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Letter From Oakland

By David LauNovember 12, 2011

Letter From Oakland

PART 1: Impressions on October 30, 2011

Occupy Everything, Liberate Oakland!

LATE LAST TUESDAY NIGHT, October 25th, social media feeds buzzed with the story of a two-tour Marine veteran of Iraq, Scott Olsen, struck by a police projectile fired at close range and left unconscious with a fractured skull. By Wednesday morning it was the lead story on Berkeley's Pacifica radio. A member of both Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War, the twenty-four-year-old Olsen had been on the front lines of the downtown Oakland march, protesting the dawn eviction of Occupy Oakland. Police from seventeen different cities and from as far away as Gilroy exercised their right to assemble long-coordinated strategies of repression on Tuesday night, shooting teargas and "fin-stabilized" rubber bullets at the crowd from behind shields and body armor (all courtesy of last decade's Homeland Security grants). The cops even lobbed a "flash bang" grenade at the group of protestors who attempted to pick up the injured Olsen, who now languishes, finally conscious though unable to speak, in Highland Hospital.

Hearing the news, I thought of Rubén Salazar, struck in the head by a LAPD teargas canister inside the Silver Dollar bar in the aftermath of the East LA anti-Vietnam demonstration known as the Chicano Moratorium, in 1970. I thought of the several strikers shot and killed by Bay Area police in the 1934 Maritime strike. The workers' answer to police murder in 1934 was to call a general strike in San Francisco.

The past ten days have been heady ones for the self-styled Oakland Commune. After almost two weeks of being camped out downtown, an eviction order for the occupation came on Thursday of last week. The exceptional situation in Oakland — exceptional even in this surprising moment, with something like the left now occupying plazas and streets nationwide — was suddenly under immediate threat. On Saturday, October 22nd, a joyous march (featuring two bands as well as the infamous Book Bloc) made its way from Frank Ogawa Plaza (now called Oscar Grant Plaza by the communards) to the Oakland farmers market, where the marchers' roar was aided by the amplification of the freeway they paused below. From there they marched into a Chase branch, shutting it down, before circling all the way around Lake Merritt and back up 14th street to the Plaza. The 3 plus hours were captivating and exhausting, especially for those carrying the largest sign: a sail-like black banner with the slogan "Revolt for a life worth living" emblazoned on it.

Two days later, on Monday afternoon, activist listservs filled with chatter about a possible police eviction late Monday night. That eviction did come in the early hours on Tuesday, and, even with a planned retreat in place, over 110 people got "popped," with many additional arrests later in the morning as occupiers attempted to claim their belongings from the site. The charges the occupiers face are the familiar ones, trumped up and unlikely to hold. In the current atmosphere, arrests, attacks, and repression only seem to accelerate the movement's development on a now-global media stage.

By mid-morning Tuesday plans were in place for a meet-up and march from the main public library back to the occupation and commune site. The cops broke the peaceful standoff at the corner of 14th and Broadway unceremoniously - harsh repression the eight PM order of the night. The atmosphere for a crackdown had been steadily stoked by those "who direct current economic production and the power of communication with which it is armed" (to quote Guy Debord). Claims about an occupation full of rats, sexual assault, drug use, defecation, urination, and violence saturated radio and TV. Oakland Mayor Jean Quan even had the audacity to repeat some of these fallacious rumors in public statements.

According to accounts, tear gas filled the air, and activists and protestors retreated a block. Upon hearing of an injured person, though, several returned to the scene of the initial confrontation, braving the chemical agents and projectiles. The tense standoff continued throughout the night, with snake marches creeping back toward the plaza before new rounds of tear gas were fired. Undeterred, reinforcements arrived (although there was some attrition), and the marchers dictated the confrontations, with the police now seeming more like "outside agitators." Though the plaza was not retaken, and those arrested on Tuesday night faced tougher charges and higher bail for being at the scene of a riot, the momentum clearly seemed to be on the side of the Commune.

So You Want to Be a Real Revolutionary?

