Archive for the ‘occupy’ Category

Recall – what a fucking waste of time

What exactly is the left/progressive case for recalling Quan?

Take it as a given that her initial attempt to crush Occupy Oakland was wrong and caused enormous harm, and likewise she blew the budgeting process1. Quan has been unable to unite diverse Oakland interests, failed to make decisive policy, and failed to make even one inspiring public speech about either Occupy Oakland or the issues which probably trouble longtime Oaklanders a bit more: our endemic unemployment, entrenched violent crime problems, or the slow collapse of our city’s most basic services.

In light of these failures, there is an understandable anger. Well in truth, most of the anger from activists and those who work for social justice has come from the Occupy Oakland world, as the rest of the city’s progressive and radical left is a bit burned out on raging at failed mayors. But OO can’t get enough rage. Remember this?

Hard to see in the dark, but this was the night Quan tried to come address the GA. I wasn’t there so feel free to correct my wrong impressions, but I get the sense of an irate crowd shouting at her and then physically chasing her back into City Hall. Or here’s something more recent, starting about 4:20:

Yes, I’m very impressed with all this angry at Jean Quan. I hear you angry people of Occupy! You’ve made your feelings completely clear! But to spell out my concern, there seems to me something problematic in these scenes.

Here’s a crowd which, while absolutely diverse in race, age, and gender, is still dominantly young and white, and contains all the usual gender dynamics one finds everywhere else in the world. To put an even finer point: young white men who find themselves screaming at and physically threatening an Asian-American woman several decades older than themselves might consider examining their behavior choices. Not to say an older Asian-American woman should not be held accountable, but the sort of accountability meted by an angry mob isn’t the sort I’m most excited about.

If you think I’m over-reacting to the racial and gendered aspects of this, I’d be curious to hear theories of why Quan continues to be followed and physically threatened, even when out of town, while Jerry Brown got a pass on this:

Or perhaps someone can explain how these signs, which as far as I can tell are only being put up around the Laurel and Dimond neighborhoods where Quan lives, are just totally free of issues related to gender and physical intimidation:

So that’s Occupy on Quan I guess, or one thread of it, since of course no one person represents the will of the amoeba-like and ostensibly leaderless movement.

And here’s where that radical-edged rage crosses paths with a more mainstream approach to disapproval of elected officials: the recall. Or I should say, recalls which are being spearheaded by some helter-skelter combination of wingnuts and pro-development/downtown-centric/right-wing activists.

It’s not clear exactly what a progressive or even radical would hope to gain from the project. We don’t have to look far to find a somewhat recent example of progressives actively supporting a right-wing recall campaign of an ineffectual supposed leftist, and we all know how that turned out. For anyone concerned with Oakland beyond Occupy I wonder, who exactly, given that Perata got the most 1st choice votes in the last election and there is no magical radical leftist visionary waiting in the wings, do we think would replace Jean Quan?2

Let’s put it this way: Is risking the near certainty of a more regressive mayor a worthwhile tradeoff for punishing Quan for her decisions around Occupy? Or her general inability to pull our city of this cycle of crisis and growing despair?

From a purely pragmatic view, while Quan isn’t much on good speeches, she’s been quantifiably better than her predecessors. It’s refreshing for example to have a mayor who shows her face in East Oakland, instead of pouring everything into dubious downtown development or just checking out altogether. Quan’s taken concrete action to move the city away from cronyism. She took a pay cut, works 7 days a week, and unlike any Oakland mayor in my lifetime, she actually walks out of City Hall and tries to engage with those of us who live out here.

