The Beginning and End of Occupy Oakland:
The article “Occupy Oakland is Dead,” posted on Bay Of Rage, covers the beginning and end of Occupy Oakland and captures many important points. The origins of Occupy Oakland lie in the first rebellion against the police murder of Oscar Grant on January 7 2009, making Occupy Oakland distinct from other Occupies. The insurgent student movement that fought austerity through building occupations shook up the liberal wing of the student movement that argued occupation as a tactic was akin to property destruction and thus destructive.
Occupy Oakland didn’t apply the logic of the 99% to the police, and was clear how and why the police were violent agents of the 1%. The centrality of food, health care, and shelter as “use-values”, useful items for human reproduction, within the camp symbolized and embodied the seeds of a world free of exploitation.
Incredible political events were launched as a result of Occupy Oakland: the November 2nd march on the port; the unpermitted march on November 19th to Lakeview Elementary as a direct response to the wave of school closures in Oakland; the December 12th west coast shutdown supporting ILWU struggle against EGT; and the January 28th move-in day to upgrade the content of the evicted camp with an actual building; the February 17th immigrant rights march against the firing of undocumented workers at Pacific Steel in Berkeley after an attack by ICE; the February 20th protest at the gates of San Quentin; a wave of neighborhood BBQs in West, North, and Deep East Oakland; and finally, completing its cycle of struggle, actions on May 1st.
Occupy Oakland captured the unfolding radicalism across the nation and upped the ante, with a fierce anti-state and anti-capitalist character.
The authors of the Bay Of Rage article argue, “It makes no sense to overly fetishize the tactic of occupations, no more than it does to limiting resistance exclusively to blockades or clandestine attacks. Yet the widespread emergence of public occupations qualitatively changed what it means to resist.” Occupy Wall Street generally, and its expression in Oakland in particular, opened up a space for newly politicized individuals, revolutionaries, and progressive people of diverse backgrounds to engage with one another directly across various political and identitarian divisions. The engagement went beyond verbal interaction and took the form of direct confrontation with the state, reclamations of public space, and strategic interventions against the circulation of capital. This by all means is true. But what is also true is every labor struggle Occupy Oakland engaged in was also lost, with the most notable example being the ILWU-EGT struggle and the Licorice Factory strike in Union City.
How do we make sense of a situation where, Occupy Oakland, a leading center of resistance, has lost every labor battle it has engaged in? How do we make sense of the limitation that Occupy Oakland’s central space, Oscar Grant Plaza, has been lost. Tahrir square, Plaza del Sol and Syntagma square were spatial centers that facilitated the generalization of rebellion, declaring war on the capitalist order. What is a radical social movement left to do once it has lost its spatial center? In their conclusion, Bay of Rage argues:
We need to breathe new life into our network of rebellious relationships that does not rely on the Occupy Oakland general assembly or the array of movement protagonists who have emerged to represent the struggle. This is by no means an argument against assemblies or for a retreat back into the small countercultural ghettos that keep us isolated and irrelevant. On the contrary, we need more public assemblies that take different forms and experiment with themes, styles of decision-making (or lack thereof) and levels of affinity. We need new ways to reclaim space and regularize a contagious rebel spirit rooted in our specific urban contexts while breaking a losing cycle of attempted occupations followed by state repression that the movement has now fallen into. Most of all, we need desperately to stay connected with comrades old and new and not let these relationships completely decompose. This will determine the health of the Commune and ultimately its ability to wage effective war on our enemies in the struggles to come.
This is very true. But we need to explore further the question of what is the political content of this affinity? We shared a common radical space that no longer exists, so space alone is not what unites us. Many of us in the far left seek to build a movement aimed not at bad politicians, or simply at the police, but at the capitalist order itself. Assemblies and camps are good as political bodies of coordination, but are not political entities in themselves that advance struggle. Struggling against the decomposition of the movement demands serious political objectives and explicit strategies that are carried out during periods of relative “stability,” laying the groundwork for the next mass social rupture.
To the extent that the guiding theory behind Occupy Oakland’s strategy was explicit, it was centered on the insurgency of relative surplus populations, claiming them as the principle revolutionary subjectivity of our time. One area where this strategy proved valid was in the successful check on the police power of the state by blocking OPD intrusion into the camp.
Every movement at this time will be limited in terms of challenging the capitalist system in its totality. Recognizing the role that pure and simple unionism (oriented toward preserving the price of labor-power on the market) has played in preserving the division of labor and thus the divisions within the proletariat, many in Occupy Oakland sought to attack capital from outside of the workplace. This strategic orientation failed to dislodge the corporatist union leadership and to significantly erode the passivity of strategically positioned workers at ports along the West Coast.
