Oakland: a City of Radicals

Posted on February 14, 2012

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I began to be radicalized in my twenties by my experiences as an Arab American traveling in Spain, the ugly racism and blood-thirst of the first US invasion of Iraq, and police repression during the protests that erupted after the Rodney King verdict in California. When I lived in Barcelona I was arrested in a sweep of an impoverished part of town, thrown into a dank, airless cell with dozens of North African men, and told by the American Consul that he would not help me. Two years later, in a raid not unlike the last wave of arrests at Occupy Oakland, I was arrested along with 700 other residents of the Mission district in San Francisco, and driven to Santa Rita in city buses. I was further radicalized by the inception of the fundamentally and offensively corrupt Oslo Process the next year, which taught me to suspect as corrupt and mendacious every solution to every problem that our government and its allies concoct. This process of unwanted radicalization has never stopped; I can actually go on and on.

But without a movement to plug into, that radicalization can only take an individual so far. Through the years, I’ve often been alienated by many of the hallmarks of progressive and left-wing movement building and organizing of poor/of color communities. The bulk of mass political organizing I’ve seen has had as its goal the servicing of these communities, and then adding them to the stable of Democratic party support groups, from then on to be kept silent with meager helpings from the federal trough. Similarly, anti-war organizing is top down, with a small group developing strategies based around one-time marches, and the organized called on only to walk somewhere, ask for a cessation of conflict—usually from moderate politicians—and go home at the end of the day to await further actualization. Rather than creating a movement, the goal seems to be to limit and confine political growth, routing it into ‘safe’ political participation in a system that has become ever more rapacious, unstable—and most importantly, unresponsive to even these moderate efforts—in the meantime.

The rationale that guides these well-intentioned organizations has been the conventional wisdom that “regular folks” are inherently conservative and depoliticized—they’d like some tweaks, perhaps see to it that a few moustache-twisting robber-barons get their come-uppance, but certainly nothing like systemic change or a critique of capitalism and imperialism. This conventional wisdom does have some kernel of truth. Through the years, the US government has used propaganda agencies, loyalty purges and union-busting to ensure that would be the case. Subservient corporate media outlets have been integral to this de-politicization. Its no wonder that mainstream media believe that the mainstream American public is apathetic and conservative—they’ve gone out of their way to make it so for generations. To a certain extent, I, like many other activists and these communities themselves have bought into this same kind of thinking, creating a self fulfilling prophecy and shaping our messages and our political analysis for an imagined polity that can only be perceived in an artificial media echo chamber.

When I became involved with Occupy Oakland in October, then, it was with a great deal of despair of ever escaping this cycle.  That began to change when I saw the homeless, poor and poor people of color walking freely into the camp to become involved in a political movement that could not be routed off by cadres and could not be co-opted by well meaning mainstream organizations. I saw people having large open-ended discussions about race, gender, political ideology, labor, unions, party politics, history, socio-economic status. These conversations revolved around dead-on, home-made critiques of capitalism and imperialism; a nascent political discourse of “regular people” percolated. And no one was there to tell them to wrap it up so they could a do a precinct walk for a Democrat. Or that what was going on was too secret or beyond their comprehension or capacity for political analysis.

I watched people come together to decide how to run their lives and their community without the help of police, rejecting the undermining dictates of the city, and in doing so begin to develop theories of non-governmental action and living. And in the culmination of this process, I saw this group of people call in a massive number to this camp so great that it shut down downtown Oakland, and sent tens of thousands to the port—one of the most radical mass actions I’ve ever been involved in.

Regardless, throughout this time even I’ve found it difficult to shake this core belief that poor/ communities of color are somehow more conservative than white activist one’s and that messages must be fashioned to be extraordinarily delicate in terms of political ideas to suit their tastes or risk offending them. But as time has gone on, I’ve become more and more resistant to that deeply held indoctrination as I’ve watched it trumped over and over again by reality.

The process began in the first days of the camp, when police still tried to do their rounds through the pallet-laden byways. I would watch African American men on the sidelines on fourteenth street, smiling and laughing to themselves whenever a group of Occupiers chased police out of the camp with heckles and insults.

Likewise, one of the first things that the young African Americans who initially comprised the Tactical Action Committee began to do when they participated in the vigil, was to loudly chase police off the plaza at all times. They did this in a far more aggressive way, with far fewer people than the security team for the camp had done—I often thought they were going too far, and even I thought that they were too obnoxious about it. For the most part, it worked; police would eventually leave. More importantly, I think, I began to see it as fulfilling a vital need to contest these symbols of violence and unjust power that surround Oscar Grant Plaza.

