Occupy Oakland’s Awesomeness Triumphs Over Fringe Craziness

The sun set on Wednesday night while we were on the freeway overcrossing at the Port Of Oakland, having marched there with somewhere between 7,000 (conservative estimate) and 20,000 (liberal estimate) other people. (However I’d accidentally over-ingested some whiskey shortly beforehand, so to me, it looked like somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 other people.)

photo via mercurynews.com

People were sitting on top of trucks and most of us were walking our bicycles. Longshoremen, prevented by their union from striking, expressed solidarity at the picket line by honking their horns and talking with protesters. Many just turned around and went home, due to a provision in their contracts which does not require them to work if there is a disturbance in the port.  Shortly after sunset it was announced that the protest had officially shut down the Port of Oakland, the nation’s fifth-busiest port. Everyone cheered and we cheered too and then we rode our bikes 60 blocks home.

photo via occupy oakland facebook

And then, apparently, as most of the city slept, a bunch of assholes went around fucking shit up in the name of Occupy Oakland. They set shit on fire, vandalized buildings, broke windows, and allegedly attacked police officers. By the end of the standoff, 80 protesters were arrested. And yesterday that’s all anybody could talk about, and I guess I can’t blame them, because look here I am, also talking about it. How the hell did this…

…turn into this?

Well, long story short: it didn’t. But let’s begin at the beginning.

Occupy Oakland has been the focus of much world attention since it began on October 10th. Last week Oakland had the unfortunate honor of being the location of a massive and ultimately violent standoff between police and Occupiers, in which police unleashed tear gas and rubber bullets upon unarmed protesters, leaving many injured and critically wounding Marine Iraq veteran Scott Olsen.

Occupy Oakland actually runs a pretty tight ship under the supervision of a “Unified General Assembly.” The objectives as laid out on the Occupy Oakland website are to “reclaim public space to use as a forum for the people to come together, meet one another, listen to each other, and build power for ourselves… to plan actions, to mobilize real resistance, to defend ourselves from the economic and physical war that is being waged against our communities.”

photo by me

On November 2nd, Occupy Oakland called for a General Strike, the first held in the city since 1946. They called on workers and students to walk out of class/work or take a vacation/sick day to join the occupiers. According to TruthOut, 16 percent of the city’s teachers didn’t show up for work and some high school students were given the day off. Half a dozen marches on banks and corporations shut down Wells Fargo, Chase, Citibank and Bank of America. Occupy Oakland said about 10,000 people were there during the day, which included 800 children, parents and teachers who gathered at the Oakland Main Library. There were poets there you guys, POETS! You can get the most accurate view of Tuesday’s events, really, on Occupy Oakland’s facebook page.

The day began with Angela Fucking Davis at 9:30, and by the time I got there in mid-afternoon the scene could best be described as a Social Justice Festival — heaps of performances and speakers, including some spoken word poets and kids from the Destiny Arts Center that I could’ve watched all day.

I used the video function on my camera for the first time to film some of that — it’s not edited, just random footage (also I clearly didn’t realize that shooting vertically would result in a sideways shot):

The crowd was remarkably diverse both racially and age-wise, in addition to sporting a visible contingency of alternative lifestyle haircuts, pot-smoking hippies and punk kids. (The San Francisco Gate has a nice piece on the diversity at Occupy.) 4,000 free meals in the form of hot dogs, hamburgers, veggie dogs and veggie burgers were distributed by the Alameda Labor Council with grills manned by City of Alameda firefighters and Alameda Local 689. It was almost an exact demonstration of how peaceful and happy people can be when you take commerce out of the picture.

a lot of spiritual shit was going on there

I think for a lot of us who have been upset about these issues for years now, it’s just incredibly affirming and encouraging to see this thing actually happening.

But according to the San Francisco Gate, things “descended into chaos after midnight.” Fires were set, windows were shattered, graffiti plastered the walls of banks and other buildings. Police arrived in riot gear, utilizing tear gas and flash-bang grenades to disperse the activity. Police officers claimed they had pipes, hammers, glass bottles, rocks and cobblestones thrown at them and some protesters claimed that officers “beat anyone who ran and arrested anyone who stood still.”

The Gate quotes a resident of the area who said, “The protest is supposed to be about corporate greed. It’s not about trashing the streets of Oakland.” The Gate quotes a man who was standing there when they took that quote, “These are drastic measures, to make people listen. This is our block now.”

