Last Friday, Occupy San Francisco and their allies hit the streets in an attempt to shut down areas of the financial district. Small groups organized autonomous actions, including civil disobedience and shutting down banks, marches, rallies, music, street theater and other creative displays of nonviolent direct action. It was a great example of an action honoring and encouraging “diversity of tactics,” but within an agreed upon framework (strategic nonviolence).
I don’t really like the framing of the “nonviolence vs. diversity of tactics” debate/dialogue that’s been happening in many Occupy movements. Nonviolence and diversity of tactics are not mutually exclusive. There are so many diverse tactics within nonviolence, so it’s not like arguing for nonviolence means you’re arguing against using many divers tactics.
I loved the idea of getting small, autonomous groups to organize their own actions all over the city. It allows for so many communities to use their creativity, their skills and their talents to convey the same message: that big banks and corporations are making record profits off of oppressing entire communities.
It was pretty cool walking around the financial district, and seeing actions going on all over the place.
One group lined up around the entrance to the headquarters of the Becthel Corporation, a company that has made huge profits off of environmental destruction, war, and human rights abuses all over the world. Another group used lock boxes to blockade a Bank of America, while another group set up a “Food Bank of America” and was serving free food in front of a different branch several blocks away. The Brass Liberation Orchestra was playing their music, another group chained themselves to the doors of Wells Fargo, members of Just Cause/Causa Justa performed street theater, there was a black blob, dance parties in the street, the Buddhist Peace & Justice League using the people’s mic to read from the Sutras, Code Pink picketing outside of Goldman Sachs, and a march from Wells Fargo to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office.
That last march was powerful, and it was to highlight the huge profits Wells Fargo makes by investing in the private prison industry. Wells Fargo is a huge investor in Correctional Corporation of America (CCA), the country’s biggest private prison company. CCA runs many immigration detention centers, so for companies like CCA and Wells Fargo, there is a financial benefit to anti-immigration legislation like Arizona’s SB1070. The more immigrants we deport, the more immigrants go through CCA’s beds, and the more immigrants they incarcerate, the more money they make. As a speaker at the rally outside of ICE said, it creates a financial incentive to lock up and deport more people.
So Wells Fargo, who profits off of foreclosing on families and kicking them out of their homes, also profit from investing in private prisons and breaking families apart. And they are making record profits. So yeah, Wells Fargo needs to be held accountable.
Occupy Oakland and Conflict Escalation
At about noon, a crew from Occupy Oakland showed up at the Bank of America a block away from where I was. I remember seeing them coming around the corner and thinking “whoa.” They came with a new soundbus, an old AC Transit bus decked out in banners and graffiti, with music blaring and marchers surrounding the bus.
The moment they got there, the energy just jumped. The street filled with people instantly, and people began setting up lawn chairs and tents, dancing in the street and turning it into a party. The tone changed almost immediately when Occupy Oakland came through.
But it wasn’t all good, at least in m opinion.
In addition to bringing that positive, festive energy to what was going on, it also brought an unfocused, angry and aggressive energy into what was going on. There’s a difference between a festive energy and a party atmosphere, and within minutes you couldn’t walk around that entire block without smelling weed smoke. They were blasting heavy techno music out of the bus, and you heard chants of “F the police” and “F this” and “F that” and “F the other thing.”
And here’s the thing: that type of energy escalates conflict, and makes it more likely for violence to occur. When people start yelling, when people start getting aggressive, when people start cussing and calling each other names, people get defensive, less logical and more likely to use violence. Which is exactly what happened.
The police showed up almost instantly, the yelling started, and soon they tried to arrest one protester. Almost no one saw what happened because the arrest was in the back of a large crowd, but as soon as everyone realized it, they turned on the police. A huge crowd surrounded the police (and the guy they were trying to arrest, who was handcuffed at this point), and the anger and hatred just spilled out.
Eventually the cops got some back-up, who forced themselves into the small area where the others were surrounded and helped lead them (and the guy they arrested) out into the street and into the police van.
All that yelling, all that anger, all that energy for what? Someone got arrested, a few people got thrown around and pushed with batons, we got some bad press, probably turned a few people off, and we’re no closer to any real change.
And that is my question to those who advocate for violence and brings that sort of energy into this movement. What is it that you are trying to accomplish? How do these tactics and attitudes about police bring us closer to our goal? What is the message you are trying to communicate?
The Bechtel action had people passing out fliers explaining exactly why they were targeting that corporation. The march from Wells Fargo to ICE had a specific message about the investments Wells Fargo makes in deportation centers used by ICE. The folks outside of Bank of America were talking about a grandmother in the Bay View who got foreclosed on with her medication locked inside the house, and demanding a moratorium on foreclosures. They did their research, they chose a target, they had a message and they had a strategy. If anyone walked by any of those actions, it would be pretty clear why they were out there protesting.
But anyone who happened to be walking by around the time the OO crew were there would not have walked away with any sort of a political message. There was no focus. They started some ruckus, smoked some weed, got someone arrested, yelled at the police, and then they drove off to the next location. How is that helping our movement?
This is not a game. Communities are struggling, and we need radical change in this country. And that type of change doesn’t come from just partying, yelling and breaking shit. It takes concrete strategy and discipline.
And obviously not all of Occupy Oakland act like that. I consider myself to be a member/participant/a part of of Occupy Oakland. And I love Occupy Oakland, despite the fact that I differ on many issues with some of its people. Despite my frustrations and disagreements, it is still the movement that brought out tens of thousands of people into the streets during the general strike. It is the movement that showed people, however briefly, a small vision of what our society could look like when we started our camp. It is the movement that gave a voice to so many people who had never spoken out. So I’m not simply criticizing Occupy Oakland, because things are just not that simple.
But as I’ve said before, I say this only because I love this movement, and because I want to see it succeed. The people of Occupy San Francisco and all the others who were out that day who participated in nonviolent action (many of whom were, of course, from Occupy Oakland) showed us what’s possible through a commitment to nonviolence. The diversity of tactics. The self-autonomous organizing. The solidarity within a de-centralized structure. And we need to learn from that.
Click HERE for more pictures from the day, and be sure to check out the video above.