Only One Side Is Armed
The fine tooth combs continue to run over Occupy Oakland’s general strike on Wednesday, November 2nd, its sequence of marches, port shutdown, and building occupation. News, however, is just now trickling out about military veteran Kayvan Sabehgi (two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan), currently recovering from surgery for a spleen lacerated by a beating police administered during his arrest early Thursday morning, November 3rd, near the occupied Traveler’s Aid building on 16th in downtown Oakland. As opposed to the case of Scott Olsen, which immediately surged to the attention of the nation, Sabehgi’s story is emerging by way of international sources. The repetition of events marks out a decisive contrast in their coverage: first a tragedy, then a farce.
According to his own account, 32-year-old Sabehgi was surrounded by a group of cops — he was then struck, forced down, and struck repeatedly with batons. In severe pain, he arrived at jail where the “nurse” suggested a suppository for his vomiting and diarrhea. When he was finally bailed out the following afternoon, he was too weak to leave his cell. His jailers shut the door; eventually an ambulance rushed him to treatment. While corporate media outlets busily reported on the “violent” window breaking and graffiti from Wednesday, the real violence the thousands on the ground saw was, as usual, concentrated in the hands of the state.
The mainstream media has now entered a second phase of its campaign against the Oakland Commune, with talk of “emergency” as backdrop to incredibly fallacious reports. In one instance, NPR and the San Francisco Chronicle blankly repeated police chief Howard Jordan’s screwball estimate of 7,000 people at the port shutdown (other mediatized estimates were as low as 4,000). A correction was later issued. The two successive, massive waves of marchers from Oscar Grant Plaza amounted to at least 100,000 people by any reasonable estimate. This was the strike the Wall Street Journal claimed (with lame diction) had “largely fizzled.”
Given the limited rights of workers in our private sector, the limited contracts of the unionized public sector, the many people who live paycheck to paycheck barely making ends meet, and the fracturing of the Bay Area left in recent years (and since the advent of the crisis) — the numbers and size of the coordinated demonstration seem that much more remarkable.
To begin at the end: the building occupation fell in a hail of tear gas, non-lethal “force,” and arrest. The Traveler’s Aid building, what some were calling the Raheim Brown Community Center, (temporarily?) closed down once again. The building had been strategically entered earlier that evening (not “just before midnight”), and with heavy rains across the Bay Area this weekend, access to buildings seems all the more necessary to the occupation. Symbolically as well as practically: As the housing crisis for many continues to deepen (devaluation, eviction, foreclosure) and a turn both to protecting the vulnerable as well as to reclaiming abandoned buildings and residences seems a prescient, path-blazing move. At its radical edge, building occupations contest the relations of private property, and the artificiality of its conventions; in California we feel acutely this contradiction, with so many homeless and so many vacant properties and homes. The media’s attempt to normalize the police violence establishes pacifism as the only “acceptable” form of Occupy politics. The diversity of tactics and general inclusivity of the rest of the Oakland Commune is demonized or ignored.
The general strike rolled out with morning “flying pickets” aimed at Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America — all of which refused to close their doors. Marchers chanted and sang, “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out.” When Specialty Bakery threatened their workers to prevent them from striking, the picket flew over. An early estimate had pre-noontime crowds on the street at 5,000. I arrived from Santa Cruz around 1 PM with a group including Gopal Balakrishnan; our group’s preparations included creating medic kits with a liquid mix of antacid for teargas; a back-pocket pair of toenail clippers in case of zip cuffing; and plenty of water and sandwiches. We walked up Franklin and encountered one of the many flying pickets, this one shutting down the University of California Office of the President.