With the from-the-outside approach, Occupy in Oakland, Seattle, and Portland demonstrated the potential for classwide consciousness, but lacked the requesite base within the workplace that is necessary for sustained proletarian assault on production. Having militants within the workplace, to push a perspective for a class-wide offensive, could first mobilize an internal offensive within the workplace, port, school, etc., and then mobilize with higher level of affinity and coordination “Occupy” forces into the picket lines. Moving forward we’re going to need to build these relationships; and we can do it with an appreciation for the interests of the “89%” of the workers who are nonunion, as well as those who have been rendered redundant and unemployed by automation and austerity.
One positive example was the work the Occupy Oakland Labor Committee did mobilizing to support the striking American Licorice Factory workers in Union City. The support of Occupy brought some forces to the picket line and helped keep the strike from being isolated. This show of solidarity opened up the possibility of further, more political intervention: many of the workers on the picket line were talking about how it would have been more strategic to occupy the factory than to strike on the outside. After a narrow majority of workers signed the regressive contract Occupy Oakland pulled out, instead of deepening the work that had already started with workers on the picket line.
Despite the eviction of the “vortex” at Oscar Grant Plaza, Occupy Oakland will continue to live as a valuable residue of consciousness, having injected the spirit of non-cooperation with capitalist institutions, the accessible formula of the 99%, and example of political power flowing from the redefinition of space along communal lines. The experiential quality of Occupy unlocked the inner militant in scores of people who only subconsciously might have aware of their political agency. Networks of organizers broadened and the splintering of the singular Occupy movement into spinoff collectivities all represent the lasting influence of the spatial takeover tactic. Organizers who have been working in the arenas of eviction and foreclosure defense, against school closures, against police brutality, for immigration rights, and workplace based labor struggles, will continue to do the work they do. This work was already going on prior to Occupy, but received a paradigm shift through the impact of Occupy, leaving these struggles now more interrelated than ever.
So Occupy served as a centralizing force for a diverse array of political actors. This embryonic unity or spontaneous united front was unprecedented in the Bay for decades, short-lived though it was. As we look for ways to perpetuate the best of Occupy and extend its potentials, it important to reinvigorate alliances that have broken since the apex of the encampment.
The end of the sequence of struggle, which began with the establishment of the camp at OG Plaza in October, became clear during the lead-up to May Day. Discussing appropriate tactics for International Workers Day, a rift with origins going back to a proposal to change the name of Occupy to Decolonize Oakland emerged on a more concrete basis – specifically, around whether or not to obtain permits for a march from East Oakland to Oscar Grant Plaza. Though onlookers saw the argument about permits happening between the leading figures of Occupy Oakland and those of the Decolonize split, there were other political actors on the scene.
A coalition brought together in defense of a group of undocumented workers fired from Pacific Steel Factory in Berkeley helped to link that workplace struggle to the immigrants’ rights and occupy movements. The connections forged between the fired steel workers, all of whom were undocumented, and the activists continued beyond the February 17th “Marcha Por la Dignidad” that saw hundreds of steel workers marching against state repression, with most joining the Dignity and Resistance (D&R) coalition that formed to organize an East Oakland march on May Day.
Although Decolonize called for D&R, the first public May Day action committee, it was much broader than the Decolonize milieu from the very beginning.
A few weeks after the initial D&R meeting, Occupy Oakland started its own May Day committee, and it became clear that there was little collaboration and communication between the two groups despite efforts on the part of go-betweens to facilitate productive political discussions aimed at reconciling the political contradictions.
Immigrant rights organizers have a history of getting permits for marches and working with the NLG to set up safeguards against police and ICE repression against undocumented workers. Many, but not all, within the D&R coalition pushed for permits, and when the leaders of Occupy Oakland found out the differences threatened to boil over. Accusations of privileged citizen chauvinism against the mostly, though by no means exclusively, white leaders of Occupy Oakland competed with accusations of paternalism and reformism against the mostly Latino organizers within D&R. Unfortunately attempts to discuss, understand, and move towards reconciliation of what appeared to be contradictory political approaches were unsuccessful, despite the fact that many of the undocumented comrades were open to an unpermitted rally, and significant leaders of the Occupy Oakland camp were open to meeting with D&R organizers to build trust.
