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

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Marching with the Black Bloc in Sacramento 

Yesterday, I resisted my temptation to engage in activist tourism, and decided to stay in Sacramento for May Day, instead of traveling to Oakland. Oakland is a fine place, no doubt, one that fuses memories of my childhood in Georgia and my junior high and high school years in midtown Sacramento, but I thought it best to participate in a public May Day protest at home. I tend to believe that my presence means more politically at a small scale event than a large one.

Over the weekend, I had checked the indybay calendar for a Sacramento May Day activity, and discovered this one: Anti-Capitalist Contingent for Sacramento May Day . . . This a call out for all in the central valley who are: Anarchists, Socialists, Communists& Anti-Capitalists, radical Queers, Dikes, feminists etc to converge on Sacramento this May Day and take to the streets in a anti-Capitalist Bloc during the May day Rally and March . . . Now, that got my attention. There must have been previous Sacramento May Day actions of this kind, but I don't recall them. In any event, I was pleased that something was happening to the left of the local trade unions, something that centered May Day around an express condemnation of capitalism.

Crocker Park, across from the Crocker Museum, near the I Street Bridge, was the gathering place for people interested in going on the march. I arrived at about 11:30am, about 30 minutes before the scheduled beginning of the march. As I approached one corner of the park at 4th and O Street, I saw a masked Black Bloc contingent of about 8 or 9 people. I became apprehensive as I could not initially see anyone else around, and pondered the surrealism of a 51 year old, unmasked man, marching down the Capitol Mall with them. On the one hand, I wondered whether they would consider me an undercover police officer, while, on the other, I considered the probability of arrest by the uniformed ones across the street on their bikes. I remembered a 2003 protest against the Iraq War along L Street nearby, just south of the K Street Mall, where officers immediately seized a young man wearing a bandanna when he stepped off the sidewalk and chalked the universal anarchy symbol in the street. But, as I got closer to the intersection, I could see another 30 or 40 people in the small park itself, and my apprehension dissipated. Upon entering the park, I noticed that some apparent union activists were there, with one woman wearing a Justice for Janitors T-shirt, another one wearing a Union Summer/AFL-CIO T-shirt and a third one wearing the distinctive purple of the Service Employees International Union. I proceeded to talk to some people for awhile until the Bloc on the corner gathered their signs and flags, including one with a CNT epigram on it, and called for the march to begin.

Interestingly, as I broke off my conversation with a couple of people, a couple of women, and started walking towards the corner to leave, I noticed that they had stayed behind. I asked if they were going on the march, and they said "no". Only about half of the people in the park had come forward to go on the march. A couple of people in the Bloc noticed, and went over to induce the others to come along. They succeeded. Perhaps, it was necessary for someone in the Bloc to speak to them to make them comfortable enough to participate by establishing a human connection severed by the masks. Our first destination were the banks and white collar office buildings along the Capital Mall a block away.

As the light at the intersection turned from green to red, there was an immediate clash of protest cultures. The Bloc at the front of the march continued to move forward after crossing the street, while the rest of us, with that Swiss sort of conformity that so characterizes many of us in Sacramento, stopped for the red light. A minute or two later, when the march had come back together on the other side of the street, some of the Bloc gently chastised us, insisting that we stay together. Of course, they were right, as separation increases the prospects of arrest, with disregard for the commands of the state, even if communicated by a traffic light, being an essential, non-negotiable feature of Bloc protest.

We then proceeded down the Mall, protesting at one bank after another, Wells Fargo, Bank of the West, US Bank, Bank of America. As we approached each bank, we chanted No Borders, No Nations, No Private Corporations! Oddly, I had not heard this one before, and it strikes me as the most concise crystalization of what Occupy, or, for that matter, any social movement should express as an ideological vision. And, indeed, May Day events, especially those in New York City, Oakland and Los Angeles, emphasized the interrelationship between immigration, trade union struggle and our economic distress. The chant identifies the global coalition of the precarious, whether documented or not, that is emerging to challenge capital and placed our small protest squarely within this effort. I am, as most readers of this blog are aware, insistent that any left movement in the US embrace an internationalist, as opposed to a nationalist, perspective.

At each bank, we chanted the slogans that have become the signatures of Occupy, such as Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out. We also chanted Strike! Strike! Strike! at every place where people were working. It is easy to ridicule this, about 40 to 50 people trying to encourage hundreds of people in buildings and along the streets to strike as they go about their business. But, I thought, people have to get the idea to resist somewhere, even if it appears implausible at the time. I recalled Clarence Thomas of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union saying before the November 2nd general strike in Oakland that it was a practice effort. In Sacramento, we are not even at the level of practice, but people did appear to be surprised, and maybe a few thought about what we did.

One of the most striking features of the march was the pragmatism displayed by the Bloc. We walked through red lights, and took over part of the street at times, but, when challenged by the police, we complied with their orders. My impression was that the Bloc had decided prior to the march that confrontation with the police was counterproductive. Bloc members would push boundaries, but not risk having anyone arrested. The cops were most insistent that we stay out of streets with light rail lines. It was evident that the police had been instructed to allow the march to proceed unimpeded if possible. There was little tension in the air. The Bloc contented itself with some hostile chants directed towards the cops, like the one that is now iconic, Fuck the Police, From Oakland to Greece! There were also a few encounters with private security, but here as well, the hostile comments towards them from some of the Bloc lacked the edge that one experiences in the Bay Area.

Surprisingly, we were even allowed to march through the open air shopping mall at the west end of the K Street Mall, Downtown Plaza. The police kept their distance as we shouted that the employees should strike. A private security guard gently ushered us along, with perfunctory exhortations that we needed to keep moving and not touch anything. There was little urgency to his effort because, as he kept telling us, the mall was half empty. Rumor has it that the owner, the Westfield Group, is desperately trying to sell it. Downtown Plaza has become a symbol of the malaise that has affected Sacramento since 2007. Shortly afterwards, the march, after a stop in front of the jail, concluded at the small daytime Occupy encampment by City Hall between 9th and 10th and I Streets. There are two or three tents there, and one of the members of the Bloc, now unmasked, said that he had been staying there since the occupation began. While others may be fairweather friends, the Sacramento manifestation of the Bloc is committed to the preservation of Occupy.

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