What Lies Beneath the "Violence" Discourse

I had a frustrating interview on Voice of Russia radio earlier this week. I’ve been on the show a couple of times before, and I’ve found the hosts to be level-headed and fair. So I was deeply shocked and surprised, when, after this last weekend’s events, they kept coming back, again and again, to the “flag-burning” incident in front of city hall on Saturday night. No matter how many times I refocused their attention on the many violent acts which violate the law, civil rights, and the Oakland Police Department’s own policies—things like firing less than lethal ammunition at head-level, beating people with batons, and using tear gas indiscriminately against crowds and bystanders—they came back to the burning of the flag. Inexplicably, they termed flag-burning “violence”.

There’s not a lot of real estate to this flag-burning story. In the midst of some vandalism of city hall, a small group of people took a flag from the building and lit it on fire. Its a meaningless detail that would have evaporated immediately, given the magnitude of other events, had it not been captured by a photographer, and the image broadcast to every major media outlet on earth. Its true that traditionally mainstream media have an almost child-like fascination with fire; in any context, if there is a group, preferably dark-skinned men, standing around an object engulfed in flames, media producers will dump interviews, context, and reporting to rush over and lovingly document it. But the discourse around the flag-burning as violence and the real violence such a label obscures can’t just be blamed on the media.

Public and social media conversations have also categorized this act, and others such as carrying shields and breaking windows, as violence. Thus, what would otherwise be a straight forward story of institutional violence by police, becomes a one for one story of violent actors. In the subsequent drama of city violence against protester violence—the obviously real, most costly and dangerous violence is obscured.

This Violence vs “violence” debate highlights what I think has become the central struggle of the Occupy movement, though some people have called it a distraction. It goes beyond targeting banks and financial institutions for crimes of the last decades. Its not an issue of wealth disparity, nor recapturing the attention of the Democratic party—though many of those, barring the last, are important. This issue is about bringing institutional violence into the open, and revealing the managerial incompetence and corruption that feeds it, and that it in turn protects. Because at its heart, all of the police responses to Occupy throughout the country have hinged on this dynamic and none other.

OPD has an unlimited credit card and a carte-blanche to use it to perform atrocities of varying degree—as we’ve seen, the toll can top millions in a week. Those who’ve sat in on city council meetings over the past months, can see for themselves the privileged position police funding holds; the council debates which service agencies to close and congratulates themselves for laying off enough city workers to save city services from the ax, all to save a few hundred thousand dollars. Meanwhile, millions of dollars continue to evaporate in all-night orgies of nihilistic police violence and unmonitored overtime just outside city hall’s steps. It would be comical if it wasn’t so offensive.

That, of course, is only the tip of the funding iceberg; each year, the city spends several million dollars to settle up with people whose lives have been destroyed by trauma and violence in OPD horror-shows. The price tag for these lawsuits approaches sixty million over the past decade. This will surely be a record year of payouts, given the near-deaths caused by OPD brutality, the false arrests facilitated by the Alameda County Sheriff and District Attorney and the killing of Derrick Jones by OPD officers in 2010.

Add to this, overtime—which even in lull years, reaches ten to twenty million dollars yearly. The city relies on overtime to pay for this luxury-level violence, rather than staff the police department to the levels that its own data suggest are optimal for a city this size. This unregulated over-time infusion of tens of millions annually, obviously costs the city more than it would if it simply hired more officers. But the sleight of hand allows city council people to pretend that they’re being sober and frugal. The over-time enhanced base salaries double, increasing from relatively high working class levels of 69,000, into the hundreds of thousands. Meanwhile, the judgment and mental health of officers deteriorates from over-work.

Despite this ruinous outlay, the city doesn’t lack wealth. In addition to a gigantic port operation which exists only to consume the money it generates, the city owns well over a thousand buildings and lots that are sitting unused. There is no hurry to make use of them, either to shore up services or to sell for cash to make up shortfalls. Just three days after blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in violent police repression to prevent a large group of activists from turning unused space into a community center, the city council voted to decimate its City Economic Development Agency’s real estate department. This city agency, charged with unloading surplus property, is now left with one agent to deal with the glut of its holdings. The department’s head, Ava Jourdain, appeared at a city council meeting on January 31 [here testimony begins at 01:13:57] to criticize the unfathomable decision by the council to lay off the very revenue-generating staff that it would count on to balance the budget after the dissolution of state development funds.

