Mike King's new book, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough, describes how movements are repressed when overt police violence is unsuccessful
When most people think of Occupy Oakland, they will tend to remember the most spectacular events–the first police raid on Oscar Grant Plaza resulting in an Iraq War veteran being nearly killed by a “less lethal” projectile, the November 2 General Strike and Port shutdown, the December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown, and the failed attempt on January 28 (J28) to take over a building.
What Mike King has done in his new book, When Riot Cops Are Not Enough, is to tell a different story, largely unknown outside of Oakland but critical to understanding the movement and how it was ultimately defeated.
King’s book is not a detailed analysis of the strategies and tactics of the various actions or a critique of them, though he has provided those elsewhere. Rather, it is an analysis of methods of repression beyond the militaristic tactics of riot cops. This is particularly significant because Occupy Oakland was defined very early on as a movement that riot police failed to repress, where tear gas and less lethals on October 25 backfired and even propelled the movement forward.
What ensued in the weeks and months afterward were a series of maneuvers by the Oakland Police Department and the City of Oakland to slowly chip away at the legitimacy and morale of the movement and to criminalize targeted individuals. Eventually, the movement was worn down by constantly having to defend itself as it lost the support of the public.
Though this book was written as part of a PhD dissertation, it is not a dispassionate academic study full of obscure jargon. Rather, it is a living, breathing analysis of real problems posed by the police and their supporters to Occupy Oakland organizers. Mike King was one of the leading organizers of many actions in Occupy Oakland, including the Port shutdowns, and it is there that I met and organized alongside him, as well as during a later series of actions in response to the police killing a young Black man in Oakland.
The lessons that he extols are well researched and documented, but they are also the results of events that many of us lived through. While we have all sought to carry these lessons forward in our organizing, Mike has done a great service in articulating and providing a theoretical background for these issues in the book.
Hard and soft repression
One of the main lessons of Occupy Oakland is the theme of the book, which is:
[T]he symbiotic relationship between both “hard” and “soft’ techniques of repression. Hard repression refers to the range of mostly police techniques of preemptive arrests, restriction of free assembly, surveillance, riot police, less-lethal weapons, arrests, prosecution, and incarceration . . . Soft repression refers to efforts by various state and nonstate actors that have the intent or effect of politically delegitimating, dividing, coopting, or intimidating movement actors or movements.
That is, there is not a hard line between militaristic force and political gestures by the state and their supporters in attempting to either crush or gently discourage a movement. Both tactics contribute to the same goal–to put an end to a social movement, or to transform it into something that is completely harmless. There is a dialectical relationship between the two forms of repression; they are two sides of the same coin. Or, to paraphrase the military strategist Carl von Clausewitz, war is politics by other, more violent means, and politics is war by less overtly violent means.
“[E]very expression of soft repression” King writes, “carries with it the threat of physical force, while every act of hard repression is imbued with normative definitions of justice and right.”
Hard repression is clear–it produces spectacular images in the media of teargas and blood and tank-like vehicles roaming urban environments. Soft repression is often much more subtle, so subtle that some do not even realize it is repression at all. This often plays out under the strategy of “negotiated management,” where both sides–the movement on one side, the police and the state on the other–negotiate the terms of the struggle through permits and agreements that supposedly limit the actions of both.
Incredibly, although maybe not surprisingly, King describes a belief in academia that negotiated management makes social movements more effective in that it is able to disarm the police. So long as we take out a permit and follow its limitations, these clever leaders insist, the police will not be able to attack us!
There are two problems with this thinking. First, it is not so much the police that are being disarmed but the movement itself. “This is the object of soft repression,” King writes, “to produce manageable forms of dissent so that force is not needed.” So long as the movement is willing to police itself–by avoiding disruptions and even marshaling its participants so as not to do anything too dangerous or illegal–the police and the state do not really have to do any work themselves.
Second, as we will see, not only might police attack crowds in permitted actions anyway, they can actually use the permit itself as a tool of repression, criminalizing mundane acts which would otherwise be perfectly legal but which do not happen to be condoned by the permit. The City of Oakland would do this cunningly and brutally, and there are probably very few people outside of Oakland who appreciate how this was carried out.