Faint praise to be sure. But given the state of Oakland (incidentally, the same state as every post-industrial US city at the moment), you know what I don’t want the mayor to be working on right now? You know what I don’t want Oakland to spend one dime on right now?3

Yes, Quan screwed up – in the same ways that previous mayors have. And by other measures she is more democratic and principled than previous mayors. What is a mayor anyway? What impact does the mayor have and how do you measure it? Crime for example went down under Jerry Brown, then up under Jerry Brown, then, down under Ron Dellums – who nearly everyone agreed phoned in his entire tenure as mayor4. What can a mayor actually do about entrenched sociopolitical and economic problems, like a city’s murder rate, when crime, both violent crime and property crime, is so closely linked with an economics that is essentially out of the hands of local elected officials? As always those with the real power are secreted away somewhere far from Oakland, pulling the strings on Wall Street and in DC, while the wardens of our local municipalities are left to receive the people’s understandable rage. And as always, these local leaders screw up, and do the wrong thing and cause harm. Yes, let’s be angry. And sure, let’s vote for someone else next time. Voting is one tool that costs very little to utilize, so why not?

But if we’re radicals, why are we wasting time on some back and forth with our local figurehead? One of the most exciting aspects of Occupy is it’s commitment to setting up it’s own institutions, parallel, better systems based on creative, spontaneous action and radical mutual aid. We aren’t waiting for a mayor, no matter how progressive, or left, or radical, to solve a problem for us, and nor should we.

If you’ve lived in Oakland for more than a few years, you know the reality that we have been underfunded and underdeveloped for more than 40 years, that our school system is near collapse, jobs are non-existent, murder and gun violence are epidemic, our roads don’t get fixed, our bus services have been slashed, our parks aren’t maintained, more than half of high school students don’t graduate, and even if they did graduate, college is unreachably expensive and there are no jobs anyway, and we’ve basically been stepped on, stereotyped, ignored, battered, bruised, and tossed into the estuary. A recall election is an absurd side-show to the real problems of the city. And if you want real change, you’ll have to look farther than a recall election to achieve it.

1In what looks to have been a bluffing attempt to force a parcel tax, which failed, she threw our libraries under the bus.
2For those who hoped Kaplan would win the last election I ask, where has Kaplan been these last few months? She released exactly one statement and made one speech about OO. Did she propose specific actions on the part of City government? Did she participate in a GA? Did she take any kind of progressive leadership role? If so, I missed it. This is not meant to be a particular jab at Kaplan, who, like everyone on the Council, would be considered a progressive by any widely-held standard. But Kaplan, who has been working her way up the political ladder from the AC Transit Board to the At Large seat on the council, is likely eyeing Sandré Swanson’s seat when he terms out and can’t afford to tarnish her image by fraternizing with dirty occupiers. In any case, while she may be opportunistic enough to run given a special election, there is no reason to think she would be more progressive than Quan in her actual policy making, although she would clearly be more charismatic and dynamic in the figurehead portion of the role. So if you want a more exciting figurehead, she’s your woman.
3And yes, that is the most inappropriate stock photo one could possibly use to represent City of Oakland employees who will be getting laid off.
4And speaking of race and perceptions of mayoral performance, Jerry was elected to State Attorney General despite this crime spike at the end of his term, and Dellums was not given credit for the crime reduction during his.


Occupy Love


Occupying the Port

Colorful Mamas of the 99%

Why do we riot? An open letter to my friends in the black bloc.

Is breaking a window at a demonstration a valid strategic choice, a parapolitical expression of real political rage or an act of pure selfish fun? When our allies try to restrain us, do they simply lack imagination, are they the false friends who run when the cops show up, or are they reminding us that we’re failing to be honest about our motives?

Let’s be asking ourselves these questions right now because they have real, not just theoretical implications.

Can breaking things help the movement?

Undoubtedly, breaking stuff gets attention. When you’ve been part of countless massive mobilizations that barely register for the mainstream, you quickly begin to wonder what is the point. You don’t have to look back very far to remember how actions against the Iraq wars tens of thousands strong, anti-globalization/anti-neoliberalism gatherings that filled entire cities, May Day immigrant rights marches peopled in the hundreds of thousands were all mostly ignored by the national and international press. It makes you crazy, like there are two alternate realities existing side by side and one covering it’s eyes and ears in a deliberate effort to refuse to notice the other. But break one window and you’re on the front of the New York Times. One broken window seems a reasonable price for being noticed.