The lay-offs will hinder creating construction jobs, managing properties and issuing determinations for unused city buildings as surplus so they can be prepared for sale—all this according to Jourdain and other department employees who spoke the night of the budge vote. While the city’s empty buildings and lots would never have benefited Oakland’s 99%, the city’s incompetence will also prevent it from selling them for the benefit of the 1% or to fill its own coffers. Despite the fact that the real estate agency manages over 250 million dollars in assets that it could sell if fully funded, the city instead laid off the workers that could have solved the budget deficit several times over. Indeed, the sale by the department of the Champion Street Fire House is the main reason that Children’s Fairy Land, which had been slated for a 40% cut, will continue to operate. Motivated by the threat of public embarrassment, council people avoided this Dickensian act at the last minute by liquidating the unused firehouse in an ad-hoc budget amendment.

The balance between extreme violence in the task of security, and extreme incompetence in the task of management is not coincidental—it exists at every level of government in this country. It is the feature, not the bug. The violence exists to prevent the people of a city or nation from reclaiming the assets that the institution holds in their name, but squanders over and over again through indifference, greed and corruption. The specter of that violence must be real and threatening; otherwise such incompetence experienced year after year in a lifetime, would be too much for people to accept without action.

Given all of these horrifying facts, it becomes easier to understand why the siren call of fretting over symbolic violence continues to siphon the concern of liberals and centrists. Without this fig leaf, these people would be forced to admit that the brutal police department is not only the cause of violence, but of bankrupting the city; and that while brutalizing the people of the city, the government squanders its resources through ineptitude. This is too much for people invested in the status quo to accept. Its easier to believe that there’s a good reason for that very expensive institutional violence, rather than explore the reality that it protects a supreme level of wasteful apathy and incompetence at city hall.

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16 thoughts on “What Lies Beneath the "Violence" Discourse

  1. You must be new in this town, since you are not aware of the work that the “leftists” and “centrists” have been doing against police violence for years and years. Your relentless campaign to alienate these allies from Occupy Oakland is of some concern, and I think it would be fair to everyone if you exposed the thinking behind it. Why do you think it’s useful to insult as many Occupy allies and supporters as possible and dwindle their numbers? Do you think that having supporters among actual Oaklanders damages Occupy Oakland in some way?

    • Get back to me when you actually address something in the piece I just wrote. I was born at Highland General Hospital, and will probably die there, not that it matters.

  2. @ Anouk. Way to repeat the racist “outside agitator” line from OPD and City Hall talking points. Because everyone in Oakland has the same politics and thinks the same way, and only people who live within the geographical boundaries of the city have the right to protest one of the most corrupt police departments in the country. By the way, OPD regularly sends its officers to police protests elsewhere–Berkeley, Richmond, you name it. What does “actual” Oaklanders mean exactly–people who share your politics?

    And what makes you think the author isn’t aware of the “years and years” of “liberal” or “centrist” organizing and how effective that has been in making the OPD less brutal?

  3. That interview was unbearably frustrating. They asked you for your opinion about the flag burning, and you gave it. Then they just kept badgering and even being defensive that you weren’t as impressed with the flag burning as they were. At the end she repeated the ‘ were just covering both sides of the issue’ regurgitation. Except, as you pointed out repeatedly, one side was OPD’s real and ongoing violence, including murder, which has, among other many other negatives, resulted in millions of dollars in law suits, and then the ‘other side’ was a flag burning that you were somehow supposed to express shame or outrage or something. I really don’t know what they were expecting from you or trying to pull out of you.

    Thanks for posting another informative post, and also for at least attempting to speak some sense into one media outlet in order to get the story out. Sorry that they wasted your time with their ‘dog with a bone’ mentality.

    • Actually, after years of watching debates on the Palestinian issue in a similar frame, and watching the “pro Palestinian” buy into the frame, it was catharctic. But thanks

  4. Petty vandalism of city hall pissed off many people. Just as other vandalism and throwing things pissed people off at previous OO events. I don’t give a fuck about flag burning – use flags as kindling for all I care – but I do give a fuck about people coming into city hall and nihilisticly trashing shit. The only answers I’ve heard in the blogoverse/twittervers to a critique of this behavior were a) The cops are way worse/they started it or b) it’s not violence. The OPD are extremely violent, dangerous, chronically overreact, etc, of course the OPD is worse than us! Of course kettling is wrong! And of course violence against people is worse than property damage! But I don’t care whether you call it violence or not, I still don’t want people trashing city hall. I love the history of our city, and the physical representations of that history. I don’t want shit trashed. What is the meaning or purpose of this behavior? I would actually like my city to have an infrastructure, not just have it destroyed!

