What I hope Occupy Oakland can avoid

Categories: Discussion, Reflections

Foreword: I do not know who took the picture at the end of this essay. I chose it because I think it illustrates a critical point, and it’s also an amazing photo. If the photographer wants me to remove it or if they would like to me to include attribution, please submit a comment to that effect.
Update 2/12/12: Though I’m not 100% sure the picture was taken by Ezra Silk, it appears to have first been posted here. I’m attempting to contact Silk and will post updates accordingly.

Update 2/14/12: Ezra Silk has confirmed he took this photo, and I am happy to acknowledge his excellent work.

All broad-based social or political movements inevitably have internal ideological or tactical divisions, and Occupy Oakland is no exception. These divisions first became apparent during and after the General Strike, when some protesters broke windows and others tried to stop them, and when fires were set and barricades constructed outside the Travelers’ Aid Building. Though an uneasy truce currently exists between proponents of non-violence on the one hand and ‘diversity of tactics’ on the other, many people dropped out or backed away from Occupy Oakland because of its failure to condemn property damage and pass a non-violence resolution.

The resultant schism isn’t going to go away any time soon. Many people have quietly withdrawn from active participation in the movement, while a few former Occupy supporters have joined the anti-Occupy Oakland astroturfers ‘Standing for Oakland’. Meanwhile, rumours of a ‘white bloc’ persist, though I haven’t seen any proof that it actually exists.

It is indisputable that supporting the movement can be a challenge for those of us at the extreme non-violent end of the spectrum, but being exposed to the arguments in favour of DOT has proven to be a valuable learning experience for me. The mainstream media have intentionally conflated the ubiquitous spectre of ‘black bloc’ with the ideology of anarchism, and while I don’t claim to understand anarchism (sorry, guys, it seems a lot like libertarianism to me- not that there’s anything wrong with that), I have learned that anarchists come in a variety of flavours. I believe it’s critical that anarchism and black bloc be de-linked and each examined on their own merits, and though I’m personally quite uncomfortable with black bloc tactics, I’m trying to keep an open mind and educate myself. For now, consider me an agnostic in the ongoing Hedges-Graeber wars.

Now, confession time. I am ‘only’ a community ally of Occupy Oakland. I participate when I can, but only when I’m comfortable with a particular action. I stay away from FTP marches; I come out for fundraisers, City Council meetings, and mass actions like J28. Though I passionately support Occupy Oakland, I have not invested the time and energy into the movement that many of you have. Consequently, it’s easy for me to overlook some of the organizational day to day squabbling that can grind people down. I’ll roll my eyes Quan-style or shake my head disapprovingly on occasion, but at the end of the day I still feel fully invested in the movement because I don’t have an axe to grind with anyone in particular.

If, however, I had been organizing and participating in OO from day one, I can think of a number of events that would have precipitated feelings of anger or betrayal, some of which I’ve already mentioned. Most recently, there’s been quite a bit of sexist and homophobic language flying around OO-affiliated Twitter accounts, and if I’d invested the amount of time some have invested in OO I could easily see myself saying ‘enough is enough’ at this point. The abusive language stems from tactical differences and I don’t necessarily think it should be taken at face value, but it’s still disturbing.

Of course, differences arise for all sorts of non-tactical reasons: race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and education can all contribute to organizational friction. But it is the differences over strategy and tactics that provide governments with the ammunition they need to divide and conquer movements that pose a threat to business as usual. The state will use any means necessary to crush dissent, including selective enforcement of the law, psy-ops, and the use of agents provocateur, and they will use those tools to deepen and widen pre-existing differences within left-wing political movements. When successful, these actions almost inevitably force some activists underground, as happened throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s. It’s doubtful that hyper-radical organizations such as The Weather Underground (USA), The Angry Brigade (UK), Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhof (West Germany), The Red Brigades (Italy) and others would have existed if not for dirty tricks employed by western governments.

I do not defend the kidnappings, bombings, and bank robberies carried out by members of these splinter groups, but it is important to remember they were well-intentioned political activists before they were gangsters. Perhaps the ‘most radical of the radical’ will always gravitate to the most extreme actions, but internal divisions, dirty tricks, and constant police harassment no doubt played a role in driving many ’60s radicals to ‘safe houses’ where paranoia ruled the day, debate and discussion were seriously proscribed, and violence seemed the only available option.

Unfortunately, we can see this same dynamic beginning to work its malevolent magic within the Occupy movement. Dubbed terrorists by Republicans and Democrats alike, treated like criminals or worse by the police, and now subjected to threatening graffiti (‘kill the occupiers’), we’re being psychologically and emotionally primed for extreme radicalization. The selection process has begun, with certain people subjected to stay-away orders, repeated arrest or threat of arrest, and other forms of law enforcement abuse. Of course, I don’t know if the ruling classes are conspiring to create a violent Occupy-related splinter group in hopes of discrediting the entire movement, but I do believe the likelihood of such a splinter group emerging is increasing, and it would certainly prove a useful weapon for the 1%.

I believe all supporters and allies of Occupy Oakland must do their utmost to avoid this outcome. Don’t let the ideological arteries harden: neither the non-violent nor the DOT factions should disavow the other or draw lines in the sand. Keep the lines of communication open, and continue to agitate, educate, and organise. I believe the strength of the Occupy movement resides in its commitment to economic and social justice, and whatever tactic we adopt to reach it, that goal should be our focus. If we allow the state to divert, distract, or divide us, we will surely lose.

(Cross posted at Pickled Bologna)


2 Responses to “What I hope Occupy Oakland can avoid”

  1. john seal


    My only excuse is that I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer when it comes to computer stuff! As you can see in my update, I think I’ve identified the person who took the photo and I’ve reached out to them to confirm.

  2. wiseoldsnail

    i’m curious where you got the photo. i mean, how did you snag a photo without bothering to notice who posted it?