The backlash against Occupy Oakland

February 6, 2012

Alessandro Tinonga reports from Oakland on the challenges facing the movement.

IN THE aftermath of Occupy Oakland's attempt to take over a vacant building January 28 and a day of police attacks that led to nearly 400 arrests, the Oakland political establishment, the police and the corporate media have been on the attack against the Occupy movement.

Media reports of the January 28 protest repeated the distorted police and city version of what happened, giving a false picture of violent demonstrators who are out of touch with the concerns of Oakland residents. Mayor Jean Quan likened the Occupy movement to "children," and Councilman Ignacio De La Fuente accused participants of the movement of engaging in domestic terrorism.

But the experiences of the more than 1,000 people who participated in the January 28 demonstration--and now reports of abuse and violence against activists while in detention--prove that the police were the ones bent on violence.

In keeping with their past behavior, the Oakland cops used tear gas and pepper spray on largely nonviolent protesters and arrested dozens of people without warning at several points in the day. Some of those arrested spent more than three days in detention, suffering abusive conditions.

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (speaking), while Police Chief Howard Jordan
Oakland Mayor Jean Quan (speaking), while Police Chief Howard Jordan

At the same time, the demonstration and its aftermath raise important questions about the next steps for the Occupy movement, and a discussion of them is taking place on the left. Among people who have participated in Occupy Oakland activities and organizations that have been allies in the struggle, there are doubts about the movement's tactics and direction.

One obvious issue is the actions of a small number of people who broke into City Hall late at night on January 28 and committed acts of vandalism. This irresponsible and backward behavior handed city officials and the media a perfect weapon to smear the whole movement.

Meanwhile, a statement issued in the name of the Occupy Oakland Move-In Assembly called for an indefinite occupation of Oakland International Airport and City Hall. Considering that the January 28 demonstration was unsuccessful in its goal of taking over an empty building to establish a new base camp for Occupy, these even more ambitious actions would be doomed to fail--and would provide authorities with another excuse for repression and slandering activists.

MEDIA ACCOUNTS of the January 28 demonstrations connect the City Hall vandalism with the over-1,000-strong march and action to occupy the vacant Kaiser Convention Center--suggesting that when protesters were unable to take the Kaiser Center, they headed back downtown and stormed City Hall, where 400 people were arrested.

In reality, the vandalism of City Hall occurred at night, long after most of the arrests had taken place, and involved a small number of people.

The main demonstration gathered at the renamed Oscar Grant Plaza at noon and stepped off an hour later, with a diverse crowd that included families with their children. The march was shadowed by riot police the whole way, and demonstrators were stopped by police lines when they attempted to move in to the Kaiser Center.

After activists retreated back to Oscar Grant Plaza, in the early evening, a smaller demonstration of several hundred set out through downtown, with the intention of making a second occupation attempt. Police tried to box in protesters at Henry J. Kaiser Memorial Park, where they gave a single, barely audible dispersal order that was later applied to the whole night. The cops used tear gas against marchers and later cornered the bulk of demonstrators outside a YMCA at 24th and Broadway. This is where most of the 400 arrests occurred.

Hours later, a smaller group--reported by police to be 50 people, but probably half that number or less--managed to get into the lobby of City Hall and vandalize the inside.

The vandalism committed inside City Hall was stupid and inexcusable. It predictably provided ammunition for the Oakland establishment and the corporate press to attack the Occupy movement. This small group made it easy for the media to smear everyone who participated in the day of protest.

Meanwhile, the media conveniently ignored or downplayed the overwhelming violence of police. The mass arrests were taken out of context to make the protesters appear to be the instigators, when the vast majority of activists were nonviolent. In fact, when the second march was hemmed in outside the YMCA, the chant from protesters was "Let us disperse."

Thanks to the media's distorted coverage, Mayor Quan and Oakland police were able to present themselves as victims of a movement that is out of hand--and the brutal and unlawful treatment of hundreds of protesters became a secondary issue when this was by far the largest act of violence of the day.