In every march that I’ve been in—from Port Shutdown, to Move-In Day to Fuck the Police—we receive almost nothing but heartfelt and excited response from drivers, some of whom have to wait long minutes for us to pass by before they can proceed. Despite the fact that liberals bemoan the negative impact of the Fuck the Police marches, once these began penetrating the neighborhoods around downtown two weekends ago—instead of simply confronting police on seventh street—it became clear that the sentiment in these communities was far from negative. In fact, the show of support in West Oakland has been enormous, it has ranged from the elderly to the young, and includes men, women and children. This Saturday past, people came out of their homes to applaud; an entire party rooted on.

The impact and influence of Occupy’s refusal to negotiate with the city or obey free speech limiting ordinances has been copious and it has inspired exactly the communities it has been said to alienate. When SEIU workers came to city hall to protest their lay offs at the hands of a city pinching pennies while blowing millions on police wildings, they didn’t do it by waiting patiently in line at the podium. They didn’t nervously hope to be taken seriously while the council members’ squandered their time by fidgeting with Iphones and Blackberries like adolescents; they invaded and occupied with well over a hundred members, stacking the council chambers from floor to balcony. They hooted, hollered, heckled and berated the entire time. They were far more like occupiers than the polite city union that gave the city everything it wanted in contract negotiations last year.

Perhaps even more importantly, the prototypically vulnerable population that is always brought up as the one community Occupy will never win over—Latinos—have approached Occupy for help in labor fights. Not just once—for the licorice strike—but twice now. Pacific Steel workers in Berkeley, fired in a ‘soft raid’ after a battle with their union, headed by none other than the city’s biggest hypocrite, Ignacio de la Fuente, recently asked for solidarity in a march they’re having to bring attention to their plight. These are workers with families who’ve logged decades at their jobs and have families that they’ve raised solely in this country.

One of the Pac Steel workers I spoke to the night that they initially approached the Labor Solidarity Committee, told me he had worked for the company for over twenty years, had raised a family here, had his whole life in the US. If any group of people has something to risk by associating with Occupy Oakland, its people like this. The Pacific Steel workers could have gone to Occupy Berkeley; but they didn’t. They came to Occupy Oakland.

Despite the fact that conventional wisdom and the heckling of a thousand facebook liberals said otherwise, they believe in this movement and its willingness to use a diversity of tactics—which can even include participating in a permitted march to connect with a population that seems to have evaporated from the mainstream left’s radar. Both licorice and steel workers came to Occupy Oakland when their own union leadership failed them and when they were told that they’d exhausted conventional political options. Despite their legal vulnerabilities in this country, they refused to accept that.

These facts go straight to the heart of the issue. The working class and the poor—which in Oakland are overwhelmingly people of color—are radicals. And why wouldn’t they be?  Decades and decades of injustice have already made them so; not just current economic mishaps, but the institutional economic conditions that in the best of times keep them at recession-level rates of unemployment and poverty, and now have pushed them to depression-era levels.

When those critical economic conditions force young men and women again and again to turn toward illegal activity to thrive, why would they not be enraged and radicalized by the lengths the US Justice system goes to make sure that they bear inordinately harsh and ruinous penalties?  Why, after decades of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of a largely white group of police outsiders invading their communities and treating them with profound disrespect, brutality and violence, would these communities not literally explode with relief and joy to see a “fuck the police” march coming through their community?

When they see politicians who squander the city’s wealth, like Ignacio de la Fuente and Harry Reid, silenced in their own chambers; when they see police chased out from the shadow of city hall, instead of the poor men and women who congregate there for safety in the night; watch fences blocking off huge lots that could be used as play and picnic grounds taken down, or empty buildings occupied and turned to productivity;  when they’re finally allowed to stand up in the heart of a city, out of the shadows and declare that documentation is only paper and numbers, but that their life of hard work is real and worthy of respect. Why wouldn’t they be thrilled that such things are happening in their own city, rather than repelled by them?

Of course these mild-mannered communities are angry; of course they’ve already been radicalized by this abusive system. They are tired of the political merry go round that sees more and more of the people’s wealth and work go to the same ever-shrinking group of corrupt one-percenters and politicians. The issue is one of barriers to participation, not desire. For years such communities have been warned of the legal and political dangers of giving in to their own justified world view, and to play it safe, on the off-chance the system might work for them. They’re saddled down with the all the responsibilities of holding down a life under these conditions.

And, of course, Occupy has to make more efforts to penetrate these communities and communicate that the organization is big enough to house everyone, and that the members of these forgotten communities can participate in fundamental and lasting roles, not just as fodder for a campaign. But given how obviously unlikely it increasingly seems that mainstream organizations can change this system, the real question is when these communities will become Occupiers, not if.