Its been a long painful and hopeful year for activists around the country. The Occupy Movement that began in New York was a bright light in an otherwise dreary and demoralizing decade of failures of activism and direct action. What began as unprecedented demonstrations that aggregated tens of thousands to what had once been manifestations of just hundreds, had its zenith in various forms throughout the country. In Oakland, the high point of planned and executed action came on the November 2nd, port shutdown, and then the smaller, but still impressive December port shutdown.
There were actions that were smaller, and not exactly successful: the preparation for Longview was a triumph of logistics which ultimately had nowhere to go; foreclosure defense and labor aid actions demonstrated the ability to aggregate the power of Occupy to on-going struggles, and the potential for radicalizing institutional organizations. But they too, have had short lives and won no mass victories. Actions with Causa Justa, ACCE, at American Licorice and in solidarity with the Pacific Steel workers showed just what a novel mass movement can do when its lens is in focus, though they too proved ultimately useless.
That’s the hopeful part for Occupy Oakland, in summary; its revealed a lot of potentialities for activists, literally putting a loaded gun in their hands and only requiring of them a sound and evocative target to use it. Now for the painful part. No one said direct action was going to be easy, but most activists in my experience were shocked at the reaction from the police and the OPD throughout the last year’s worth of actions. This, of course, is clear to all who’ve been paying attention throughout the last year. You needn’t have even gone to the demonstrations to know it. Clubs, lethally wielded less-lethal weaponry, dangerous use of chemical weapons; all of this has been done in the open, in full view of the public and media.
Perhaps people were ready for this kind of reaction, and perhaps others who were shocked and radicalized by the experience came to expect it. But what’s been more shocking perhaps, is the collusion of the District Attorney’s office and city government in abusing the judicial system to stopper up popular demonstrations. It would take a horrendously long post to enumerate all of the scandalous corruptions of the local judicial system in Oakland.
These range from the oppressive, like extra-judicial stay away orders and exaggerated probation sentences, to the grotesquely unjust, like bringing bogus hate crimes charges against protesters. Throughout it all, the DA’s office has rarely dropped charges, though they imply that they do. Most charges, large and small, have been dangling over the heads of protesters for the past Occupy year, leading to absurd situations—like refiling the charges on the eve of their one year termination to coincide with an Occupy event commemorating the arrests that spawned them in the first place.
I won’t even go into the city, DA’s and police easy manipulation of local media. They easily spin these 1% corporations into a pro-establishment news cycle simply by hitting an email send button. Always at the beck and call of the powerful, the media published mugshots of protesters who were never brought to trial, but accused in absentia of all kinds of violent crimes [and they set a trend. The SFPD followed a similar strategy in smearing protesters arrested during anti-colonial marches recently]; they repeated hearsay charges but never checked on their veracity, like the protester who was supposedly accused of carrying dynamite, but who was never prosecuted for carrying explosives. They filed press releases as stories; ran hagiographic pieces about the tough decisions city administrators and mayors need to make about free speech; dutifully ran to the offices of Ignacio de la Fuente whenever there was a quote needed about law and order. They even published an op-ed by the DA so riddled with inaccuracies and slander that she could have been sued for libel had she actually mentioned any protesters by name.
What’s ironic is that the Occupy actions in Oakland started with a mostly hazy, but nevertheless directed, focus on national level issues. Of course there were radical critiques of capitalism and the security state it needs to survive; but they were tempered by the ongoing plague of foreclosures, constant warmongering, and an economy almost comically forever teetering on the brink of collapse. The agenda was national and not local for a large number of protesters; especially those who were coming out into the streets for the first time, less driven by ideology than by simple frustration and anger.
The city thought it could ride that sentiment, herding the protesters into the rut of confused progressive electoral politics while they ran ahead to get in the lead and score points with concerned voters. Things didn’t happen that way, no one asked for the mayor’s help, and the mayor and city administrator soon proved themselves to be at the beck and call of the chamber of commerce and other corporate cheerleaders who feared the camp would turn attention back at them, rather than hazy overlords.
The police and city attacks that followed forever turned a page for Occupy. Though Occupy made many mistakes, nothing was more toxic to an open organizing system than the constant threat of arbitrary arrest, unjust imprisonment and brutality. The numbers began to winnow [and yes, not only because of police actions]. But especially in Oakland, righteous anger against the police, the city and the local judicial system became a unifying constant for activists associated with Occupy. It was initially an aggregator of esprit de corp, but now, as the populist cast falls off Occupy, leaving only committed activists, the main focus of activism has become a never-ending battle with the police and city for contested space. Symbolically and initially, this was a good thing, that could have [and perhaps SHOULD have] inspired thousands of others in long-standing fight with the establishment to do likewise. But when a formerly mass movement has become a cadre, it’s the cadre’s battles that begin to be fought, not those that would be fought under a mass perspective for all of the people of a city, state, nation or world.
Thus, what can be said to be “Occupy Oakland” has been frozen in a re-enactment of battles with police and city establishment, solely for the purpose of fighting them. And even when greater goals are stated, the default action is again, a stand-off with local police to take a contested space that now has very diminished value to most outside of the cadre. Despite this being a valid form of activism for a group that has been battered by police for their activism, the role of activists is not to fight battles for themselves and their cadres—they are the advocates for those that can’t or haven’t yet risen up, those who would choose other terrain and other containers for their own battles with the establishment if they had the opportunity.
This is not an issue of tactics, it’s not even one of strategy. Here’s a simple metaphor: the band in the fellowship of the ring gives up the quest to reach Mordor, and instead stages endless glorious battles with the Orcs for territory. The Orcs are bad, there’s no denying it, and they prop up an evil rule. You do need to eliminate or get past the orcs to get to Mordor. But they aren’t the target.