Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Outside Agitators

Every time there's a protest in Oakland, there's a whole lot of blather in the corporate press about those evil and mysterious 'outside agitators' who come to cause trouble and use our city as their 'playground'.

The storyline was alive and well during the Oscar Grant demonstrations of 2009 (otherwise known as The Defenestration of Foot Locker) and is once again lurking openly within mainstream reporting about Occupy Oakland actions. After J28, we were solemnly informed that 'only' 35% of those arrested were Oakland residents. Setting aside the fact that 35% of 409 is still a pretty impressive 143, the implication is that if those wicked people had stayed in Berkeley/Fremont/San Francisco/Alpha Centauri where they belong, none of this trouble would have happened!

It's an attractive argument, and I must admit I once gave it some credence. It's easy to fall into a parochial mindset, especially when you've set down roots and lived in one place for a while. It's nice to believe that the folks who live in 'your' city wouldn't get up to any naughty business without the incitement of craftily manipulative foreigners from the badlands on the other side of Alcatraz Avenue. But it also defies logic.

For example: I've lived in Oakland for thirty years. I consider myself an 'Oaklander'. By the logic of the outside agitator argument, I should, therefore, limit my protest participation to actions within the city limits. But wouldn't it be just as logical for me to restrict my direct actions to the three cities in which I've actually worked during those thirty years: Emeryville, San Francisco, and Berkeley? After all, I've never worked a single day in Oakland, unless you count the occasional afternoon spent at the Northern California Independent Bookseller's Association annual meeting at the downtown Hyatt. Based on all those eight-hour work shifts (plus commute time), I've probably spent at least ten of the last thirty years 'outside' the city in which I 'live'.

And what of my national origins? I wasn't born in this country. Perhaps I don't have the right to protest anywhere in the United States, never mind Oakland. Do I need to 'go back to where you came from', as has been suggested to me on numerous occasions, to protest about Deanna Santana's ridiculously generous salary to whomever will listen to me in the Greater Merseyside area?

This issue came home to me last week, when I spent time supporting the Ice Cream Bloc's autonomous action outside the Wells Fargo Bank on Piedmont Avenue. As I was engaging in a very pleasant chat with a nice young Occupier named Matt, an angry, red-faced man with bulging neck veins confronted us and asked us if we were responsible for the bank closure, and if we were, how dare we attract such riff-raff to our events? As he steamed away, he turned and shouted "I live in this neighborhood!", to which I replied, "so do I!" This clearly struck the gentleman as preposterous: he'd assumed that a bunch of alcoholic criminals had been bussed in from Berkeley/Fremont/San Francisco/Alpha Centauri to disrupt his day.

I'm going to have more to say about this interesting encounter in a future column, but for now I want to keep the focus on the question of 'outsider' protest. I felt very comfortable on my home turf--this action took place within blocks of my house--but did this man have a point? Does one's right to protest decrease the farther one gets from their home address? And if you're homeless,
does this mean you have absolutely no right to protest at all? Considering the zeal with which OPD broke up Occupy Oakland's encampments, and with which other encampments were broken up after they started attracting 'undesirable elements', this may be one of the unwritten rules of the 'legitimate protest' game. Those who have the most 'skin in the game' aren't even allowed to participate in the game.

The argument leads to the inescapable conclusion that property invests people with rights, and the more property you own the more rights you have. After all, in addition to living in the neighborhood, Angry Bulgy Vein Man also owns a business (something he felt was important enough to mention to us). This is my neighborhood, and I own a business, and the fact that a group of 'alcoholic criminals' prevented me from visiting my bank is an outrage!

More on ABV Man next time.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Yes it's me, and I'm in love again

Okay, I know Valentine's Day was last week, but after today's Occupy Oakland foreclosure action in support of Katie Mitchell my man-crush for the movement is in full effect again--at least until next weekend's FTP march. (I kid, I kid.)

For those of you who may have missed it, these are the phone numbers to call to voice support for bankster victim Katie Mitchell. Remember, keep it polite, calm, and on point, and tell the folks you're calling to support Katie Mitchell of 5833 Fremont Street, Oakland. Katie needs a loan modification and a reasonable principle. Simple!

Peter Barker 310-860-7007
Julius Robinson 415-765-3883
Union Bank, Downtown Oakland 510-891-9505

When you call Union Bank, you might also want to politely but firmly complain about their security guard, who went all OPD on a protester during today's action. Check out Oakfosho's Livestream archives for all the disgraceful action.

