The piece below was written by a comrade in Durham, North Carolina, and published in the November 1st edition of the Herald Sun. It challenges us to consider how we will deal with internal contradictions, harm and violence—whether in neighborhoods of color that can't trust or depend on the police, or at occupations struggling to confront fights, harrassment, and sexual assault in semi-autonomous encampments.
Last month my home was robbed. My kids — a 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter — were home alone when three young men kicked in our back door. They ordered my kids into one of the bedrooms, and then, later, face down onto our kitchen floor. These orders were backed by at least two guns aimed at my kids. The young men threatened to kill them, took a few items, made my kids count to 100 in the bathroom, and fled.
The items had some monetary worth, but the most valuable thing stolen that day was my children’s sense of home and safety. Right now, they would rather be anywhere but home. My son literally jumps at every noise he hears and has spent every night since trying to sleep on the floor in our bedroom.
If what you are expecting now is a father demanding justice, you are correct. But it is probably not the kind of justice you might be imagining.
What happened to us wasn’t particularly special. Robberies are fairly common in Durham, and even armed home invasions are not unheard of. I am sharing my family’s story to fight the limiting idea that we are supposed to deal with this as individuals or family units only. Justice is not just for individuals; it is for communities. The report of last weekend’s drive-by shooting on Driver Street (about a mile from my house) which left two young children and a man injured points to this ever more sharply.
My partner and I knew that any sense of safety we had was always illusory, even if we didn’t always admit it. How can people ever be safe in a society that is built upon exploitation and inequality? The three young men who robbed our home left with nothing, really — at least nothing that might liberate them — but, still, their take might have netted them close to $300 each, if the items were sold, if they split the money equally, and if they weren’t working for someone else. This, in ten minutes of “work” (it was nothing if not bold). That is exponentially more — converted to an hourly rate, 112 times more — than a working stiff like myself has ever made at even my highest-paying job. Now, compare that to what Kobe Bryant makes while taking a ten-minute shower.
And Kobe is a working stiff compared to say, the Lakers owner, or Bill Gates, or Warren Buffett. That’s income distribution in the global economy, and the so-called economic crisis is only making that squeeze worse.
As I see it, two kinds of justice prevail: street justice and the so-called criminal justice system of police, courts, and incarceration. So, what kind of justice do I — an outraged and saddened father — want? I heard this same question in reports I read about the community meeting of residents on Driver Street. Well, street justice is tempting. Don’t think that I haven’t thought about trying to track down these guys and beating them to a pulp for what they did to my kids. What they did was inexcusable. It was anti-social. But I know this form of justice does nothing to make anyone safer or build anything resembling a strong community.
The other option, though, is at least as bad as street justice and in my opinion worse, because it doesn’t build a strong community, either. I have no interest in the Durham Police Department hunting down these three young men, and no desire for them to spend some time in Durham County Jail awaiting trial, then make some kind of plea, and either spend some time in prison or not. Such ”justice” will have nothing to do with me or my kids. It will not make us feel safer, and it certainly won’t do anything to change the economic and social conditions that make armed robbery a tempting choice for some. I heard some of these same sentiments in reports from the community meeting in the Driver St. neighborhood. The police do not make us safe. And in some neighborhoods, they make folks less safe.
The following is a contribution to the debates on violence, property damage and militancy unfolding in the aftermath of the Oakland general strike. Written by a comrade in the Bay Area, the piece was originally published on CounterPunch.
On "Violence" at Occupy Oakland
by Emily Brissette
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children….”
These were Father Daniel Berrigan’s words when he was on trial in 1969 for a draft board raid in Catonsville, Maryland. He and eight others had entered the draft board office during business hours, removed draft files (against some resistance from the staff) and then burned them out front with homemade napalm. At the time, there were many who construed this as an act of violence and, given the denunciations of property destruction emerging out of Oakland today, there are many in our current day who would undoubtedly agree. But Berrigan and many of the others who carried out draft board raids were principled pacifists and did not understand the destruction of draft files as an act of violence. Disruptive, disturbing, provocative? Without a doubt. Shot through with incivility? Perhaps, if you insist. But the point was that when the forces of order and “civility” wreak havoc—destroying homes, livelihoods, and lives—the “fracture of good order” is not only warranted, but necessary and indeed a moral obligation.
