Return of the Repressed

Banner hanging near 14th and Broadway in front of Oscar Grant Plaza across from Oakland's City Hall.

We’re living in the midst of a fantastically exciting historic moment. I don’t know about you, but I have spent years thinking about these kinds of social ruptures, wishing for that sudden lurch in history when things change so fast. I spoke about this at the conclusion of many of the Nowtopia talks I gave around the world during the past 3 years, the palpable frustration that many attendees had with the snail’s pace of history. I reminded that history can suddenly accelerate, make a dramatic lurch… forward? Sideways? Backwards? You never know ahead of time, and you can’t predict what will catalyze it (for sure, the planned actions of a vanguardist minority cannot will it into being). Right now, clearly, we’re surging into exciting directions.

Like a sudden rain covering a desert landscape with incredible wildflowers after years of drought, the Occupy Wall Street movement has connected us across the world, but just as importantly has connected folks in the U.S. to our own histories from past decades. The triumphalist domination of the ultra-right in U.S. media and politics has done its utmost to deny, ridicule, and obscure the vital social movements and histories that entered the historic narrative loudly in the 1960s and 1970s, and never went away. Of course, the parties and organizations of the New Left and its aftermath crumbled, and most trade unions in the U.S have gone through massive shrinkage while accepting a junior role at the heel of the Democratic Party. But the social revolution that helped subvert the military and end the Vietnam War, that demanded equal rights for women, that advanced ethnic studies and racial diversity, that put pleasure and cooperation ahead of sacrifice and competition, and that began the reconfiguration of our material lives under the guiding sensibility of ecological sanity, deeply changed U.S. life. The Culture War still being fought so viciously by Faux News and its acolytes speaks to the ongoing power of these social transformations.

But many of us have lacked a political voice for more than a generation. We are not represented in our “representative democracy,” and many of us have long stopped expecting to be. There are very few politicians who speak for the values that we are already living by. Even if a “progressive” voice gets into office, they are drowned by the monied interests that surround them in a corrupted political system. In the larger scheme of things, these past decades have also seen the seizure of economic and political power by an increasingly brazen class of white-collar criminals who have done their best to subvert the rule of law, and will engage in any kind of fraud, even mass murder, to keep their power and this system intact. Obama has proven to be a very helpful servant to this gang, what with his refusal to prosecute the countless crimes of his predecessors, not to mention the impunity that financial criminals have enjoyed.

The system itself is broken, and that’s what the Occupy movement speaks to, loudly and clearly. The emergence of General Assemblies as the embodiment of a true direct democracy has been breathtaking, especially in its wide adoption across the middle of the country where we’ve all come to expect only reactionary conservatism. But these ideas haven’t fallen in from the sky, or emerged from a vacuum. They are the product of nearly a half century of organizing, of transforming how we live on a personal basis day to day, in addition to creating a panoply of new projects and cultural efforts. Formal political organizations withered away, perhaps deservedly, and it is only in the Occupy Movement that we are finding a collective political voice for the millions who have been left out, economically, culturally, and politically.

The Oakland Commune, or “¡Que Se Vayan Todos!”*

Around the Bay Area, Oakland has been the core of the Occupy movement. There are occupations in San Jose, Berkeley, Santa Rosa, and of course San Francisco, but none have had the size, coherence, and political savvy that Oakland’s has had. From its inception on Indigenous People’s Day, the occupation of Oscar Grant Plaza (formerly known as Frank Ogawa Plaza) in front of Oakland’s City Hall has been built on long-standing principles of horizontality, inclusiveness, and a frank refusal to collaborate with existing politicians, police, or institutions. Even still, they found support among local unions, notably ILWU Local 10, a Teamsters local that sent a semi- over full of supplies, the Oakland Teachers and Librarians, California Nurses, and others. The brutal military operation that dislodged the occupation for 24 hours only strengthened and broadened its support. Having a so-called “progressive” Mayor in Oakland proved the point that so many of us have made for so long: you can’t work within the system and expect to successfully change how it behaves.

Banner on tent in Occupy Oakland camp.

Mellow afternoon at Occupy Oakland, Oct. 15, ten days before military assault.

Much like the camps that popped up when people gathered to oppose the G8 in Germany, or at the Climate conference in Copenhagen, a festive, well-organized camp took shape, seen here Oct. 15, 2011.

Free food 24/7, free information, places to discuss and plan...

... even places for kids to be.

Ye Olde Supply Tent!

But a deeper problem is unmasked in this assault, and the following evening’s confrontation between protesters and police. Local police departments have been fully militarized. The disgustingly named Dept. of Homeland Security has spent the past decade pouring billions into preparing to handle domestic unrest. This is not entirely unprecedented either, since the federalization of local policing goes back to Nixon and his founding of the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration, which gave us such paragons of domestic tranquility as SWAT teams. But the global war unleashed during the Bush years is going strong, with U.S. citizens assassinated in far-off lands without indictment, trial, or conviction, just the OK of the president and the spooks he commands. How long before Ninja Turtle cops start snatching people off the streets and “renditioning” them to some dark secret prison for interrogation? So far, there are no limits in a society dedicated to “fighting terror,” which actually means a society dedicated to “living in terror” by categorizing dissent as “terroristic”.