Occupy Oakland represents something of an "experimental field" for a variety of left tendencies thriving, subsisting, or languishing in the Bay Area today. Wednesday night saw the first nightly general assembly at Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza since the occupation's eviction. I arrived at six with Aaron Benanav (we roared up the 17 and 880 freeways from Santa Cruz) to find a crowd of at least two thousand posted up around the temporarily fenced-off plaza park grounds. Instead of the previous night's enormous police presence, activists and folks of every sensible stripe were there: unionists, environmentalists, parents with kids, older couples, brothers and sisters from the hood, folks from the barrio. Some big exhalations of I-grade Oaksterdam weed filled the air. I counted at least four helicopters circling overhead.

But rather than luxuriate in the festival, the general assembly got down to business. As we circled around to the PA, the open microphone part of the affair gave way to the proposals portion of the meeting. There was only one: a general strike for November 2nd in the city of Oakland, including walkouts at local schools, with a general mass convergence downtown. Oakland, as several speakers reminded us, was the site of the last US general strike, in 1946. The sheer size of this general assembly tested the limits of consensus-based organizing as participants voiced several concerns: What we would do if the National Guard were called up? Are we thinking of what a strike at a hospital means? Have unions and community organizations been contacted?

Concerns of this sort were beyond the scope of the initial proposal format. Groups of 20 formed out of the GA for discussion. A comments period then ensued. The Coup's Boots Riley spoke for many in the crowd when he argued for the strike as a way to build on the sustained momentum of the Occupy movement: a movement composed from a wide spectrum of the left, with participants from recent anti-police brutality campaigns, 2009's anti-austerity campus struggles, as well as from the 2003 antiwar movement.

Friedrich Hölderlin wrote: "Where the danger is / Find the saving power." Risking more than ever, the movement was finding its latent coordination suddenly activated. When the comments period ended people voted in groups of twenty. The count had almost 1500 in favor and fewer than 150 abstaining or opposed. With restrained police presence all night, Mayor Quan's office seemed to be doubling back. As of this writing, the mayor is suffering some serious political wounds.

From Occupation to General Strike

Next Wednesday, November 2nd, it was decided, a species of what we might call a "postmodern general strike" will come lumbering out of the revolutionary textbook. This transmutation of the mass strike form, glimpsed on Paris streets in '68, at a time when tactics and strategic developments were adopted from guerrilla wars of decolonization, raised its head once more. As a recent Forbes article points out, there has not been a general strike in the United States in over 60 years. Deemed artificial by earlier Marxists, and then of historical consequence by Rosa Luxemburg in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the mass strike now seems to be both artificial and historically consequential simultaneously. Living with the absence of both a radical proletarian movement and an organized party to offered it meaningful coordination, some at the Wednesday night meeting puzzled over how the strike could be effectively realized. Would unions be involved? Will we persuade corporate workers to sick out? What about the small or progressive business owners? Some people have to go to work, right? We'll see.

Certainly the catalytic element of the movement will have to force this beautiful monster into being with some blend of a "flying picket," a march, a street battle, or a blockade; a strong presence at the ports will be needed. (The tough-minded ILWU Local 10 shut down the port a year ago in the run up to the final sentencing of Oscar Grant's killer Johannes Mehserle.) What will the transit unions do? On the same day police repression cost the city precious dollars, the Oakland School Board announced the closure of five elementary schools. The teachers union in Oakland (OEA), a central mediator for the struggle in neighborhoods and active in the March Fourth Day of Action in 2010, may be crucial; the union provides a key channel for the anger of parents and students. Planned actions for education in California are set for November 9th and 16th.

At the strike meeting last night (October 29th), it became clear that the unions would not call for a strike, though they will encourage members to support the call in other ways. (Take a "personal" day!) Bus drivers will allow leaflets to be passed out on their lines. A motion was passed to picket jobs sites that retaliate against workers for not coming in. Public sector unions generally have no strike clauses in their contracts, making strikes possible only in expired contract situations. Boxed-in union leadership need not call a wildcat action. As the case of the New York transit strike showed in 2005, right-wing judges will treat the leadership very harshly even in situations where the union has cause and public support. The ILWU, however, does not have to cross a picket line, and Friday's strike meeting saw the passage of a resolution to march to the ports and attempt to create the conditions for ILWU members to leave the workplace. If neighborhoods mobilize, then many things are possible. The whole day may culminate in an enormous rally downtown, around quitting time.

