Occupy Oakland, “Outside Agitators,” and “White Occupy”
When Mayor Quan and District Attorney Nancy O’Malley claim that Occupy Oakland is not part of the national Occupy movement, they’re onto something. From the start, Occupy Oakland immediately rejected cooperation with city government officials, wildly flexible state and media definitions of “violence,” and a now largely discredited arguments that the police are part of “the 99%.” After the coordinated raids on Occupy encampments across the country, the innumerable incidents of police violence, and slowly emerging details about the involvement of the Department of Homeland Security and its information “fusion” centers, the supporters of collaboration with the police have fallen silent.
The press releases of the city government, Oakland Police Department, and business associations like the Oakland Chamber of Commerce continually repeat that the Occupy Oakland encampment, feeding nearly a thousand mostly desperately poor people a day, was composed primarily of non-Oakland resident “white outsiders” intent on destroying the city. For anyone who spent any length of time at the encampment, Occupy Oakland was clearly one of the most racially and ethnically diverse Occupy encampments in the country—composed of people of color from all walks of life, from local business owners to fired Oakland school teachers, from college students to the homeless and seriously mentally ill. Unfortunately, social justice activists, clergy, and community groups mimicked the city’s erasure of people of color in their analysis of Occupy, when they were not negotiating with the mayor’s office behind closed doors to dismantle the encampment “peacefully.”
From the beginning the Occupy Oakland encampment existed in a tightening vise between two faces of the state: nonprofits and the police. An array of community organizations immediately began negotiating with city bureaucracies and pushing for the encampment to adopt nonviolence pledges and move to Snow Park (itself later cleared by OPD despite total compliance of individuals who settled there). At the same time, police departments across the Bay Area readying one of the largest and most expensive paramilitary operations in recent history. It became increasingly clear that the city’s reputation for progressive activism could not tolerate the massing of Oakland’s homeless, and the extent of urban social damage, made visible in one location.
Oakland city officials and local business people stage an Occupy Oakland counterdemonstration on the steps of City Hall.
The ongoing history of Occupy Oakland is a case study in how much antiracist politics has changed since Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown attempted to run for Oakland mayor and city council respectively in 1973 against a sea of white incumbents. Oakland’s current city government—including the mayor’s office, city council, and Oakland Police Department—is now staffed and led predominantly by people of color. State-sanctioned representatives who claim to speak for Oakland’s “people of color,” “women,” or “queers” as a whole are part of a system of patronage and power which ensures that anyone who gets a foot up does so on the backs of a hundred others.
Whatever the rhetoric of these politicians, their job is to make sure the downtown property owners and homeowners in the hills are insulated from potential crime and rebellion from the flatlands due to increasingly severe budget cuts to social services, police impunity, and mass incarceration. Increasing numbers of Oaklanders rely upon a massive, unacknowledged informal/illegal economy of goods, services, and crime in order to survive. In other words their job is to contain this economy, largely through spending half (or over $200 million annually, and $58 million in lawsuit settlements over the past 10 years) of the city budget on the police department. When city politicians argue that protests are the work of “outsiders,” they’re also asserting the city government and the Oakland Police Department truly represent the city.
We do not believe that a politics rooted in privilege theory and calling for more racial diversity in fundamentally racist and patriarchal institutions like the Oakland Police Department, can challenge Oakland’s existing hierarchies of power. This form of representational anti-oppression activism is no longer even remotely anticapitalist in its analysis and aims.
By borrowing a charge used against civil rights movement participants and 60s-era militants of color like Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, and even Martin Luther King Jr., as “outside agitators,” city residents have been told that the interests of all “authentic Oaklanders” are the same. The one month Occupy Oakland encampment was blamed by the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and its city government partners for everything from deepening city poverty to the failure of business led development, from the rats which have always infested the city plaza to the mounting cost of police brutality. An encampment which fed about a thousand people every day of its month-long existence, and which witnessed a 19% decrease in area crime in the last week of October, was scapegoated for the very poverty, corruption, and police violence it came into existence to engage.
Real estate mogul and city power broker Phil Tagami patrolling
the Rotunda Building with a shotgun on the day of the November 2nd Oakland general strike.
If you believe the city press releases, “authentic Oaklanders” are truly represented by a police force which murders and imprisons its poor black and brown residents daily (about 7% of OPD officers actually live in the city) and a city government which funnels their taxes into business-friendly redevelopment deals like the $91 million dollar renovation of the Fox Theater—$58 million over budget—which line the pockets of well-connected real estate developers like Phil Tagami. In a complete reversal of 60s-era militant antiracist political movements, we are told by these politicians and pundits that militant, disruptive, and confrontational political actions which target this city bureaucracy and its police forces can only be the work of white, middle class, and otherwise privileged youths.
The Erasure of People of Color From Occupy Oakland
Some of Occupy Oakland’s “White Anarchist Outside Agitators”
A recent communique critiquing the Occupy movement states, “The participation of people of color [in Occupy Oakland] does not change the fact that this occupation of public space upholds white supremacy…. Some of our own sisters and brothers have silenced our critiques in order to hold on to their positions of power as token people of color in the movement.”1 The communique argues that people of color can suddenly “uphold” white supremacy because they do not share the political analysis of the document’s authors. People of color who do not agree with the politics advanced by this group are labeled white, informants, members of Cointelpro, or tokens. Often many of us are simply erased. This is a powerful and deeply manipulative rhetorical tactic which simply fails to engage substantively with any of the reasons why people of color did participate in Occupy Oakland and equates critical participation with support for rape, racism, sexism, homophobia, and gentrification. Needless to say, the authors of the above-quoted passage do not speak for us.
People of color who were not only active but central to Occupy Oakland and its various committees are routinely erased from municipal and activist accounts of the encampment. In subsequent months the camp has been denounced by social justice activists, many of whom work directly with the mayor’s office, who have criticized it as a space irreparably compromised by racial and gender privilege. Racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia were all clearly on display at Occupy Oakland – as they are in every sector of social life in Oakland. None of these accounts has even begun to examine how the perpetrators and victims of this violence did not belong to a single racial demographic, or track the evolving efforts of participants to respond to this violence.
People of color, women and trans* people of color, and white women and trans* people who participated heavily in Occupy Oakland have regularly become both white and (cis) male if they hold to a politics which favors confrontation over consciousness raising. And within white communities, similar political disagreements are routinely represented as differences between individuals with “white privilege” and those who are “white allies.”
There is clearly a need to reflect upon how the dynamics of the encampments quickly overwhelmed the capacity of participants to provide services and spaces free from sexual harassment and violence. To describe the participants of Occupy Oakland as primarily white men is not simply politically problematic and factually incorrect – it also prevents us from being able to look honestly at the social interactions that have actually occurred under its auspices.