Riots, Freeways, and BART Stations: Reflections on How We Attack White Supremacy

This reflection was written by a comrade of the Advance the Struggle crew on November 29th, a day after the Black Friday shutdown of the West Oakland BART Station.  It was not published because it provoked some internal debate and discussion within our crew that we wanted to have prior to putting it out online.  

We offer it here in its rough and unfinished form as an artifact of what some of us were thinking of in the beginning of the national rebellion against the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner.  

Riots, Freeways, and BART Stations: Reflections on How We Attack White Supremacy

The police execution of Mike Brown is not simply another example of black youth experiencing a state sponsored murder.  In addition to the tragedy of another black life stolen by the white supremacist state, Mike Brown’s death has called into being a nationwide movement against police brutality.  This movement has further impressed upon many people’s consciousness the delegitimization of the state that the murders of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin and others have left.  Further, the rebellions and direct actions that have been carried out by individuals, communities and organizations have demonstrated an expansion in the repertoire of resistance tactics that new and experienced militants are willing to carry out in order to disrupt the white supremacist capitalist economy and its racialized state.

So far, the two main forms of militant action that people have taken have been street rebellions characterized by informal, decentralized and evolving leadership structures as well as targeted direct actions featuring highly organized, formal and centralized leadership structures.  The rebellions that happened in the streets of Oakland on the the three evenings after the announcement of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson were examples of the former, while the Blackout Collective’s shutdown of the West Oakland BART Station is an example of the latter.

Both sets of actions were successful in disrupting sections of the economy during the holiday season, inflicting high value damage to a capitalist economy during its peak season.  Further, both actions played a role in developing the leadership capacities of young black militants, and secondarily other militants of color and white militants, though in very different ways.  Reflecting on these experiences may help us to begin thinking through how we can build upon the successful acts of resistance we’ve taken, and move forward together in continuing our organizing operations.

Monday, November 24th

Street Protests, Informal Leadership and Racial Composition

Who took leadership during the street protests on the first night of the street protests?  Who followed?  What were the opportunities for politicization that occurred and could have been more widespread?

The racial composition of the protestors on the first night of the rebellion was decidedly mixed.  During the initial rally at 14th and Broadway the main energy was emanating from a chant of “Black Lives Matter! We’re Doing This For Mike Brown!”  This chant was being lead by a circle of black adults and featured a multiracial crowd gathering around them.  A separate circle of chanting was being lead by a group of Maoist Communists a few dozen feet away, but this chanting eventually was ended by the group leading it in order to concentrate the people gathered around the group gathering a larger crowd.  This dynamic could be characterized as being composed of strong black leadership with a multiracial force of latino, asian, native american and white protestors participating as well.  At some point after 7pm, a young black male walked around with a bullhorn announcing, “In 5 minutes we’re going to march,” as he was trailed by two non-black protestors whose bull horn he was using.

While informal black leadership could be measured by the growing circle of protesters gathered around the black lead chanting, the march toward the I-580 freeway was lead by a group with a mixed-racial composition.  The Maoist Communists who were leading the chants that ended up getting subsumed into the black lead circle now re-took the position of informal leadership.

Why was this?

To a large extent it was because they were prepared with some crucial materials, not the least of which included chants, bullhorns, banners, and the political energy needed to attract attention.  This should be a lesson for us: the shifting terrain of initiative and informal leadership that occurs in a demonstration of this type can be easily taken if you spend some time preparing your ideas, slogans, chants, banners, and public speaking skills.

On our part, our crew of communists brought two bullhorns to the gathering and on the walk over we discussed how we would make use of them.  We decided that we would circulate the means of communication throughout the crowd, attempting to amplify voices of people we may have met or already knew who had something to say.  This was effective to the extent that our comrades who took up the bullhorn put forward anti-capitalist and anti-racist (with specific agitation against anti-black racism) messaging to the crowd.  This was useful for putting out political ideas throughout the course of the march, as well as for publicly speaking about key points of decision making along the route, especially when we arrived at the freeway.

