Saturday, November 05, 2011

Oakland General Strike Follow-Up: Why Did the Violence Start?

Oakland General Strike Follow-Up: Why Did the Violence Start?
by The Infamous Brad
Nov. 5th, 2011 at 10:56 AM

There hasn't been a whole lot of detailed reporting since the end of the first day of the General Strike called by the Occupiers in Oakland, California. As far as I can tell from Twitter and Google searches at a distance, that seems to be because the strike itself is in abeyance while the Occupy Oakland General Council, and the city government, do their own separate after-action analysis, one in public, one in private, trying to understand how, after so much of it went well for so many hours, it all fell apart into violence by both sides -- and, more importantly, what to do about it?

I don't have the benefit of being on-site, but I do have the luxury to think about it while not up to my neck in the work both sides have had to go through to clean up the battlefield, and that one side has had to go through treating their wounded, while the other side is distracted by processing their captives. And I think a clue can be found in the timeline I wrote up the other day. But even with that clue, I'm left with a question that only the police can answer (if even they can). And I'd really like to know the answer to that question, because the answer would have important tactical implications for the broader movement.

Let me start by calling attention to something: on some level, everything about Occupy Oakland is illegal. Now, there's a giant asterisk over that, and that's that the Supreme Court, in a series of decisions from the 1940s through the 1970s, ruled that political speech and political assembly enjoy the highest possible level of protection in this country, and cannot be trumped by mere federal or state law or local ordinance unless there is a legitimate government interest that can only be served by enforcing those laws, and even then the enforcement has to be done in the least invasive way possible; if somebody suggests a way to attain the same goal that wouldn't infringe on political speech or assembly, police have to ignore the law as written and do that. So the Supreme Court used to say, anyway. I think that must be why the National Lawyer's Guild is all over the Occupy movement, writing their phone number in permanent ink on every protester's arm; they're itching for the easy money that they think would come from suing cities over this. I notice that the ACLU is being a bit more reticent; I suspect that they're less sanguine that the Roberts court would continue this tradition, and if so, I share their fear.

But this is all legalistic nitpicking compared to the main issue, because I doubt that either the Oakland city attorney or the Oakland police chief actually know all of the Supreme Court rulings around political expression and assembly, so Oakland police, like the police around every Occupy site, should be assumed to be operating as if they believed that every single aspect of the Occupy movement is illegal: curfew violations, camping illegally, petty private and public property damage, noise violations, traffic violations, sanitation violations, fire code violations, health code violations, conspiracy in restraint of trade, intimidation by threat of violence, public assembly for the purpose of creating disorder, intention to riot, god only knows how many drug and alcohol violations, and repeated failure to obey the order of a law enforcement officer.

So, as far as the cops are concerned, as far as discerning their mindset, it's worth remembering that, even though they are probably wrong to think this, to probably 95% of the cops anywhere near one of these sites, Occupy Wherever is something illegal that they are letting the protesters get away with. Why would they do that? Because they're not doing much harm. Because even the most legally ignorant cop has some vague idea that cracking down on a political protest looks bad. And, most importantly, because they really don't have the manpower to spare to ticket them for everything they're ticketable for, to write all the reports it would take, to testify in the cases that would go to court. If they don't have to do anything, all but the most right-wing among them would really prefer to look the other way as long as open anarchy doesn't break out.

I explain all that because you need to understand that the Oakland PD could have stepped in and swept up the whole mess the minute the OO General Assembly voted for a General Strike; under the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, general strikes are illegal. (And I would expect at least one Oakland cop to know this; the 1946 Oakland General Strike is why there's a law against general strikes. It's local history, to them.) They could have swept in and mass-arrested them when they started their march on the banks first thing in the morning, without a parade permit, shutting down streets as they went, and in the opinion of some Oakland business owners and business managers the cops should have done so. Instead, not only did they not do so, they directed vehicle traffic around the march as if it had a perfectly good parade permit. There is no way in hell that it's legal to physically blockade a legal business, but the cops didn't sweep in and arrest enough people to clear a path to the doors at any of the branch banks that Occupy Oakland briefly shut down. The cops then went ahead and, frankly, illegally facilitated yet another permit-less road-clogging march all the way down to the Port of Oakland. They warned that if the protesters crossed the property line into the port they would have to arrest them, but then they blinked and ignored that. Truckers stuck at the port in what were, frankly, illegal citizens' arrests by the protesters who would not let them go until their trucks had been illegally inspected called the cops, and the cops did nothing, just told the truckers to submit.

But when a couple of dozen of the protesters broke off from the main march route to break into, start repairs and cleanup on, and re-open an empty building that had previously been a social services center for the homeless? The Oakland PD called in several hundred officers from at least 8 other agencies, marched on that building, broke in, beat the living shit out of everybody anywhere near that building, and arrested as many of them as they could cart off. And I don't think it's a coincidence that mass vandalism broke out, city wide, about an hour and a half later. Initial news reports say that it was people not involved in Occupy Oakland who did so after the Occupy Oakland General Assembly went to bed for the night; in the next day's General Assembly, several of the Occupiers themselves called bullshit on that, saying that the recognized at least two publicly recognized organizers among the vandals.