And now the endless blur of weeks slows down. The days shift shapes, shed their regularity, and "imitate nature, which is changeable" (Machiavelli). Unprecedented horizons emerge by the late afternoon. At midnight the sun blazes. We have been in effect subject to a permanent state of economic emergency these past four years. The November 2nd general strike will offer a historic demonstration against the crisis. It's going to be an interesting month.

PART 2: Impressions from November 8, 2011

Only One Side Is Armed

The fine tooth combs continue to run over Occupy Oakland's general strike on Wednesday, November 2nd, its sequence of marches, port shutdown, and building occupation. News, however, is just now trickling out about military veteran Kayvan Sabehgi (two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan), currently recovering from surgery for a spleen lacerated by a beating police administered during his arrest early Thursday morning, November 3rd, near the occupied Traveler's Aid building on 16th in downtown Oakland. As opposed to the case of Scott Olsen, which immediately surged to the attention of the nation, Sabehgi's story is emerging by way of international sources. The repetition of events marks out a decisive contrast in their coverage: first a tragedy, then a farce.

According to his own account, 32-year-old Sabehgi was surrounded by a group of cops; he was then struck, forced down, and struck repeatedly with batons. In severe pain, he arrived at jail where the "nurse" suggested a suppository for his vomiting and diarrhea. When he was finally bailed out the following afternoon, he was too weak to leave his cell. His jailers shut the door; eventually an ambulance rushed him to treatment. While corporate media outlets busily reported on the "violent" window breaking and graffiti from Wednesday, the real violence the thousands on the ground saw was, as usual, concentrated in the hands of the state.

The mainstream media has now entered a second phase of its campaign against the Oakland Commune, with talk of "emergency" as backdrop to fabricated reports. In one instance, NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle blankly repeated police chief Howard Jordan's screwball estimate of 7,000 people at the port shutdown (other mediatized estimates were as low as 4,000). A correction was later issued. The two successive, massive waves of marchers from Oscar Grant Plaza amounted to at least 100,000 people. This was the strike the Wall Street Journal claimed (with lame diction) had "largely fizzled."

Given the limited rights of workers in our private sector, the limited contracts of the unionized public sector, the many people who live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and the fracturing of the Bay Area left in recent years (and since the advent of the crisis), the numbers and size of the coordinated demonstration seem that much more remarkable.

To begin at the end: the building occupation fell in a hail of tear gas, non-lethal "force," and arrest. The Traveler's Aid building, what some were calling the Raheim Brown Community Center, (temporarily?) closed down once again. The building had been strategically entered earlier that evening (not "just before midnight"), and with heavy rains across the Bay Area, access to buildings seems all the more necessary to the occupation, symbolically as well as practically. As the housing crisis for many continues to deepen (devaluation, eviction, foreclosure), protecting the vulnerable by reclaiming abandoned buildings and residences seems a prescient, path-blazing move. At its most radical, occupying buildings contests the idea of private property; in California we feel the contradiction acutely, with so many homeless and so many vacant properties and homes. The media's attempt to normalize the police violence establishes pacifism as the only "acceptable" form of Occupy politics. The diversity of tactics and general inclusivity of the rest of the Oakland Commune is demonized or ignored.

Big Wednesday

The general strike rolled out with morning "flying pickets" aimed at Wells Fargo, Chase, and Bank of America, all of which refused to close their doors. Marchers chanted and sang, "Banks got bailed out, we got sold out." When Specialty Bakery threatened their workers to prevent them from striking, the picket flew over. An early estimate had pre-noontime crowds on the street at 5,000. I arrived from Santa Cruz around 1 PM with a group of friends; our preparations included creating medic kits with a liquid mix of antacid for teargas; a back-pocket pair of toenail clippers in case of zip cuffing; and plenty of water and sandwiches. We walked up Franklin and encountered one of the many flying pickets, this one shutting down the University of California Office of the President.

