I’m going to tell you a story in 4 parts, its about how I started my day in a peaceful demonstration with no arrests and ended up in jail for the last 15 hours.
Part 1 – Everything started off so nicely
Last night, Wednesday November 2nd, I participated in the gorgeously successful general strike and occupation of the Oakland shipping ports in solidarity with the unions who preside over them. This action was well attended by thousands of peaceful demonstrators who came together with a simple mission: to make a consequential statment about the state of our democracy and economics; a degenerating situation which seems to further and further plague our collective desires to live prosperously and with liberty. I was honored to be among those who made this statement for the benefit of Oakland citizens, and those who feel themselves among the 99% movement.
After demonstrating a friend and I enjoyed an awesome sushi dinner and conversation. It was just after 11pm when we departed I made my biking way toward home through the streets of Oakland. Around 22rd st and Telegraph I passed a gathering of hundreds of police officers in a parking lot donning riot gear. Alarmed at the portents of this sighting I immediately detoured toward Oscar Grant Plaza (aka Frank Ogawa Plaza/City Hall) to see what was inspiring this Police seance. Just 1 block north of the plaze activists, mostly of student age had gathered in front of 520 16th Street, the Oakland branch of the Traveler’s Aid Society. This organization was a government funded NPO which once provided aid and advocacy for houseless people in the Oakland community. From the organizer’s leaflet:
“After the government cut funding to the program the Oakland branch faced foreclosure at the hands of their private lender. Since then [some 6 years ago?] the space sat vacant as though it were disposable to those with the keys. To us this space is invaluable. We are reclaiming it for the people. It is now for our use.”
The flyer goes on to welcome the Traveller’s Aid Society to reclaim the space with them and to make a statement as to this situations exemplary virtues as a monument in the 99% movement. I have some experience with direct action, Ive participated and organized for years. Ive studied direct action academically, I’ve learned from participation with the Rainforest Action Network, Greenpeace, United for Peace and Justice, and my favorite teacher, trial and error. And to be honest I like this flyer, I like the target of the action and my emotional sense of justice idealizes the idea of simply reclaiming the space for “the people”. But what I saw in the performance of this action made me feel wholesale upset, annoyed and shamed. I tried to do something about it and ended up in jail for 15 hours. Here’s how…
Part 2 – Theater of Direct Action – there’s good shows and bad shows.
A small group of what some identify as “Black Block Anarchists” (but lets let go of the affiliations and just say they were dressed in black and masked so as to be unidentifiable) were steering this action toward an inevitably violent confrontation with police. In my approach to the block I found the street littered with trash (this by itself a careless and graceless act in my mind). These activists had gathered and overturned dumpsters, garbage cans, pallets, basically any large objects they could find on the street to form a blockade on either side of 16th street. Misguided as these blockades were as a tactical defense for their action, they were also meagerly constructed and not at all proper barriers against the technologies of riot police. These blockades were flat out insulting to the concept of a blockade, and this action was quickly becoming (in my opinion) an insult to effective direct action/activism period. Soon after I landed and made my investigation and, to be honest, openly cynical remarks to the increasingly aggresive crowed gathered (who naturally ignored me 😉 As I watched they began to light fires upon the shoddy junk piles, “anticipatting the police advance” some said. Guaranteeing it said others.
The police of course advance minutes later with all due pomp and circumstance + a hail of tear gas and rubber bullets – 16th street vacates frantically in mere seconds. A few arrests and then the standoff begins. The retreating activists form a cautious perimeter at 15th st. The police form their characteristically fascist (just commenting aesthetically) perimeter a half block north. I and a handful of marginalized others had seen this coming as clearly as any reasonable Oaklander would have and we watched as the tragic theater set in. Sensing the imminently violent crisis of the moment, a few of us stepped up to try and manifest some kind of peaceful human pillow between the game-faced riot police and the taunting factions of the protest. Bottles were flying, words shouted, typical chants chanted, tensions mounted. We coalesced as a group of only two dozen at best in the center of all this, sat cross-legged in the street, holding as many peace fingers as we could hold up for as long as we could. Not a very original performance I admit, but the situation seemed to call for a specific perspective to be respected on both sides: Peaceful Protest.
Moreover, for the first hour or so our presence was actually quite effective! The space became calmer, quieter. Musicians gathered to sing songs. Humor emerged from both the peaceful demonstrators and, at least to the degree of perceivable body language, from the police as well. A few near skirmishes peak their ugly heads from the small contingencies of agitating protestors in the form of flying bottles and garbage. Yet the peaceful contingency was able to stave off such attempts which erupting choruses of ” Stop throwing shit”. Note: Peer pressure can also be used for good for example when we urge ourselves to act collectively in our better interest (see pedagogy).