We had arrived in time for the Anti-Capitalist March. Think Seattle 1999, Greece 2008. A black banner with the slogan “Death to Capitalism” hung at the 14th and Telegraph intersection. At the front of the march another black banner read “If We Cannot Live We Will Not Work,” yet another, “Long Live the Do-It-Yourself Revolution” with accompanying Arabic translation. A group of black-clad, masked, and fast-moving demonstrators (sometimes called the “Black Bloc”) tore through ordinary matter like a quantum particle at the front of the crowd. They smashed up windows of a Chase Bank in broad daylight, and would later do the same to a Bank of America. These anarcho-communists and ultra-leftists were aware of being raised to the level of big capital’s spectacular montage as they chanted: “Fuck the property of the one percent.” (Those wanting everyone to show their face should remember the lesson of campus struggles two years ago, the site of occupation movement’s origins: avoid detection, avoid punishment. Any actual political resistance will have its rendezvous with domestic intelligence services.) Whether stunned or ready for the rowdiness, the large march trailing them kept on.
Their next target: Whole Foods. New at the checkout line alongside the rare chocolate and digestible good conscience: a left-wing action against liberal PC consumerism. With a mix of white spray paint and paint balloons, the groupuscule hit up the front of supermarket with an enormous graffito: strike. They made their way to the large side windows of the store and after repeated attempts at bringing the window down, the right deviation’s “peace police” began chanting “peaceful protest” and did so threateningly enough to force the “Black Bloc” on to their next target. “Union busting is disgusting,” the left-wing demonstrators chanted back to them.
The current hegemony of “peaceful protest” has kept property destruction contained, but the growing sentiment on the march seemed to be: Fuck it. Give me a rock, or better yet a dense D battery. “Though we wanted to pave the way for friendliness, we could not ourselves be friendly,” wrote Brecht. The rightist argument also goes that building occupations, property damage, and other radical tactics will only attract the cops and provoke an attack on the broader movement, necessarily limiting participation. First proviso: don’t misapprehend the police, an active rather then merely reactive force. They will come to building occupations and other attempts at expropriation in the middle of the night, when the crowd thins or tires, when they can maximize their comparative advantage in weaponry and discipline. In deep-blue-state California, repression is well organized. Second proviso: don’t forget the actual history of struggles, remembering only Martin Luther King Jr., while forgetting both Malcolm X and Robert Williams. Thus the left-adventurist subject — the product of conscious revolutionary study and mobilization — reared up in the crowd.
Barbeques Every Day
Back at Oscar Grant Plaza, we found a great restless festival. Buses arrived to take folks down to the port. Some unionists cooked out on enormous grills. And the four o’clock march to the port was something else — red flags, black flags, posters, pickets, marching bands, bikes galore, crust punks, militants, burners. I saw poets, former students, old friends, even two of my literary mentors, amid a vast current of strangers.
I was shooting footage on the march and kept on getting ahead and behind a certain group of friends before losing them altogether. I encountered other friends then moved off by myself. At one point I had to stop and put a new memory card in my camera. I kneeled down and struggled with the package for a few minutes. As I stood up again and looked around, I found myself in another dimension of the several mile long and very dense march. The cramped valley of corporate buildings could hardly accommodate the mobilization. Mostly assembled since the 80s, with the Los Angeles Men’s County Jail and Gehry’s Disney Hall as the two sides of their aesthetic ideal, these “junk space” columns of glass, air-conditioning, and steel are the “great” architectural measure of corporate globalization. Without a central square plus enormous amplification (à la Mexico City’s Zocalo), a crowd this size can neither be easily spoken to nor coordinated. Regardless, this crowd was going somewhere.
Entering one of the ports of today’s global capitalism, one has the feeling of entering into some parallel universe. Marx pointed out that large-scale machinery develops in a combat with workers, and this battlefield has almost entirely wiped them out. Dirty with diesel and truck tire particulate, these enormous spaces subdivide up into berths and terminals of the various world shippers: Evergreen, TKY Logistics, China Shipping, etc. I had spent some time filming at the port of Long Beach one lonely Saturday some years ago with my friend Cooper Brislain, and this experience contrasted immensely with that previous port visit. The walk in was dramatic and exhilarating. Before the final bridge to the port the march hit a freeway over pass. The stalled truckers honked and the exuberant crowd roared as did the several bands that moved under the pass. And from the final bridge one got a good look at the port’s scale. I stalled out at the bridge for long enough to see the 5 PM wave of marchers come through, even bigger than the earlier march.
