Defending Occupy Oakland

January 30, 2012 at 5:53 pm (Actions, Events) (, , , , , )

The stated goal of Occupy Oakland’s day of action on Saturday January 28 was to take over an abandoned building and repurpose it for the good of the people. I participated in the action for part of the day and feel like I have spent the last two days defending the action to friends over breakfast, on Facebook, and on the phone. If you aren’t aware of what happened, this blog post does a good job of summarizing what I witnessed in person, and for moments I was not apart of, that I verified with multiple individuals I trust.

I know this post is long, but I can summarize it in one sentence:  Regardless of how you feel about the chosen tactics from Saturday’s demonstrations, OPD is out of control, and the ability to gather, demonstrate, and protest is sacred and needs to be defended.

OK, here it is in much longer than one sentence:

  • Taking over unused buildings and doing something useful with them is a good idea. Although I may disagree with the specific tactical decisions that were made, this is a good step forward for Occupy and the large number of people who turned out to this event (by any estimate, at least 1,000) is evidence that a lot of other people think so too. I have long supported squatter’s movements and will continue to do so. Property and who has access to it or not is a huge issue that cannot be ignored.
  • I did not participate in the meetings leading up to this occupation and all of the people who have been criticizing the action that I have been arguing with didn’t either.  It’s unfair to make judgments and say “they should have done X” when we were unwilling to participate in the (open) decision-making process. We also don’t know all the factors that went into any specific tactical decisions, and I am willing to make a good faith guess that the people who were making decisions were doing the best they could with what they could.
  • The group that organized this action did an excellent job of putting out why they wanted a building and what they wanted to do with it. You can read some here. This was smart.
  • When there is a crowd of 1,000+ people involved, no one can (or should) control everything. OK, some people burned a flag. Fine. Next.
  • This photo of the crowd by Len Tsou gives you an idea of what the march was like.  When we approached the building (the Henry J Kaiser auditorium in Oakland), it was surrounded by riot cops. It was around 3 p.m. I was happily walking along talking with a friend and hanging out next to the Brass Liberation Orchestra. It was a gorgeous day.  There were kids and families and old people and young people and yes, there were “black bloc” people there (how I hate that moniker).
    When the march reached the Lake Merritt side of the building, the police announced a dispersal order (aka leave now or you will be arrested), despite the fact that there was a large ditch and construction fences between the building and the march. This seemed a bit premature. The marchers were not being threatening in any way, other than by our mere presence. Despite this, the police repeated the dispersal order and then began to use smoke/flash canisters to disperse the crowd. Did you look at that photo? Does that look like a crowd that needs to be dispersed by smoke bombs? It can not be overstated that the Oakland Police Department’s actions were heavy handed, escalated the situation, and set the tone for the rest of the day.
    The march moved on and there was a confrontation with the police around the side of the building. Yes, there were protesters there with shields and gas masks. Despite that, I feel strongly that the use of tear gas on a largely unprepared crowd was an excessive use of unnecessary force by the OPD. I was a half a block away from the confrontation and felt the  gas.
  • It was clear from that point on that the OPD was intent on escalation with the ultimate goal of arresting as many individuals as possible. This video shows what happened when a second large march later in the evening was surrounded and “kettled” by OPD. All of my friends who have participated in anti-war or any other kind of demonstration should be f-ing outraged that the OPD thinks that it is OK to surround an entire march and arrest everyone! Instead, many are criticizing the action and all of those of people who were expressing themselves just as we have countless times. Just because you disagree with the goal of the day, does not mean that the OPD’s actions are OK. Kettling IS NEVER OKAY.  Maybe you didn’t notice the part about them using tear gas on people who they had trapped and couldn’t go anywhere? The “vandalism” in this video, of people pushing down a fence, is not vandalism but a (successful) attempt to escape a messed up situation and imminent, unjustified arrest. If I had stayed around a little longer, that would have been me.

There are way more things to talk about, like the targeting of specific protesters, specific new tactics being used by the OPD and SFPD, what’s next for Occupy, and excessive charges for those who were arrested, but that’s way more than what I can talk about right now.

Let me repeat: Regardless of how you feel about the chosen tactics from Saturday’s demonstrations, OPD is out of control, and the ability to gather, demonstrate, and protest is sacred and needs to be defended.

I talked a bit to Aaron Glantz today who is writing about the action for the Bay Citizen. Here’s a link (with an incorrect quote from me, hopefully he’ll update it). He said that the number of arrests (409) is the largest in Alameda County since the big anti-nuclear protests of the past (1980s). This feels like an attempt to hobble the movement by tying up so many people in the court system. Aaron also said that the city is considering an injunction system where if you’ve been arrested at Occupy and you go back to Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza then you could be arrested simply by being there, just like gang injunctions. Sigh. Unbelievable.