I believe that we had successfully prevented the aggressive activist contingencies to remain (albeit reluctantly and tenuously) peaceful. The police, of course, have an agenda of their own and given sufficient provocation (which aint gotta be much in places like Oakland) they will purpetrate their own brand of brutal theater. Although more than an hour had passed without serious incident, the crowd nor the police were showing any indications of dispersing. Finally a police SUV rolls up and faces its hatchback trunk in our direction and I know exactly whats about to happen. I’ve seen this unmistakable vehicle too many times in the recent weeks. It bears the microphone sound system the police use to repeat their favorite new script for the 99% and it goes something like:
“This is officer XXXXXXX of the Oakland Police Department. We have determined the gathering at XXXXXX to be an unlawful assembly. You must vacate the area in 5 minutes or you WILL be subject to arrest and bodily harm.”
Im paraphrasing, they also mention using “chemical agents” (i.e. tear gas and pepper spray), “non-lethal rounds” (i.e. rubber bullets and bean bag bullets). They never mention the batons but I suppose that’s meant to be self-evident. I absolutely hate this speech, first of all because I hate being told what to do. Sue me. Secondly, and of more political import, I hate the concept of “unlawful assembly”. In our Bill of Rights we made the right to assemble and speak freely #1, it was just that important. Thirdly the speech is a lame disclaimer for the violence the police are about to inflict upon the demonstrators. Its an odd piece of theater designed to frame the situation for police to wield violent riot tactics with minimized moral regard. The demonstrators, if they even hear the procolomation clearly, will of course never move until the police force them to. The statement allows no space for dialogue between the factions so by the time the police issue these words the confrontation is essentially already pre-determined.
Then begins the typical oakland protest ballet. The police suddenly advance in militaristic step with batons and firearms in the ready. Tear gas and rubber bullets fly. The people for the most part scream and scatter in retreat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Etc until enough demonstrators have been captured or demoralized to clear the streets.
Im going to try and not write a book about this right here, but a few more notes about this mis en scene. Oakland PD participates in a cop-sharing program with other cities where they can call upon the sherif and deputy forces of other cities. So when hundreds of riot geared police greet you in oakland, its not at all the same force protecting our streets day to day. Yesterday I observed police from Sacramento, San Mateo, Foster City, Concord, Walnut Creek and of course Alameda County; Im sure there were others. While this may seem logistically prudent, it should also be evident how this can be problematic. Perhaps I will cover it in another article. The approach of police in riot gear also participates actively in forming the attitudes of those who face them; in other words, the implied violence of their costumes affects demonstrators psychologically to the degree that it can and often will incite fear and fear’s twin bother violence.
I like to think tactically and to the extent of performing effective control I can appreciate the choices police have made in the crafting of their projection. That said, I also vehemently disagree with pretty much every implementation of such tactics by our and other police/military that I’ve ever witnessed or heard about. Perhaps Im a naive idealist but I believe there are better ways to resolve confrontations. More artful and inspired ways that actually involve some element of basic human compassion. And I want to live in a world that approaches its problems with compassion, inspiration and, well, art. Thats me. I also cant help but feel upset and disappointed by so many of the problems which inspire people to demonstrate in the first place. We want agency so badly to create a better world, some of us will even tent-camp for endles days in the middle of our beloved cities with the hope that we might somehow approach such critical change, even though (and because) we feel we have no actual agency to make such transformations occur. Thats my version of the 99%.
Part 3 – Jail Sucks – It sucks for 1 minute and it sucks for every minute, hour, year etc., you spend there.
I was arrested with approximately 100 other demonstrators. In the moments before the police rushed the street I and others began clearing the peaceful out of the way of the playing field. By this point I had become so emotionally invested in the moment that I couldn’t conceive of leaving anyone out there that didn’t want to be there. Somehow, even though I’ve organized mass demonstrations over the years and specifically participated in numerous actions attended by riot police, somehow, it hadn’t ocured to me that I would be arrested. Weird but true. I suppose I thought I had made a sufficient showing of my peaceful motives, that I would somehow be spared if anything went down. It was an irrational notion to be sure. Be that as it may I was determined to claim this one remaining older woman of 60 or so years as she lingered alone within a few feet of the officer’s frontline. I approached her just in time to ask her if she wanted to be escorted to the safer sidelines. She smiled a time-weathered smile I will never forget and said softly, no. Just then the police blitzed and we were both tackled by the onslaught.
