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.
Insurrection, Oakland style: a history
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.
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 riseup.net
- 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 indybay.org.
- 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.