WHAT THE FUCK? Are we in second grade where when you like a girl you throw spitballs at her neck or something.

On Thursday the Occupy Oakland group did everything it could to distance itself from the “provocative fringe” who’d done such damage. The occupiers committed to helping the city clean up and disavowed the violence. I don’t know what else to say, besides that it kinda rocked.

According to The San Francisco Gate, there was some dissent over how to handle the “black bloc” tactics, which “have been a source of debate in the Bay Area activist community for years.” Some wanted to issue an official apology, but some argued that the actions were “irrelevant” and “trivial” and that “the people of Oakland were highly reassured by the unity of this community.”

from occupy oakland facebook

The term “Black bloc” is often misused to describe a group of anarchists, but it’s not a group, it’s a strategy. The protest tactic was developed in the 1980s by Autonomists (a set of left-wing political/social movements somehow related to the socialist movement) (not my socialist movement!) in Europe and it involves people fucking shit up while hiding themselves in black clothing, scarves and ski masks and carrying shields/truncheons. Black bloc groups were most visible at the 1999 anti-WTO demonstration when they damaged a lot of retail property in Seattle including precious Starbucks. Tactics include vandalism, rioting, street-fighting, misleading authorities, demonstrating without a permit and building barricades. Favorite targets include banks, outlets of multi-national corporations and institutional buildings.

Former Bay Area conflicts with black bloc protesters include a January 2003 march against invading Iraq, where a splinter group broke off from the peaceful protest, 150,000-200,000 strong, to vandalize the Financial District by breaking windows, tagging buildings with graffiti and dragging news racks into the street.

From a historical perspective, black bloc groups have often been a thorn in the side of peaceful protesters, but the media seems to be framing Wednesday’s activists as a specific fringe incited by the spirit of the 99%. But that’s just not the case. Sure, I was raised by very politically active anti-violent hippies who wouldn’t even let us own a squirt gun, but I just can’t see any benefit to violence as activism. What do you think?

photo by me, sign by edie

In any event, Wednesday’s protests were still, I believe, a success. It looks like Oakland will remain in the spotlight as this movement evolves, especially as low temperatures and snowstorms freeze out protesters throughout the East and Midwest. There is no weather in Oakland, it’s always 70 degrees. Oakland can do this shit all year, bitches!

Riese is the 37-year-old CEO, CFO and Editor-in-Chief of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, blogger, fictionist, copywriter, video-maker, low-key Jewish power lesbian and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and then headed West. Her work has appeared in nine books including "The Bigger the Better The Tighter The Sweater: 21 Funny Women on Beauty, Body Image & Other Hazards Of Being Female," magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 2697 articles for us.

28 Comments

  1. Oh my god, I was involved with Destiny Arts Center almost a decade ago, but haven’t kept very good track of what they’ve been doing since. I had no idea they were at Occupy Oakland! It made me cry (in all the good ways) watching that video. Thank you, Riese, for sharing. You just made my day.

  2. thank you riese and everyone at occupy oakland. i got through about a third of this post, got really worked up, wrote this:

    and now im reading the rest, thanks, roots o’ love.

  3. Yay! I asked you about OO on formspring & I’m glad that you wrote about it. I agree that Wednesday was a crazy success, and I’m happy that the movement identified those who vandalized the city that night as a separate group.

    Did anyone else see how fucking incredible Boots Riley was in organizing the march to the ports?

    Also. There were so many cute girls. Cute girls taking over the world.

  4. It´s great to see how the OO movement is truly diverse plus that they are not involved with the voilent acts that have been the topic of interest with the media. but rather Occupy Oakland has a spirit of peace and unity of like minded individuals. Wish i could have been there.

  5. This whole thing is amazing! I really wanted to go but I had to occupy my Spanish classroom since I’m kind of failing. =/

    News reports on BBC definitely include the view that the violence wasn’t the Occupy Oakland protestors, but I can’t say what mainstream American media said because their websites are such clusterfucks.

  6. I’m glad to finally have a name to put to the anarchist folks who tend to show up to liberal movement gatherings. They pop up at anti-KKK rallies and occasionally at a pro-gay rights event here in Indianapolis, and organizers usually have a strategy for shutting them down and isolating them from the main crowd where they have more difficulty causing harm. I think those strategies are pretty home-grown though; it would be awesome if peace organizations traded information and tactics about how to handle disruptive activities like this. Occupy Oakland seems to coming up with good solutions.

