Charting a Course for Direct Action in Downtown Oakland

Posted on October 30, 2011

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Counting down to the city-wide general strike on Wednesday, Occupy Oakland is fecund and protean. The camp is growing back, albeit in a different configuration, and without some of the things I thought were exceptional about it. The shadow of gentrification looms over the lawn at Ogawa, as the park has become a bit of a tourist and weekend destination, complete with a silk screening booth replicating the now iconic “hella Occupy” logo poster, drum circle and capoeira.

The benefit of the new openness of the camp as it rebuilds is that it has invited new actors and discourses in the amphitheatre. Last night’s speak out on police brutality and the justice system, brought out many old and familiar faces in the downtown protest scene, wedding Occupy Oakland to the more traditional sources of dissent in the bay area. Despite the mainstreaming of the movement, such events have broadened the capacity to create space for local issues which affect people of color, the poor and working class the most, which has been one of the failings of the Occupy movements in general.

The experience of non-white urban people has always been more than just the sum of its economic parts, and especially in Oakland, police harassment, repression, brutality and an unjust justice system have always gone hand in hand with the issues most pertinent to Wall Street. The media friendly “bleed” of Tuesday night has provided a stage to put such issues on the national stage, “mainstreaming” them, the same way that mass protest, dissent and the first glimmerings of anti-capitalist discourse have been made safe for the previously apolitical or moderate since Occupy Wall Street set down in Zuccoti Park.

How effective will this new mobilization and the direct actions that emerge from it, be? Unconstitutional repression in countries with constitutional protections can be made the stage from which issues of oppression can be discussed—the police, for example, crossed a line on Tuesday, which backfired on them precisely because there is ostensible rule of law in the US, even if it only operates in the light of day and for the benefit of the middle class and non-marginal. While it certainly won’t be a rallying cry to continue to get people out on the street, the police and the city are more scared of protesters than the other way around, as they face probable lawsuits, federal probes, and the disdain of voters after Tuesday night’s wilding.

This has produced some benefits—as many have commented, a referendum on dissent, and whether authorities have the right to contain it is the most positive. Occupy Oakland staked a claim in front of city hall, restaked it, and regularly swells into the streets. Mayor Quan has been reduced to issuing meek pleas from a youtube account to address the people who fill the plaza in front of her office, asking kindly if they wouldn’t mind leaving now.

From what I saw, these flash mass mobilizations have a wide-ranging level of support. Drivers were pumping fists and honking in support, instead of annoyance, at the throng of protesters on Broadway and Grand. I saw not one expression of annoyance or opposition. A waitress I spoke to was somewhat concerned about the loss of business at the restaurant she worked at, which was right around the corner from the courthouse and jail. The restaurant was closing early for the night because there was no business, which been a regular occurrence since Tuesday. But she added that she was happy to see everyone out in the street, and that other workers at the restaurant had spent a lot of time at OO. She felt that the loss of income was worth it.

The test for this growing “mainstreaming” of what was once considered radical mobilization—taking to the streets without permit, or institutional support—will be the actions for the General Strike on Wednesday, which could be the first chapter in a completely new book about protest. But without push-back from authorities to sensationalize it, protest also risks becoming mundane, co-opted, a re-run spectacle that eventually becomes uninteresting to a public weaned on consumer politics. The difference between Tahrir and Occupy, is that in Egypt, the military and police really are preventing people from burning down police stations, parliament and courts, because the public as a whole rightly has little faith in them as institutions. The difference in the US is that there is a measure of confidence—even within activist communities—in the legal and political institutions of the country. Though this seems to be dissipating, it’s not gone yet.

It’s not clear to protesters or police exactly who is preventing who from doing what, and there is an open question as to what protesters would do if the police simply backed away from the jail. Last night’s protest again snaked around downtown. Though it was more robust than the one from Thursday night, and skimmed West Oakland, it was similarly trained and directed by police cordons, and eventually dissipated where it started. At one point on Grand, there was a frustrating conversation about which direction to go, a question that wasn’t resolved before the group began to move again. These are the issues and questions that are being raised right now on the streets of downtown Oakland and they don’t have easy answers.

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