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Vandals hijack Occupy Oakland protests

Justin Elliott, Salon
A splinter group of protesters hijacks the day’s action, cheering the political right VIDEO

Thanks to a splinter group of protesters in Oakland last night, the news today is leading with imagery of burning barricades and headlines about property destruction.

The Times notes that this was a tiny portion of the thousands of Occupy protesters that marched in support of a general strike earlier in the day:

Tear gas hung over Oakland for the second time in two weeks after a small group of demonstrators faced off against police early Thursday following a peaceful march of thousands of Occupy Oakland protesters.

A roving group of about 100 mostly young men broke from the main group of protesters in a central plaza and roamed through downtown streets spraying graffiti, burning garbage and breaking windows. The police said some in the group briefly occupied a building on 16th Street near the port.

… As I’ve previously written, protesters who destroy property or attack police are playing into the hands of the movement’s critics. Andrew Breitbart’s website is already trumpeting this video of a few “black bloc” types trying to break windows and a fence at a Whole Foods in Oakland, while others in the crowd try to convince them to stop:
(3 November 2011)
This incident seems to be yet another example of the Black Bloc phenomenon. See Wikipedia for background. It’s a tactic rejected by almost all the participants in demonstrations, including Marxists.

There were reports and videos of demonstrators opposing and even fighting with Black Block. For example, in this video (re-posted below).

‘No Violence!’: 99 Percenters stop ‘Black Bloc’ vandals from trashing grocery store

Zaid Jilan, Think Progress
A common tactic by the American media during protest coverage is to focus on violent, sensationalist incidents. Yesterday, while thousands marched and went on strike in Oakland, a handful of “black bloc” demonstrators tried to vandalize a Whole Foods grocery store. Incensed by this behavior, a group of 99 Percenters surrounded the store and started yelling, “No violence!” The protesters succeeded in stopping the vandals from seriously damaging the store. Watch it:

(3 November 2011)

Self-Policing: Another Part of the Occupy Story We’re Not Getting

Michael Shaw, Bag News Notes
Yes, there was a group of black-shirts in Oakland yesterday that vandalized a Whole Foods and smashed a bank window. We’ll have to see what the media does with that. The overall story, however, given the fact that the city largely removed its police from the action, is that the march and general strike was not only impressive in scale, but overwhelmingly peaceful.

As I mentioned in the previous post, I had the chance to spend some time in Zuccotti Park yesterday talking to members of the community there. One of the protesters spoke to me at length about camp rules, rule enforcement and self-policing, also pointing out people detailed to security who were otherwise regular “camp citizens.”

Not that you would notice it right off, but video from Oakland yesterday provides a good example of how the movement is employing peace-keeping and security as part of its very complex agenda.

Yes, there is Oakland Trib video showing the black-shirts apparently overcoming an Occupy security guy (yellow helmet), then wreaking their havoc. But then, there is also this video where the screen grabs above came from. What happens in this clip is that a group of protesters approach a Bank of America where they begin to violently bang on the window. The aggression is too much for the first Occupy security guy to handle, but very quickly and sure-handedly, a second Occupy security guy (the one with the green hat) steps in and takes control. In a second, these two guys, along with a woman, apparently affiliated with a local union, are calmly protecting the bank, the situation de-escalating so fast that, in the next instant, we see a girl standing where the rabble-rousers were eating a popscicle as the demonstrators rejoin the march.

I’m not saying there aren’t going to be incidents of violence as OWS tries to contain and control a growing movement, one which is attracting all types of disenfranchised people, including the 1% of bad actors looking for trouble. At the same time, I’m assuming Occupy — which is proving itself remarkably savvy at organization and “self-government” — will continue to improve their self-policing. Something that remains to be seen, however, is whether traditional media picks up on the fact.
(2 November 2011)

Occupational Hazards

Hendrik Hertzberg, New Yorker
… The paradigmatic activity of Occupy Wall Street and its many offshoots around the country was the establishment of impromptu encampments in symbolic public places. Now it’s mostly housekeeping, physical and spiritual. The Occupiers’ Web presence is impressive; its improvisatory openness has helped the movement go globally viral. On the ground, though, most of the protesters’ time and energy goes into site maintenance and into a rolling encounter-group-style mélange of meetings formal and informal. But, for all its inwardness and self-contemplation, the movement has achieved one obvious, and stunning, outward success. It has pierced the veil of silence that, for decades, has obscured the astounding growth of what can fairly be called plutocracy. Public opinion is beginning to realize that there are hard truths behind the Occupiers’ “99 per cent.” Last Tuesday, a CBS News/New York Times poll found that two-thirds of Americans agree that the nation’s bounty is unfairly distributed. The same day, that view got support from an unexpected quarter with the release of a Congressional Budget Office report, jointly commissioned several years ago by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate Finance Committee. The report affirmed that the after-tax income of the richest one per cent has nearly tripled since the eve of the nineteen-eighties, while the share of the least affluent eighty per cent has fallen—and that the declining progressivity of the tax code is part of the reason.