There are no easy or simple parallels between the destruction of draft files in the 1960s and the breaking of bank windows today. It is, however, worth thinking through the commonalities—both are largely symbolic actions targeting the physical manifestations of a system that causes harm to people—and pausing a moment on that logic. This means restraining the urge to react with hostility to the idea of property destruction, reining in the urge to simply denounce it as violence and thus close off reflection and debate (since all “good” people are necessarily opposed to violence). And it means setting aside for the moment—but only for the moment—the question of whether tactics involving property destruction makes sense in this particular time and place.
The question that first needs to be addressed is: what is violence? what defines an act as violent? This seemingly simple question is anything but. This has been a point of contention—and yes, division—in progressive social movements for at least the past half century. For those who see property destruction as a legitimate tactic under certain circumstances, including Catholic pacifists in the 1960s who saw little disjunction between their avowed pacifism and acts of restrained destruction, violence above all denotes harm to human beings (and other living things). This is the touchstone for determining whether an act constitutes violence: are people being injured or killed?
When the definition of violence is expanded to include acts that are directed at property only, in which no person is at risk of injury, property is treated as on par with (and in practice often more valuable than) human life. We live in a system characterized by deep stratification and inequality. In this context in which some human lives are accorded very little worth, to treat property destruction as a form of violence minimizes the daily experience of real violence—harm to human beings—in many communities. It also makes it hard to see systemic, structural forms of violence—the harm of under-resourced schools, shuttered libraries, inadequate and labyrinth mental health services; the harm of foreclosure, unemployment, and hunger—as violence, because we are so accustomed to thinking of violence as a great outburst or a spectacle instead.
Here is a small selection of videos and images from the November 2nd general strike in Oakland, and solidarity actions in other cities. Videos and photos are also available via mainstream media outlets.
The following is an anonymous statement originally posted on IndyBay, regarding the occupation of a building in Oakland during the general strike, which drew heavy police repression. Update: a further critique of the action, from a street medic who was present at the event and afterward, has been published here
Last night, after one of the most remarkable days of resistance in recent history, some of us within Occupy Oakland took an important next step: we extended the occupation to an unused building near Oscar Grant Plaza. We did this, first off, in order to secure the shelter and space from which to continue organizing during the coming winter months. But we also hoped to use the national spotlight on Oakland to encourage other occupations in colder, more northern climates to consider claiming spaces and moving indoors in order to resist the repressive force of the weather, after so bravely resisting the police and the political establishment. We want this movement to be here next Spring, and claiming unused space is, in our view, the most plausible way forward for us at this point. We had plans to start using this space today as a library, a place for classes and workshops, as well as a dormitory for those with health conditions. We had already begun to move in books from the library.
The building we chose was perfect: not only was it a mere block from Oscar Grant Plaza, but it formerly housed the Traveler's Aid Society, a not-for-profit organization that provided services to the homeless but, due to cuts in government funding, lost its lease Given that Occupy Oakland feeds hundreds of people every day, provides them with places to sleep and equipment for doing so, involves them in the maintenance of the camp (if they so choose), we believe this makes us the ideal tenants of this space, despite our unwillingness to pay for it. None of this should be that surprising, in any case, as talk of such an action has percolated through the movement for months now, and the Oakland GA recently voted to support such occupations materially and otherwise. Business Insider discussed this decision in an article entitled “The Inevitable Has Happened.”
We are well aware that such an action is illegal, just as it is illegal to camp, cook, and live in Oscar Grant Plaza as we have done. We are aware that property law means that what we did last night counts as trespassing, if not burglary. Still, the ferocity of the police response surprised us. Once again, they mobilized hundreds of police officers, armed to the hilt with bean bag guns, tear gas and flashbang grenades, despite the fact that these so-called “less-than-lethal” weapons nearly killed someone last week. The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect one landlord's right to earn a few thousand every month. Why is this? Whereas the blockade of the port – an action which caused millions of dollars of losses – met with no resistance, the attempt to take one single building, a building that was unused, met with the most brutal and swift response.