  7. God, this whole occupy movement just makes me so happy. I’ve been so disgusted by the apathy of America for so long now, and I’m so excited to see so many people taking to the streets to voice their opinions and frustrations. I just wish I could be in the States demonstrating with you guys. Alas, I’ll be occupying Morocco for another year and a half.

    Thank you for this article, sometimes it’s hard to know what’s really going on with all the conflicting reports in the media. But I trust you to tell me the truth, Riese 🙂

  8. Did the people who claimed to be a part of the violent movement specifically identify as anarchists? Otherwise it’s pretty disingenuous to identify them as such by the Occupy Oakland Facebook page. Many people circle their As, and not all of them believe in or practice violence as a form of resistance. If you alienate people by claiming all they do is run around being destructive, you’re going to lose out on many people who have a great deal of experience in operating under consensus and building alternative spaces of social interaction.

    If you don’t believe in destructive/violent tactics as a part of resistance movements that is one thing, and I probably agree with you. However, if you are going to define anarchists as those who practice such techniques (and the only ones who do so), you might end up losing support from people who have great potential to contribute to these new communities.

  9. you know whats kinda embarrassing …I’m following this subject on various blogs and my native city’s newspaper and news.
    but because I kinda have a cold/no urge to get out of bed right now I totally fucking missed it’s also happening in the city I just moved to.what does that say about me?

  10. Thank you so much for writing this article! It is such a shame that a small group of individuals overshadowed everything we achieved on Wednesday. I will never forget the beauty of what we achieved. Reading this, and being reminded of all of that beauty brought tears to my eyes. Furthermore, I think it is important that all of us who were there focus on and share with the world what we can do.

    The world was watching Oakland, and we showed them what Oakland can do!

  11. There’s been allegations that the vandalism supposedly caused by the black bloc during the Seattle WTO protests was actually set off by plain clothes cops who’d infiltrated the crowd. I wonder if something like that could have been at work here, since that kind of stuff seems really out of sync with the tone of the rest of the Occupy Oakland protests.

  12. walking up to the port being welcomed by all the people on top of the 18-wheelers was one of the most amazing feelings. it was so supportive and unifying, i couldn’t stop grinning even if i wanted to. and the people i’ve met at occupy oakland have been extremely kind and intelligent, so it’s too bad there’s some negativity surrounding it. hopefully the movement can be viewed through the tens of thousands who are nonviolent rather than the handful of mayhem-causers.

  13. Riese thanks for the excellent reporting, BY FAR the most inclusive and fairest that Ive seen/read. My local Contra Costa Times actually had the same tone and conclusions as you, but your video, sideways or otherwise, was the first I’ve seen showing the dance & poetry and it was really AWESOME.
    Makes me really proud of the town I lived in for ten years, before moving out to the ‘burbs.

  14. This was a great article and I’m glad that someone was able to set the record straight for all those not in attendance. I was there with a friend and was saw myself in the crowd on your video. My friend witnessed the windows being broken at Wells Fargo while she was waiting for me to arrive at the 12th street BART station.

  15. I’m sympathetic to the aims of the Occupy protests (and it goes without saying that the Bay Area cops assembled in Oakland are acting like thugs), but Occupy Oakland is adversely affecting the area’s economic health:

    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/11/07/MNFB1LQLLD.DTL

    So, Occupy Oakland can indeed do that shit all year round, but do they really want to? When protests against the 1% drive businesses–and jobs–away, it only ends up hurting… the 99%. Besides that, now Occupy Wall Street organizers have had to set up women-only tents to curb sexual assaults. The Occupy cure is fast turning into something that’s far worse than the disease.

  16. For what it’s worth, Black Bloc provocateurs do not represent all of us who identify as anarchist. I am a pragmatic anarchist, and it’s essential that we understand what tactics are useful and how any actions with affect the larger movement.

    I believe that the energy of the Occupy movement is amazing, and that it’s a better move to educate people on useful direct actions, do teach-ins to give a history of all social movements and tactics, and really coalesce this amazing burst of energy into a real, sustainable movement.

    The consensus model that OWS began using that has been adopted by Occupations all over, is SO something that anarchists have employed to make sure that individuals have a voice in the collective, to be able to create new ways of self governance, and move away from top down power. That’s my anarchism, not a bunch of testosterone-addled asshats who can’t see how their tactics are hurting, not helping.

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