What did Oakland spend over a million dollars trying to destroy? A camp of 150 or so tents, with a fully functioning public kitchen distributing free, healthy food 24 hours a day, a thriving childcare zone, a free speech “constant caucus” tent, a bulging supply center with stores of basic necessities free to those who needed them, a beautiful amphitheater reinhabited for direct democracy all day every day, a free library and info-zone. Mostly they tried to destroy an autonomous, open community of people determined to reinvent the basics of our shared life. The heavy-handed, pre-dawn military attack, ostensibly to “protect public safety and hygiene,” can’t be understood without understanding how much this genuine form of democracy threatens the status quo. They had to blatantly lie about their motivations to justify it—there were no problems with Emergency Medical people getting in to the camp, and the porta-potties were adequate for the camp’s needs (perhaps they could have been maintained more regularly, but that would be a cheap problem to fix, if that were really the issue). Public safety was well-maintained within the camp by the campers themselves. When police tried to enter the camp they would be surrounded and escorted out as quickly as possible. The riot cops guarding the perimeter of the plaza on Tuesday night were barraged with chants of “Who Are You Defending?” and they responded with tear-gas and stun grenades. One cop called in with his troop from the Hayward police glibly refused to accept responsibility for his participation when queried by a friend of mine. “Hey, I’ve got my pension, and I just don’t think about it!”

Sheriffs defending the plaza they overran in pre-dawn hours, late afternoon, Oct. 25. They would relinquish it the next day.

Far from intimidated, thousands turned out to repudiate the attack that morning. This is on Broadway near 13th.

Over-equipped militarized police defend the Oakland jail, Oct. 25.

Echoes of the Paris Commune?...

So the fear and loathing of local police, well established after BART police murdered Oscar Grant and Charles Hill, finds its further justification in the military attack unleashed on Occupy Oakland. Remarkably, popular outrage has been so strong and so widely shared that Oscar Grant Plaza is already reclaimed for the Occupation, and the police have had to stand down. Mayor Quan is finished, her credibility and authority has been shredded by events. But what is so exciting is that the social movement is intact and stronger than ever.


This is not to say that it’s clear sailing ahead. Far from it. The “oogles” (the anti-social, largely dysfunctional street kids who have been all too present in the OccupySF camp) are an ongoing problem, as are the genuinely psychotic people who live on the streets all over the country, and are understandably attracted to the vibrancy and material support available in the occupations. The influx of liberals underway also represents a huge challenge. To wit, the self-appointed Occupy Wall Street financial committee in New York has already begun to act like bankers, unilaterally withholding the $20,000 pledged to Occupy Oakland by OWS while attaching various conditions to the money.

The urge to fold this movement into the moribund political structures of the U.S. is still there too, with unionists, Democrats, and various leftists all bent on creating an acceptable list of reformist demands, or pushing occupiers into supporting or opposing various politicians on the grounds of “realism.” So far, most local movements have resisted this, and in the General Assemblies and attendant working groups, new ground is being opened on a daily basis.

History is still unfolding, we’re soaking in it every day! Don’t miss this! Occupy Everywhere!

* “Out with All of Them!” the slogan of the Argentineans during their upheaval in 2000-2001 wherein they deposed 4 presidents in a few months…

October 25 marchers in downtown Oakland.

On October 22, Occupy Oakland took to the streets and marched across the city.

Banned books in the lead!

Humorous home-made signs are everywhere these days.

Mainstream support is surprisingly widespread too...

4 comments to Return of the Repressed

  • Martin

    Considering the work you’ve done, I’d say you were the intellectual godfather of the Occupy movement, not Elizabeth Warren. Yet I remain an apostate of its claims for effect.
    1. Just as in the 60s, there is no appreciation for the enormity of the corporate supersystem. All well and good to diagnose the social ills – but where is there the slightest sociology of the dimensions of corporate control?
    2. Why always the valorization of protest? In Egypt, the brave and stupendous occupations have brought about no political change other than exchanging one tyrant for his military.
    3. Fighting the police is not war. They get paid overtime, they have now been given massive funding, they get the right to prosecute, they get majority backing.
    4. The left keeps functioning on vain, self-ennobling dramas of “hope” and “change,” and in America this takes on a peculiar academic exceptionalist glorification. OWS kids are not going to take over city councils and town meetings, senates nor assemblies. Getting Thomas Friedman to pen manifestos of sympathy calling for identification of politicians with their corporate sponsors means, yes, the wind has shifted, but winds blow this way and that, and the edifices are built of granite.
    5. I hold the wise elders responsible for patronizing the young – you have a right to see great and glorious worldwide revolution from coming from these heavily surveilled encampments, but the underemployed college youth should also hear nihilism and pessimism – after all, which has ruled our times?

  • ccarlsson

    apparently the OWS Financial Committee insists that *IF* they give the money to Oakland, OccupyOakland must set up a nationwide legal defense committee with the money… There might have been some other conditions imposed too, but that’s what I heard from someone close to me who is very involved in Oakland and knows folks in NYC well…

  • Wonderful coverage as always, Chris. I too have been hoping for a widespread movement that takes its organizing lessons in practical anarchism and wondering why on earth it has taken this long.

    I also did not know that OWS was withholding $. What are the conditions?

  • Allyson Steinberg

    Thanks Chris, I did not know that OWS was withholding donations to Occupy Oakland and requiring specific uses, etc. Very fucking exciting times.

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