Suddenly my phone blew up with texts and calls. The front of the march had reached the crucial berth 22 some three miles into the port. Riot cops formed a visible line. I remembered the 2003 antiwar demonstration at the port of Oakland in which gas and non-lethal rounds were deployed against the demonstrators. The circling picket, a couple thousand strong, was actually preventing the port from operating. Police helicopters trained spotlights on people from overhead. An arbitrator was on the way out to decide on whether or not the port would shut down because of unsafe working conditions. I walked Maritime Avenue for miles to catch up. The old saying is true: If you go far enough on any California street, eventually you find a taco truck. There were two along the route, both nearly sold out of food. By the time I got there the cops had split.
At the picket, several friends were talking to an ILWU member named Charles. He was explaining many of the particulars of a port shutdown. The ILWU itself is involved in a continual low-intensity conflict with its employers. Partial shutdowns and continual slowdowns are among their normal tactics. Charles made it known that if the picket stayed then any attempts to restart the port’s operation (at 3 AM and 6 AM) would be thwarted. The choke point of just-in-time production would cut big capital’s airflow a full 24 hours.
At one point, Charles asked a disarming question: “Who are all these people?”
I told him that the five of us in front of him were in teachers and teaching assistant unions (UC-AFT, UAW local 2865), and that the broader movement was composed of folks from the Justice for Oscar Grant struggle, the antiwar movement, environmentalists…
“Oh, OK, so everybody,” he replied. “Well, we’re with you.” (In the anticipatory words of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake: “here comes everybuddy.”)
The strike call had been a strange one for the union brothers. Charles heard about it on TV and then he and other workers discussed it in the ILWU union hall. In the ordinary conditions of these recent depoliticized decades, unions call the strikes — the proximate cause usually being specific contract negotiations or grievances. Indeed, Charles talked about a co-worker who had lost her legs in a port accident. The shippers were fighting any compensation for her. These being increasingly extraordinary times, this was far from a normal strike call.
As 8 PM approached, Boots Riley got on the bullhorn to announce that the port was shut down. We would be the lead group spearheading a march back downtown. Four or five of us left a bit before everyone else. A mile on, back at 7th and Maritime, we found another large crowd. There were four different human microphones going simultaneously in a frantic attempt to communicate. Things finally coalesced around preventing a news van from passing through the intersection. The driver was told to walk home and chants of “Fuck the corporate media” resounded in the chopper blade air. The first attempt at coordinating such a sizable crowd was breaking down before our eyes. The numbers necessary to defend the building occupation downtown might not be able to make it back.
Famished, we left for pizza at a friend’s nearby West Oakland apartment, before making our way back downtown to the occupied building on 16th street. Another Brecht line echoed in my head, “Our goal lay far in the distance, it was clearly visible.”
The Sun at Night
With the financial crisis beginning a new round of intensification this fall, the occupation movement across the U.S. will need to expropriate buildings, workplaces, and schools across the country in order to survive and thrive this winter and beyond. It will need permanent architecture, alongside enduring encampment with the country’s homeless and poorest people. But, last Wednesday night, a single building would have to do. We walked down Broadway to 16th street and encountered minimal police presence just after 10 PM. Two helicopters circled over downtown. A makeshift trash barricade cut 16th off from Telegraph. Down 16th, a large, energetic, but also nervous crowd surrounded the building. An “Occupy Everything” poster faced out from the second story window. Statements were being read over bullhorn while dance music played. Inside a library was already set up.
