Twenty-four hours into my incarceration in Santa Rita Jail, I found myself in yet another tactical conversation, dissecting the numerous failures that had led to the kettling and mass arrests of about 400 Occupy Oakland demonstrators. This is one of the few upsides of a mass arrest. After getting the rowdy activists off the streets, the police find themselves hosting a three-day strategy conference inside the jail. Whenever a conversation begins to get stale, the guards show up and shuffle people into new discussion groups, and the debate begins afresh.
“Don’t fuck with the Oakland Commune.” Words which will live forever in history, to be remembered and repeated at every glorious defeat inflicted upon the heroes of the future by mayors, police officers, unions, churches, and children. A letter, signed by the Occupy Oakland Move-In Assembly, promised to respond to the inevitable eviction of an illegal building occupation by “blockading the airport indefinitely.” Tactics only dreamed of by al-Qaeda, within the reach of Occupy Oakland after just four months. Yesterday these words were at the center of a material practice which brought our movement up against its limits.
I have been asked to say a few words about Marty Glaberman and Stan Weir. It may be that the request is prompted in part by recent events on the West Coast waterfront. I have followed those events with interest, but I am not there and I have not had an opportunity to talk with participants. Accordingly, please consider my remarks about my departed friends and comrades on their own merits, such as they may be, and accept my assurance that no implicit message about current events is intended.
From its beginnings in New York City to the recent West Coast Port Shutdown, the Occupy movement has consistently confronted the issue of co-optation. About a month and a half or so ago, many participants voiced worries about being co-opted by MoveOn, the Democrats, unions (to a lesser extent, since they had shown up as allies without seeming to try to monopolize the definition of actions and events), and other groups affiliated with the political parties.
The effigy of a black man, a son of Southern soil and descendant of slaves, now stands over the nation’s Mall among its founding fathers, notorious slave owner in front and the so-called Great Emancipator to his back. Looking out over the placid Tidal Basin with a steely-eyed reserve and chiseled determination, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, the first monument on the Mall dedicated to a man of color, has whipped up yet another tempest of protest. Besides the same types who did not and still do not commemorate the life of this influential Civil Rights leader on the third Monday of every January, other dissenters have noted that the veined, confrontational depiction of the Brother Preacher by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin does not evoke the round docility associated with the open-armed love of nonviolence. For them, the image goes against what they see as King’s true legacy, while others see the statute as an appropriate stance of well-grounded, stony defiance and pride.
Following the recent four-day occupation of an empty bank building at 75 River Street in Santa Cruz and the attempted occupation of an empty warehouse in Seattle, the controversial tactic of attempting to seize and hold vacant private property has been taken up as a new front of a sprawling social movement. These actions move beyond protesting the enclosure of public space and stifling of free speech; they aim to expand the scope of critique to the role that private property plays in our current crisis. This change in scope has not been lost on the landlords. “I’m definitely not in agreement with this group taking over private property,” a local property owner told the Mercury News.
Someday my daughter will ask me how I met her father, and I will tell her about when we occupied the Graduate Student Commons at UC Santa Cruz. At the end of the summer of 2009, a group of college students, graduate students, and staff set about planning a campus building occupation. News of the next school year’s drastic budget cuts had come to the surface, leaving many of us out of jobs and in debt. On top of that, entire departments were being defunded, while class sizes, tuition, and administrator salaries were being increased. The word “crisis” started to echo among us.
Coming out of the city on the train one morning, I passed by Occupy Frankfurt – maybe three dozen large tents, a concentrated but steadfast group. It was pouring rain – my run from the tram to the main train station left me soaking, despite umbrella – but the encampment seemed unperturbed, perched as it is underneath some of the largest symbols of Europe’s finance sector.
“The ruling class in the United States,” as McKenzie Wark puts it in the recent special issue of Theory and Event on the Occupy movement, “is less and less one that makes things, and more and more one that owns information and collects a rent from it.” Every time you buy a CD or DVD, even every time you stream from YouTube or Netflix, you’re not funding artists. You’re funding the 1% and their personal army of metropolitan police, whose major interest right now seems to consist of gassing students and tearing down barns. What’s a politically informed media junkie to do? Probably what you’re already doing – pirate.
There were no broken windows. So that particular liberal defense is off the table. Those who have decided to side with the state instead of this new and radical social movement will find that it is now their illusions that have been shattered.