Insurrection, Oakland style: a history

An article by Matthew Edwards on the roots of Occupy Oakland, which includes the movement and riots that happened in response to the police murder of Oscar Grant in January of 2009.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on October 27, 2013

This is an unfin­ished work – a snap­shot of his­tory as it occurred, expe­ri­enced by me, reported on social media, or retold by trusted com­rades. It will lack the final­ity of hind­sight. Con­tained within is my account of the Oak­land Insur­rec­tion, as it has unfolded over the past days and weeks. Both the insur­rec­tion and this essay are works of hope. I hope that we push for­ward on the streets of Oak­land, the Bay Area, and every­where else, to the limit of what is pos­si­ble – beyond occu­pa­tion and the pro­posed gen­eral strike to “total free­dom” for us all.1


Inspired by the upris­ings across the world and fueled by the increas­ingly pre­car­i­ous eco­nomic con­di­tions across the United States, a call­out was made for an occu­pa­tion of Wall Street. On Sep­tem­ber 17, 1000 peo­ple occu­pied the finan­cial hub of the United States and arguably global cap­i­tal­ism. Within days, dozens of towns and cities had their own ver­sion of the #Occupy move­ment – with vary­ing degrees of encamp­ment, protest, and orga­niz­ing space; within weeks, hun­dreds of cities were occu­pied; within a month, over a thou­sand world­wide.

Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, renamed Oscar Grant Plaza by many Bay Area res­i­dents, was occu­pied on Octo­ber 10. Logis­ti­cal plan­ning started a week before the occu­pa­tion date, with #Occu­pyOak­land field­ing a fully func­tional can­teen, child­care, medic, sound, and gen­eral assem­bly area on day one, with per­son of color (POC), gen­der, and queer safe spaces soon to fol­low. #Occu­pyOak­land had the same pop­ulist rhetoric regard­ing the prob­lem­atic “homo­ge­neous” nature of “#Occupy…”, but pushed the “99%” cri­tique in a decid­edly anti-capitalist direc­tion. Cou­pled with this was a dis­tinctly anti-police and anti-state tone that also trans­lated into anti-oppression orga­ni­za­tional forms.

On Octo­ber 21 the city of Oak­land pre­sented the gen­eral assem­bly, the offi­cial orga­niz­ing body of #Occu­pyOak­land, with a let­ter of evic­tion, cit­ing “pub­lic safety.” The words of Oak­land­Com­mune, posted Octo­ber 19 on the Bay of Rage web­site, beau­ti­fully fore­shadow what tran­spired on Octo­ber 25 and 26when the police made good on their threats:

Social rebels from around Oak­land have descended upon Oscar Grant Plaza and have cre­ated a gen­uine, autonomous space free of police and unwel­com­ing to politi­cians. Whereas other occu­pa­tions have invited the police and politi­cians, or have nego­ti­ated with them, Occupy Oak­land has carved a line in the cement. That line of demar­ca­tion says: if you pass this, if you try and break up or over shadow this autonomous space, you are well aware, as observed over the last cou­ple of years, what we are capa­ble of.


The Bay Area’s his­tory of social resis­tance is well doc­u­mented, and it’s impor­tant to remem­ber the con­text behind the mil­i­tancy seen around #Occu­pyOak­land. The gen­eral events these social rebels are refer­ring to are the upris­ings and demon­stra­tions that have occurred over the past three years in the Bay Area, respond­ing to police vio­lence and “aus­ter­ity.”2 To under­stand the events of the past week, one must under­stand the atmos­phere in which these actions took place. The most rel­e­vant of these demon­stra­tions revolve around three sets of riots that fol­lowed the mur­der of Oscar Grant III on Jan­u­ary 1, 2009.3

One week after Oscar’s mur­der by police, Jan­u­ary 7, 2009, a rally at the Fruit­vale BART sta­tion tran­si­tioned into a march that even­tu­ally evolved into a riot, with run­ning street fights against police. The action resulted in 100 arrests and hun­dreds of thou­sands in polic­ing costs and prop­erty destruc­tion. Johannes Mehserle, the offi­cer who killed Grant, was arrested one week later – a day before thou­sands marched through Oak­land, serv­ing notice to the police that their actions had consequences.