A hurried conversation with one group of comrades shifted to reports of police advancing in two directions. (A local homeless man later told me he had seen 30 vans of cops coming down Broadway.) A protestor line formed on 16th. Protestor gas masks, goggles, helmets, painters masks all came out. The black flag went up over the action. The police formed a line across Broadway as they slowly crept toward us, before fanning out over Telegraph. Eventually they appeared along the main thoroughfare north of the plaza. As hostilities commenced with a police charge, the barricade along sixteenth exploded in flames for a few minutes. The cops fired volleys of tear gas, flash bang grenades (with “Made in Wyoming” labels), and rubber bullets. The protestor line was forced back toward 15th Street. The air was thick with the acidic particulates. Bottles, bricks and projectiles were hurled at the cops. Flames leapt into the air. There were reports of a primitive m80 cannon. I recalled the means Argentina’s Zanon factory occupation used to keep police at bay in 2002 during some of their pitched struggles to defend their worker-controlled factory: marbles and slingshots.
Some of us fell back to the Oscar Grant Plaza before being successively rallied back up to the line. There were reports of beatings and mass arrests on 16th. Here was resistance in the age of Obama. We consoled one young woman who was weeping for her suffering comrades. I tried to sooth the nerves of two young men disconcerted by protestors throwing bottles and other projectiles.
The tense standoff continued until nearly 4 AM, by which point the building was firmly back in state hands. Some thought the police would attempt to dismantle the plaza encampment again. They appeared, however, still politically hampered by their last plaza incursion. If buildings can be occupied downtown in Oakland in the coming weeks and months (and this seems something of a necessity), the failure to “hold the space” Wednesday night may be seen in a new and brighter light. The abandoned Traveler’s Aid building remains ripe for the picking.
The General Assembly Friday night, November 4th, revealed some splits and divisions among the participants. The right deviation at the camp remains a vocal but hostile and threatening minority, likely no more than 20% of regular participants. The proposal format requires a high level of consensus (80-90%) for any actionable results. In the subcommittee report back portion of the GA, a sound subcommittee member reported hearing talk of violence directed against the “anarchists” in the camp. Brian explained that the sound system he has operated since the first day was off for the night in protest; he and others identified as anarchists felt physically threatened. The labor subcommittee reported some complaints from union leadership about the unspeakable “violence” done to some bank windows on Wednesday. IWW carpenter John Reimann forcefully defended the anarcho-communist wing of Occupy Oakland, pointing out their absolutely essential presence in the movement, one from which he had learned a great deal.
The comments period began. A city worker from SEIU local 1021 explained that he and other plaza building workers wanted to coordinate closely with the occupation by forming a subcommittee to do so. An immigration activist talked about how to bring more vulnerable workers into the struggle. Someone criticized Wednesday’s direct action by quoting Mao Zedong’s old line: “The contradictions among the people regarding revolutionary tactics are not the same as the contradictions among the people and its enemy.” Despite the presence of a vocal “peace police” minority, the night’s solidaristic vibe dominated proceedings.
The General Assembly on Friday proposed the formation of neighborhood assemblies. These assemblies would mobilize around a ballot initiative to give them, not city bureaucrats, some power over a budget process that currently sees some 50% of its money go toward policing. The comments period of the GA saw suggestions circulate around three crucial concerns: the defense of Oakland residents facing eviction or foreclosure; the occupation of foreclosed or vacant properties; the defense and occupation of schools in the growing education crisis in California. The mediating power of neighborhood assemblies with respect to expanding the coordination of the movement could prove tremendous even if a ballot initiative goes down to electoral defeat.
The weather has changed and the mood in Oakland is now colored by deeper experiences, trials in flame and storm. The movement finds itself more developed than anyone could have foreseen even a few weeks ago. Much remains to be done, and much concerted pressure remains to be applied, in the shadows of an intermittent sun.
David Lau is the author of the book of poems Virgil and the Mountain Cat (University of California Press). He co-edits Lana Turner: a Journal of Poetry and Opinion and teaches writing at UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College.
All photos: David Lau