Scraper Bike Heroes and Other Gloriously Chaotic Casualties of the “Outside Agitator” Narrative

Posted on July 24, 2013

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880_2Volumes have already been written about the protests in Oakland that exploded after the Zimmerman verdict on Saturday, July 13. I won’t delve deeply into some of the so-called “controversies”, because they are political constructs created by city officials and OPD. Trying to camouflage their own complicity in maintaining the system of police and systemic violence that engender rage among Oakland’s Black and non-White people, these same institutions claim that Zimmerman verdict protest actions are the manufactured product of “outsider agitators”.

No one who was at the demonstrations on Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday or Friday could possibly believe that a majority of the “agitators” were not from Oakland. This is indeed why the establishment-friendly media almost completely avoided interviewing those who’d been at the rallies and marches, because protesters would have recounted seeing various disparate groups engaged in all kinds of actions that varied from marching without a permit, blocking traffic, drumming, chanting, speaking out, breaking windows, grafing walls, and joyously stomping a BART police car.

These groups varied in both ideology and race, but none was completely White or Black or Latino or Asian. Some seem to have come prepared for some level of vandalism, for others it was spontaneous; some came with masks, some didn’t wear masks, others decided half way through that it would be a good idea to wear masks and repurposed shirts and other items for the task.

After this brief intro, I’m not going to return to this issue, because I find the confines of the discussion inherently racist, and although the racism exudes most from the city and official sources, there is a good amount of it coming from left quarters as well.

I can say that some of the first people that vandalized on Saturday night came seemingly prepared to do so with hammers et. al., and they were not white. And that latter groups that did so had not prepared and were also not White. The shocking secret here is that neither Black nor White people conform to the city’s politically expedient rubric:  “outsiders” as White/Smashy privileged dilettantes; and “legitimate” protesters as Black/Milquetoasts who need a signed permit to cross an intersection. The “outsider” vs. “legitimate” dichotomy is manifestly stupid and repeatedly revealed to be baseless, and not much more needs to be said about it than that.

What I wanted to do, instead, was capture some ephemeral moments that I witnessed and/or experienced that speak to potentialities of popular power. These experiences, I feel, demonstrate how political activation depends to a large degree on unrestricted and open-ended marches, rallies, public space occupations, etc.

The chaos that institutional activists like Kazu Haga decried at the beginning of the actions last week are exactly what actual popular representation looks like—people who were marginally politicized or not politically active at all, taking to the street and finding their political footing.

The emotion on the streets after a violent symbolic event like the Zimmerman verdict is raw. Affected groups and their allies don’t want to be led, they aren’t looking for easy answers, they don’t want to go home until they’ve made their point, and even until they’ve over-emphasized it. In the process of this protracted public contest, people can become momentary and important leaders, can inspire one another and can take powerful actions that would have invariably been scrapped if institutionalized leaderships had their druthers.

This reality, unfortunately, doesn’t conform to the inflexible narrative of the “civil rights movement” that activists like Haga refer to, which exists as a tree of MLK mythology with every branch that emerges from the trunk a product of institutional pruning. Unfortunately, everything organic and natural is cast aside and considered not genuine or ineffective, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

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Sunday: Parallel Leadership vs. Megaphone Leadership

Though Sunday’s march was called by the Revolutionary Communist Party and bottom-lined by White men, it was clear that the RCP never had real control over the march. Once the march got started, many young African American participants began to gravitate toward leadership positions without bothering to ask for permission to do so. This led to an interesting contest of wills when the march reached 7th and Market and one group of nascent leaders wanted to lead the march to shut down the port.

The sheer ambition that the idea embodies can’t be overstated. An ad hoc port shutdown—or at least attempt—to my knowledge has never been tried. It would have been a tremendous expression of creativity, anger and implicit understanding of the power of direct action that would have rocked the foundation of Oakland’s activist network.

Though more conservative minds prevailed, the trajectory of the march took it through West Oakland, increasing the mass and bringing neighbors out to the streets. This brought a lot more bodies into the fray and within a short time the march numbered over a thousand.

Despite the fact that the march was led and often co-opted by the RCP activists, the people that joined that march ad hoc seemed to have no idea who was leading it and didn’t care. For all intents and purposes, there were several different marches with parallel leaderships going on. One very visible one, was led by the RCP—a leadership position which was largely a product of having brought megaphones.

There was another that was taken over by mostly Black youth who then contested each other’s authority at the crossroads of the port and elsewhere. And then there was the popular march joined by dozens of people throughout West Oakland’s mostly Black neighborhoods, with varying ideologies but a solid understanding of white supremacy and their own relationship to Trayvon Martin.

This led to a third action, which occurred briefly between the controversial final speak out by the RCP, which many people found distasteful, and the attempted march through uptown of Sunday night, which many found to be aimless and uninspiring.