    Likewise these FTP marches are just exhausting. Cat and mouse with the cops is not to my mind meaningfully addressing police violence in Oakland. I don’t have a beef with your critique of the city’s spending priorities, but I am in fact pretty annoyed at the way the city is spending overtime money on these marches. I don’t think it’s a realistic goal that the cops would just leave the marches alone when they are specifically framed as an antagonism with the cops.

    What frustrates me is that many of the most vocal people in OO are resistant to acknowledging behavior that is problematic within the movement. People trashing stuff is dismissed as “a few people” or treated like something we can’t do anything about. As if any critique is irrelevant.

    Yeah, it’s awesome if all this leads to the government becoming irrelevant and disappearing, to be replaced by autonomous mutual aid. But I’m positive that is not a goal for the majority of Oakland. For now it comes off as a weird and constant assault on City government. Distaste for that constant confrontation with the City is expressed in the many critical op eds in Oakland Local for example, and around the blog world. It certainly is the feeling I get when I talk to neighbors and friends about OO.

    • I think the city hall thing was a failure of imagination and a gut reaction to what had just happened. But it is sort of a blip as far as I’m concerned. The actual damage was minimal.

      I just wish people cared about over time the other 365 days of the year, when its being used to create a private security force for the city council, and as sneaky accounting to pretend that the city is cutting spending. Somehow they don’t, which to me is actually a symptom of the problem I’m writing about here. Where are the RTP marches by people like you? The reign in the city spending on police marches? The good governance marches? None. I’m afraid. I guess you don’t care about the city I love.

      • (: Let’s not either of make assumptions about what we’re doing with our time.

        I agree with you about spending mismanagement.

        I just feel alienated by the lack of interest in internal accountability that seems to be the culture of OO. You could say I should then get more involved in planning myself but it’s a bit of a catch 22: the more the culture of OO alienates me, the less I want to be involved (and the less I show up).

  5. The internal accountability seems to happen internally, not in cyberspace unfortunately. If you’d been at the meeting on Wednesday, you would have seen a lot of criticism which was welcomed. And I’m sure there’s more to come. I’m not sure I see the need to jump into an already antagonistic public sphere and heap more shit about our mistakes. Others seem to be taking care of that pretty well.

    By the way, you can get three people and put a proposal together for a well thought out mass action. Not sure what’s stopping you.

    • The issue of violence at OO actions reminds me of the issue of substance abuse at camps. In both cases it seems to me:
      1) The effects of the violence are felt mainly by Occupy itself.
      2)Most Occupiers who are not creating the problem wish it was not occurring.
      3)There are mixed opinions about to what extent to take a keep-it-in the-family approach.
      Sounds like you are for the keep-it-in-the-family approach.

      BTW, even though this comment sounds critical, this is one of my very favorite blogs.

  6. At least from the InterOccupy conference call this morning, it seems there is no resolution to the issue of Violence/”violence” vis a vis Occupy. I got in about 20 minutes late, but didn’t notice anybody from OO on the line — for a discussion about Nonviolence vs Diversity of Tactics as exemplified by Occupy Oakland recently. Heh.

    As far as I can tell, despite all the dissension and dispute, OO has done something astonishing: it has successfully delegitimized the civic authorities. That picture of Quan staring forlornly and pathetically at the overturned model of the City Hall was the perfect metaphor. Nothing like this level of de-legitimaztion of authority has happened in this country for a very long time.

    I sincerely hope that you and others in Oakland recognize what an accomplishment that is, celebrate your victory, and that you’re prepared to step in when the time comes.

    Kudos.

  7. Burning a U.S. Flag and then playing the RACE CARD to rationalize THAT’S THE REASON media picked it up? Yeah, forget how much money you think the world owes you, or your petty jealousy at falling so far the comparison to what the Jones’s have (because the Jones’s have WORKED FOR YEARS FOR WHAT THEY OWN), and let’s put the emphasis of your jambalia revolution of squawlor on how unfair the media is to you now. Poor little occupiers, the camera lens shows what it sees and nothing more.

  8. Pingback: Occupying Philosophy: Simon Critchley and Utopian Tactics | BillRoseThorn

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