'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A Misguided Action at Occupy Oakland? (Part 1) 

UPDATE: Go here for a statement from some of the participants in the Traveler's Aid Society squat referenced below and an insightful array of responses to it. Many of those posting comments expressed the opinion that the seizure of the building was poorly planned in light of the predictable police response and put the occupation at risk.

INITIAL POST: In most instances, a direct action for the purpose of squatting an abandoned building, one in which services for the homeless had been provided, would be a good idea with an understandable social objective, the exposure of how the perpetuation of private property impoverishes people. But late last night and early this morning was not such a time. The police responded with force, and the anarchists and others who squatted the building, fought back. Not surprisingly, the police beat pretty much all the arrestees. Local businesses found themselves in the crossfire, and even if one discounts the bias of the San Francisco Chronicle, there remains the question as to how well anarchists will swim in the downtown Oakland sea in the aftermath of this incident. One does have to consider these things, including the reaction of the Occupy Oakland general assembly, when engaging in such actions as part of a broader social movement.

What was wrong with the squat? Was it because it might take the relatively non-violent sheen off a day of Occupy Oakland marches and the shutdown of the Port of Oakland? Not necessarily. While there are certainly a number of progressives who are always discomforted by efforts to seize abandoned properties and defend them, public acceptance of more confrontational forms of protest is on the rise, as proven by Occupy Together itself. The movement has grown because of synergy between progressive and liberal involvement and proponents of direct action. Was it because the squat and resulting confrontation would be manipulated by the media against the movement? Again, not necessarily. If you haven't noticed, much of the media remains hostile to Occupy Together and has no difficulty manufacturing reasons to malign it. Indeed, the squat resulted in the paradoxical media embrace of the marches and port shutdown as non-violent in contradistinction to the squat. So one can rather oddly argue that the squat actually pushed the media to portray the other aspects of the general strike more favorably.

Of course, it is possible that the squat and subsequent conflict will frighten people away from future participation, but this is dependent upon subsequent events, and not at all certain. But it does appear that the decision to proceed with the squat drained the energy away from the shutdown of the Port of Oakland. Thousands of people stopped traffic and blocked the gates at the port during the early evening hours, and there were plans to stop the early morning shifts from entering the port as well. Given that the unionized workers must come to work unless prevented from doing so by a sizeable community picket, it was essential that a substantial number of people turn out to block the gates again. Accordingly, upon the return of the protesters to the encampment, there should have been an emphasis upon ensuring such a turn out. Instead, there was a diversion of people into the squat, while media reports of conflict between anarchists and police in downtown Oakland deterred anyone who had departed after participating in the protest from returning to the encampment to continue the blockade of the port.

So, an opportunity was missed as the port reopened after a small number of people were sent out by Occupy Oakland to block the gates. By 8:45am, the community picket, such as it was, ended. Just a fraction of the number of people who participated in the protest the previous evening would have been sufficient to prevent the opening of the port. Admittedly, that might not have happened in any event. There is something ritualistic about shutdowns of the Port of Oakland, and having obtained the gratification of having achieved their objective, many of those who protested might have failed to return regardless of what happened during the early morning hours in downtown Oakland. It is even possible that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union had no interest in an extended shutdown, although there was a report, as noted here, that it wanted a 24 hour closure. If the union did come to such a decision because of the enormous, unanticipated size of the march to the port, then the violence that erupted as a consequence of the squat is all the more tragic. On the other side of the ledger, there is the fact that a sizeable number of people took to the streets to defend the squat, and that might be a harbinger of things to come.

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