consciousness of ever-wider layers of working-class people.

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