In addition to today's foreclosure action, there was a tangentially related event outside Alameda County Superior Courthouse, where the auctioning of foreclosed properties generated a raucous response from protesters affiliated with the East Bay Solidarity Network. I'm a big doofus, I guess, because I'd never heard of EBSN before now, but they raised holy Hell today. More power to 'em.

Coming on the heels of Monday's massively successful Occupy San Quentin rally, it's been a marvelous couple of days, despite Berkeley Police Department's ridiculous effort to blame OO for a murder. In my opinion, these smaller actions will rebuild community support for Occupy Oakland, and help us build momentum for the May Day General Strike. I've already scheduled a vacation day for myself--have you?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Top Ten Reasons I Have Never Attended an Occupy Oakland GA

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've been a community ally of Occupy Oakland since October 25th. I've attended events and marches, spoken in favour of OO at two City Council meetings, donated to OO and the Bail Fund, and--despite my displeasure regarding 'Diversity of Tactics'--advocated for OO to anyone who'll listen.

But I have never attended an Occupy Oakland GA in person (though I've watched a ton via Livestream). Here are ten reasons why, in no particular order.

1. I've never been a member of any political organisation. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the concept of joining anything, even when there are no membership applications or dues involved. During the Thatcher era I thought about joining the Labour Party long distance from Oakland, but considering how things developed with Tony Blair I'm extremely glad I didn't. I just don't join things--the risk of betrayal and/or disappointment is too high.

2. Whatever I do in life, I am generally all in or not in at all. When I commit to something, my commitment is serious. I am clinically obsessive-compulsive and find it hard to walk a middle path, but that's what I've managed to do (so far) with OO. If I start going to GAs, I would feel the need to go to every GA and would feel horribly guilty every time I missed one.

3. I have a spouse who thinks I'm a bit of a loony for supporting OO. We've been married for 27 years and I'm not keen on getting a divorce.

4. I have a full-time job. Jobs take up a lot of time.

5. I have writing gigs and other outside commitments. These also take up a lot of time.

6. The hand signals creep me out. Especially the twinkles.

7. The human mic creeps me out. I don't like mindless recitation of anything.

8. I am a white middle-aged male socialist. You don't want/need any more of those at GA, do you?

9. I don't want to get shouted at by anti-non-violence advocates and I don't want to be tempted to shout at anyone, especially that guy who called Gandhi 'a misogynist prick'.

10. I don't like inhaling second hand smoke (of any variety).

11. BONUS REASON: I understand how things work in subcultures. If you weren't there at the start, you weren't there at all, and if you join now you're a poseur. Contrary to Poly Styrene, I am not a poseur, I do care, and I don't like to make people stare.

Are these legit reasons, poor excuses, or embarrassing cop-outs? You tell me!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Keep Calm and Occupy

In 1939, the British government designed the poster on the right. As Wikipedia explains, the poster was "intended to raise the morale of the British public in the event of invasion."

The 'keep calm' theme has since taken on a life of its own: from 'keep calm and Cary Grant' to 'now panic and freak out', the clean lines, simple design, and telephone box red of the original poster has been a source of apparently endless inspiration for artists, tricksters, and political activists.

Of course, my favourite variation is 'keep calm and occupy'.

Since the 'failure' of J28, calm seems in slightly short supply at Occupy Oakland. Still homeless and suffering from the stress of being repeatedly set upon by OPD, OOers are engaging in deep internal debate and self-critique, and it isn't always pretty. Was J28 a bad idea, or a good idea poorly planned? How does the movement reconnect with the masses? And do the wicked reformers/liberals/anarchists/Stalinists/black bloc/live streamers realize they're destroying the movement from within?

To which I respond, 'keep calm and occupy'. Don't panic. Don't allow the City and the Chamber of Commerce to divide and conquer. Don't take the bait offered by OPD. When a smoke bomb or tear gas canister detonates nearby, walk, don't run. Engage neither in the shouty nor the smashy: resist in a thousand smaller, quieter ways. Read 'Alone in Berlin' by Hans Fallada for inspiration. Deface currency. Be unfailingly polite but firm when making a point. Wear a disguise (but not a mask). Confuse the enemy. Confound expectations.

The possibilities for non-violent resistance are limitless: from Aquapy to gingerbread City Halls, from Care Bears to Valentine's Day dance parties, all options are on the table. Allow your imagination to run free--but whatever you do, keep calm!

Monday, February 6, 2012

What I hope Occupy Oakland can avoid

Foreword: I do not know who took the picture at the end of this essay. I chose it because I think it illustrates a critical point, and it's also an amazing photo. If the photographer wants me to remove it or if they would like to me to include attribution, please submit a comment to that effect.