Freeway Shutdown

Once the march arrived at the I-580 off-ramp at Lake Park Ave, the leadership of the march once again shifted.  The political initiative was taken by a mixed-racial grouping of protesters who were brave enough to be the first ones to cross onto the freeway into oncoming traffic.  While many people hung back at first, fearing the violence of the police, eventually enough people took the courageous steps onto the black pavement that it became a safer space for people of all abilities to participate in.

As we milled around on the freeway, people got on bullhorns and reminded us that people across the country were shutting down freeways in response to the non-indictment of Darren Wilson.  The tactic of freeway shutdowns was discussed by the participants as a means of bringing society to a halt, of shutting down the crucial arteries of people’s commutes as a means of bashing back at the white supremacist legal system.

People who were just minutes before commuting away from their jobs got out of their cars and celebrated the disruption along with the protestors.  As far as we saw, only a single car got impatient enough to attempt to drive through the protestors.  As this driver attempted to get off of the off-ramp and onto the street, protesters circled their care and made clear he would not move, while one of the main Maoist Communists agitating on the bullhorn made a meaningful intervention by reminding the protesters that the white supremacist state and its legal institutions were the enemy, not this random impatient white dude.  No petty-property destruction to this person’s car happened as a result.

We read this as a step forward in the collective consciousness of protesters and emerging militants in the Bay Area; whereas we once marched through Oakland and saw the random destruction of working class people’s cars, we now saw the systematic shutdown of a node in the circulation of cars and people throughout the city.  This is a more meaningful act of interruption because what it destroys is not simply a physical piece of property but rather a social relationship; instead of going about daily life driving to and from work, the freeway shutdown brought forth a different relationship between the protesters and the almost anonymous drivers – a relationship of emerging solidarity and public discussion that disrupted the privatized and individualized existence we lead under capitalist alienation.

Tuesday, November 25th

Very Little Outreach – Still On the Streets

Round 2 happened the following evening.  After gathering at 14th and Broadway, the march went up Telegraph Avenue toward North Oakland. A  major component of the crowd ran up the freeway entrance and attempted to carry out a shutdown of the I-580 freeway again. Unfortunately this time the protesters were not able to coordinate the entire march to takeover the freeway with enough numbers to hold it for more than a few minutes.  At this point, the march was split with

The freeway occupation was not backed up like it was the day before. California Highway Patrol rode in force making sure to not repeat the “success” of Monday. The protesters were surrounded and then closed in, without a method to escape. The freeway protesters analysis of the terrain was weak given this situation. The rest of the march went northbound, building barricades that were put on fire. The crowd was broken into smaller separate groups  the police, disallowing the continued unity of the march. 92 people were arrested that night with more acts of abuses by the police. The level of coordination and the organic unity of the march, was missing, dissimilar to Monday.

One of the most promising aspects of the protests was the fact that it opened up space for newly politicized people to get out into the streets and participate in an action together.  This occurred through the fact that the demonstrations happened in downtown Oakland, a main artery for public transit system, as well as through the decision by protesters to march through neighborhoods rather than simply staying on streets in commercial districts.

In speaking to many of the young black people on the streets, it was clear that they did not come out into the streets to face the police due to being part of any organization.  Many of the stories we heard throughout the days of rebellion involved people coming out because they knew that there would be something happening in downtown Oakland.  This is a nod toward the countless protesters that have gathered here for the past 5 plus years; from the Oscar Grant rebellion, to the Marth 4th movement, to Occupy Oakland, downtown Oakland has become a hub of public demonstrations against white supremacy and capitalist exploitation.

This demonstrates that the persistent presence of protesters from various political backgrounds means something; even beyond the size of any given protest, the continual political presence of radical demonstrators has contributed to a public culture of resistance and protest, despite all limitations of present and past moments.  If we imagine what a revolutionary situation might look like, we can be sure that it will involve the ongoing use of central spaces to gather people from all parts of the city.

However, many of us have asked ourselves: how much does downtown Oakland really represent the heart of the city?  Obviously there are corporate headquarters, state institutions, and tons of retail that surround us as we protest here, but wouldn’t our energy be better spent doing direct outreach and demonstrations in the neighborhoods where police brutality dominate?