So here's the question that's bothering me: why was re-opening the Traveler's Aid Society building the line in the sand? After all of the other law-breaking that the Oakland PD had facilitated, and the even more crime that they'd openly tolerated, why did chiseling the lock off of a foreclosed building and starting cleanup on it trigger a multi-agency SWAT-style raid? Hell, the occupation of the Traveler's Aid Society building may actually be the least illegal thing that happened in the entire East Bay Area for 24 hours either way! Why was that action the flashpoint for violence?

The cops know that this question will keep being asked, because first thing in the morning, they lied about it. No, really; before anybody even asked, the Oakland PD put out a press release with the most transparently obviously stupid lie imaginable, explaining that they raided the Traveler's Aid Society because they were afraid the protesters would burn the building. I hope that none of you are dumb enough to believe them. Within minutes of entering the building, the people who occupied the Traveler's Aid Society building had handed police a statement that they had one and only one goal: reopening this exact building as what it was before the city budget cuts, a service center for the homeless. Even if some cop suspected them of lying to buy time, the cops had the building under observation for the hour and a half between then and the raid; they have to have seen, through the open and well-lit windows, that people were cleaning and repairing the place, not preparing to burn it down. No, whatever the reason was, fear of arson is not it.

I have two hypotheses. I could be wrong, and it could be neither of these, it could be something else altogether that I haven't thought of yet. I've been wrong before. But if it's one of these two things, that has important implications for the Occupy movement:

Was it Just about Numbers? Even with multi-agency support, had the Oakland PD tried to do anything about the main marching routes and main encampment of the General Strike, they would have been outnumbered by many dozens to one. The lowest estimate I've heard is that there were around 2,000 people at the smallest part of it. By the time the strikers crossed the cops' announced line in the sand, the border of the Port of Oakland, there were at least 7,000 of them and maybe as many as 15,000. And the most cops they could mobilize would probably have been fewer than 400. With enough tactical weaponry, 400 cops can clear the streets of 15,000 protesters ... but the process would be hideous, and the blowback would make the anger over Scott Olsen's head injury look trivial. It may be that the reason they attacked the Traveler's Aid Society was that it was re-occupied by fewer than 100 people; it was the only time, all day, the cops had numbers on their side. Observe how long it was between when the Traveler's Aid building was re-opened and when the cops moved; observe that the cops were in constant communication, all day, with appointed representatives of the General Assembly. Want to bet that the cops asked permission, first, or at least asked if, in the opinion of the people they were liaising with, the marchers at the port would move en masse to reinforce the Traveler's Aid Society building if the cops moved against it?

If numbers are the reason why the cops moved in, that bodes ill for all of the scattered Occupy sites; with the exception of Zucotti Park, and maybe one or two others, all of them are pathetically outnumbered by the cops. Heck, here in St. Louis, the estimate I'm hearing is that at night, Occupy St. Louis's encampment down in Keiner Plaza is as low as 6 people, and fewer than 100 during announced actions; if they got help from other jurisdictions, the City could outnumber that by 4 or 5 to 1 during the day, by dozens to 1 at night. If numbers are the reason, then everywhere outside of New York City (and now, because of the backlash and with the benefit of favorable climate, maybe Oakland), expect the Occupiers to be swept aside as soon as they inconvenience even one major employer. It won't be the end of Occupy New York, but the rest of the satellite protests are on borrowed time ... if, I say again, that's what it was. Or else, was it ...

Or Is Foreclosure Sacred? The very first thing that jumped out at me was that, for all the world, it looked to me like the Oakland PD was saying, by their actions: break any other law, and if you're white enough, we'll look the other way, but we will kill, and if need be die, to enforce the bank foreclosure process.

As crazy as this sounds, it is not too crazy to be true. Every local sheriff in every local jurisdiction in America has enforced a foreclosure at least once. Every local sheriff that has ever enforced a foreclosure knows how emotionally volatile that is, how easily the people being made homeless by the banks could tip over from despair into rage, which is why, in my experience, when they do have to physically evict or even just physically speed up someone who hasn't left the house by the exact minute they're supposed to, they bring a lot of manpower. Some of them may also know that there has been a history, during past recessions and depressions, of the black community banding together to physically block evictions, to harass the police until they leave and then to help the "evicted" family chisel the plywood and the locks off and help them move their stuff back in. Cops have some reason to fear that if people lose their fear of foreclosure, that if they stop semi-voluntarily complying with that law, it could go badly for them.

The tactical implication of that would be this. At every General Assembly north of the frost line, someone has brought up the idea, floating around the micro-blogging sites, that if the cops deny the Occupiers what they need to survive the winter, and/or if they evict them completely, the various Occupy sites should abandon the public space and Occupy Foreclosures -- move into prominent, empty, foreclosed-upon buildings and re-open them. Oakland Pd's intel may already be telling them that, too. Monday night's violence and anarchy, may well have been their way of saying to the Occupiers all over the country: don't you dare try it. It may well have been their way of saying that they were absolutely willing to put yet another war hero in the hospital, this time with injuries far worse than Scott Olsen's, to nip that idea in the bud before it catches on.

Reprinted according to the author's copyright.

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