Except this motivation doesn’t always apply, and in the case of the Oakland Strike, this argument is complete bullshit because we had massive, sympathetic international news coverage before a single window was broken. I need not elaborate that the coverage of the after-midnight actions was of the tabloid, “Oakland is Burning” variety, completely eclipsing coverage of the concurrent, much more focused (but I’m now reading also very problematic) takeover of the foreclosed Travelers Aid building. In other words, fucking shit up took away sympathetic media from the actions that more of us were excited about.

The media will obsess over the stupid things no matter what we do, but let’s be honest that we are playing both sides of the media argument – complaining that they will always irresponsibly focus on the rabble, and then being the rabble ourselves to get that attention. Is it worth it? I don’t know, but I know the price for attention is never just one window.

Your peace police are oppressing me

It takes a real commitment to self-deception to ignore that breaking windows, aggressively confronting cops and spraypainting storefronts creates an atmosphere that completely obliterates the voices of those who do not want to participate in those actions. It is a stated goal of many black bloc participants to shift the struggle in a different direction – to intensify it. But propaganda of the deed shifts the energy of the environment, both among protestors and in the police response, in a way that the larger group has no say in. It is antidemocratic in the sense of the word democratic that means political and social equality among all people.

Since I’m a bit thick, it took my having my own child to recognize that black bloc tactics make the environment totally inaccessible to families with small children. This is not “concern trolling” or liberal handwringing over the theoretical idea of alienating potential allies. This is my real concern as a parent: I don’t feel safe bringing my child to scary, liminal, highly volatile angry spaces where things are being hurled through windows. I think most parents feel the same way. Fucking shit up mid-day during a massive rally that includes a wide-range of people drives away families and I hardly need elaborate the problem with intentionally excluding families from your movement. (And in the case of the Oakland Strike, even the children’s marches felt quite forceful, taking to the street immediately, so cannot be accused of following the arbitrary rules of the status quo.)

Outside of my own experience, it is obvious to anyone who bothers to look that these tactics make the space physically unsafe for old people and many people with disabilities. Too, these actions put the whole group at risk of severe police retaliation which has an obvious and problematic racial dimension. Black bloc members who are white (as most but of course not all are) should take a moment to reflect on how unlikely they are to suffer lasting legal consequences for their actions, while they are simultaneously putting nearby people of color at great risk of arrest or physical abuse by police. Police will act unjustly without provocation – we need not take responsibility for that. But choosing to provoke police in an atmosphere where the majority are not interested in doing so, or at least not in doing so by the same means is something we do need to take responsibility for.

And finally, it seems so obvious it shouldn’t even require mentioning (although apparently it does require mentioning) that the people who run small businesses in areas where demonstrations take place, people who here in Oakland are often immigrants, people of color and women, and are rarely making much money, do not get any kind of say in whether these tactics should be used. And if you look in their windows as these protests approach, you’ll get a flavor of how fearful these folks are of the approaching mob in their requisite “we support Occupy Oakland/Oscar Grant/etc” signs that are in no practical way different from the American flags you’d see in immigrant-owned shop windows post 9-11. These desperate attempts to save their storefronts are a fairly obvious indicator of how terrorized small shop owners feel in these situations.

In short, black bloc actions have an extreme, disproportionate impact on the larger protest community and the larger general community, but the larger community has no say in those black bloc actions.