On the day of May 1st, Occupy Oakland held a rally downtown that was attended by a group of demonstrators significantly smaller than the number who attended the Dignity and Resistance march a few hours later. D&R organizers at the downtown demonstrations noted that the D&R march was not announced during any of the speak outs, nor were any of the other immigrant workers’ struggles mentioned. However, a prominent OO leader did speak about the D&R march on the radio. This leader stated that there was no reconciliation between the two committees’ political approaches, and that the D&R organizers played into the hands of the state by seeking out permits and legitimation from the same body of people who would take those permits and use them to de-legitimize Occupy Oakland’s downtown rally.
The question of permits is one which is important, but also blown out of proportion by many who would boycott (at least in theory, as we’ll see below) an action on the basis that it is permitted by the state. On the one hand, it is true that the state seeks to delegitimize the political activity of those who do not have permits once some sector of the movement goes through the legal process of obtaining them. On the other hand, obtaining permits often creates an illusion of a safety net for workers who want to participate in struggle and who are more vulnerable to ICE and other state agencies. People who have more to lose from confrontations with the state, and who don’t want to engage in those confrontations lightly, may come out in larger numbers. It’s unclear how much practical protection permits provide if the state wants to shut you down, but the illusion is powerful no matter the truth behind it.
In this particular instance, it seems sectarian on the part of some of our comrades to abstain from participation in the permitted march – a lost opportunity to demonstrate solidarity and build relationships across milieus. The contradictory position taken by many of die-hard anti-permit Occupy Oakland leaders came to the surface during the afternoon of May Day when hundreds of demonstrators retreated to San Antonio – the site of the permitted rally – to run away from the inevitable police crackdown that occurred downtown. We heard some of the leading comrades say, “We came here to be safe.”
Lastly, the true paternalism brought to the surface on May Day was demonstrated by a third tendency – neither Occupy Oakland nor Dignity and Resistance. This time, it was a coalition of nonprofit activists called Oakland Sin Fronteras who lead a splinter march of hundreds of high school students and other activists away from San Antonio Park. The given reason for this was that they deemed the environment “unsafe” due to the presence of black clad activists in the streets upon the arrival of the D&R march to the park.
The paternalism identified here is not simply due to the decision to direct the youth on a “safer” route, but rather due to the behavior of Oakland Sin Fronteras (OSF) organizers leading up to May 1st. While OSF activists did attend a few of the early D&R meetings, they were not a consistent presence throughout the months of organizing that went into building the successful march. However, at one of the final meetings of D&R, OSF activists showed up and proposed that they lead the march since they have been “doing a lot of work in the community” and had organized the prior years’ May 1st rallies. This type of behavior reflects a sense of ownership over communities by nonprofit activists who see themselves as the genuine representatives of the entire community, and who bait activists who do not work directly with them as “outside agitators.” No East Oakland assembly chose the nonprofits in OSF as their representatives though, nor decided on the sectarian split march. This brings up the important question of how activists develop roots among proletarian communities , as well as highlighting the fact that simply having roots in working class neighborhoods does not mean that these are radical roots – they can also be liberal roots.
The Coming Struggle:
As the California budget is 10 billion dollars shorter than expected, September to December will surely usher in a new wave of struggle. This summer, Oakland is expecting one of its largest waves of foreclosures in its history. The Oakland Unified School District is carrying out its plan to close five elementary schools to save 2 million dollars, and attacking the teachers’ union as a secondary front in the ongoing privatization of Oakland schools. EGT will continue to attack every port on the West Coast to generalize the contract it pushed on ILWU local 21 – the contract which took away the hiring hall and the right to work stoppages, gains won in the 1934 general strike.
This summer represents a time to develop activists into militants, and militants into collectives of militants – revolutionary people who are politically dedicated to operations of resistance independently of how favorable or unfavorable the terrain may seem. The movements that do exist regarding housing, schools, transportation, labor, and police brutality should deepen their strategic assessments of what is possible, and refine organizational forms to maximize resistance in the battles in front of us. We’ve gained deep experiences in the past 9 months and have great potential to maximize these lessons in the coming year.
There is a reason why military strategists among the ruling class and the working classes meticulously study the film The Battle of Algiers. Underground cells of militants demonstrated the capacity to execute sharp political objectives and baffle the colonial powers. The end of the movie showed how isolated acts of resistance transformed into a general strike. Oakland entered its most recent and serious cycle of struggle with the Oscar Grant movement, starting on January 7 2009 and ending in late 2010. Occupy Oakland started in September 2011 and ended this particular sequence of struggle on May 1st 2012. Political preparation for the next sequence demonstrates that, if Occupy Oakland is formally dead, a new form of resistance must be born out the ashes. These are our humble aims, seeking to connect with old and new comrades, preparing a battle plan in anticipation of the coming attacks by capital.