Police used tear gas and other weapons throughout the day. A number of arrestees reported being handled brutally or beaten when they were grabbed by officers, and others had their hands bound so tight that their hands began to turn blue.

The treatment of activists in jail was likewise atrocious. Some detainees sent to Santa Rita Jail were made to sit in a bus left in the jail parking lot for up to eight hours. They were refused bathroom access and in some cases were made to sit in their own urine and vomit. Arrestees with food allergies were refused any substitute and were unable to eat, some for more than 24 hours. People suffering from health issues were denied medication--there were several reports of seizures among detainees. One protester said he suffered an ulcer attack while being held, but was denied care until an attorney intervened by phone.

This was only the latest in a series of crackdowns by Oakland police, backed up by other East Bay law enforcement agencies. In late October, police raided the Occupy encampment at Oscar Grant Park--later that night, they attacked demonstrators and nearly killed Scott Olsen, an Iraq war veteran who was shot in the head with a tear gas canister.

The cops' behavior on January 28 in preventing Occupy Oakland from using a vacant building to provide much-needed services to the community was consistent in its brutality and violence.

THE OUTCOME of the attempted building occupation raises a number of valid questions and debates about the next step forward for Occupy Oakland.

Of course, when city officials like Mayor Quan raise objections, they are out to undermine the movement. But it's also true that people who have participated in and supported Occupy protests have legitimate concerns, not only about the tactics of a few activists on January 28, but the direction of the movement.

An earlier attempt at a building occupation--on November 2, the night after the successful Oakland general strike call and shutdown of the city's port complex--failed because the organizers of the action tried to carry it out in secret, without an open and democratic discussion. By comparison, the plan to occupy the Kaiser Center on January 28 was organized after a General Assembly vote, publicized openly for a month and built as a mass action.

However, the successful raids that shut down the Occupy encampment have presented challenges for the movement. While networks of Occupy activists and working groups still function, it has become harder for the less-visible movement to keep its connection to broader layers of support. This has been reflected in the declining size of Occupy Oakland demonstrations--15,000 people for the November 2 general strike call, 5,000 to 7,000 for the December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown, more than 1,000 on January 28.

Whatever the hopes and expectations of activists before January 28, it's clear in retrospect that occupying and holding a building like the Kaiser Convention Center couldn't take place with the numbers that turned out that day. An aggressive police force was able to stop several attempts at entering the building. The second march that evening was stopped before it reached another target for a building takeover, but the several hundred people who participated would have been even more overmatched by police.

At this point, going on the offensive with even more ambitious occupation plans would be a disaster. Yet this is exactly what some tendencies within the Occupy movement are advocating. The most dramatic is a statement issued before January 28 by the Occupy Oakland Move-In Assembly that calls for the indefinite occupation of the Oakland International Airport and City Hall. The call ends with the words: "Don't fuck with the Oakland Commune."

Bluster aside, actions like these wouldn't attract enough people for a successful mobilization. They would be a guaranteed setback for the movement, providing the political and media establishment with another opening to attack Occupy activists and further opening the gap that has begun to develop between Occupy Oakland and the wider community.

The way forward is to focus on campaigns and activities that can build up the broader support for Occupy. As activists in every city know, there is no shortage of struggles that Occupy can engage in order to reach out to wider layers of people. For example, in many cities, actions to occupy not large abandoned buildings but foreclosed homes have promoted solidarity among different movements--and achieved some successes in stopping evictions.

In Oakland, schools and libraries are still slated to be closed by a city administration that devotes huge sums to police who attack demonstrators. Nurses and port truck drivers are fighting for better conditions at work. Students, faculty and workers in the California university systems are building for mobilizations on March 1-5 against the cuts in education. Joining these struggles will give all a better chance at victory.

In all these struggles, the police, backed up by hostile city and state officials, will do whatever they can to stop us. We may not be able to overpower these forces on their own terms, but our movements can outmatch them with the strength of our numbers and our solidarity.

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