That’s all for now. Above is my favorite banner from the day: “Revolt for a life worth living.”

PS – A few occupy resources. Though there are tons of reporters covering Occupy, Susie Cagle has done consistently amazing on-the-scene reporting. When I’m not there, I follow her Twitter stream to know what’s up: @susie_c. I’m supporting her by making a donation here, and you should too. Also, the go-to photographer for SF/Bay Area actions is Steve Rhodes, his Flickr stream is here.


  1. Jen Angel said,

    I had originally planned to post about music today, but that will just have to wait.

  2. jonstarbuck said,

    Thanks Jen, really helpful for those of us that were not there. It reminds me of my first protest, the Pol Tax Riots in London in 1990, and how when I returned home to my very worried parents they just would not believe me when I told them that the police started it.

  3. Jen Angel said,

    Heh. I got a few “are you in jail” phone calls/texts on Sunday.

  4. Manjula said,

    The OPD is undeniably out of control, and I really appreciate your sobering reminders of that.

    However, I disagree with the idea that it’s not fair for people to criticize a public act of protest unless they were the ones who planned it. Respectful debate — including criticism — amongst planners, onlookers, and participants alike is necessary to learning and moving forward.

    There’s also a big difference between a decision-making process that is “open” and one that is transparent — a lot of our friends who are criticizing J28 *have* participated in planning stuff at Occupy, tirelessly, for many months now, but chose to sit this one out in part because of a growing disagreement with the lack of transparency around the power structures that do exist there. That’s the context for their criticism, not a reason for invalidating it.

    Lots to talk about, obvs… thanks for keeping the conversation rolling.

  5. Jen Angel said,

    Here’s a link to David Graeber and Andrej Grubacic talking at Occupy Oakland this weekend (and other coverage of the two days):

  6. Jen Angel said,

    Manjula – I think being critical and judging are two different things. Healthy criticism is always welcome, in my opinion.

    I also want to emphasize that I’m surprised at how many people are spending their energy decrying tactics and “violence” on the part of the protesters instead of focusing on how police escalated the situation.

  7. Jen Angel said,

    Hey – I just updated the post to link to Aaron’s article:

  8. Mike said,

    Thanks for writing this, Jen. I agree that the police were heavy-handed.

    And police brutality is what brought me to support the Occupy movement in the first place.

    BUT… my support was based on the stated goals of Occupy Wall Street, which included nonviolence:

    “We welcome all, who, in good faith, petition for a redress of grievances through non-violence. We provide a forum for peaceful assembly of individuals to engage in participatory as opposed to partisan debate and democracy….”

    I will NOT support a movement that cannot educate and manage its own protesters. In the face of extreme police violence, we must stay nonviolent. When they shoot us, we must not fight back. That dedication to the cause is what wins in the court of public opinion. Burning flags and assaulting cops LOSES in terms of public opinion. We must be better than the cops, not sink to their level when they engage in violence.

  9. Seng said,

    I agree that OPD’s actions on Saturday night and previously were heavy handed. I support the repurposing of unused buildings for housing people and the movement.

    However, as much as I am against excessive force by the police (not just at demos on visiting protestors, but everyday on residents of Oakland), I feel like the Occupy movement really needs to keep its sights on more issues than just police brutality and fighting police under their terms. Who needs agent provocateurs when an entire movement can be distracted with regular uniforms in plain sight? Ok, cops are out in riot gear. Fine. Next.

    I wasn’t part of the decision making process, it’s true. I haven’t been to a GA since last year, nor have many of my fellow Oakland residents who I used to run into at Frank Ogawa plaza on an evening walk. There are a lot of people who have participated the movement but now feel disenfranchised by the process. You’re right, we don’t know all the factors that went into specific tactical decisions, but if we are campaigning for governmental transparency, it’s even more important that our processes are transparent. One of things I thought was amazing about Occupy Oakland only a few months ago was how it welcomed everyone, but now it seems like it doesn’t care how much of its base it has alienated.

  10. Brian said,

    Mike: “When they shoot us, we must not fight back…”

    So I should not defend my friends, even when police are shooting rubber bullets at them and their children? Careful what rights you give up–the right to self-defense is no more precious than the right to free speech. It’s even worse when you ask others to give up those rights too. I’ll be damned if I’ll let police (or anyone else) hurt people in front of me if I can do anything about it.

    It strikes me as elitist to claim that we should let them do just about anything to us, being passive as “a political statement”–not everyone can afford to treat themselves as martyrs. Is free speech only for those who can afford hospital bills, or for those privileged enough that the police don’t dare attack them?

    Additionally, you seem to be prioritizing getting a certain kind of media coverage over developing a capacity to act together in a concrete situation. That attitude probably makes a lot more sense to career activists than it does to ordinary poor people like myself.

