‘Good Protesters’, ‘Bad Protesters’ and Lessons Learned on May Day

Posted on May 7, 2012


Part 1:

As the electoral cycle begins both locally and nationally, it’s not surprising to find various formulations of the increasingly toxic 99-meme spreading virulently. At its heart, the Occupy movement has been characterized by a rejection of status-quo organizing, electoral end-runs and “progressive” establishment institutions. A decades-long frustration with illusory gains from orderly city-certified “protest” parades led by police, has united a motivated aggregate of new and old activists whose primary goal has been to call an end to the kind of political protest that has characterized the last twenty years of Democratic-Republican hegemony. Ongoing environmental depredation, increasing war-mongering, the erosion of labor rights and organizing alongside the emergence of a government-nurtured oligarchy can no longer be ignored at election time with hopes for the best. Unlike the kind of organizing and political manifestation we have seen for the past decades, Occupying is not easy; it is not something you stop doing when you get home at night. Sometimes you don’t get home at night. Occupy’s saving grace and only power is that it is not permitted, and it is not ‘legal’.

Faced with a complete rejection of the kind of “activism” that has been diverted towards bolstering Democratic candidates over the years, establishment-fluffing institutions, organizers and punditry have scrambled over the past weeks to create an alluring siren’s call back to the old ways, selling virtual change without the IRL-strain. Such retrenching forces invite occupiers, and those that have perhaps admired the movement but have been slow to become involved, to come back to the Matrix, where the illusion of change can be exchanged for complicity in a corrupt process.

The recent piece by the SF Chron’s Chip Johnson on the May Day protests provides an instructive boilerplate of everything that is stupid and vile about that regressive campaign. It’s no secret that Johnson loathes Occupy. He is a creature of electoral politics and glad-handing access, like so many other journalists and pundits, so the movement is anathema to him.  But Johnson hits new lows t in his most recent attempt to paint Occupy as the ineffectual product of effete academics and out of touch suburban teenagers.

Johnson doesn’t interview any of the thousands of labor activists that staged walk-outs and work stoppages on May Day, nor any Occupy organizers, despite the fact that representatives of the ILWU and California Nurses Association both participated in Occupy Oakland’s pre May Day press conference. He skips talking to individual participants in the march, choosing instead, to speak only to lead organizers. And Johnson is obsessed with the opinions of police about putative “heated exchanges” between members and marchers in the D&R coalition. That’s because, for Johnson, like so many of those that pay lip service to ideas of systemic change, but are willing to do nothing new to achieve it, nothing is better than a march that pleases police and city officials.

Several pull-outs are notable in this regard. Johnson boasts that D&R ” had no incidents involving police.”; “It was beautiful and festive. Dancers and mariachi bands entertained thousands of people who lined both sides of the street.”; “There was a high school marching band and floats. It was more like a parade than an angry march.”; “law-abiding protesters did their thing and went home.”

Johnson’s absurd view of what “good” protest looks like hews closely to the profile of the ‘99’ roll-outs by a consortium of unions and Democratic party proxy groups, except perhaps that the latter have added unthreatening and controllable “non violent” civil disobedience to the optional features package of “99% Power”. “Good protest” respects authority, it concedes the power of local officials, it is polite and doesn’t cuss on camera. Most importantly, “good protest” goes home at night, not to emerge again until another coalition does the work of negotiating with various establishment organizations. leaving the consortium of state and corporate dictators free to sleep soundly at night in multi-million dollar mansions paid for with the rape of the world’s people and resources.

There’s a lot to be said about how ineffective this “good protest” is, especially in the specific context of rights for undocumented immigrants and undocumented labor. An orderly parade and march may be a great way of showing ethnic pride. But the crisis facing undocumented workers is horrifying and relentless, and it has proven resistant to all manner of “permitted” demonstrations against it.

Under the Obama administration, a million undocumented immigrants have been deported, new and foul ways of using federal security state apparatus to entrap and frighten undocumented immigrants under S-Comm increase daily. And even problematic legislation like the Dream Act–which offers mercenary service in the military in exchange for residency rights–languishes despite having “democratic allies”.  The result is that six years after their momentous  emergence on US streets, and nearly four years into the Obama administration’s first term, undocumented immigrants are light years further from a solution to their most critical issues. Every day, thousands of immigrant parents leave home for work, never knowing if they will ever see their children again, or if, instead, they will spend deadly months or years in for-profit detention centers before being separated from them forever. Yesterday’s actions in Fruitvale cannot even said to be a footnote in that narrative.

