What’s on the road ahead for BLM in the Bay?

January 27, 2016

Bay Area activists Alessandro Tinonga and Dana Blanchard look at the anti-racist protests organized earlier this month--and what they tell us about the fight ahead.

THE BAY Area was the site of more than 96 hours of actions over Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend to reclaim King's radical legacy and combat institutionalized racism.

In what has become an annual tradition spearheaded by the Anti Police-Terror Project (APTP), the protests brought attention to issues of gentrification, police brutality and more, and showed the determination of hundreds of people to send a left-wing message in keeping with the values and ideas King struggled for.

But one action in particular--the arrest of 25 activists in a civil disobedience action on the Bay Bridge--captured more general attention than any other. The controversy over it has raised debates that those involved in the movement should consider and discuss.

The actions that took place over the weekend included protests at the Oakland and San Francisco airports, early morning pickets at the homes of San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, disruptions of Lee's speech during an Interfaith Council celebration of King to bring attention to the murder of Mario Woods, and a major march that took place on MLK day.

Oakland activists march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Oakland activists march on Martin Luther King Jr. Day

Despite the weather, a multiracial crowd of over 1,000 people attended the East Bay march. The demonstration left downtown Oakland and made its way to Emeryville. On the way, marchers passed the Emeryville Home Depot to call attention to the police murder of Yvette Henderson last February. Store management responded by quickly shutting the doors and stopping business. At the end of the march, hundreds of people heard from family members who had lost loved ones to police violence, including Jeralynn Blueford, whose son Alan was killed by Oakland police in 2012.

All the actions that took place over the weekend put forward the demands raised by APTP, which include:

Immediate divestment of city funds for policing and investment in affordable housing so people of color can remain in their hometowns of Oakland and San Francisco;

Resignation of Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, who is at the forefront of turning the city into a business developer's paradise.

Immediate termination of San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr, who has been under fire for numerous scandals, including defending officers who were exposed for being part of a white supremacist network.

Immediate termination of Oakland Police Chief Sean Whent, under whom the Oakland Police Department has increased racial profiling.

immediate termination of the officers involved in the murders of Richard Perkins, Mario Woods, Yuvette Henderson, Amilcar Lopez, Alex Nieto, Demouriah Hogg, Richard Linyard and O'Shaine Evans

IN THE media, the other actions over the long weekend were overshadowed by a single event: Several dozen activists, led by the Black queer collective Black Seed, blocked the Bay Bridge, stalling traffic bound for San Francisco for over hours.

The action was well organized: Five cars stopped all the lanes of traffic, and activists then chained themselves onto the bridge, displaying a large banner that read "Black Health Matters," with a live Twitter feed covering the action.

The bridge action sparked a good deal of controversy on social media and beyond. Some of the critical response was outright hostile--in the hours following the action, several Black activists who weren't directly involved with blocking the bridge got anonymous threatening text messages.

But there was also strong support, with radio host Davey D reporting that hundreds of motorists on the bridge expressed sympathy with the protesters. A website set up to raise money for a defense fund for the 25 arrested activists gathered over $10,000 in donations by the next day.

The spectacle of the action undoubtedly sparked many discussions about the issues the protest was designed to highlight, as well as questions about what's next for the antiracist movement.

The Black Lives Matter movement is an important moment in its development. It has changed the U.S. political landscape of the U.S., but still faces major challenges to affect the changes necessary to curb institutional racism and violence.

Opinion polls show that the number of people in the U.S. who think racism is a "big problem" has doubled from four years ago. Coverage of police brutality cases has become more common on local and national news. More officers, though certainly not enough, are being charged in high-profile cases. In the last few months, the movement took to the streets again and forced a chancellor and president to resign at the University of Missouri--and drove out Chicago's police chief, with Mayor Rahm Emanuel under pressure to do the same.

These are certainly victories. But the tasks necessary to curb police violence are still very large.

In the Bay Area, gentrification and police violence have escalated. The Black population of San Francisco has plummeted to only 3 percent of residents, and Oakland lost 25 percent of its Black community in the last decade--the result, among other factors, of skyrocketing housing costs, discrimination that forces many into low-wage jobs, and the ongoing privatization of schools.

Enforcing this new status quo are police forces that have become more aggressive, militarized and entrenched. "Police are the shock troops of gentrification," says Cat Brooks, co-founder of APTP. "Mayors give them a mandate: make this city appealing to developers by any means necessary. City Councils fund police and constantly seek to expand their numbers and their powers."

This explains why violence by police in both Oakland and San Francisco has intensified. A graphic by Mapping Police Violence shows that in 2015, Oakland ranked third among the country's 60 largest cities in police killings per million people, with San Francisco coming in at eighth.

Despite this, though, Oakland Mayor Shaaf is the most popular mayor in over a decade. Though San Francisco Mayor Lee's approval rating has plummeted, the level of gentrification and police violence shows no signs of slowing.

So the question is: As popular as the bridge shutdown was for the movement, will protests like this, involving a small number of people who organize in secret for direct action that is sure to result in arrest, help in achieving the demands set forward by the movement?

TO BE clear, we are in solidarity with the activists who blocked the bridge. Their treatment at the hands of the California Highway Patrol was criminal.

Mia Songbird, a spokesperson for Black Seed, told the San Francisco Chronicle that many of the people arrested were disabled and received "abusive and terrible" treatment. "They were handcuffed from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m.," she said. "They were in really painful stress positions for the entire time."