Shifting the media narrative
The first attempt by the Oakland Police to shut down Occupy Oakland was one of the most disastrous interventions by a police department against a social movement in recent US history. As Occupy Oakland rejected negotiated management from the outset, refusing to take out permits or to negotiate with city leaders, the only option the state had was brute force. Rather than dispersing the movement, it popularized and expanded it. The encampment in front of City Hall returned the next day and a General Strike was called which had the participation of tens of thousands of people in the middle of a work day leading to the shutdown of the Port of Oakland.
For the police to recover from this disaster, it could not simply deploy more tear gas or swing more batons as that was the cause of the crisis for the police in the first place. Rather, they were restrained and slowly rebuilt their legitimacy by building a narrative in the media of health hazards, criminality and overall purposelessness of the camp.
As King writes:
There is never a situation, no matter how it may look and feel on the street, where demonstrations simply involve the police and the protesters. The two main trajectories in the story of Occupy Oakland–first, how the movement initially side-stepped the tacit repression of negotiation and was bolstered by subsequent hard repression after the first encampment raid; and later, how social control was regained through a deliberative and integrated mixture of hard and soft repressions–both largely revolve around public support.
King describes how a series of news stories and City Hall press releases developed this narrative and shifted the discussion to when the camp would be raided and not whether it would be raided. He also discusses the notorious coordinated phone calls between several mayors and a police think-tank and even the Department of Homeland Security. What changed after these calls was not a better use of tear gas or the deployment of cutting edge technology to incapacitate protesters but rather the sudden and simultaneous political line among mayors around the country of the health hazards of the camps.
In other words, what these various forces understood was that the path–at that moment–to taking down the movement was not a military one but a political one. This is really the lesson of this book–police repression, even when highly militaristic, is dependent on political repression carried out by other, less violent means. After soft repression is successfully deployed, the tools of hard repression become once again much more effective.
One of the clearest examples of this occurred after the second camp was raided–a feat that could only be accomplished with media-assisted soft repression. In an attempt to maintain some presence in the park in front of Oakland City Hall, the Occupy Oakland General Assembly voted to establish a 24 hour vigil. The understanding was that while sleeping in the park in tents would not be allowed, occupying the park while remaining awake was clearly legal.
As soon as the vigil was established in the middle of the day with a single structure–a teepee–the police immediately moved to shut it down, requiring that the structure be removed because it could be used for camping and sleeping. The vigil organizers then negotiated with the Assistant City Administrator to take out a permit, the first such act of negotiation of its kind in Occupy Oakland–something explicitly and loudly rejected in the preceding months–without the approval or even knowledge of many other participants.
The permit allowed the teepee at night but restricted all other structures and even food storage and cooking and virtually anything else that might remotely appear to be related to food or sleep. The permit-holders were then required to restrict the activities at the park in order to avoid police harassment, except that it was impossible to restrict such activities and this only enabled the harassment.
OPD would regularly walk the park taking photos and notes about those present and (as we later learned and gained access to) had compiled a photo book of Occupiers, which contained faces and a short criminal history of several members of Occupy Oakland known to congregate in the plaza.
In probably the most egregious case, an African-American man named Marcel “Kali” Johnson was arrested by OPD for having a blanket, which could be interpreted by police as violating the terms of the permit. In spite of a difficult relationship at times with the camp, Kali found camaraderie and made important contributions. After his arrest, which may have been motivated by the fact that he was on parole, he was denied psychiatric medication and an altercation between himself and the jail guards occurred in which he was severely beaten while he awaited arraignment. After being placed in solitary confinement for months, he eventually accepted a plea deal of four years in prison.
The support work around Kali was not only time consuming but also devastating and demoralizing for his friends and comrades. It was one of the most successful acts of brutal, racist hard repression, enabled by the soft repression of negotiated management.
“Within a few weeks,” King writes, “more than forty people associated with the vigil were arrested for various, quite loosely defined violations of the permit, like possessing yoga mats and blankets, which police said constituted evidence of a ‘dwelling.’”
Another of the more shocking incidents included the use of “lynching” charges against people who were arrested at the vigil. The lynching law, presumably enacted to protect Black people from being taken from the police and literally lynched, was here deployed against people of color attempting to stop the police from kidnapping and possibly beating them.
