Over the last two months, Occupy Oakland has seemed to take the express lane to national level visibility and de facto leadership of the Occupy movement. An open camp at the seat of city power, in tension and without negotiation with city hall, marked a unique movement from the start. The openness created the matrix for a mass movement of the poor, marginalized and forgotten, with new political paradigms created outside of the academic and political mainstream. The tension led to a certain actualization of that potential, culminating in uniquely brutal and nearly fatal police repression that exposed the limits of police violence in a government that requires the fig leaf of consent. With every brutal repression, more liberals and apolitical people have been radicalized, both in Oakland and the nation, bringing out tens of thousands to unsanctioned protests, where before there were only hundreds.
There were also limits to this strategy and the structure that made it possible. The camp is gone now, and the people that lived in it, perhaps, for the time being too exhausted to replant it. But this has left a perplexing question for many occupiers, both old and new. What happens to a mass movement predicated on an openness based in a public access and presence when it loses its tether to the physical world? The GA remains, of course. Unlike its reputation as a clown show of jeering white male anarchists [a sometimes accurate description] it is more open to co-optation than any organizational structure I’ve seen to date. For whatever reason, attendance has dwindled, and the opportunity for any group to gain a discursive foothold there, through consensus, must be some kind of great secret at this point, because it remains surprisingly unexploited. The GA still remains an important venue for directing a large number of people in continual public action. The struggling vigil-type actions, which have continued since the destruction of the camp in the form of the tree sit and the OGP vigil, have, in one way or another, been connected to the GA and their open structure and “mass” character.
There’s also a concurrent move towards cadre actions, where unwieldy tactics such as foreclosure defense, which up till now remain a tactic that can’t be planned openly in the GA, move through social networks and in-loops. Whatever efficacy they may have, foreclosure defense is not a mass movement, it does not invite in poor communities–rather it services them in a traditional way [though, there are ways of making it mass that have yet to be discussed seriously].
At the other end of this spectrum, the movement’s “mass” actions have relied on existing networks in labor and community organizations. This brand of “mass” actions allow day-of participation, but the planning still relies on plug-in, and that phase, though at least rooted in working class communities, still can keep out the vast majority of Oaklanders who’ve never been politically active and are not members of unions and other organizations. Left out of this mix, of course, is a vast untapped reservoir of unorganized and struggling labor, ignored in every political and social context in this country.
This all leads me back to what’s remained so special about the encampments as a nexus point for joining the skilled, and unskilled, the connected and disconnected, the privileged and the forgotten. Without the participation of the latter in those dichotomies, we go back to what’s comfortable and traditional—closed off cadre actions and affinity groups, or short-lived mass actions that emerge only from institutional organizing. These may be even more effective than before, and certainly more radicalized; but they’re not a substitute for a participatory mass movement. That is, if it’s a mass movement we want.
Now that that’s out of the way.
Yesterday’s 20 hour port closing marathon action was glorious. Liberal haters like Andrew Leonard, Chip Johnson and assorted local quasi-anonymous twitter-empowered city hall-servicing nobodies, will be pulling out all the stops today with an insincere tidal wave of concern for the putative working class victims of anti-1% actions. But yesterday’s unprecedented coordinated port closure was a victory, not just for them, but by them.
From the moment we arrived at the port around five thirty am, to the point that the last die-hard protesters left in the wee hours, truckers everywhere in the port loop were cheering us on for the most part; industrial horn-honking echoed everywhere throughout the port. From the very beginning, local Teamsters and Longshoremen rank and file supported the strike, despite the claim from the 1%-aligned international union offices in Washington DC that they did not support the action. Though truckers independently organized to speak for themselves in support of protesters, and against slave-labor conditions, media more often than not ignored solidarity. Of course, that’s not the story the media came to get. Once they got hold of the truckers meme, local media convinced themselves they were a trucker’s advocacy group, bravely supporting their interests against the protesters seeking to bring attention to their plight, while guaranteeing their right to work in an obscure and dangerous low-paid perpetuity. Don’t thank the media; that’s just their job.