After the action had died, a group of people remained in the intersection of 14th and Broadway for some time, gathered haphazardly and disorganized. But when the police gave a fake dispersal order, trying to apparently clear the protest for their shift change, these people came to life with purpose and refused to give up the intersection.

What followed was a two hour march with the goal of holding the intersection. This was no longer an RCP action, nor was it bottom-lined by any activists. Rather, the Occupation of 14th street and Broadway happened organically and via its momentum picked up adherents along the way. When the police had to break their blockade stationed several blocks away in all directions for a shift change, those Occupying the intersection mixed with the oncoming traffic in various ways.

Some for the first time experienced leadership in a political setting, directing cars to turn around or to move through a hole in the crowd, and getting quite a few raised fists of support and solidarity in the bargain. It was clear why police would want to avoid such situations—not because of any danger to motorists, but because the actual contact between the politically activated and passer-bys can be greater than the sum of its parts.

Two young African American women in particular that I noticed, marched almost the entire time—at least two hours—in tandem, chanting tirelessly and exhorting bystanders to join them with inspiring enthusiasm. They really took the lead and did so with gusto. It was an amazing experience to watch them and to be led by them at 14th and Broadway. I doubt there was anyone there who wasn’t moved by their energy.

Monday: Occupy Everything

No matter what organizers for the Monday evening march had planned, young Black men on scraper bikes came in and took control of the intersection of 14th and Broadway while the rally continued in Oscar Grant Plaza, before the march had started.

Again, it’s been a well-known tactic of police for some time to get ahead of marchers, and block traffic for them, even when the march is not permitted. This clever ruse is inherently disempowering for marchers. Literally, the police are leading the marchers, interpellating them as a danger to drivers and others. OPD contact with pedestrians and drivers happens blocks away, and, being police, it is hostile, hysterical and authoritarian, making drivers feel that they are in imminent danger.

The arrival of the scraper bike crew threw this dynamic into a tailspin before it could even start. Though few in number, the initial group was quickly enlarged by others on foot and on bikes who circled the intersection, claiming it for protesters, not necessarily organizers. Initial scuffles with the police emboldened the crowd, because the police were surrounded, caught flat-footed and unsure how to proceed.

Indeed, it was protesters who guided cars backwards along Broadway and they did so in a more or less politicized way; whenever I saw this happen organically, I saw drivers express a desire to cooperate when they weren’t being outright supportive.

By the time the organizers of the march got into the street, it was obvious that the energy was moving in parallel with them. So what happened next wasn’t much of a surprise in this environment. The march got bogged down in front of the police station as organizers tried to decide whether to have a rally in front of the OPD headquarters.

The apparently same group of scrapers, bolstered by a number of adherents they’d picked up at the rally and people standing around the stuttering march, noticed that they were inadvertently blocking the Broadway off-ramp of 880. In seconds, and no doubt inspired by similar events in Los Angeles the previous day, the scrapers were making their way onto the off-ramp. Dozens inspired by this bold and completely impulsive, but appropriate, act of civil disobedience soon followed them.

More importantly, once the scrapers had made the first move on to the freeway, the freeway shutdown was no longer their action, either. Rather, families, young people and activists who would most likely never have thought of this as a tactic—and indeed, may have even shunned the idea had it been put to a vote—soon made it their own. The shutdown of the southbound lanes, which would not necessarily have happened as a consequence of the initial 880 incursion, was led by a completely different, older group.

That group linked arms in a solid and much less populated line, again a marked difference of tactics than those used by the group that had entered the freeway with the scrapers. When CHP bifurcated the crowd and blocked some from returning to the main body after an unsuccessful attempt to exit via another onramp, another group successfully pressured police to relent with chants of “let them go”.

Some of the marchers did exit the freeway via other means when they saw the riot police entering the onramp, but the reality is that police were too few in number to risk a protracted fight on the freeway. They were forced to let the protesters exit the freeway via the same onramp they’d entered [although one protester was culled and arrested, apparently in a legally dubious attempt to confiscate his camera].

The 880-Occupiers were greeted as heroes by other protesters on Broadway and police were powerless to do anything about it which only increased the emotion in the crowd. There is no way to exaggerate how energized the crowd was when they realized that together and with the proper numbers and energy, they had the means to stop business as usual and make the police, city and city government listen.

Moments like that are food for activists and the newly politically activated for months and even years to come. And it was all because of some very young men on bicycles who refused to be told how to express their anger over an age-old racist and brutal system.

None of these important moments would have been possible without the “chaos” that some commenters even on the traditional left have been quick to denigrate.

One can only imagine the meek demonstrations that would have ensued if such voices had their way: one-day marches, rather than week long contestations of public space; chanting and speechifying instead of hours-long halts to business as usual; marches approved by liberal politicians and thus useless for pointing out their own complicity in the economic and police violence assaulting communities of color. In short, everything we’ve come to accept as the usual profile of powerless political activism.