Evaluating Occupy Oakland: “What’s Left?” December 2011, MRR #343

A couple of columns ago, I criticized the “Occupy Everything, Demand Nothing” movement as strategically and tactically simplistic, glorifying risk-taking, and proudly anti-intellectual. Now we have the Occupy Wall Street movement that has grown from a few hundred participants to thousands at NYC’s Zuccotti Park (renamed Liberty Square), spread to scores of cities across the country, and staged its first wildly successful worldwide action on October 15. No doubt, in lopping off the nihilistic “demand nothing” aspect of the overtly insurrectionary anarchist/communist movement, Occupy Wall Street increased its popular appeal enormously. Yet, in doing so, it has turned its focus to mush.

Aside from Glenn Beck, who sees worldwide Marxist revolution around every corner, commentators in the vast media punditocracy—whether conservative, moderate or liberal—have complained of Occupy Wall Street’s vagueness. What do they want? What are they demanding? Even the movement’s fans and critics on the Left are asking the same thing, just as they unsuccessfully attempt to push Occupy Wall Street in a more explicitly anti-capitalist direction. And without an unambiguous and unequivocal set of demands Occupy Wall Street, at least the original American version, has the appearance of a giant rave, complete with face painting, casual nudity and bad music. Jon Stewart has given it the tongue-in-cheek label of “the hard rock café of leftist movements.”

Initiated by the anti-consumerist, pro-situ website/magazine Adbusters, Occupy Wall Street has championed an anti-corporate sentiment. As one sign prominently displayed on the internet proclaims: “Capitalism is not the problem, corporate greed and corruption are.” And while tepid concerns for wealth inequality are expressed, no calls for true wealth redistribution in the form of socialism, let alone communism, are put forward. If one digs down into the movement’s official website* (occupywallst.org), proposed demands can be found, but they amount to petitions for government legislative action to reregulate the financial sector, break up corporate monopolies, and criminalize various economic misdeeds. What this boils down to then is a revitalized New Deal (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Antitrust movement (Theodore Roosevelt) which will make capitalism more small scale, competitive, responsible, and ethical.

Nothing more, nor less, than what DIY amounted to in punk rock.

I’m disappointed, particularly when I note how radical the solidarity demos around the world were. Damn, there was a near uprising in Rome on October 15. It’s not too difficult to demonstrate how the Occupy Wall Street experience could take a step or two to the left, yet remain ostensibly unchanged. For that, let’s go to Occupy Oakland on Thursday evening, October 13. My reading group decided to relocate to the occupation, where we took in some of the general assembly, and in particular a little bit of the entertainment before the endless subcommittee reports and issue votes, and before we discussed Fredric Jameson’s brilliant essay “Utopia as Replication.” Boots Riley (of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club fame) performed a couple of songs, accompanied by Gabby La La on the sitar, and while he encouraged the folks present to make their movement something that the powers-that-be had to negotiate with, instead of choose to, his stirring performance of “Ghetto Blaster” and “5 Million Ways to Kill a CEO” made his anti-capitalist sentiments clear.

In an earlier, political incarnation, Boots was a member of Oakland’s Young Comrades. One of their actions protesting Oakland police harassment of local black youth under the city’s infamous “no cruising” ordinance nearly fifteen years ago had a unique flare. The Young Comrades organized a barbeque picnic at Lake Merritt Park on a warm sunny weekend day, and set up a portable indy radio station to broadcast music and messages throughout the park. They also invited every Oakland teenager to attend. I happened to be doing my exercise walk around Lake Merritt at the time, and what I experienced blew me away. Grand Avenue from Broadway east was packed with kids, boys and girls, most of them black, standing on the sidewalks, and having a great time. It was an incredible party environment, with everybody having fun, hanging out next to their cars, playing their music loud, flirting, and perhaps doing a variety of drugs all very well camouflaged. I was having the time of my life walking around, taking in the absolutely non-hostile, celebratory atmosphere. But talk about Fear of a Black Planet! The cops were completely flummoxed, unable to cope with the crowds, incapable of making arrests or dispersing the throngs, totally stymied by this brilliant, essentially nonviolent action. The Oakland PD, used to harassing the shit of black youth, were checkmated, and obviously frustrated.

This was an occupy Oakland before the current Occupy Oakland, but unlike the latter, nearly all white affair**, this earlier occupation was exaltedly multiracial, from organizers to participants, a true reflection of the city’s character. Neither occupation had explicit demands. But the one organized by the Young Comrades accomplished its implicit demand—ending police harassment of black kids—at least for the duration of the action. With other community organizations, the Young Comrades succeeded in overturning Oakland’s “no cruising” ordinance. Finally, the tactical audacity of the Young Comrades event, occurring as it did a decade and a half ago, is memorable, whereas walking around the current Occupy Oakland made it clear that this was one more eminently forgettable hippie-dippie rainbow-type gathering.***

To be fair, the Young Comrades were a cadre organization, whereas Occupy Wall Street is a headless mass organization, a leftist example of leaderless resistance. Ideally, you’d have both simultaneously, as in the Spanish 1936-39 Revolution with the cadre FAI standing beside the mass CNT, both revolutionary anarchist organizations. But if I had to make a choice, give me the Young Comrades over Occupy Wall Street every time.

*[Occupy Wall Street put up an original demand page for participant voting that was later taken down. All subsequent efforts to put forward demands for OWS, even to initiate working groups to formulate demands, has been met with denials, and the rather sad catchphrase “we are our demands.” Talk about mush! Check admin comments for: http://occupywallst.org/forum/proposed-list-of-demands-please-help-editadd-so-th/ and http://occupywallst.org/forum/proposed-list-of-demands-for-occupy-wall-st-moveme/%5D

**[After the horrific internal violence at Occupy Oakland, many of the white liberals, unemployed workers, and even some of the white anarcho types fled, leaving the encampment to the homeless, the black poor, and a strata of angry black youth. Not the all white affair it started as, but not the joyous occupation produced by the Young Comrades either.]

***On the other hand, the brutal police dismantling of Occupy Oakland, and the extremely violent police attack on demonstrators afterwards will live on in infamy.

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