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.
OK. Here is what I have to say about Oscar Grant.*
There are lots of really important discussions to happen here about police violence, racism, etc. I don’t want to talk about that right now. What I want to talk about is coverage of the “riot.”
The day after the verdict and mini “riot” of July 8 2010, The SF Appeal — and, subsequently, many other outlets and blogs — reported that only 19 of the 78 who had been arrested were from Oakland. These figures were widely repeated and discussed, with many people using them to support the idea that troublemakers and instigators from outside of Oakland came to town to cause problems. Many of these same people blamed the violence on white anarchists wearing black hoodies and bandannas.
Let’s unpack this a little bit.
It was “outsiders” causing the problem.
A local establishment** wrote a post on Facebook saying, “What turned an upset-but-mostly-peaceful crowd into a smash-and-grab mob? At least partly: lots of folks who don’t even live here. People, we have enough problems of our own – next time, stay home and break stuff up in *your* hometown. for real.” This sentiment was echoed countless times and in countless ways.
This is what that sentence (and the others like it) tells me: Next time a cop kills someone in Oakland, I should put on my blinders and think it’s not my problem because I don’t live in Oakland. And ditto for any other kind of injustice going on not in my backyard. That Chevron refinery in Richmond? Who cares if they expand it! War in Iraq? Whatever! Not my problem!
This sentiment is antithetical to how I live my life, and how I want the world to function. It took me a long time to boil down why those statements hurt me so much, and now that I figured it out I don’t know how to emphasize it enough.
At the end of June, people from all over Canada and the U.S. gathered to protest outside of the G20 meeting of world leaders in Toronto, Ontario. In a heavy handed, and mostly unprecedented (especially in Canada) way, the police arrested over 1,000 people in the streets, and targeted a small group of organizers by preemptively arresting them, “snatching” them off the street, or charging them with serious crimes such as conspiracy. Some of those activists are still in jail, weeks later.
Why the arrests matter, and what you can do
Most of the thousand people arrested have been released, however, about a dozen remain in jail, charged with conspiracy and other crimes. Some of those people are my friends. I’ve been spending time this last week raising money for their legal defense because what happens in these cases matters. Whether or not you agree with what or how they were protesting, these types of cases are an attempt by law enforcement to take long-term and effective community organizers and activists out of circulation by tying up their time as well as personal and community resources, for months and years. Most of those arrested were not caught in the act of doing something criminal (like setting a fire) but for organizing. See this post by Harsha Walia for more on that.
The outcome of these cases matters. One of the simplest things you can do is to donate to the G20 Legal Defense Fund. These activists don’t have the support of big NGOs and sharing the financial burden of providing them with a strong legal defense is part of sharing in an outcome that will impact us all. I made a donation and then sent a personal appeal to everyone I know who I thought might give even $5, urging them to donate. I hope that you will do the same.
Have we seen this before? In the last decade of protest in the US there has been some use of these types of charges against activists, but it appears that it is happening more, and going to trial more often. For example, as far as I know there weren’t any conspiracy charges for Seattle in 1999 or A16 (2000?) – but there were elevated charges for the RNC in Philadelphia in 2000. Another recent case is the RNC8 – activists charged with conspiracy for organizing around the 2008 Republican National Convention in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Their trial is starting at the end of October, and supporters are traveling the US in July and August on a “Conspiracy Tour” to educate people. Info and their schedule is here.