We had arrived in time for the Anti-Capitalist March. Think Seattle 1999, Greece 2008. A black banner with the slogan "Death to Capitalism" hung at the 14th and Telegraph intersection. At the front of the march another black banner read "If We Cannot Live We Will Not Work," yet another, "Long Live the Do-It-Yourself Revolution" with accompanying Arabic translation. A group of black-clad, masked, and fast-moving demonstrators (sometimes called the "Black Bloc") tore through ordinary matter like a quantum particle at the front of the crowd. They smashed up windows of a Chase Bank in broad daylight, and would later do the same to a Bank of America. These anarcho-communists and ultra-leftists were aware of being raised to the level of big capital's spectacular montage as they chanted: "Fuck the property of the one percent." (Those wanting everyone to show their face should remember the lesson of campus struggles two years ago, the site of occupation movement's origins: avoid detection, avoid punishment. Any actual political resistance will have its rendezvous with domestic intelligence services.) Whether stunned or ready for the rowdiness, the large march trailing them kept on.

Their next target: Whole Foods. New at the checkout line alongside the rare chocolate and digestible good conscience: a left-wing action against liberal PC consumerism. With a mix of white spray paint and paint balloons, the groupuscule hit up the front of supermarket with an enormous graffito: strike. They made their way to the large side windows of the store and after repeated attempts at bringing the window down, the "peace police" began chanting "peaceful protest" and did so threateningly enough to force the "Black Bloc" on to their next target. "Union busting is disgusting!" their supporters chanted back.

The current hegemony of "peaceful protest" has kept property destruction contained, but the growing sentiment on the march seemed to be: Fuck it. Give me a rock, or better yet a dense D battery. "Though we wanted to pave the way for friendliness, we could not ourselves be friendly," wrote Brecht. The rightist argument also goes that building occupations, property damage, and other radical tactics will only attract the cops and provoke an attack on the broader movement, necessarily limiting participation. First proviso: don't misapprehend the police, an active rather then merely reactive force. They will come to building occupations and other attempts at expropriation in the middle of the night, when the crowd thins or tires, when they can maximize their comparative advantage in weaponry and discipline. In deep-blue-state California, repression is well organized. Second proviso: don't forget the actual history of struggles, remembering only Martin Luther King Jr., while forgetting both Malcolm X and Robert Williams. Thus the left-adventurist subject — the product of conscious revolutionary study and mobilization — reared up in the crowd.

Barbeques Every Day

Back at Oscar Grant Plaza, we found a great restless festival. Buses arrived to take folks down to the port. Some unionists cooked out on enormous grills. And the four o'clock march to the port was something else: red flags, black flags, posters, pickets, marching bands, bikes galore, crust punks, militants, burners. I saw poets, former students, old friends, even two of my literary mentors, amid a vast current of strangers.

I was shooting footage on the march and kept on getting ahead and behind a certain group of friends before losing them altogether. I encountered other friends then moved off by myself. At one point I had to stop and put a new memory card in my camera. I kneeled down and struggled with the package for a few minutes. As I stood up again and looked around, I found myself in another dimension of the several-mile-long and very dense march. The cramped valley of corporate buildings could hardly accommodate the mobilization. Mostly assembled since the 80s, with the Los Angeles Men's County Jail and Gehry's Disney Hall as the two sides of their aesthetic ideal, these "junk space" columns of glass, air-conditioning, and steel are the "great" architectural measure of corporate globalization. Without a central square plus enormous amplification (à la Mexico City's Zocalo), a crowd this size can neither be easily spoken to nor coordinated. Regardless, this crowd was going somewhere.