All broad-based social or political movements inevitably have internal ideological or tactical divisions, and Occupy Oakland is no exception. These divisions first became apparent during and after the General Strike, when some protesters broke windows and others tried to stop them, and when fires were set and barricades constructed outside the Travelers' Aid Building. Though an uneasy truce currently exists between proponents of non-violence on the one hand and 'diversity of tactics' on the other, many people dropped out or backed away from Occupy Oakland because of its failure to condemn property damage and pass a non-violence resolution.

The resultant schism isn't going to go away any time soon. Many people have quietly withdrawn from active participation in the movement, while a few former Occupy supporters have joined the anti-Occupy Oakland astroturfers 'Standing for Oakland'. Meanwhile, rumours of a 'white bloc' persist, though I haven't seen any proof that it actually exists.

It is indisputable that supporting the movement can be a challenge for those of us at the extreme non-violent end of the spectrum, but being exposed to the arguments in favour of DOT has proven to be a valuable learning experience for me. The mainstream media have intentionally conflated the ubiquitous spectre of 'black bloc' with the ideology of anarchism, and while I don't claim to understand anarchism (sorry, guys, it seems a lot like libertarianism to me- not that there's anything wrong with that), I have learned that anarchists come in a variety of flavours. I believe it's critical that anarchism and black bloc be de-linked and each examined on their own merits, and though I'm personally quite uncomfortable with black bloc tactics, I'm trying to keep an open mind and educate myself. For now, consider me an agnostic in the ongoing Hedges-Graeber wars.

Now, confession time. I am 'only' a community ally of Occupy Oakland. I participate when I can, but only when I'm comfortable with a particular action. I stay away from FTP marches; I come out for fundraisers, City Council meetings, and mass actions like J28. Though I passionately support Occupy Oakland, I have not invested the time and energy into the movement that many of you have. Consequently, it's easy for me to overlook some of the organizational day to day squabbling that can grind people down. I'll roll my eyes Quan-style or shake my head disapprovingly on occasion, but at the end of the day I still feel fully invested in the movement because I don't have an axe to grind with anyone in particular.

If, however, I had been organizing and participating in OO from day one, I can think of a number of events that would have precipitated feelings of anger or betrayal, some of which I've already mentioned. Most recently, there's been quite a bit of sexist and homophobic language flying around OO-affiliated Twitter accounts, and if I'd invested the amount of time some have invested in OO I could easily see myself saying 'enough is enough' at this point. The abusive language stems from tactical differences and I don't necessarily think it should be taken at face value, but it's still disturbing.

Of course, differences arise for all sorts of non-tactical reasons: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and education can all contribute to organizational friction. But it is the differences over strategy and tactics that provide governments with the ammunition they need to divide and conquer movements that pose a threat to business as usual. The state will use any means necessary to crush dissent, including selective enforcement of the law, psy-ops, and the use of agents provocateur, and they will use those tools to deepen and widen pre-existing differences within left-wing political movements. When successful, these actions almost inevitably force some activists underground, as happened throughout the late 1960s and early '70s. It's doubtful that hyper-radical organizations such as The Weather Underground (USA), The Angry Brigade (UK), Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof (West Germany), The Red Brigades (Italy) and others would have existed if not for dirty tricks employed by western governments.

I do not defend the kidnappings, bombings, and bank robberies carried out by members of these splinter groups, but it is important to remember they were well-intentioned political activists before they were gangsters. Perhaps the 'most radical of the radical' will always gravitate to the most extreme actions, but internal divisions, dirty tricks, and constant police harassment no doubt played a role in driving many '60s radicals to 'safe houses' where paranoia ruled the day, debate and discussion were seriously proscribed, and violence seemed the only available option.

Unfortunately, we can see this same dynamic beginning to work its malevolent magic within the Occupy movement. Dubbed terrorists by Republicans and Democrats alike, treated like criminals or worse by the police, and now subjected to threatening graffiti ('kill the occupiers'), we're being psychologically and emotionally primed for extreme radicalization. The selection process has begun, with certain people subjected to stay-away orders, repeated arrest or threat of arrest, and other forms of law enforcement abuse. Of course, I don't know if the ruling classes are conspiring to create a violent Occupy-related splinter group in hopes of discrediting the entire movement, but I do believe the likelihood of such a splinter group emerging is increasing, and it would certainly prove a useful weapon for the 1%.