Of course, there’s half a dozen more no-brainer arguments for why the port protests have been a good idea–drawing attention to the fact that the port makes billions in profits but does little to enrich the city is the unqualified best, in my opinion. Beyond those, for me, the best argument for why the port action was a success–and why it should be repeated despite the naysayers–was in the beauty of the mass action that made it possible. The question is not whether Occupy Oakland is popular with “workers”, or any other group. Indeed, its quite possible that they think we’re every bit the stinky, hairy, all-caucasoidal trust-funded hippies the false media narrative of the past three months suggests.
OO’s power is in recalibrating what people THINK they believe about their lives, about possibilities, about activism, about their economic relationships. And most importantly, about the people they share their lives, work and city with. I’ve felt this myself even within the organization itself.
The past few weeks have been a brutal time for Occupy Oakland. With the loss of the camp came a diverse set of trajectories in which to continue, and a diminishing of the solidarity felt by the camp denizens, its protectors and developers. Some have chosen specific forms of activism that have taken them away from visible occupation—foreclosure defense, as I mentioned. Others have tried to maintain the link to the plaza with toe-hold actions, such as the vigil and the tree sit, but have received little support. The GA has shed attendance as the accumulation of separate actions, the cold of winter and simple fatigue take their toll. And, of course, the Decolonize vs. Occupy schism was a disheartening detour of wasted energy and emotion.
But the problems are beyond even such real and understandable physical conditions and realities, in my view. Without the camp, internet connectivity has become the focal point of organizing and discussion, fostering misunderstandings, misperceptions, increasingly bruised feelings and divisiveness. It is the literal dehumanization of the movement, as people move away from the hard, but productive work of forging physical bonds, to the deceptively easy, but ultimately unsatisfying and confusing process of decision making in the ether of cyberspace.
In my case, at least, I’ve been at a loss to describe who was in this movement with me—a cacophony of muted texts by unknown screen and birth names replaced the hundreds of faces and voices I had come to know at the camp. Without the gravity of Oscar Grant Plaza between us, we began to drift apart from each other, and with that drift has come alienating dissipation. Worse, those that have never existed in cyberspace began to disappear from the terrain of our Online Occupy Oakland, existing in an alternate dimensional OO with different schedules, different concerns and even slightly different physics. During the camp days, there were indeed schisms, disagreements, self-segregation; but you could see them all. They were there before you, they required mending, they could not be ignored, and they were addressed in a tumultuous, impossible and eternal conversation about who we were, what we wanted, and how to get there.
But all of these problems that we’ve accumulated over the past few weeks evaporated when our bodies and minds met in a new real world forged by our presence in the city’s streets. Stupid, interminable fights that I’d been locked into with numerous people over the last two or so weeks evaporated, cleansed by the power of coming together as a living organism with one intent and ten thousand rationales. No enmity of mine survived the day; even someone who I really thought I was about to come to blows with two days ago happily apologized to me, and I to him.
What I like to point out as amazing each time Occupy Oakland has yet another successful mass action, is how little any of the pre-existing ideas of what’s possible, who we are and what we should do, matter. People may, in their ever day, wonder what the hell those OO people are doing; why they’re camping, vigiling and sitting in trees; when they’ll come up with a list of demands; and why they’ve hurt Mayor Quan’s feelings. But the sight of thousands of people moving through the city like a spontaneous life form–as a diverse ONE, chanting, playing music, laughing, supporting one another, in joyous awe of their own collective power—I think touches the heart of all that come into physical contact with it.
The power of people organizing in ways that are not predictable, nor allowed, is in itself a cognitive, spiritual, human revolution. It’s a herd of bicycles orbiting freely in an intersection; it’s the wonder you feel when you get in front of the crowd a few hundred feet and see what you’ve been a part of, and will be a part of again; its occupying completely the space you’re not allowed to be in, and inviting in those voices telling you you’re not allowed to be there. Its shared existence in time and space as a form of power that few organized forces can hinder. It’s a revolution that can’t be stopped now that its begun. We keep proving that every time we do this.
Someone mentioned a BBC interview I had done the day of the action. Here it is ; it starts at 17:37 for some reason BBC’s World Today doesn’t archive permanently, so its only up for a few days. I’d had two hours of sleep that day, and I think you can hear it in my voice. But I pretty felt a pretty hefty level of emotional excitement as I always do at OO actions. Its because I’m a cynic, who always thinks its going to be a disaster, and then is moved by the level of support that keeps turning out.
News guy makes some smarmy remark about “scaling wire fences” in intro. It should either be ignored, or laughed at, but not taken seriously.