Less than a month after Occupy Wall street exploded on September 17th, Oakland’s downtown administrative center, Frank Ogawa Plaza was renamed Oscar Grant Plaza and blooming with protesters’ tents. From October 10th to October 25th, a new radical space was created where anyone could make proposals to the general assemblies and realize their inner organizer. Homeless people, unemployed, and people of all walks of life were welcomed to this space, where all exchange was based on direct sharing, food and literature was all free. Its openness made the occupation strong with numbers, but also left it open to destructive from outside and within.
Aspects of the camp’s culture of openness left it vulnerable to degenerate actions, alienating many people of the more mainstream (99%) type, and those concerned about their physical safety. Reports were made that in Spain and Greece similar political camps were dealing with the tension between dispossessed workers and unionized workers. A young Black Panther Party member critiqued the occupation for encouraging a free-for all atmosphere, as he spoke from the center stage to a thinning, post-General Assembly audience: “Is this a party or a protest?! Are we protesters or squatters?!”
Too often, Occupy Oakland succumbed to a depoliticized unity that did resemble a concert more than a soviet. When discussing attacks on Occupy Oakland, the attacks coming from with in – most notably the sexual harassment and gendered violence – cannot be dismissed. This limitation was far surpassed, though, by the politicizing aspect of Occupy Oakland which generated the most sustained mass mobilization in decades. The generative dimension intersected the degenerative dimension at one GA in particular, where defense against sexual violence was made a priority by women and queer people fighting off the closest threat, those within.
The combination of raucous atmosphere with the potential for violence that patriarchal capitalist society tends to imbibe, with the soviet-like activities of building political power provoked the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, ex-60s radical and darling of Oakland’s mainstream progressive community, to attack in the name of public decency. On that pretext, she collaborated with Homeland Security to shut down Occupy Oakland and other Occupies around the country. On October 25th, police raided the camp of Occupy Oakland at three-four o’clock in the morning.
Texts were sent out to re-mobilize the movement at the Main Library at 4:00pm that same afternoon. Over a thousand people showed up and marched without permits to the Oakland Police Station in an unexpected rebuke. Occupy Oakland now was confronting its most visible enemy, the one in uniform.
The energy of this action was powerful. The afternoon march turned into nighttime protests in the streets. That night, the general populus was stunned when Iraq War veteran, Scott Olsen, was struck at close range by OPD with a projectile causing a life-threatening skull fracture.
Olson was a member of Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW), which later on November 11th, led an Occupy Oakland rally and march against police brutality. One Oakland teacher and political organizer reflected on his experience in the 1960s and reminded a new generation that he was convinced a revolution in the US was possible when veterans begin to revolt against the system.
Within a day of a police raid on the camp that almost killed a veteran and cost the city of Oakland $1 million, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) announced the closure of 5 elementary schools. The meetings announcing school closures had hundreds of working class families, mostly Black, denouncing the district’s decision and calling upon the power of Occupy Oakland to demand justice concerning the issue of keeping schools open. Here stood the objective basis of a dual contradiction between the state and the proletariat, namely the attack upon the heavily unionized public sector infrastructure – in this case, the closing of 5 elementary schools – and the violent attack upon the camp. This same contradiction is what causes so much confusion about our attitude to the bougeois state, as we simultaneously appreciate the public sector and hate the police even though they are but wings of the same apparatus.
State violence on the part of police agencies (and more broadly ICE and Homeland Security) has led many sections of the proletariat, particularly the brown, black, and more unemployed sections, to see this wing of the state as a clear enemy. The brutal actions of the Oakland police against workers and communities of color in general is enough evidence for anyone to recognize and anticipate the type of attack they would bring down upon an unpermitted encampment such as Occupy Oakland. But of greater importance is the recent legacy and memory of militant campaigns against police violence, as epitomized in the struggle for justice for Gary King Jr, Oscar Grant, and more recently, Raheim Brown.