Entering one of the ports of today's global capitalism, one has the feeling of entering into some parallel universe. Marx pointed out that large-scale machinery develops in a combat with workers, and this battlefield has almost entirely wiped them out. Dirty with diesel and truck tire particulate, these enormous spaces subdivide into berths and terminals for the world's shippers: Evergreen, TKY Logistics, China Shipping. I had spent some time filming at the port of Long Beach one lonely Saturday some years ago with my friend Cooper Brislain, and this was different: dramatic and exhilarating. Before the final bridge to the port the march hit a freeway overpass. The stalled truckers honked and the exuberant crowd roared as did the several groups that moved under the pass. And from the final bridge one got a good look at the port's scale. I stalled out at the bridge for long enough to see the 5 PM wave of marchers come through, even bigger than the earlier march.

Suddenly my phone blew up with texts and calls. The front of the march had reached the crucial berth 22 some three miles into the port. Riot cops formed a visible line. I remembered the 2003 antiwar demonstration at the port of Oakland in which gas and non-lethal rounds were deployed against the demonstrators. The circling picket, a couple thousand strong, was actually preventing the port from operating. Police helicopters trained spotlights on people from overhead. An arbitrator was called in to decide whether the port should shut down because of unsafe working conditions. I walked Maritime Avenue for miles to catch up. The old saying is true: If you go far enough on any California street, eventually you find a taco truck. There were two along the route, both nearly sold out. By the time I got there the cops had split.

At the picket, several friends were talking to an ILWU member named Charles. He was explaining many of the particulars of a port shutdown. The ILWU itself is involved in a continual low-intensity conflict with its employers. Partial shutdowns and continual slowdowns are among their normal tactics. Charles told us that if the picket stayed, any attempt to restart the port's operation (at 3 AM and 6 AM) would be thwarted. The choke point of just-in-time production would cut big capital's airflow a full 24 hours.

At one point, Charles asked a disarming question: "Who are all these people?"

I told him that the five of us in front of him were in teachers and teaching assistant unions (UC-AFT, UAW local 2865), and that the broader movement was composed of folks from the Justice for Oscar Grant struggle, the antiwar movement, environmentalists...

"Oh, OK, so everybody," he replied. "Well, we're with you." (In the anticipatory words of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake: "here comes everybuddy.")

The strike call had been a strange one for the union brothers. Charles heard about it on TV and then he and other workers discussed it in the ILWU union hall. In the ordinary conditions of these depoliticized decades, the proximate cause of a strike is usually a specific contract negotiation or grievance, like one against shippers fighting any compensation for a worker who had lost her legs in a port accident. But these were increasingly extraordinary times, and this was far from a normal strike call.

As 8 PM approached, Boots Riley got on the bullhorn to announce that the port was shut down. We would be the lead group spearheading a march back downtown. Four or five of us left a bit before everyone else. A mile on, back at 7th and Maritime, we found another large crowd. There were four different human microphones going simultaneously in a frantic attempt to communicate. Things finally coalesced around preventing a news van from passing through the intersection. The driver was told to walk home and chants of "Fuck the corporate media" resounded in the chopper blade air. The first attempt at coordinating such a sizable crowd was breaking down before our eyes. The numbers necessary to defend the building occupation downtown might not be able to make it back.

Famished, we left for pizza at a friend's nearby West Oakland apartment, before making our way back downtown to the occupied building on 16th street. Another Brecht line echoed in my head, "Our goal lay far in the distance, it was clearly visible."

The Sun at Night

With the financial crisis beginning a new round of intensification this fall, the occupation movement across the U.S. will need to expropriate buildings, workplaces, and schools across the country in order to survive and thrive this winter and beyond. It will need permanent architecture, alongside enduring encampment with the country's homeless and poorest people. But, on this Wednesday night, a single building would have to do. We walked down Broadway to 16th street and encountered minimal police presence just after 10 PM. Two helicopters circled over downtown. A makeshift trash barricade cut 16th off from Telegraph. Down 16th, a large, energetic, but also nervous crowd surrounded the building. An "Occupy Everything" poster faced out from the second story window. Statements were being read over bullhorn while dance music played. Inside a library was already set up.