For O.W.S., though, there is danger ahead. Winter is coming. The strategy of static outdoor encampments is straining the patience even of sympathetic mayors in cities like Oakland, where last week riot police stormed the site and a Marine veteran was left in critical condition. If the weather and the cops pare the numbers in the camps, it’s far from unimaginable that ideologues in the mold of the Old New Left—people for whom the problem is “capitalism” per se, as opposed to a political economy rigged to benefit the rich at the expense of the rest—could end up dominant. As it is, the Occupiers’ brand of romantic participatory democracy can too easily render their decision-making vulnerable to a truculent few.
(7 November 2011 edition)

So Goes California, So Goes the Nation?

Brad Johnson and Alex Andrews, openDemocracy
The Occupy Oakland protest in California has been a particularly hot zone of confrontation between the police and occupiers and now seems to be at the cutting edge of militancy in the occupation movement.

On the 25th of October the police deployed tear-gas and rubber bullets against occupiers to disperse the occupation. This resulted in the injury of Scott Olsen, a 24 year old Iraq war veteran, who received a fractured skull as a result of a police projectile and now has lost the power of speech. Outcry about the police interventions reached such a point that Jean Quan, major of Oakland, was forced to apologise.

These events precipitated the most militant action called by an occupation general assembly thus far, a general strike to be held city-wide on the 2nd of November, accompanied by a shutdown of the Port of Oakland, the fifth biggest port in the United States.

Alex Andrews for openDemocracy talked to Brad Johnson, an activist who lives and works in Oakland, about the events, the general strike in Oakland and the prospects of the movement internationally.

… oD: How did things move from the police brutality to the general strike?

BJ: Things moved so very quickly – an aspect of the emotional charge, I believe. We met on Wednesday, October 26th without having taken Oscar Grant Plaza. We didn’t know if we’d be able to meet there. Contingency plans were in place to do so elsewhere. But when it became apparent that the police had, in essence, stood down, the fences surrounding much of the plaza were torn down whereupon it was immediately suggested we do something big. The words “General Strike” were uttered within the first hour. And Twitter exploded.

We broke into discussion groups of about twenty – there were about 2000 of us in attendance, I’d say. We just wanted to feel out where everybody was, what the objections were and so on. This went on for about an hour. From there, it became a matter of back and forth at the General Assembly. One note: we have a modified consensus-making process in Oakland. We do not require 100% consensus, but 90% (not necessarily “agreement” -but willingness to not stand in the way). The measure passed, I think, with roughly 97% of the vote.

… oD: Okay, so it is pretty clear by this point that the politics seem explicitly anti-capitalist? Are they?

BJ: There is a symbolic power to the local banks, which is quite easy to march on; but I think we are quite right to focus as much energy as possible on the tangible aspects of wealth (goods, etc.). So, yes, at least in Oakland things are becoming much more explicitly anti-capitalist.

This seems inevitable to me in some respect. Once you’ve abandoned the voting process as a means to change, the only other real route is that of the economy. This, I think, too, is one of the crucial differences between the Tea Party & OWS outside of the other cosmetic things and what gives OWS its worldwide appeal.

… oD: Moving to the big picture, where do you think this is all going?

BJ: Where is this going? I don’t know. Right now I think we’re still very much in the phase of embodying dissent. Not just giving it voice, but simply a body. For many not involved, OWS remains a symbol of dissent, but I think as things progress, and if the conversations continue, that symbol will simply expand. Dissent is not likely to go away. The fact that an election is right around the corner is what makes all this so much more uncertain. Election season is capitulation season, as well. But the uncertainty is the movement’s biggest asset right now. People cry foul at its amorphous state, and lack of demands, and what not. And one could do the same regarding my very ambivalent hope. But that’s rather the point of it all: the Commons is not a place for hope to be found and identified; it’s a place where it’s created.