Street battles have tested the ability of Occupy Oakland movement to master the art of street fighting tactics, while the ILWU’s one day work stoppages (including one to demand justice for Oscar Grant) helped the movement imagine the possibilities of a strategic fusion of the economic (e.g., the union) and the political (e.g., the anti-police brutality and anti-war) spheres through their tactical combination (battles in the streets and battles in the sites of our daily exploitation).
The brutal legacy of Oakland Police Department’s crack-downs on activists and the Left’s organized responses informed Occupy Oakland’s approaches to the OPD. While not as directly violent as OPD attacks on black and brown lower proletarian communities are, the closing of the 5 elementary schools, and the attacks upon public infrastructure generally, represent an attack on the institutions which, despite their severe deficiencies under capitalism, serve a useful purpose in the reproduction of working people’s lives.
To the extent that public infrastructure offers de-commodified use-values to the working class, subtracted from profits through taxation, these institutions represent one of the most increasingly privatized sectors of society as well as (or, because it is) the most unionized part of the working class. Due to these conditions, the public sector – and education in particular – represents a site of struggle on an international and local level, with high school students, teachers, and families playing defining roles in the battles against austerity in Greece, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Oakland itself.
In 2003, the State of California took over the Oakland school system because the district owed the state $37 million. During the course of the state’s takeover, the debt tripled to $100 million, and did so even as custodians and food service workers layoffs, library closures and attacks on teachers. Revealing that austerity does not solve The OUSD school board later decided it had to be “fiscally responsible” and close 5 schools in order to save $2 million, half of which could have been financed with the police bill incurred by the city in one night – the night it smashed the Occupation. For a moment the question raised by the struggle was, “why does the state fund its police but not their schools?” At the heart of this question lies the power, through debt, of Bank of America and other corporate structures over Oakland schools.
The School Board meeting at which the closure of 5 Oakland elementary schools was announced was attended by hundreds of mostly working-class Black and some Latino, Asian and White families who raised vocal opposition and referenced the Occupy Oakland movement as a positive example of the exercise of social power. Our goal was to build bridges between parents, students, and teachers in the public education sector on the one hand and the militant possibilities bound up with Occupy Oakland on the other. Our goal was to merge the process by which two promising movements might converge. In an effort to maintain her cover as some sort of representative of the people, the mayor of Oakland, Jean Quan, criticized her own police force for excessive use of force in its raid against the Occupation. This amazing about-face was perceived by many in Occupy Oakland as a victory, a sign of our power to fight the police and win against the state. Eventually though, the question of where to channel this power would have to be confronted and the Occupation camp was not strong enough to fight the power of the state by holding the autonomous character of the camp.
The general assembly on October 26th manifested as a powerful body of thousands of occupiers chanting “strike!” and calling for a general strike on November 2nd. The energy, unity, and power were breathtaking. Participants all felt that they were a part of history and shapers of it.
Thousands of participants were drawn to Occupy Oakland’s movement and General Assembly and were motivated to reproduce the countries last general strike, which was Oakland in 1946. The class struggle memory was powerful as it was drawn to life producing a social movement energy, Oakland style. But with this powerful energy bringing thousands together in a powerful general assembly, workers of important workplaces were not discussing how their position and coworkers can contribute to a strike movement. The contradiction of Occupy Oakland’s composition with its class struggle language wanted to shutdown the system like in 1946, but the origins of 1946 and November 2nd 2011 are incredibly different. The former was started by women clerks at a retail store striking to form a union and having shuttle drivers joining the picket. Soon enough hundreds of thousands of workers joined the picket line creating a general strike from a particular workplace struggle generalizing into a struggle that incorporate the whole city. November 2nd was inspired by Occupy Oakland’s movement with the appalling attack on Scott Olson. Here lies both the continuity of the memory of past class struggle in the present, and the complete political difference between the form of struggle between 1946 and 2011.