Ed. Note: Oct. 25 marks one-year since Oakland Police clashed with one of the nation's largest Occupy encampments in front of Frank Ogawa Plaza. While there has been talk of attempts to retake the plaza to commemorate the anniversary, disputes within the movement may be helping to stymie efforts at reenergizing it.
A year ago, when Occupy Oakland began, it seemed like the beginnings of a new grassroots political movement, uniting social, economic and institutional justice movements under one banner.
Twelve months later - on the anniversary of the Oct. 25, 2011, police raid on Occupy’s downtown encampment - the movement has become a mucked-up mess, smeared by in-fighting and finger-pointing, which has overshadowed its larger goals.
In the past few weeks, several Occupy-affiliated factions have issued pointed communiqués through various websites and blogs, both official and unofficial. Instead of focusing their energies on targeting an unjust system, what we’ve been seeing is — cue the banjoes — dueling propaganda aimed at internal divisions within the movement itself. The irony is so thick, you could cut it with a knife.
On Oct. 9, Oakland rapper Boots Riley, one of OO’s more visible faces, wrote a Facebook post denouncing vandalism, which was widely circulated through the blogosphere. Riley stated, “The use of the blac bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary.”
Riley went on to add, “When almost every conversation I have with folks from Oakland about Occupy Oakland has the smashing of windows brought up as a reason people don’t like that grouping … it means the tactic is not working.”
On Oct. 12, a poster identified as “OccupyTheMob” posted an online diatribe against the Oakland Commune – an OO-identified group largely populated by anarchists – whom it labeled “agents of mass vandalism” and a “racist, criminal organization” composed primarily of “a group of ideological extremists relocated to Oakland in order to foment chaos and destruction.”
On Oct. 16, Occupy Oakland Media – a splinter group, which branched out from OccupyOakland.org and launched its own website last March – issued a “Collective Statement on the Oakland Commune.” In it, OOMedia distanced itself from the Commune, who they called a “vanguard clique.”
According to OOMedia, the Commune’s “disruptive beliefs and actions” include: “embracing destruction for its own sake … actively co-opting the encampment by renaming it according to their values … shutting down all critical conversation of violence, vandalism and ‘diversity of tactics’ … alienating and swaying opinion against peaceful protesters … [and] planning to infiltrate and instigate unrest in Oakland with or without the participation or consent of the people.”
OOMedia went on to note, in addition to an Oct. 25 press conference, they were planning to start “an apology campaign to heal the rift between the community and Occupy Oakland.”
For many in the community who had initially been supportive of Occupy, but had grown disenchanted after it became evident that no disavowal of violent tactics and vandalism was forthcoming from OO’s official media engine, this was exactly what they had hoped to hear. The only problem was, it seemed to come several months too late, long after the tens of thousands who shut down the Port of Oakland last Nov. 12 had stopped supporting the movement.
Nevertheless, the OOMedia statement caused a stir within Occupy circles and social media comment boards and quickly resonated throughout the remnants of the national Occupy movement.
As blogger Kevin Zeese posted on the Occupy Washington, D.C. website on Oct. 17, “Perhaps no other Occupy has seen the turn in fortunes that Occupy Oakland has seen. Initially it was one of the most successful occupies in the country, drawing tens of thousands to their events, shutting down the port, organizing a mass general strike and having broad appeal to a diverse group of Oaklanders. Then a cadre of Black Bloc - who, we are repeatedly told, are mostly white and come from out of town - began to vandalize stores and seek conflict with the police. Now, Occupy Oakland has shrunk and lost community support. This week it has taken the first steps toward re-starting.”
However, on Oct. 19, the Occupy Oakland Tribune published an article, which later appeared on on IndyBay, challenging the credibility of OOMedia, claiming, “The Occupy Oakland Media Collective does not represent Occupy Oakland … . The only true representative of the movement is the General Assembly.”
The article also noted, “Occupy Oakland does not have a position for or against vandalism and activists have varying attitudes toward this tactic,” and stated – somewhat tellingly – “The General Assembly no longer has large enough attendance to reach quorum–requiring at least 75 people.”
Not to be outdone, an Oct. 22 post on OccupyOakland.org - OO’s “official” website - attributed to the Anti-Repression Committee responded to allegations over mismanagement of funds earmarked for bailing out arrested Occupiers, which were called “baseless accusations.” The post went on to note numerous threats being made against Occupiers who have refused to disavow vandalism and property destruction, noting, “anarchists amongst us have been especially targeted with threats and vigilante violence.
“We are deeply concerned,” the post continued, “by the increasing demonization of ‘anarchists,’ the ‘black bloc,’ and ‘outsiders’ now being conflated under the term the ‘Oakland Commune.'”
It’s hard to know what to make of the effort to reform OO – and the backlash against that effort. There’s no way to tell at this point if this is an honest attempt by a sincere group to renounce tactics widely criticized as ineffective or just a nasty internal squabble that has become public. Without the consensus of a governing body, it’s also questionable whether any entity has the power to quell individuals hell-bent on wreaking destruction in Occupy Oakland’s name.
At this point, some of you are probably wondering, “will the real Occupy Oakland please stand up?” Many others probably stopped caring about OO long ago. A cynic might opine that Occupy protested itself into irrelevancy or point to the millions of dollars incurred by the city of Oakland in clean-up costs and police overtime. A keen observer might note that in addition to the co-option by anarchists espousing black bloc tactics who steered the movement toward destructive ends, OO lost sight of its original goals - namely, being in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street actions against corrupt banks and connecting that struggle to the foreclosure crisis in the Bay Area, as well as ongoing social justice and police accountability efforts.
While the seemingly inexorable march toward federal receivership of the embattled Oakland Police Department initially got a boost from egregious use-of-force violations during Occupy protests, the ongoing “F—k The Police” marches - many of which have resulted in random acts of property destruction - have only sparked public outrage. In and of themselves, they’ve had no impact whatsoever on the ongoing court proceedings over police reform, which have been going on since 2003.
The anti-police, pro-vandalism FTP events became, for many, the most visible evidence of Occupy’s continued existence in the several months since the eviction of the encampment. However, they’ve also completely obscured – and acted counter-intuitively to – a widely-overlooked fact: During the week of the raid on the encampment, crime in Oakland dropped 19 percent overall.
In hindsight, that statistic stands out. It seems to suggest that while Occupy remained focused on nonviolent, peaceful protest and continued to draw large numbers of Oakland residents to Ogawa Plaza area, it had a calming effect on the city, deterring crimes, which might have taken place elsewhere. That’s something to keep in mind, especially given OPD’s recent report that crime is up 20 percent citywide.
As we approach the presidential election of 2012, the great tragedy of Occupy Oakland is what might have been.
Had OO not dissolved into open dissent against itself, it might have continued to influence the national debate over social and economic inequity, perhaps to the point of generating a headwind of momentum toward electoral change. A once-inclusive vision became myopic. That’s a shame, because as the third Obama-Romney debate showed, there is not nearly enough separation between Democratic and Republican positions on many issues, both domestic and foreign. Without the swell of populist support Occupy could have provided, in all likelihood, the November election will not result in the meaningful systemic overhaul Occupiers had hoped their grassroots movement would spark a year ago.
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