The following is written by Jeff, a member of BtR-Oakland.
Race, Class, and the Police in Occupied Oakland
As I start my 5:30am shift this morning at a warehouse in Richmond, California, one block from the Chevron Oil refinery on the edge of the working class neighborhood known as “the Iron Triangle,” the Occupy Movement is poised to hold what could amount to the Nation’s first general strike since 1946. As it was then, Oakland, California will be the epicenter.
Some speak of this current economic crisis as “The Great Recession,” and yet companies like Chevron have easily managed to doubled their profits in the last year from $7.8 billion for the third quarter 2011, compared with $3.8 billion in the 2010 third quarter. If we are to fully grasp this historical moment we presently find ourselves in, some clarification, both political and economic, must be made.
“Hatred of the Oligarchy!”
Much of the Occupy uprisings have been built upon a confrontation between “the 99%” and “the 1%.” With this new push for mass working class participation and the overtly anti-capitalist rhetoric of the general strike coming from Oakland organizers, actions that have already shifted the terms of the struggle in a more explicitly class conscious direction, so to is it time for the movement to evolve beyond the hegemonic dialectic of 1% vs. 99%.
As a general strike unfolds today in Oakland, we reflect on the events and struggles that have carried us to the current moment. Below is a timeline of recent events in Oakland, and video from an October 29th Speakout Against Police Violence, organized by the Oscar Grant Committee Against Police Brutality & State Repression, Berkeley Copwatch, and Raider Nation/Bring the Ruckus.
The Long Arc of the Oakland Rebellion:
A Timeline of Recent Events
January 1st – Oscar Grant is shot in the back by BART transit cop Johannes Mehserle while lying, face-down and restrained, on a platform at the Fruitvale station. Rather than administer first aid, BART police attempt to confiscate cellphones from passers-by who filmed the shooting. Several versions of the footage make it out, and are viewed by hundreds of thousands on Youtube.
January 7th – Mounting anger at the murder of Oscar Grant and the lack of response by public officials leads community organizations and others to call a rally at the Fruitvale BART station. Popular anger spills over into the streets in an hours-long rebellion which sees property damage and police repression. When Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums attempts to calm crowds, he is heckled and booed. Police are under orders to hold back and allow the people to express their anger, making arrests late in the night.
January 14th – In an effort to head-off further rebellions, Dellums and State Attorney General Jerry Brown lean on the local District Attorney, who calls for Mehserle’s arrest. Mehserle is found across the border in Nevada and returned to Oakland. The people are not satisfied: a second night of rebellions breaks out.
January 30th – After Mehserle’s arraignment on murder charges, the community demands that he not be released on bail. When bail is announced, a third night of rebellions breaks out. The police have had enough, and repression is more severe.
March 21st – At a traffic stop, parolee Lovelle Mixon decides not to go back to prison. He shoots two OPD officers dead. When others storm the apartment of Mixon’s sister seeking revenge, he opens up with an SKS from within a closet, killing two more. The OPD uses the killings and the public funerals the next week to successfully regain the upper-hand in the city.
A number of organizations emerge from and participate in the upsurge following the Oakland Rebellions of January 2009, coming together in the formation of the Oakland Assembly, a directly democratic body which pushes the struggle forward throughout 2009 and into 2010.
June 2nd – City Council and courts approve a repressive and racist gang injunction in North Oakland.
July 8th – Expecting an unsatisfactory verdict, popular organizations centered in the Oakland Assembly mobilize on the day of the Mehserle verdict. The city is put on lockdown and federal agencies are visibly present as the verdict is released: involuntary manslaughter, which means 2-4 years max. Thousands have gathered for a speakout in the middle of the intersection at 14th and Broadway, and as anger rises at the injustice, protesters confront police and loot nearby stores. OPD holds a line, allowing the looting in a successful strategy to avoid further confrontation, before later clearing the intersection. “Progressive” mayoral candidates Jean Quan and Rebecca Kaplan gain public attention by standing between the protesters and police. As a result, both are formally investigated by OPD.