A hurried conversation with one group of comrades shifted to reports of police advancing in two directions. (A local homeless man later told me he had seen 30 vans of cops coming down Broadway.) A protestor line formed on 16th. Protestor gas masks, goggles, helmets, painters masks all came out. The black flag went up over the action. The police formed a line across Broadway as they slowly crept toward us, before fanning out over Telegraph. Eventually they appeared along the main thoroughfare north of the plaza. As hostilities commenced with a police charge, the barricade along sixteenth exploded in flames for a few minutes. The cops fired volleys of tear gas, flash bang grenades (with "Made in Wyoming" labels), and rubber bullets. The protestor line was forced back toward 15th Street. The air was thick with the acidic particulates. Bottles, bricks and projectiles were hurled at the cops. Flames leapt into the air. There were reports of a primitive m80 cannon. I recalled the means Argentina's Zanon factory occupation used to keep police at bay in 2002 during some of their pitched struggles to defend their worker-controlled factory: marbles and slingshots.

Some of us fell back to the Oscar Grant Plaza before being successively rallied back up to the line. There were reports of beatings and mass arrests on 16th. Here was resistance in the age of Obama. We consoled one young woman who was weeping for her suffering comrades. I tried to sooth the nerves of two young men disconcerted by protestors throwing bottles and other projectiles.

The tense standoff continued until nearly 4 AM, by which point the building was firmly back in state hands. Some thought the police would attempt to dismantle the plaza encampment again. They appeared, however, still politically hampered by their last plaza incursion. If buildings can be occupied downtown in Oakland in the coming weeks and months (and this seems something of a necessity), the failure to "hold the space" Wednesday night may be seen in a new and brighter light. The abandoned Traveler's Aid building remains ripe for the picking.

The General Assembly the previous Friday night, November 4th, had revealed some splits and divisions among the participants. The proposal format requires a high level of consensus (80-90%) for any actionable results. A member of a GA subcommittee reported hearing talk of violence directed against the "anarchists" in the camp by a vocal but hostile and threatening minority, seen by the majority as a "rightist deviation," likely no more than 20% of regular participants. Brian explained that the sound system he has operated since the first day was off for the night in protest; he and others identified as anarchists felt physically threatened. The labor subcommittee reported some complaints from union leadership about the unspeakable "violence" done to some bank windows on Wednesday. IWW carpenter John Reimann forcefully defended the anarcho-communist wing of Occupy Oakland, pointing out their absolutely essential presence in the movement, one from which he had learned a great deal.

The comments period began. A city worker from SEIU local 1021 explained that he and other plaza building workers wanted to coordinate closely with the occupation by forming a subcommittee to do so. An immigration activist talked about how to bring more vulnerable workers into the struggle. Someone criticized Wednesday's direct action by quoting Mao Zedong's old line: "The contradictions among the people regarding revolutionary tactics are not the same as the contradictions among the people and its enemy." Despite the presence of a vocal "peace police" minority, the night's solidaristic vibe dominated proceedings.

The General Assembly on Friday proposed the formation of neighborhood assemblies. These assemblies would mobilize around a ballot initiative to give them, not city bureaucrats, some power over a budget process that currently sees some 50% of its money go toward policing. The comments period of the GA saw suggestions circulate around three crucial concerns: the defense of Oakland residents facing eviction or foreclosure; the occupation of foreclosed or vacant properties; the defense and occupation of schools in the growing education crisis in California. The mediating power of neighborhood assemblies with respect to expanding the coordination of the movement could prove tremendous even if a ballot initiative goes down to electoral defeat.

The weather has changed and the mood in Oakland is now colored by deeper experiences, trials in flame and storm. The movement finds itself more developed than anyone could have foreseen even a few weeks ago. Much remains to be done, and much concerted pressure remains to be applied, in the shadows of an intermittent sun.


LARB Contributor

David Lau is the author of the book of poems Virgil and the Mountain Cat (University of California Press). He co-edits Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry and Opinion and teaches writing at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College.


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