I’m certainly no optimist. I’m ambivalent even with respect to hope. But enthusiasm – there’s something to that.
(3 November 2011)

OWS – What We’ve Been Waiting For

Robin Hahnel and Alex Doherty, New Left Project
Robin Hahnel is Professor of Economics at Portland State University. His most recent book is Economic Justice and Democracy and he is co-author with Michael Albert of The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. Here he discusses the composition of the Occupy Wall Street movement, his hopes for the movement and the question of demands.

… As elsewhere, Occupy Portland is governed by a General Assembly of all who attend on a given evening. Committees established by the GA comprised of volunteers approved by the GA take responsibility for various tasks as needs arise. These committees then make reports and recommendations to the GA, which is chaired by people trained in procedures designed to promote participatory decision making that have now become commonplace in all the occupations. The goal of the procedures is to stimulate participation of those who often remain silent, and reach consensus even when opinions initially differ.

At one point the GA in Portland approved a 90% decision rule for a particularly contentious issue – whether to “dis-occupy” the street that runs through the middle of the park and encampment. 90% of those present at the meeting voted to dis-occupy the street, and also voted that a 90% plurality was sufficient to override objections from those who continued to disagree. So the “official decision” of the Portland GA was to dis-occupy the street by the following morning despite failure to reach consensus. However, many of the 10% who disagreed on grounds that they believed Occupy Portland should not recognize the authority of the city government to limit street use sat in the street when the police came in the morning.

The arrest was peaceful, humane, and people were released quickly after booking. Unlike most other cities, Portland’s Mayor, Sam Adams, is progressive to the point of being sympathetic to the OWS movement. He personally attended the arrests in the street which were done peacefully and humanely. The street has remained open to traffic ever since, which includes major bus routes people rely on to get to work.

It is interesting to consider what was gained and lost from this outcome. The sit down and arrests made it possible for the 10% to continue to work enthusiastically in Occupy Portland, and it is possible they may have drifted away otherwise. The fact that the arrests were all peaceful made it possible for the 90% to continue to work with the 10% who had violated the GA vote. In effect, the outcome may have prevented important psychological losses among occupiers and thereby strengthened the occupation.

On the other hand, Occupy Portland’s essential message to all looking on is that we can manage ourselves through extremely democratic procedures and still act effectively. I suspect that onlookers must have felt somewhat less convinced after the GA decision to de-occupy was not implemented, and the situation was saved only by the wise actions of Portland’s Mayor who, at least so far has sought cooperation rather than confrontation at every turn. The city overlooked the lack of a permit for the initial parade. The large contingent of fully equipped riot police assembled on the first day were kept away from the site of the occupation when it was being seized. The city government has chosen not to enforce its night curfew in city parks and its ordinance against erecting tents and temporary structures.

… Regarding the occupation movement within the United States more generally how do you view the trajectory of the movement? How would you like to see the movement progress?

In Greece, Spain, France, England and elsewhere popular opposition to the global economic crisis came earlier. The OWS movement is clearly the awakening so many of us have been waiting for here in the US – wondering if, and when it would ever come. The “old” movement showed itself in Wisconsin during the winter. OWS is the coming out party for a “new movement. Like elsewhere, it was not initiated by established progressive organizations, who here in the US, as elsewhere, tried to launch anti-austerity campaigns with limited success. (I think it is very important for leftists to think about why this new movement seems to have more resonance with a larger segment of the body politic than older progressive movements do at this point, despite the fact that it has a more radical message and image than most of them.) Like elsewhere, its participants are largely from a new generation, as are its leaders. Like elsewhere, its message is simple and radical: The system is broken — we need a new system. Those who rule will not solve pressing problems. We are going to have to solve these problems ourselves. We will do this by actually practicing, rather than paying lip-service, to inclusive, participatory, democracy.

OWS has gotten some very important things right, which is why I think it has succeeded where previous attempts have failed.

(1) In the US it is hard to find anyone who is not angry at the big banks — and rightly so. Focusing on Wall Street and the politicians who pander to Wall Street was the right choice. It should have been the obvious choice, and when someone finally did it the outpouring of popular resentment has been overwhelming. Obama could not embrace this highly popular political strategy after his election in 2008 because he had taken too much Wall Street money and chosen Wall Streeters to lead his economic team in the persons of Timothy Geithner and Laurence Summers.
(3 November 2011)