A series of low and mid-intensity direct actions and marches occurred over the next 18 months until the ver­dict day, July 8, 2010, when Mehserle was osten­si­bly acquit­ted for mur­der and found guilty of invol­un­tary manslaugh­ter for shoot­ing an unarmed and prone Oscar Grant in the back. Police prepa­ra­tions, dubbed “Oper­a­tion Ver­dict,” were one of the largest local buildups of state and fed­eral police forces in recent his­tory.4 The buildup actu­ally seemed to inten­sify pop­u­lar opin­ion against the police. Oper­a­tion Ver­dict not only failed to stop another riot, where hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars worth of prop­erty was destroyed, but also failed to arrest as many demon­stra­tors as the riots of a year before. Sen­tenc­ing day, Novem­ber 5. 2010, saw an evo­lu­tion of police tac­tics that stopped the march before it mor­phed into some­thing greater. The march was ket­tled and every­one was arrested in mass, all later to be released with­out charges.

Oscar Grant’s Legacy

I would like to rec­og­nize that Oscar Grant was a real per­son; with a daugh­ter, fam­ily, and friends. I would like to rec­og­nize this because the human ele­ment can get lost when we make mar­tyrs out of casu­al­ties. The actions around his death were liv­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries for many Bay Area res­i­dents, specif­i­cally youth and polit­i­cal rad­i­cals – anar­chists, anti-authoritarians, and anti-capitalists. For some, this was the first time they had tasted tear gas or felt the sting of a rub­ber bul­let. The Jan­u­ary 7 riot was a hur­ried affair, with peo­ple quickly learn­ing how to stay together, erect makeshift bar­ri­cades, or set fires to neces­si­tate getaways.

July 8 saw the forces of the state pre­pared and still unable to stop scores of “crews” smash­ing shop win­dows.5 Com­mu­ni­ca­tion and coor­di­na­tion appeared to improve between the var­i­ous demon­stra­tion par­tic­i­pants. Masks were worn and code names used. It was appar­ent that even just a few “bat­tle hours” dra­mat­i­cally increased a collectivity’s “street” effec­tive­ness, i.e. the abil­ity to cre­ate social unrest and get away with it. Through these events, it was revealed that street demon­stra­tions, with riots in par­tic­u­lar, did have an effect on, if not pub­lic pol­icy, then at least civic discourse.

There were fail­ures as well. Media and state forces con­spired to cre­ate the con­cept of the “out­side agi­ta­tor” – the anar­chist from afar whose only pur­pose was to smash. The actions of prop­erty destruc­tion seemed to over­shadow the con­text in which they were used. The tac­tic itself was the per­fect expres­sion of the pow­er­less­ness that peo­ple felt in demand­ing, from an unjust state, some sort of “jus­tice.” It was an action of tantrum, say­ing, “in this protest zone, in this space of social rup­ture, I only have the abil­ity to destroy.” A state­ment like that, while uni­fy­ing for the par­tic­i­pants within that instant of “social rup­ture,” has lit­tle to no orga­niz­ing poten­tial. And so the move­ment went from active con­flict to his­tory. Its steam and momen­tum were lost. How­ever, with its pass­ing came a time of tac­ti­cal and strate­gic reflec­tion, the results of which were prac­ticed on the streets of Oak­land under the ban­ner of #Occupy only a week ago.


The efforts and effects of the anar­chist tra­di­tion in the Bay Area can­not be ignored, nei­ther in the case of Oscar Grant nor #Occu­pyOak­land. There are hun­dreds of anar­chists active in “street level” actions; hun­dreds more work­ing in var­i­ous cor­po­rate, non-profit, alter­na­tive, and other indus­tries that bring money, logis­ti­cal sup­port, and expe­ri­ence when needed; and hun­dreds still who are engaged in their own projects, com­mu­ni­ties, and build­ing families.