But at the same time as being in solidarity, we should be able to have a discussion about the strategy and tactics that the movement will need to win the demands it puts forward. The rise of Black Lives Matter has proved we have the possibility of achieving those demands--but it will require larger social forces to get there.

While it is sometimes necessary to carry out actions in secret, limited to a smaller core of people, there are limitations in this method. By definition, of course, it prevents larger numbers from being active participants. It is almost impossible to get hundreds of people plugged into a campaign if only those "in the know" are allowed to take part.

There is also the question of accountability in the movement. While it is clear that the activists of Black Seed and in APTP see their actions as connected and in solidarity with each other, what happens if a group of people, acting in the name of a wider movement, conduct an action that backfires? One that other people committed to the struggle would challenge?

There needs to be some means of a movement as important and vibrant as Black Lives Matter taking up questions like these in an open and democratic manner. Above all, we have a chance right now to engage larger numbers of people and let them become participants in the struggle who play their own role in leading it.

WE WANT to look at some of the lessons from the civil rights movement and what they hold for us today.

Following the Bay Bridge shutdown, some on social media compared the action to another example of direct action associated with a bridge: The 1965 marches from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama that began with the attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Two of the marches didn't get across the bridge--the first of them, on March 7, was confronted by state and local police and racist vigilantes, who brutally beat the 600 demonstrators and forced them to retreat. The world witnessed this brutality on television screens around the world--it was a further turning point in mass support for the movement against the violence of the Jim Crow South.

Eventually, on March 21, a third mass march crossed the bridge and completed the journey to the capital of Montgomery. These marches helped to turn the tide for the movement, pressuring President Lyndon Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act later that year.

The events in Selma were the result of months of planning and years of organizing in the South. They eventually involved thousands of people, not just in the demonstrations, but in the preparations for action, the discussion about how to move forward and so on. Just as important as the action itself was the broad outreach and organizing that came before.

Also, the civil rights marchers were confronting a state that was determined to keep segregation at all costs. It is important for those today who want to see more actions like the Selma to Montgomery marches to understand both the tremendous risks and their mass character.

The struggle that has emerged around Black Lives Matter has the potential to become a mass movement on the same level as the civil rights struggle--one that can also take actions that shake the system to its core. But in order to fulfill this historic mission, we need to be clear about where we are at now, where we need to go and how we can best get there.

SINCE THE Occupy movement of 2011, many forces on the left have championed the idea of demonstrations that "shut it down." By "it," social justices activists generally mean the system that oppresses working people and the poor, people of color and others. But when it comes to specific actions, there is also a specific "it."

There have been several actions in the Bay Area over the past year that have targeted freeways, transportation centers and city streets, with small numbers of people preparing themselves with special equipment, like arm tubes, to most effectively blockade the area.

Such protests, while they can halt the flow of traffic and people, don't have the same impact as shutting down a workplace or a major hub of commerce like the Port of Oakland. In one day, over a billion dollars of materials flow through the Port of Oakland, so a lost day has a direct effect on the bosses' ability to make money. A strike in a workplace shuts down that businesses' ability to make and sell a product or service, again directly affecting the bottom line.

That doesn't mean that taking direct action to shut down bridges and roadways is a bad tactic, and we should only organize such protests when they directly affect the flow of capital. But we do need to ask what is being affected. If the effect of shutting down a bridge or roadway is primarily symbolic or a political statement, than how effective is it in promoting our cause of social justice and freedom?

We raise the example of strikes and port blockades to highlight the amount of planning, solidarity and collective struggle necessary to really shut down the system where it will hurt the most. Think of the cohesiveness workers on picket lines must have, both with each other and with supporters in the community, in order to win a strike. We should aspire to this kind of collective action.

And when it comes to protesting in the streets, it matters who is doing the protesting and how many people are prepared to act together.

In 1991, when George Bush Sr. launched the first Gulf War against Iraq, nearly 150,000 protesters took to the streets the first night of the war, and thousands of them proceeded to shut down the Bay Bridge. Similar protests took place during the 2003 war on Iraq, with, for example, thousands of people in Chicago taking over Lake Shore Drive. In late 2014, when the police who killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner weren't indicted, there were big protests around the country--over a thousand people blocked Interstate 580 in Oakland.

What made these protests different was their mass character, and the fact that they drew new people into the fight and into the streets.

Mass direct action can be a very effective tactic and very inspiring, both for those who directly participate and those who find out about the demonstration. When we see thousands of people out in the streets about an issue, it gives us the sense of being part of a collective voice and struggle.

Capitalism does everything it can to keep us isolated, alienated and thinking that no one else cares about what we care about. It also teaches us that we have no power. Mass protests help us to feel the actual power we have as a collective group of oppressed and exploited people, and mass direct actions can show us that we have the ability to break the rules and challenge the ruling class directly--most of all, because there is strength in numbers.

Our anti-racist struggles today should take inspiration from ones that have come before, but we also have to be realistic and humble about the state of the organized movement today. We aren't near the point of 1965. We aim to get there, but it does us no good to underestimate the work it will take to do so.

Reaching out and educating people, building larger protests, making space for people new to the struggle to get involved and gain experience as organizers, having serious, democratic discussions about how to move forward--all of these are steps we need to be taking now if we want a movement that will eventually be capable of confronting the power of the state.

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