I believe all supporters and allies of Occupy Oakland must do their utmost to avoid this outcome. Don't let the ideological arteries harden: neither the non-violent nor the DOT factions should disavow the other or draw lines in the sand. Keep the lines of communication open, and continue to agitate, educate, and organise. I believe the strength of the Occupy movement resides in its commitment to economic and social justice, and whatever tactic we adopt to reach it, that goal should be our focus. If we allow the state to divert, distract, or divide us, we will surely lose.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Lessons of J28

I'm not sure the world needs another analysis of Occupy Oakland Move-In Day, but that's what you're gonna get anyway. I've spent too much time obsessing about it for the past few days to let all that cogitation go to waste. So here goes. Oh, and please note my beloved son took these pictures. What a good boy he is.

1. The target. There's general agreement that Occupy Oakland aimed a wee bit high with the selection of the Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center as the movement's new home. It's tempting to think that OO knew all along that occupation would be an impossible task, but judging from the amount of furniture and other move-in material on hand during the march there seemed to be genuine hope that the occupation could and would take place. The Move-In Committee hinted that alternate targets were available should the Kaiser Center prove impregnable, but I'm not convinced this was the case: I suspect it was Kaiser or bust. And while I wanted to believe the Occupy meme that Move-In Day was a diversion intended to allow smaller, under the radar occupations to take place, I haven't heard of any such occupations actually happening. So: all the occu-eggs were in one very, very big basket.

2. The route. I'm not breaking any new ground when I suggest the march route was ill-chosen. I understand that marching through Laney was intended to trick or divert OPD, but the march fractured and dissipated as soon as it entered campus. When we got to the other side of Laney, there was considerable confusion about where to go next and how to get there. In retrospect I think the march should have gone directly to the Kaiser Center via 10th Street, with the sound truck loudly and proudly leading the way. The crowd would have stayed together and provided more of a challenge to OPD than the small group that ultimately reached the fenced off access road on the north side of the Center.

3. The battle. Why did OPD form a line where they did? Was it intended to draw the march into a confrontation? And why did the march take the bait? We could have walked up 12th Street with impunity and gone straight to the Travelers Building, or any other 'Plan B'. (Added bonus: as described in an earlier post, this would also have provided marchers the opportunity to directly confront Mayor Quan. I'd love to have seen her roll her eyes at 2,000 protesters).

4. The aftermath. I'm not going to comment much on the second march and the kettling: I wasn't there, and plenty of others have written about it at length. But I will say this: watching the livestream and hearing the 'Submit to that Arrest' announcement OVER and OVER and OVER again was one of the most dispiriting and bizarre experiences of my life. At first I thought it was surely a joke; some Occupy wag with a bullhorn openly mocking OPD. When reality sank in, it occurred to me that the phrase's constant repetition was intended as some sort of horrific, Orwellian hypnotic suggestion. We have always been at war with Eastasia. Submit to that arrest. It was chilling and horrifying from a distance; I can only imagine the sheer terror marchers in the kettle must have felt.

5. DOT. The 'diversity of tactics' argument is still hanging like a millstone around Occupy Oakland's neck. That said, and even though I remain convinced that non-violent resistance is the most effective means of protest, I've acquired a new appreciation for those bold enough (sensible enough?) to bring shields and helmets to these events. As long as those shields and helmets are genuinely there to defend the people, and aren't there as radical fashion statements (or indeed weapons to be hurled at OPD), I'm in favour.

OPD's strategy is always to provoke a violent response. If that wasn't clear before January 28th, it's surely crystal clear now. Throwing anything at the cops--including balloons, apparently--is all but guaranteed to provide the police the justification they need to start beating the crap out of people. Now, I'm not saying they won't beat the crap out of people even if nothing gets thrown--but it makes their propaganda that much less convincing if the poor darlings don't have any bwuises to show the mainstream media.

(Random thought: we all know baseball players have used steroids and amphetamines as performance enhancers.What's the likelihood that police officers also pop some speed before pulling Occupy duty? This is pure speculation, but drug abuse could explain some of OPD's more bizarre and brutal behavior.)

6. When it hurts when you do that...stop doing that. It may be time to seriously reconsider the 'rally...march...beatdown' cycle and develop a real diversity of tactics. Small scale actions at banks, flying pickets at American Licorice, tiny tepees and Care Bears at OGP...there's no end to the possibilities. Aquapy was a welcome example of creative protest tactics, its return post-J28 a massive breath of fresh air after a depressing day. Aquapy is clever, humorous, effective, and 100% peaceful: with those ingredients, you can't fail to win broader community sympathy and support. I'd like to see more actions along these lines--a little more dada and a little less black bloc would, IMHO, go a long way. (And if we can't levitate the Pentagon, perhaps we could try to levitate City Hall?)

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I am a semi-aquatic marine mammal who enjoys eating fish and krill, as well as taking long underwater swims