The pres­ence of such a high con­cen­tra­tion of anar­chists at rad­i­cal or poten­tially explo­sive demon­stra­tions has influ­enced how peo­ple protest. To be sure, not every per­son at a demo is an anar­chist, far from it, but many have adopted anar­chist prac­tice. Mask­ing up, wear­ing black, and work­ing in teams has cre­ated a safer and more dis­ci­plined force. The atten­dance of anar­chist street medics, pro­pa­gan­dists, and expe­ri­enced street fight­ers adds a level of infra­struc­tural and logis­ti­cal sup­port that makes actions on the streets feel sup­ported and embold­ened. Tra­di­tion­ally orga­niz­ing on egal­i­tar­ian and non-hierarchical planes, as well as a famil­iar­ity with con­sen­sus process, have facil­i­tated the cre­ation of a strong gen­eral assem­bly. The cre­ation of sol­i­dar­ity groups for those arrested at actions, and access to the legal net­work that years of Bay Area activism cre­ated has been key in move­ment progress. In both social move­ments the anar­chist pres­ence has been an impor­tant, though by far not the only, ele­ment to any success.

This is not to say that an anar­chist pres­ence in the Bay Area has not had its trou­bles in recent years. The attempt by the state to brand anar­chists as “out­siders” failed in the buildup of Oper­a­tion Ver­dict, but did high­light racial and class issues that peo­ple are still con­fronting. Fur­ther­more there was a suc­cess­ful attempt to brand anar­chists has vio­lent, although this was just one more step in a process dat­ing back hun­dreds of years to rede­fine “anar­chism” in the neg­a­tive. Still, the only con­tact that many peo­ple have had with anar­chists is the images pre­sented by the media of “black-clad hooli­gans destroy­ing things.” The insur­rec­tionary anar­chist cur­rent that is alive within the Bay has showed itself as a trend of attack, secu­rity cul­ture, and tightknit net­works. In the past it was inward focus­ing and only sur­faced in times of action, although the pres­ence of many insur­rec­tion­ists at the gen­eral assem­blies and their use of vio­lence in a form dif­fer­ent from that of prop­erty destruc­tion does give cre­dence to the idea that this trend is maturing.

Insur­rec­tion and Strike

Through­out the week, prepa­ra­tions were made within the #Occu­pyOak­land space for arrival of police enforc­ing the evic­tion notices. The plan was to con­struct and defend bar­ri­cades to keep the Oak­land Police Depart­ment (OPD) out for as long as pos­si­ble. Over the past two weeks, the police made only a hand­ful of incur­sions into the autonomous space. The response by those camped was always force­ful yet dis­ci­plined, with the dis­tilled mes­sage being: “get out!” As a result there was lit­tle worry about the ques­tion of “when” “they” would come. “They will come when they do,” one camper told me with a shrug the night before the evic­tion. On Tues­day Octo­ber 25, at 4:30 AM, hun­dreds of riot police from over a dozen dif­fer­ent agen­cies descended upon the camp. After call­ing a dis­per­sal order, police waited for five min­utes before throw­ing con­cus­sion grenades, launch­ing tear gas, fir­ing pep­per and rub­ber bul­lets, and hit­ting peo­ple with batons. The night con­cluded with around 80 arrests and some seri­ous injuries.

A call out was made for 4 PM the same day to meet at the Oak­land Library for a march to Oscar Grant (OG) Plaza. A diverse crowd of over 1500 peo­ple arrived. They marched around Oak­land, swelling in num­bers as peo­ple came into the streets. The police attacked with gas, less-than-lethal rounds, and batons. Demon­stra­tors responded with bot­tles and paint bal­loons. Police snatch squads grabbed and beat pro­tes­tors in full view of the crowd, with a hand­ful hav­ing to be taken to the emer­gency room.6 The march con­tin­ued to OG Plaza where lines of riot police stood behind metal bar­ri­cades block­ing all pos­si­ble entrances. A stand­off ensued.

At roughly 8:30 PM a crowd of 500 assem­bled at 14 and Broad­way. After repeated warn­ings the police attacked. The gas attack was the worst of the day. Injured pro­test­ers lit­tered the inter­sec­tion, includ­ing Scott Olson, two-tour Marine vet­eran, who took a tear­gas can­is­ter to the head. Oth­ers were blinded and chok­ing on the gas. Numer­ous burn vic­tims from the gas can­is­ters ran for cover; at least one of them needed plas­tic surgery on her foot. The crowd recom­posed within min­utes, play­ing cat and mouse with the police, ral­ly­ing and tak­ing the streets out­side the bar­ri­cades, flee­ing from police attacks only to form again.