As these arrests continued, the District Attorney began ordering “stay away” orders, restricting the arrestees from coming near Oscar Grant Plaza, which continued to be the place where Occupy Oakland held its General Assembly. It was also, of course, the location of Oakland City Hall. This meant that those on stay away orders could not even attend a City Council meeting to speak out against this violation of their rights, as if they did so they could be arrested for violating the order. And since this was a civil injunction–based on Oakland’s recent gang injunctions–it could be imposed without criminal charges or a trial, without the individuals ever committing a crime other than being associated with a protest movement and walking through the center of downtown Oakland.
Anti-repression and non-state actors
As the arrests and stay away orders compounded, another element of repression began to rear its head, which is the repressive force of non-state actors seeking to disrupt the movement for their own gain, whatever that might be. This took the form of attacks on individuals and committees, including outright slander, sowing suspicion, threats and personal harassment.
The Occupy Oakland Anti-Repression Committee summed up the problem very well:
We feel that as a community we need to shift our thinking about repression, to recognize the subtler more insidious forms that it takes and the ways that it targets our sources of strength and plays on existing conflicts and divisions in an attempt to weaken, distract, and consume us. This does not mean that we should become mired in trying to identify state infiltrators and agents. We may never know who the infiltrators are, and ultimately, whether individuals are directly working for the state when they engage in disruptive and divisive behaviors is not the point. We need to instead focus on behaviors. If behaviors support and consolidate state campaigns of repression–then they do the state’s work of repression.
The most egregious example was an outright racist attack on one individual in the Media Committee by a group of others in the committee who wanted to get rid of him. As this individual is descended from Palestinian and Colombian parents, the rogue sub-group did a Google search and found a Palestinian man with a similar name who had been identified (not necessarily accurately) by the US State Department as being associated with–voila!–Palestinian “terrorism” and South American drug trafficking.
Perhaps, they wondered aloud, he had also been turned by Israeli intelligence and/or the FBI into mole. Perhaps something even more sinister. Who knows, they asked, insisting that they were presenting this evidence merely to raise a discussion and not to actually make an accusation. “Occupy Wall Street is a nonviolent protest movement,” they concluded. “We do not condone or accept violence, terrorism, or any of the activities that this person…has been accused of.” It did not seem to occur to them that their statement threatened violent repercussions on the individual accused, were the FBI or some vigilante to decide that this person was in fact the supposed “terrorist.” Liberals simply wrap themselves in the blanket of nonviolence and don’t bother to consider what harm their smug assertions do to the oppressed.
I have never before or since seen with my own eyes an incident so shocking, so racist, and so blatantly dependent on State Department propaganda and techniques in the middle of a social movement. Had this occurred a few months earlier it would have been picked up and repeated ad nauseam for days by Fox News in an attempt to discredit and divide the national Occupy movement. Fortunately for us, and much more so for the individual accused, this was post-J28 and the media had long since moved on to other stories.
The crisis created by the rogue Media Committee–who maintained access during this period to the database of inquiries from major news outlets, which they could have used to spread their slander–consumed two General Assemblies, with a successful proposal to disband the entire Media Committee and start over from scratch finally ending this mess. Even this proposal was temporarily hacked on its way between the Facilitation Committee that approved it and the Web Committee that posted it. Instead, it briefly offered a “Proposal to Denounce People Who Tweet a Shit Storm,” directed at myself and others who took to Twitter to push back against their racism. Evidence of this hack can still be seen in the comments on the post and the URL itself.
The result was not only a smear but a complete route of Occupy Oakland for over a week as this situation was resolved. The bad blood and exhaustion created by this was yet another successful blow against the movement reestablishing itself, even though there was quite a bit of organizing in neighborhoods throughout east and west Oakland at the time. The state did not even have to intervene to create this mess, their ideology and a few reckless egomaniacs was sufficient.
One of the authors of the slanderous article was Jason “Shake” Anderson, a self-promotional figure who decided at some point–completely unexpectedly–to make his name by trashing others. His next maneuver would be to launch an unsuccessful campaign of insinuations against the Finance Committee, that they and others were funnelling money for their own personal use. Ironically–although not really–it was instead Shake himself who would be forced to apologize for misuse of funds in his attempts to sell Occupy Oakland t-shirts.