What happened next I can only share from my isolated perspective. One officer (not in riot gear) fist-grabbed me by the collar and spat the words “He’s arrested!” in my face. I was dragged a few feet and forced to the ground again by two officers who knelt knees upon the back of my head and proceeded to pry my limbs awkwardly into the handcuff position behind my back. The cuffs these days are not of chain and metal, but hard plastic zip-ties. When they are applied without reverence they can be exceptionally painful and awkward. I was dragged between vehicles to a bus some 50 meters behind police lines. They searched me intimately across every inch of my body and confiscated anything loose (wallet, keys, etc). They Id’ed me and then uncermoniously escorted me to the back of a police van and shut the door. No opportunity for discussion or communication of any kind here.
The police van is divided into individual white metal cages. Tight single-person cages. Im the first and eventually the only demonstrator to be placed in this particular vehicle that night which gave me a lonely 2+ hours to confront my sudden new circumstances. Once the adrenaline of the moment had faded I quickly realized how tight the zipties were. I noticed because within these first moments I had completely lost feeling in both of my hands. The realization sparked the concern for my bodily well being that would soon run viral through my brain.
Though I consider myself a seasoned meditator and possesor of a fairly stable personality, I found myself unequiped to deal with the circumstances as they had suddenly manifested. I was worried about my throbbing hands, which I could do absolutely nothing about. I was alone in the vehicle, not even an officer to monitor my presence. As the skirmish had literally just started, I didnt know how long I was going to be cubbied in there, and so I began to panick. I fought the panick. The panick fought back harder. After an hour of anger, pain, resentment, fear, and utter-powerlessness it began to feel like more than I could handle. Ive helped people though panick attack’s but never really experience those feelings myself. At this moment however I was starting to fracture.
Over the next 30 minutes I called to the nearby officer politely, then loudly, then screamed and kicked at everything trying to attract any attention I could. Useless. Eventually I found that the feeling of motion itself helped to displace the anxiety and distract from the unbearable pain. So for the next two hours I allowed my legs to nervously shake while I adjusted my torso and wrists as minutely as I could to shift the sensations. I was alone like this for those torturous hours and every second seemed like an immeasureable forever.
I listened to the protestors and police ballet back and forth until finally an officer returns to the van and says, ok, we’re going. To where? No answer. But I know implicitly its central booking. Im just hoping its Oakland booking and not some other random town. We drive for 15 minutes until we arrive at the Glenn Dyer Jail on 7th st and Washington. Inside the garage I can observe the renditioning of a dozen other protestors brought in before me. After 15 mins I am removed from the truck and subject to a second, more thorough round of search and siezure. They take your belt, shoelaces, jewlery, anything non-essential. Im brought by a medical table to assess any injuries. With as much dignity as I can muster, I express to the medic that my hands are completely numb. He says they’ll cut the cuffs momentarily and then Im whisked away to a holding cell already populated with 12 others (somehow I was among the first arrested and the last processed, just my luck). Everyone is ziptied though some, like me, are outfitted with the thicker less flexible model. We are in real pain. And though we communicate this clearly and calmly to the presiding officers, it will still be 30 mins before the ties are finally cut. Most everyone recovers over the next hour although I unfortunately still have no feeling in my right hand. A circumstance that, after consulting the resident doctor in my family (we are so blessed to have one), may bring me to the emergency room tomorrow if there is no improvement. Probably a pinched nerve, more on that when I know more on that.
A few notes about jail: Jail sucks. Its sort of bearable for 15 minutes because, hey, you’re not in the back of cop car anymore, and then it just sucks sucks sucks till you are lucky enough to leave. Processing is less comfortable than an actual jail and we would remain in processing until released as we were being “detained” not charged (and btw they can “detain” you for up to 72 hours without charge). In fact we only issued charges just before we were released.
In processing at Glenn Dyer the rooms are filthy, concrete with short benches, halogen lit, and in some rooms they pump in cold air. If it weren’t for the warm company of these fellow activists it would have been unbearable. Men and women are of course separated. There were so many women detained that they had to be booked in Santa Rita prison, a larger facility all the way in Dublin, Ca. Sorry women, see you later. The men were placed in 5-6 cells, 10-15 per cell, just enough to sit upright in most cases. We’re mostly ignored for hours on end and every-so-often fed baloney sandwiches and powdered calcium-enriched orange tang-knock-off. No vegetarian options today, sorry vegetarians. As you can imagine, not the best quality food, if you would even call this highly processed assemblage actually food. No matter, we’re mostly feeding on solidarity at this point.