A valid question that follows is then when do those who want to take black bloc style actions get to do so? Why should other forms of protest always prevail? I wont pretend to know the answer because this is still an open question for me, but I can say unequivocally that Oakland on November 2nd was a very foolish moment to use these strategies because…

Physically trashing an economically beleaguered and people of color centered downtown is politically idiotic

On an average day Downtown Oakaland is full of the empty storefronts and collapsing infrastructure that characterize post-industrial America. The people who live downtown all fall within a spectrum of middle class, working class, or poor – some desperate and homeless. Many if not most residents of downtown are people of color and or immigrants. The people who work downtown are also largely brown and middle class or poor. They work in non-profits, social justice organizations, small community businesses, or in the case of the corporate outlets, local franchises that are in terms of financial risk and benefit for the local manager effectively also small local businesses. The majority who work at the few corporate offices downtown are not highly paid and likely feel pretty lucky to have jobs right now. When we break windows downtown, we unequivocally hasten the physical and economic deterioration of this space that is peopled by those we claim to want to defend. I cannot come up with one sane argument for trashing the homes and workplaces of Oaklanders, those who are clearly not the deciders of capitalist policies, not even on a very local level.

If this tactic of breaking windows, tagging and other property destruction is to be employed, Downtown Oakland is a very poor choice as a target.

But focused anti-bank vandalism and the building takeover were separate from tagging downtown

On one hand we use rhetoric about intensifying the struggle. We know that breaking one window at Citibank will not shut them down, but we want to believe that breaking that window will inspire larger radical action, a change of thinking toward corporations or private property generally. But then when people take us at our word, when they are in fact inspired by the site of a broken window to break one of their own, often without the clear focus on the worst offenders in the capitalist system, we don’t want to take responsibility for our own contribution to that action. If we intensify the struggle in the direction of radical property destruction then we are in part responsible for the radical property destruction that follows, even if we don’t approve of the specific targets chosen by those who follow us.

We can’t have it both ways. Either our actions are serving to radicalize people into taking action (in which case the random tagging and window breaking of small businesses in downtown Oakland is our fault) or they are not (in which case what is the point?).

Why we riot

Breaking windows, tagging, confronting cops en mass is thrilling. If you’ve ever tasted them, you know they make you feel alive, and let us not underestimate the need for that feeling. The loneliness, anxiety, tedium, and the numbing hum of constant stimulus of our daily lives provides few opportunities for it. It is not just a good feeling, although it feels good. It seems to me it is a necessary feeling, it is a reminder that anything is possible. It may be that some form of this feeling is the only way to push us to creating a real, better world, to imagining what is now considered by most to be impossible but which is essential for the survival of our communities and the natural world.

But the actions that engender this feeling just aren’t sustainable. Breaking windows feels good, and at times it may serve a useful tactical purpose, but when we are honest we can see that it also alienates, it strikes fear, not (just) in the hearts of capitalist deciders, but in the hearts of our friends and allies. It leaves a big fucking mess that someone, always someone else, has to clean up. And the person who cleans it up is never the person to whom we wish to direct our rage.

The urge to rage is an urge to define our own terms and to break free of the rules that we as a community impose on ourselves, rules that seek to quash creative anger. We should define our own terms. We should articulate our rage. Defining and articulating and raging are the things that allow us to be expansive in our imagination of the future, and to be bold in our efforts to get there. But we rage also for the gleeful, childish pleasure of breaking things. And we tend do so with little thought toward the real consequences. This is an inherent component of rage, not just a coincidental co-factor. If we unleash chaos we must take responsibility for its results. If we don’t want those results, then we must find another way to direct our anger.

I want us as radicals to make our anger laser sharp in focus, I want us to use our boldness in ways that don’t provide us only with our own selfish thrill.

We want to remake the world anew, but the world will not be made better without some careful consideration. Let’s not pretend that our rage is automatically liberating. Let’s not pretend that we ourselves are incapable of causing real harm.

*EDIT: For what it’s worth, I wrote this before I really understood the controversy about the building takeover. I was home with my sleeping kid by the time of that action and the reports have taken a minute to come in. The more I read about it though, the more turned off I am by how it was carried out.*Second EDIT: A thoughtful discussion of the problems with the Traveler’s Aid building takeover can be found in the comments section of this thread.*