The chat­ter of excite­ment and anger was easy to under­stand. Groups of peo­ple were swap­ping sto­ries from the days events. The gas was loos­ing its fear effect; these crowds were not dis­pers­ing. Teenagers were laugh­ing at each other’s snot and tear-soaked faces. Older peo­ple were talk­ing about the 1960s; “gas nowa­days seems more potent,” they said. Anar­chist and other rad­i­cal medics were help­ing gas vic­tims. By about 10 PM it was obvi­ous that even though the group had failed to retake the plaza, they had in fact won two impor­tant vic­to­ries. #Occu­pyOak­land was effec­tively in con­trol of all of down­town Oak­land save OG Plaza. Or, to put it dif­fer­ently, the police had lost the ini­tia­tive: they had lost their mobil­ity and the abil­ity to dic­tate terms out­side the range of their weapons. By con­trol­ling the plaza they abdi­cated con­trol of the rest of down­town Oak­land to the occu­piers. Declar­ing vic­tory on the ground, the hun­dreds of occu­piers began to dis­perse to ready them­selves for the next day.

The sec­ond vic­tory was not seen until the next day, when media out­lets had no choice but to broad­cast images of the night’s insur­rec­tion. Grab­bing the media’s atten­tion as well was the griev­ous injury to Scott Olson. Sur­viv­ing two tours in Iraq to come home and be shot by OPD sealed the police’s fate in the realm of pub­lic opin­ion. Not only had #Occu­pyOak­land suc­ceeded in con­trol­ling the streets, they had also won over hearts and minds. As of this writ­ing it looks as though Scott will recover and not become a mar­tyr for any cause, just another vic­tim of police brutality.

A gen­eral assem­bly was called for 6 PM on Octo­ber 26. The police were nowhere in sight, but some reported that they were mass­ing at a nearby park­ing garage. They were never to mobi­lize in any show of force. Bike patrols were pass­ing back infor­ma­tion, and a gen­eral feel­ing of safety per­me­ated the camp. The metal fence that had been set up by the city was taken down, and once again the plaza was in the hands of #Occu­pyOak­land. A pro­posal was sub­mit­ted for a gen­eral strike in Oak­land on Novem­ber 2. The pro­posal passed by 96.9%; 1484 votes for to 77 against, with 47 absten­tions, more than enough in Oakland’s mod­i­fied con­sen­sus of 90% for the pro­posal to pass.

After the vote, 2000 peo­ple attempted to march for the down­town Oak­land BART sta­tion to travel to San Fran­cisco, where it was reported that the SF occu­pa­tion was to be attacked by SFPD. The sta­tion was closed by BART offi­cials, so the 2000-strong group marched through Oak­land, stop­ping once at the OPD head­quar­ters to yell at the police, once at the Oak­land jail chant­ing in sup­port of those incar­cer­ated, and once under a free­way over­pass, to dis­cuss whether the group should cross the Oakland/Bay bridge to sup­port #Occu­pySF. The march decided to retake OG Plaza instead.

A truly star­tling real­iza­tion emerged among many of the anar­chists present at the gen­eral assem­bly. As thou­sands of peo­ple dis­cussed the gen­eral strike pro­posal, oth­ers were cir­cu­lat­ing and inter­min­gling, talk­ing about the vic­tory of the night before. A major theme of the dis­cus­sion was the fact that so much had been gained with­out resort­ing to prop­erty destruc­tion. A tacit under­stand­ing devel­oped amongst many of the rad­i­cals that no one was going to phys­i­cally stop any of the “wreck­ing crews” from smash­ing win­dows, but peo­ple under­stood that much of the pre­vi­ous night’s vic­tory could be attrib­uted to the images of police vio­lence against pro­tes­tors and the counter-violence of pro­tes­tors against the police. If there is an insur­rec­tionary imper­a­tive to attack the state, that idea seemed to gain sup­port, at least among those in the gen­eral pub­lic who watched the live stream. The march on Octo­ber 25 showed how the pro­tes­tors had done due dili­gence in their attempt to remain “peace­ful”; they responded to police vio­lence with defen­sive force, instead of the less under­stood (and less direct) tac­tic of attack­ing prop­erty. A vio­lence of low-intensity self-defense actu­ally gained #Occu­pyOak­land inter­na­tional support.