I met near every male prisoner from yesterdays failed action and I can earnestly say that not a single one of the agitators were present. Those who were captured were mainly individuals who had been trapped by sudden and impeding circumstances. A few had been beaten rather brutally, one in particular, sadly an ex-army ranger who probably didn’t go down easily, was finally told he’d be escorted to a hospital by the time I was finally being released. That was at 6pm today and I had been incarcerated with him since 3 or 4am.
Jail is not fun. Its ugly, smelly and dirty. Its run mostly by grumpy young recruits, demoted patrol officers, and out-of-shape secretaries. These officers have to go to jail every day and each deals with it in their own way. Some are agressive provocateurs with grand egos. Some are grudging beaurocrats. Some are ocaisionaly semi-cordial. Sort of. Until they remember they are actors playing a role. Mainly it feels as if they’ve see the worst Oakland has to offer and they are used to not really giving a shit who is in the tank. The booking process is overtly slow. The prisoners are shuffled into different rooms every few hours. Left alone or casually harrassed. Those that deign to speak out are of course isolated and threatened with more time to serve and in some cases violence. Jail is no place to be.
As I would learn just before my release, our 15 hour detention was cutely named or charged as “Remain at Scene: Riot/Etc.”, and I have an arraignment on 12/5/11. I also learned other things. Such as, its always good to have a buddy at demonstration. Someone who’s looking out for you, can perhaps help you make decisions during potentially arrestable situations. Someone who can possibly take care of you and your family from outside of the prison. Perhaps someone to be with you in prison. Yes, thats right. Today I also learned that given the right circumstances prison can be for friends There are many who I met in prison lastnight who I am grateful for and hope to maintain friendships with. I couldn’t have made it through those long hours without them, thank you all, you know who you are.
Part 4 – Effective Tactics – so we dont waste time, energy or each other.
Sometimes a plan works and sometimes it doesn’t and there are of course various grades of effectiveness in between. As an organizer I love to draw from the richly documented history of human resistance to help guide my contributions. From history I have learned a few key things. One thing is that violence is almost never useful from the side of a demonstrator. Now please note that I am not a pacifist, Im a tactition. And yes, I feel that sometimes violence is effective or part of a effective solution. Hopefully violence toward sysmbols and structures rather than individual people but anyway I am not writing here to impose my judgements upon all forms of social change. Again, Im a tactician. I look at a job and imagine what are the best tools for the job. THAT SAID, and I want to be clear about this, although Im no pacifist, I have yet to experience a moment in my experience as an American where I felt that violence was actually necessary for creating the change I want to see. Never.
What I saw at this particular action was to me, ineffective and detrimental. The organizer’s plan was unrealistic with a side of half-assed execution. The message was poorly delivered. The target location was too close to occupy oakland’s encampment (which resulted in many arrests of occupiers that had literally nothing to do with the demonstration. Some had no knowledge there was even a demonstration and simply arrived at the wrong place at the wrong time). Such an aggressive action should not have occured the same day as the General Strike for sake of allowing a mass action with national import to stand by itself.
These activists chose to co-opt the Strike with an action, perhaps based on an altruistic vision, but carried out with malevolent expectations. During the feeder marches to the General Strike it was this same contingency that vandalized the banks and Whole Foods in downtown oakalnd. And while I more than understand the irrational desire to just throw a brick through the window of edifices that represent the problems which make my life and the lives of my community so difficult, I also know how marginalizing this violence can be. On-lookers to a violent act tend to side with the victim, even if the victim is indeed a grander purpetrator. One of the best things I saw today was the effort of many peaceful demonstrators to place signs and host conversations with media informing that the 99% did not advocate such wonton destruction and prefered to represent their desires for change in more reasonable ways. I’ve actually never seen that happen before, so wow, that was interesting and good. And thank you media for actually documenting those efforts.
Effective tactics. If its impact we want then we must learn to be good marketers, conscientious organizers, and focus on planning inclusive actions. I hate seeing people waste their energy. I dont mind getting arrested for a cause I believe in, as long as my arrest is designed to mean something. Getting arrested last night was really not what I had in mind. I feel like I tried to help some people but my efforts were in vain in the tradition of “no good deed goes unpunished”. I’ll get over it. But I want things to get better in my lifetime. I want to live in a world where our solutions are approached artfully with grace and style. Yes, Id like the world to be stylish where and when it wants to. If you’ve read this I hope you will consider how you can play in the world’s messy sandbox with a well thought code of your own. I’ll play with you.
This is a lot so Im going to stop here. I will probably edit this over the next week so forgive me if I change something you like and feel free to suggest something I might add. Forward this to whomever, not that anyone (including myself) has the patience for such endless rantings. If you got this far thanks for reading.