Perhaps Johnson genuinely believes that the purpose of protest is the hollow exercise of rights of assembly and speech, signifying nothing more than the normative fact that the US is an ostensibly liberal nation-state with a constitution. The subsequent parades such a viewpoint engenders are indeed nice to look at and have the added advantage of being relaxing to march in on a sunny afternoon. But whether you regard it as legitimate or not, the rights enshrined in the constitution are there for the possibility of overthrow of bad government, not to congratulate it for being munificent once in a while.

Power concedes nothing without struggle: undocumented immigrants understood this in 2006 in raucous nation-wide, brimming marches. But they were lured back into their stable by the empty promises of the Democratic organizing machine as just another ethnic voting bloc long before they were able to challenge power at an effective level. This May Day, then, changed as little as the last several have, despite a slightly larger turnout in Oakland—that is a historic loss of an opportunity provided by the Occupy window, despite the pleasant day of cultural awareness applauded by those like Johnson.


Part 2:

Johnson misses a few other issues around M1GS; but on that front he’s not alone. The “Good” protester meme is of use to more than just establishment-enabling fluffers like Johnson who have a cranky axe to grind against upstart activists. City and police officials were also able to skillfully use “good” protesters, sanctioned with a permit, against “bad” protesters responding to Occupy’s call for general strikes.

The strategy began early in the day, after Occupy organizers managed to pull hundreds of protesters into the street, shutting down several banks with actions not unlike those carried out by mainstream organizations like Causa Justa, ACCE and even SEIU all across the US in the past year. The marches then converged at the intersection of 14th and Broadway and occupied it throughout the late morning.

After having received word that many banks had re-opened after the initial protests, another band of protesters set out from the plaza to shut them down again in the same way. Short-lived, the march headed back to the plaza to, in the words of an ad-hoc organizer “stay on schedule” with the rally at OGP at noon. The announcement was made on a bullhorn and likely heard by police, which makes what came next all the more troublesome.

Just as the procession reached the North entrance of the plaza, kevlared police charged marchers from behind, causing wide-spread panic amongst those assembled. Then several protesters were “targeted” according to the OPD’s ostensibly “new” tactical protocol; the first, a young woman in her twenties, meandering up Broadway on her bike, was tackled and thrown violently to the ground; she’s someone I know, the sweetest person you can imagine. Her face was contorted in fear and pain as police wrenched her arms behind her back and stuck their knees in her back.

Several other protesters were also seized in a similar way, one put in a choke-hold with a baton, the other tazed–the latter it seems, for no other reason, seemingly, than he’s a young, tall African-American.

Police weren’t done though. Some hours later, they surrounded the area and chased out protesters with tear gas and baton strikes, until most were forced out of the downtown area. What followed was more a product of confusion and rushed thinking than an actual strategy by Occupy protesters. Their access to OGP curtailed, the fragmented group sought to meet up and bolster the Dignity and Resistance March, while a diminished and demoralized group reconvened on the plaza.

Contrary to the narrative that has emerged in some odd places, including some organizers of the Dignity and Resistance March who oddly consider themselves allies of the Occupy movement, the group had no plans to co-opt the march. I biked to meet the group from my home in Fruitvale, and an hour or so ahead of the D&R march and I found a festive group eating ice cream and talking, and eager for the arrival of D&R.

As the group waited, announcements were made intermittently about the success of various Occupy actions nationwide, with hooting and hollering throughout. It was clear that this was a group excited about solidarity on May Day. When the D & R march finally arrived, there was a huge upswell of emotion, and a spontaneous—if ill-advised, considering the width and location of the street–rush to meet the crowd. Whatever difficulties were caused by both groups, the excitement and sense of solidarity was genuine and even inspiring.

After an unfortunate series of interactions—the groups arrived together at OGP again. Just as many—including myself—had predicted, police moved in almost as soon as the D&R participants left at the conclusion of their 2 hour permitted rally at OGP. OPD pulled out al the stops with flash-bang grenades and baton strikes, warning protesters that they would target those that had taken the experience of Scott Olsen to heart and covered their heads in helmets.

This is the police force then that Johnson describes so admiringly; the one that was sent to protect ‘good protesters’ as they marched. The same police force facing seizure by the federal government; that once set an infant girl’s pajamas on fire with a flashbang; that supervised the lethal use of non-lethal ordinance against Scott Olsen as well as lesser-known protesters, and nearly killed Kavan Sabehgi with baton blows.

This police force was there to protect ‘good’ protesters from ‘bad’ protesters as a way to promote its anti-Occupy agenda. But the losers in this game of legitimate vs. illegitimate were both sets of activists: those who lost the untapped power of assembly by giving control of it to thugs and corrupt officials; and those who were unable to hold the fruit of their labors, the politicized Oscar Grant Plaza, because the former had unknowingly and without malice, reserved it as a police repression strategy. The greatest failure of May Day, which was, despite everything I’ve written here, a historic revitalization of the original “labor day”, would be if neither group learned lessons from it.