To a small extent, this week of rebellion began to breakdown this downtown versus neighborhood dichotomy.  Particularly on the second and third days of protests, marching throughout parts of Downtown, North and West Oakland where people actually live lead to a small but significant layer of predominantly black youth to join the demonstrations. This is a testament to the positive contribution that public demonstrations can make if they decide to combine a direct action attack at spaces of commerce and retail with a presence in working class, black and brown communities.

Secondly, it reminds us to consider the ways in which our actions can reverberate in spaces and among people that we may not have anticipated.  While tightly organized protests convey a sense of organization and structure that is positive, spontaneously oriented rebellions can spill over the edges of our expectations and potentially reach people in ways that can encourage them to activate themselves and become actors in a rebellion that they might have not planned on becoming part of.

Friday, November 28th

West Oakland BART – Shutdown on Blackout Friday!

On the fourth day of protesting, organizers with the Blackout Collective coordinated the most structured and organized demonstration of the week: a shutdown of the West Oakland BART Station.  Pictures alone communicate the power of an all black group of protesters chaining themselves together and blocking the main artery of transit from Oakland to San Francisco from functioning normally on the biggest shopping day of the year.  This action certainly shutdown the BART station for about two hours, but its power reverberated quickly beyond 7th street as images of the protesters locked down in civil disobedience circulated around the internet.

The strengths of this action are not limited to the fact that it was black led, highly organized, and oriented toward taking a direct action against a material representation of the capitalist economy.  These cannot be overstated, and we applaud the organizers for putting themselves on the line as part of the week of rebellion that we saw in the Bay Area.  In important ways this action was quite different than the activities that happened throughout the earlier part of the week; exploring them can be generative of important considerations for us all as we move forward.

One of the main differences between the West Oakland BART protest and the preceding days of rebellion was that the people risking arrest were completely pre-determined by the protesters and organizers.  The benefits of this, and the reasons for preparing in such a way, are clear: the state comes down on black bodies in differential ways than it does on white bodies; given that the action was called for as a black-only action, the state would clearly come down on those breaking the law in disproportionately violent ways.  However, with this level of coordination, the organizers were able to ensure the safety of the protesters, as well as be tightly focused on supporting those that were risking arrest.  This orientation is one that can be best carried out by demonstrations and actions that are coordinated in advance.

The distinction between this type of organized action and the more spontaneously organized actions such as street protests and freeway shutdowns go beyond the safer/unsafe distinction.  It also includes the question of: who are the actors and how do they become participants?  By determining the actors of the protest in advance – both those who were risking arrest and those who participated in the healing circles that happened before the action and outside the BART station – the opening for more spontaneous groups of people to become active participants in the action was limited.  This was purposeful on the part of the organizers, so it’s clear they accomplished their objectives, but it raises the question of how we measure success of actions.

Specifically, it raises question such as: Are we trying to carry out tightly organized actions that don’t get out of control?  Do we see the out-of-control character of street protests as beneficial?  Many of us would answer the second question as wholeheartedly: yes.  The spontaneity of militant street protests can be characterized as beneficial due to the fact that it’s open to a wider group of people, it opens up space for people to take a variety of actions, and it is open to a shifting role of leadership.  All three of these aspects can certainly lead to danger – the danger of not amplifying black voices, the danger of getting more oppressed people into problematic encounters with the state, and the danger of allowing people with problematic motives lead the protests.

However,  even with these dangers, more spontaneously organized protests have the capacity of training people in the types of street battles that are necessary for revolutionary situations to be resolved in our favor.  As someone once said, a revolution is not a dinner party; it’s not a safe space for people to participate in.  But revolution is necessary to get rid of the oppressive conditions we’re faced with, and therefore it’s necessary for oppressed communities to get practice engaging in battle with the state.

For these reasons we see it as useful to consider how these types of tightly coordinated direct actions can be coupled with spontaneously organized street protests.  What would it have looked like for the an action like that carried out by those who lead the West Oakland BART shutdown to have happened while others were blocking the I-580 freeway?  What if these actions were to be done in a coordinated manner that took advantage of the fact that the police were stretched thin and not capable of concerted responses on either end?  Would this type of action have the capacity to not only shutdown the system at multiple chokepoints, but also to allow space for various social groups to become actors on the multiple stages?  The fact that the successful West Oakland BART protest raises these questions only adds to the success of that action.

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