November 5th – Mehserle’s sentencing hearing is delayed in a clear attempt to outmaneuver the resistance. Judge Robert Perry unilaterally lifts the gun enhancement, sentencing Mehserle to the minimum: 2 years. Outraged Oaklanders take to the streets, before Police Chief Batts fabricates the claim that an officer’s gun was grabbed as an excuse to kettle the march and mass arrest all those present.
November 10th – Jean Quan is elected mayor of Oakland in a three-way race against opposition from police over a demand that they pay toward their own retirement.
The following is a video of the October 31st press conference on the upcoming general strike in Oakland, originally posted on Indybay. The press conference includes a range of individuals and organizations, not all of whose politics we agree with, but we post the video here to provide a sense of the range of mobilization taking place on the ground at this time.
Speaking at the press conference were Tim Simmons; Louise Michel; Boots Riley of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club; Cat Brooks of the ONYX Organizing Committee; Clarence Thomas of the ILWU Local 10 and the Million Worker March Movement; Nell Myhand of Causa Justa/Just Cause, Crystallee Crain, teacher at DeAnza College and the College of Alameda; Javier Armas, former Oakland teacher; Elaine Brown, SEIU member and former chairperson of the Black Panther Party; and Glenn Turner, a Telegraph Avenue shop owner.
The following is an article by two comrades in the Bay Area, originally posted on CounterPunch.
For a Radically Democratic Oakland without Cops, Politicians, or Bosses!
by Mike King and George Ciccariello-Maher
[Mike is reporting from the ground in Oakland, former Oakland resident George contributed political analysis]
A major victory has been won. For only the second time in Oakland’s recent political history, mass action in the street has forced the hand of city government. If last time it was the rebellions that greeted the state murder of Oscar Grant that forced city and state officials to switch tack, arresting the shooter Johannes Mehserle and putting him on trial, the stakes have now changed and generalized in the local and national swirl of the Occupy Movement. Now, building on that history of resistance, but not without significant barriers in the near future, Oakland and the Bay Area is poised for a General Strike on the level of 1946. Or beyond.
However, things didn’t look so good Tuesday night. As one of us stood in the increasingly desolate streets of Oakland at the intersection of 14th and Broadway, ignition point for rebellions past, the debates that emerged amid the hours of swirling tear gas from the OPD and 17 cooperating police agencies seemed to have moved backward since 2009, not forward.
A peculiar dialectic emerged, in which black youth out for a good time at the expense of police, had that fun doubled. When they would throw plastic bottles at the police in full riot gear, the young and mostly white liberals and peaceniks, in the street to support the displaced Occupy Oakland camp with little more than a peace sign, would preemptively and rapidly retreat in anticipation of another round of tear gas – before the police line had so much as shrugged. This must have been immensely fun to watch on one level.
At this point, an older white man with a mega-phone, whose face was not a familiar one in local organizing or at the Occupy encampment of the past two weeks, began saying, “This is a peaceful movement. Violent people are not part of this movement.” He was pointing out the direction from which the plastic bottle had come and where, at this point, the only people of color in the intersection were standing. The race and class dynamics of this, as well as the absurdity that someone was making this argument 30 feet from where a young Marine had been critically wounded by this same specific group of cops, was far more distasteful than the dozens of cans of chemical gas I can still taste writing this 36 hours later. I walked up and, shouting down the man with the mega-phone, told him that he was doing the cops work and was dividing the movement. I also told him that, while in the context of the moment I would agree that throwing bottles was counter productive, I would never play good protester / bad protester and point people out to cops, let alone show up here for the first time that night and appoint oneself king. We don’t need cops and we don’t need any “Yurtle the Turtle” of unprincipled pacifism.