Lessons Learned

In the OG Plaza riots, the impo­tent vio­lence that resulted in Mehserle’s arrest also doomed the move­ment to remain mar­ginal. Peo­ple have many unre­solved issues with prop­erty destruc­tion. It is my pre­sump­tion that those in com­mand of the police forces on the night of the Octo­ber 25 expected to see protester-initiated prop­erty destruc­tion. Bro­ken win­dows have the power to retroac­tively ratio­nal­ize the use of police vio­lence. The destruc­tion of the camp and the attack on the march would sud­denly seem under­stand­able once the nightly news flashed images of bro­ken glass. Unfor­tu­nately for police com­mand, the rad­i­cal and urban #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders did not fall into their trap. There was no need; con­fronting OPD and Alameda Sheriff’s Depart­ment was enough.

There was a very real feel­ing that if the OPD had changed its tac­tics on the night of Octo­ber 25, and – instead of hold­ing posi­tions and gassing pro­tes­tors – went in for arrests, the police might have started a fight that they were not pre­pared to win. There were roughly equal num­ber of police and #Occu­pyOak­lan­ders, around 500 each, but the police were spread out, cov­er­ing the perime­ter of OG Plaza, while the demon­stra­tors were able to focus all their num­bers in one loca­tion. Even more impres­sive is that on the night of Octo­ber 26, with the police lack­ing the author­ity to act in response to #OccupyOakland’s retak­ing of OG Plaza, the occu­piers were able to push the police out of their autonomous zone and defend it. This cohe­sion and the strength of will it pro­duced is a direct result of the reflec­tions, lessons, and tac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that grew from the OG riots. Those ini­ti­at­ing con­fronta­tions with police did so with dis­ci­pline, and, dare I say it, style.

There has been a lot of talk about a lack of demands as a weak­ness of the #Occupy move­ments. I hear their demands loud and clear. The cri­tique of cap­i­tal­ism, oppo­si­tion to state power, clear revul­sion towards the police, rede­f­i­n­i­tion of social and power rela­tions, inde­pen­dent orga­ni­za­tion, coop­er­a­tion, and the attempt to recon­fig­ure our exist­ing world into one that is healthy for all; these are demands that are being made by those occu­py­ing. The idea from the begin­ning was to cre­ate. In acts of cre­ation power is returned. We have held our ground, defended a space that is our own. Now we are orga­niz­ing not just for our­selves but also for oth­ers. A gen­eral strike will occur. The next ques­tion is clear: what other cities will follow?

See you in the streets.

Matthew Edwards is a graduate student at UC-Santa Cruz, and an organizer in the Bay Area. A native Californian, he has been involved in radical politics since refusing deployment to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2002. Comments can be sent to anewhope AT

  • 1This phrase appeared on a mas­sive ban­ner by a con­tin­gent of Greek anar­chists at the 2009 G-20 in Ger­many. While not explic­itly Insur­rec­tion­ist, the Greek anar­chist ten­dency of spec­tac­u­lar street bat­tles has become syn­ony­mous with the Insur­rec­tionary Anar­chist milieu that has dom­i­nated North Amer­i­can dis­course in recent years.
  • 2For an amaz­ing col­lec­tion of news sto­ries dat­ing back over 10 years, see
  • 3The first mur­der of 2009 was com­mit­ted by a police offi­cer against an unarmed per­son of color.
  • 4It is also impor­tant to note that the National Guard was mobilized.
  • 5One could also use the term “affin­ity group,” but an affin­ity group is an expressly polit­i­cal form of self orga­ni­za­tion that may not nec­es­sar­ily apply to all those who ran together that night.
  • 6It is impor­tant to point out that the police were not the only per­pe­tra­tors of vio­lence that evening. One arrestee was punched, elbowed and pushed to the ground by an Oak­land fire depart­ment mem­ber who also made deroga­tory sex­ual and racial com­ments towards him. Later in sher­iff cus­tody at the county jail he was beaten by at least four cor­rec­tional officers.