    Mike: “Burning flags and assaulting cops LOSES in terms of public opinion.”

    Thanks for telling us what to do in all caps. I respectfully disagree. Different things resonate with me than with you, and that may be reflected in the public at large. Looking back at all the other empires in history, aren’t you grateful for the people who sought to delegitimize patriotism itself (by burning flags, for example) rather than simply trying to be better conquistadores, Bolsheviks, or Nazis? And your language about “assaulting cops” is blaming the victim–it’s obvious who started it, who has more power.

    Mike: “I will NOT support a movement that cannot educate and manage its own protesters…

    Personally, I want to be part of a diverse movement that doesn’t seek to homogenize people, but makes space for a range of voices, perspectives, and actions. It’s clear here that, identical to the police, you are chiefly concerned with management, not freedom.

  11. Jen Angel said,

    Friend David Taylor posted this on Facebook this morning. Thanks for this, Mr. Taylor.

    “After talking to folks and looking at a lot of raw footage it seem pretty clear to me that what went on Saturday was OPD gone wild. If you were surrounded by police on all sides and tear gassed and beaten while being contained I bet you might tear down a fence or try and get into an open building for safety. I find it pretty upsetting that many activist friends are more upset by a model in city hall being turned over than by marches being mass arrested and reporters with press credentials going to jail. If you don’t like building occupations as a tactic, which I think are a good idea, that is fine, organize something better, but don’t mistake that tactic with police reports of unfocused rioting.

    “What happened on Saturday was a failed building occupation that then turned into a march that got attacked with massive force for hours by the police and after getting beat up for too long some kids got pissed and did some stupid shit. Kids have been doing stupid shit in social movements for a hundred years an will only stop when we organize well enough to give them a tactical alternative as opposed to just tell them to play nice after they get their heads smashed in all day. I blame myself and an older generation of experienced direct action organizers for not putting in the hours to create strategically tactical alternatives that can capture these kids imagination and make it clear why movement discipline is important. We have not done that so I don’t think we have any grounds to lecture them like stern parents. We know that building occupation was a disaster but we have yet to organize a building occupation that makes tactical and strategic sense and tells a clear story about access to resources and corporate control over our communities and lives.

    “If we think it is ever okay to march without a permit we have to look at Saturday as serious police escalation that we need to stand up against and not a case of anarchists gone wild. And if we think that the tactics of the protesters were stupid we need to not condemn them, because frankly they don’t give a shit what we think and all we are likely to do is drive folks underground where they are going to do something really dumb, remember the Weather Underground. What we need to do is ORGANIZE something smart and powerful that captures everyone’s imagination.”

  12. Anonymous said,

    thanks so much, jen

  13. Matt Leonard said,

    Great post Jen. Lots of thoughts – but one in particular:

    This notion that the chaos/violence/throwing/breaking/whatever you want to call it that ensues is often in response to police violence might be true – but is stll a weak argument. It isn’t “self defense”.

    The rhetorical arguments of “if cops shoot my friend, are you saying I shuoldn’t help them?” are really baseless. Of course you should help them. Get your friend out of there, take care of him. But shoving a dumpster in the road. throwing a bottle at police lines, or cutting up a garbage can and painting an @ on it for a shield. isn’t helping your friend. And it isn’t self-defense.

    Being better organized, having a bigger, more inclusive movement – THAT is self-defense. Cops have the monopoly on violence – so long as we don’t have WAY larger numbers than we do now, and we need popular and moral support (and good organizing) to get there. OccupyOakland isn’t on that track – and the arguments of violence/non-violence routinely get wrapped up in ethical and principled debates. I want to talk strategy. Is our strategy growing our movement and our power? Or is it further alienating us – so that 99% or the 99% doesn’t resonate with us anymore?

  14. Jen Angel said,

    Two things.

    First, one of the things I find most interesting about this discussion (here and elsewhere) is that people keep saying, “Occupy needs to do XXXX.” My view of Occupy is that it is a self-organized movement, and the reason that Occupy is not doing XXX is because no one is asserting the energy to move it in that direction, whatever direction that is.

    I want people to stop waiting for Occupy to do something, and instead start by pushing Occupy to do things, either through the general assemblies or through a parallel or alternate organizing process. Occupy is a big umbrella, it can hold a lot.

    I don’t want to talk strategy on the internet. I want people who have an opinion about strategy to do something about it.

    Second, People keep talking about how violent Occupy is, and how (Matt: “But shoving a dumpster in the road….”) – I didn’t see that happening. When you watch the video above, I don’t see any violence toward police. Am I missing something? I think we’re falling into the trap set by the media, the city, and the police of framing Occupy Oakland as violent to justify repression. That’s silly of us.