All of this would seem to be enough to destroy the future political involvement of any “progressive” individual, and yet somehow in 2014 Shake managed to run for mayor under the Green Party ticket. The ability of some people to look past the transgressions of others in order promote their “progressive” cause has yet to find a floor with the Oakland Greens, who will sink to any level in order to fulfill their self indulgent electoral fantasies. The only happy result of all this–beyond his utter failure to challenge the other candidates–was a mayoral debate where Shake was accidentally introduced as “Jake the Snake Anderson.”
There are two other incidents–among too many to recount–of repression that should be mentioned. First, in at least one case, a woman had her kids taken from her by Child Protective Services for bringing them to an Occupy Oakland barbecue. As with many of these incidents, I doubt that many people outside of Occupy Oakland participants have any idea that this was the cost for some people’s participation.
Second, there was the case of the “Ice Cream 3.” This came out of a handful of protesters who would go out for ice cream followed by a march on a bank. These small, off the cuff actions were regularly able to shut down bank branches for an hour or more over a period of months, where the mere threat of Occupy could send the staff into hiding. In one incident, the marchers were harassed by a woman who disagreed with Occupy Oakland and one of the protesters allegedly called the woman harassing them a “dyke” leading to some sort of physical contact. Three of the protesters were sent to jail with bail set to $100,000, which by that time had become the standard bail for virtually any Occupy-related offense. One was bailed out and the other two sat in jail for weeks while awaiting trial on, incredibly, hate crime charges.
It turned out that the woman who was supposedly a hate crime victim actually made a racist reference about one of the protesters, an African-American woman, using or referring to the n-word and physically accosting them. So much for being a victim of a hate crime.
The judge eventually dropped these ludicrous and unfounded charges. “Despite the fact that prosecutors must have known that the charges they were bringing would never stick,” King writes, “the association of hate crimes with a beleaguered movement served to smear not just the accused, but the movement as a whole.”
There are several other examples of the insidious and unrelenting pressures put on Occupy Oakland, from slander campaigns to the near weekly occurrence of discovering that yet another comrade had been picked up off the street for doing hardly anything. When Riot Cops Are Not Enough goes over many of these incidents in greater depth than can be discussed here. What makes the book unique, though, is its analysis of the relationship between hard and soft repression.
Take the issue of a permit. Often, whether to take out a permit for a march seems to come down to the question of whether one is willing to negotiate with the state or ask for permission. It might even seem like a moral question, whether filling out a form and paying a fee to the city will compromise one’s politics. But this hardly even approaches the severity of the problem. As seen in the case of Marcel “Kali” Johnson–not to mention the experience of the Oscar Grant protests in Oakland that occurred before Occupy–the permit is actually a tool by the police to first enforce self policing on a movement and second, if that fails, to criminalize mundane acts which happen to step outside of the permit.
If it were only a question of filling out a form, the problem would be so much simpler. But in fact the problem often is that simple, if only because permitted marches typically do not threaten anybody or anything in any way. If the only tactic anybody expects to carry out is to march on the street, carry signs and yell slogans, the police and the politicians may not really care enough to threaten repression. It is only when a movement becomes threatening that these problems become real, and the state suddenly can find no end to the reasons and requirements that would restrict you from doing what you want.
I do not have much to criticize about this book because I generally agree with the analysis which represents the thinking and the conclusions of many dozens of people who organized through and dealt with these problems. Having said that, Mike King was one of the clearest and sharpest critics at the time to appreciate and delineate these problems. The fact that Occupy Oakland has vanished into the background in recent years to be replaced by other movements that may have a longer shelf life means that, if nothing else, there is a crying need for this experience to be documented and understood. For many years to come, there will be debates between radicals and liberals over whether to get a permit for a march, or about how to deal with various “health and safety” concerns or slander campaigns against individuals which suddenly appear when the status quo is threatened.
Mike King has provided a valuable resource in helping future movements understand these problems in order to overcome them, or at the very least see through the more subtle tactics of the state and prepare for them in advance. We can only hope that they will be more successful than we were, as the very process of learning from mistakes and developing strategies to overcome them is what makes a social movement a living, breathing entity and not simply a series of tame, pre-planned theatrics, as the state would prefer it.