After shouting down the man with the bullhorn and an 18 year old kid who tried to shout me down, I was confronted by a young, white man who told me: “We are making a citizen’s arrest.” As he and a group encircling me and attempted to grab my wrists and arms I pulled free and walked away – to a mix of boos from that group and shouts of encouragement from other sections of the protest. I had committed no crime and nothing anyone could construe as “violence”, aside from deviating from the worst of US pacifist history. Far from the Civil Rights sit-ins or the work of the Catholic Workers, people who took risks for social justice that disrupted the existing order, this broader and more prevalent pacifism is not about “principled tactics.” It is about creating a false moralism built around comfort and privilege in which those who know all too well what real violence looks like are silenced, and those who act on a critical analysis of the existing social order are “criminalized” and discursively expelled from the presumptive liberal “we” of the movement.
It is baffling that people who take hours of rubber bullets, concussion grenades, and assorted chemical weapons still come back to the same exact police line that has been bombarding us with chants that they too are the 99% in an attempt to “win them over.” It is even more so when they turn around and form a liberal peoples’ militia for the police State. We all need to be clear on one thing: these cops are not your friends and even though we will disagree, our most basic strength is in solidarity. At many other points in the last few days, that solidarity has started to grow and crowd out these tensions and disagreements among us. We must build this solidarity to the point where it like a natural reflex in the movement. All cops of the existing order out of Oakland! Including the ones in our heads.
October 27th, 1am:
A general strike has been called for Oakland on November 2, 2011 after a General Assembly of almost 2000 people overwhelmingly voted for it. Events in Oakland and the Bay area have moved faster than anyone - even the most delirious anarchist - could have predicted.
I am going to attempt to summarize events, then refer you to the websites of Occupy Oakland, IndyBay, CounterPunch and particularly the Twitter feeds of Occupy Oakland for more recent news (double verify though. Twitter is frequently just electrified rumor). The major media and the papers of record - the SF Chronicle and the Oakland Tribune are both behind the curve and missing what is happening. What I am writing will be out-dated by events tonight as well. As I write, a large group of Occupy Oakland supporters are still marching through the downtown, though they were unable to march over the Bay Bridge to Occupy SF.
After the police removal of the Occupy Oakland camp from Oscar Grant Plaza in the early morning of Tuesday, October 25th, a rally/march was called for that evening. Over a thousand people showed up. A march led to several confrontations with the police during the evening, starting at the Oakland jail, where Occupy Oakland prisoners were still being held.
Those confrontations filled the streets with tear gas and plastic projectiles. For the most part, the crowd was relatively disciplined. In front of major and independent news media crews, the police shot a Iraqi-era former Marine at close range with a projectile; he is currently in serious condition post-operation. The police fired flash bang weapons and more tear gas at those who were attempting to treat and remove the vet. Only the OPD have attempted to defend these actions; no one watching the videos can be other than horrified, angered and outraged.
Occupy Oakland was raided and demolished this morning at 5 AM by over 600 police in a multi-city response that had been rehearsed by the joint force over a year ago in preparation for the verdict on the murder of Oscar Grant.
The photos from SFGate tell the story of who was living there. The homeless of Oakland knew that they could find food, 1st aid and people who actually cared about them at Oscar Grant Plaza (as it was re-named the 1st day of Occupy); many choose to join the encampment. The difficulties of constructing the rules of a new society from scratch made it less than workable at times, but it was never unsafe.
As a political space, Occupy Oakland attempted to be "The Oakland Commune" and in the eyes of some of the anarchists who flocked there, that's what it prefigured. The political attacks on the camp had begun last week with comments from police and right wing hacks about "Lord of the Flies". The mayor of Oakland had embraced the camp when it first appeared. Over a hundred tents had sprouted next to City Hall. But she distanced herself when the camp drew a line between itself and 'politics as usual' and banned politicians from speaking to it.
The mayor, a former radical with radical advisors, was out of town when the raid occurred. Two days earlier, Occupy Oakland had marched to banks and disrupted them. A recall petition against the mayor from the right had just been filed on Monday. The president of the U.S., who had been elected with major financial and political support from the Bay area progressive scene, is scheduled to host a $7,500 a plate dinner in San Francisco today. Local media have been barred. Occupy Oakland will return.