    BTW, i really appreciate all the thoughtful comments. Posting something about Occupy and then being away from a computer the majority of the day today was probably not the smartest thing to do on my part.

  15. Jen Angel said,

  16. Woman Voter (@WomanVote) said,

    From what I witnessed there were some older people that did the narration of the events in City Hall. Initially they invited them in, “Look it is open”, when no one took the bait, “We can hold GA in Council Chambers”, some very young people moved closer. Others, began yelling; “It’s a trap, don’t go.”, then those that were prompting went in. The young people went in and came out, straight away.

    The young kid (holding flag), initially was waving the flag beautifully, with people happy at seeing the flag waving, then someone took the lower end and set it a fire, with the young kid (looked about 18) not even aware of it.

    What the media didn’t show, was several people trying to stop the flag burning, one woman was pushed, shoved, while verbally protesting that this wasn’t peaceful, trying to take the flag back and eventually shoved more aggressively she walking away in complete defeat (she looked very upset as did her friends).

    In the media they make it sound as if all Occupy supporters, support the actions of a very small group, that people say belong to Black Bloc or as I have known them ‘Black Flag’, that will come up to you and aggressively tell you not to take their photo (First time they did this was in the late evening at the first port shutdown event). When you seen a group approach you in a menacing manner with said request, you simply lower your camera and agree to comply.

    I don’t know how one communicates with the Black Bloc as I have never seen them at any formal events, and I don’t think they invite Peace Activists to their planning meetings.

    We must let PEACE carry the Occupy Wall Street message.


    • Woman Voter (@WomanVote) said,

      What the media doesn’t show is that moments before the police began firing shock grenades, and gas at the protesters, you can see it was a community event not a violent event. More shocking is the fact that a mom and baby had just crossed the front, but a minute before projectiles were fired and as in the Scott Olsen incident, protesters were once again fired at with shock grenades, launched at them while retrieving an injured woman. Why does the police do that, when people are trying to help an injured person?

  17. Brian said,


    It’s true, I was responding to Mike’s moralism, not making explicitly strategic arguments. But the dichotomy you imply is unfair, if not outright manipulative: it’s not a question of violence vs. having a strategy. Any smart person can read through my post and distill strategic claims alongside the moral arguments.

    It’s a question of what kind of movement we want to have–a movement that expresses the rage of the dispossessed, or one that is managed from the top down. Which of these do we think is going to be more capable of making the changes that we want, of making the most of the power that is available to us?

    Often we really do want different things–that’s why what looks strategic to one person looks unstrategic to another. If you’re used to being in a dialogue with the powerful, you’re going want to build legitimacy in their eyes, not the capacity to fight them; if you’re used to working and living with the comparatively privileged, you’re going to worry more about things that will alienate them (practically any form of out-and-out anticapitalist resistance) than about building ties and credibility with others who are prepared to take risks to oppose the power of the state rather than reform it.

    It’s imperative that we have strategic debates. But it only obstructs these debates to insist that those who differ from you have no strategic sense. And it is not strategic to focus on delegitimizing the efforts of those you disagree with about strategy rather than coordinating to act together where we overlap. The language that is used to decry “violence” is itself a power operation marginalizing those it targets–who are often marginalized by all sorts of other social processes as well. It’s not just description, it is itself action.

    If you find that a stretch, remember that on January 25 the Egyptian government announced the end of the emergency laws… except in the case of “thugs.” The whole point of the language about violence is to establish a social contract ensuring compliance, with anyone who engages in real resistance outside of it as “other.”

    • Woman Voter (@WomanVote) said,

      More shocking to me is that only Mark Fiore is covering Obama’s New NDAA powers white null and voids our most basic rights:

      I wonder if the Oakland Police Department kettled in mass for all to be arrested because the NDAA gives them this right, albeit it is in the process of being challenged. There is also the EEA which will remove citizenship from US citizens and I guess make them countryless in addition to being homeless. SAD!

      We basically have a form of STATE MEDIA when they don’t report what the president signed and what is really going on and why it is ‘legal’ to do so…PRAVDA move over USNDAA Media is in operation.

      • Woman Voter (@WomanVote) said,

        One last point for those asking X & Y of OWS, PEOPLE including the President have discovered the problems of foreclosures, lack of health care (his reform was an insurance give away that skyrocked insurance rates beyond reach) and the economic disparity our nation is suffering.

        So, for a bunch of loosely associated protesters the message has been received by many in the US, despite all the other stories they put up to block the message including LIVE CAR CHASES.

        I continue to support Occupy Wall Street!

        From deep below an Iowa corn silo comes, Distract-O-Tron

  18. Jen Angel said,

    Great new piece from Puck Lo:

    If I had more time I would do a round-up of all the great stuff that has been coming out since #j28 – maybe this weekend.

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