Occupy Oakland/Oakland Commune RIP: “What’s Left?” January 2013, MRR #356

The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp–a work of such indelible power, it seems to have existed before it was created, like some deep-rooted, banished memory, inescapable as nightmare.

Jay Scott Morgan, “The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn,” New England Review

Francisco Goya’s horrific painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, was part of the artist’s Black Paintings. He painted it toward the end of his life as part of a series of canvas and mural artwork found in his house outside Madrid. The series in general, and this work in particular, expressed Goya’s despair with humanity, his distress at Spain’s ongoing social turmoil, and his despondency over his personal isolation and his own physical and mental problems.

Goya’s dark spirit was due, in part, to having lived through Napoleon’s disastrous Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814. Napoleon called it the “Spanish ulcer,” while the Spanish referred to it as their “War for Independence.” A major element of the Spanish fight was a brutal “Guerra de guerrillas” (War of little wars), which elicited vicious reprisals from Napoleon’s occupying forces. This was not the origin of guerrilla warfare, as Sun Tsu detailed the basics of insurgency tactics and strategy in his Art of War. Yet the Spanish popular resistance to Napoleon achieved unparalleled levels of savagery. Karl Marx considered the Spanish war for independence one of the first national wars, and Ronald Fraser labeled it “Napoleon’s Vietnam” in his magisterial history Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War, 1808-1814. Whether one of the first wars of national liberation or one of the first counterinsurgency quagmires, it was also a violent civil war, a terrible internecine war, and a bloody fratricidal war. No wonder that Goya’s Black Paintings were so dark and filled with terror.

Goya’s depiction of Saturn has taken on added significance. Representing the Greek/Roman myth of the god of time and agriculture devouring his children, lest one of them should rise up and overthrow him, the original work was even more disturbing in that Saturn was shown with an erect penis. Museum restoration of the painting censored this feature. The painting has been used to symbolize the notion of a movement (struggle for liberation, movement for independence, a social revolution) devouring its own children. Supposedly uttered by Danton during his trial after the 1789 French Revolution, the phrase “the revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children,” was applied to the Russian Revolution after the Bolsheviks took power, and specifically once Stalin rose to power. Goya’s gruesome painting of Saturn personified this idea.

This concept has gained relevance in the Bay Area with the disintegration of Occupy Oakland. OO was the most radical of all the Occupy Wall Street actions across the country. A seemingly intractable occupation of the plaza in front of Oakland’s city hall, a plethora of demonstrations and marches (solidarity, pro-labor, anti-capitalist, anti-gentrification, fuck the police, decolonization, etc., etc.), periodic occupations of public land and abandoned buildings, running street battles between demonstrators and police as well as regular smashy-smashy excursions by black bloc anarchos, a symbolic general strike that actually shut down the Port of Oakland for a day; OO had the appearance of a revolution in the making. This appearance was deceptive, however.

Sharp divisions emerged in OO almost from its inception. While Occupy Oakland followed the all inclusive/make no demands template of Occupy Wall Street in general, a faction quickly emerged that declared for an Oakland Commune along the lines of “occupy everything, demand nothing” and the permanent insurrection of the Invisible Committee’s pamphlet “The Coming Insurrection.” The insurrectionary anarchist/black bloc extremism of the OC and the more moderate stance of OO played out in the debate over tactics, over “diversity of tactics” versus nonviolence. The OO moderates accused the OC of elevating tactical violence into an end in itself, while the OC radicals accused the OO of acting as “peace police.” An uneasy truce emerged between the two sides, which in turn elicited an even more conservative tendency calling itself the 99%ers, which sought to disassociate itself from any property destruction and police confrontations. Finally, the clear absurdity of taking property and claiming it as “occupied,” when the folks who had been robbed of it in the first place, often at gunpoint, were still fighting genocide and the stealing of native lands, initiated a Decolonization tendency. The Decolonization supporters immediately hurled charges of racism and white privilege at the various other OO tendencies, singling out OO’s anarchos for particular scorn as white, middle-class kids from the suburbs playing at revolution.

Matters only got worse when the Oakland PD permanently evicted OO from its main occupation site at the city hall plaza. Without a base of operations, the Oakland Commune continued its ‘Fuck The Police’ rampages through downtown Oakland, racking up random property destruction, violent police confrontations, and additional arrests. The black bloc, initially formulated by anarchists as a street tactic, increasingly appeared as the be-all-and-end-all of the OC’s practice. Boots Riley, known as the frontman for hip hop group The Coup, has been a pragmatic spokesman for Occupy Oakland, beholding to no faction, with radical credentials of his own. A strategist concerned with winning and not just losing in style, Boots made his criticisms of the black bloc anarchos clear on his blog: “The use of the black bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary. […] When almost every conversation I have with folks from Oakland about Occupy Oakland, has the smashing of windows brought up as a reason people don’t like that grouping, scientifically it means the tactic is not working.”

The critics continued to pile on. The Oakland Commune was denounced as a “vanguard clique” by an OO breakaway group calling itself the Occupy Oakland Media. OOMedia accused the OC of “disruptive beliefs and actions” that amounted to “embracing destruction for its own sake … actively co-opting the encampment by renaming it according to their values … shutting down all critical conversation of violence, vandalism and ‘diversity of tactics’ … alienating and swaying opinion against peaceful protesters … [and] planning to infiltrate and instigate unrest in Oakland with or without the participation or consent of the people.” This was echoed by an individual poster named OccupyTheMob who labeled OC “agents of mass vandalism” and a “racist, criminal organization” composed primarily of “a group of ideological extremists relocated to Oakland in order to foment chaos and destruction.” Add to this list charges that groupings within OO mismanaged funds donated for bailing out arrested Occupiers and manipulated General Assemblies into predetermined decisions and the main gripes against the more radical tendencies within OO are apparent.

Allegations of financial malfeasance and assembly rigging, in turn, were called “baseless accusations” and outright lies. A grouping within OO calling itself the Anti-Repression Committee came forward to denounce the numerous threats being made against Occupiers who have refused to renounce vandalism and property destruction, contending that the “anarchists amongst us have been especially targeted with threats and vigilante violence.” The A-RC then noted that “[w]e are deeply concerned by the increasing demonization of ‘anarchists,’ the ‘black bloc,’ and ‘outsiders’ now being conflated under the term the ‘Oakland Commune.’”

Lilprole went so far as to attempt to rehabilitate the tactic of the black bloc against Boots Riley’s critique in his post “Knocking the Boots?” by first pointing out that the black block has a well established place in the history and practice of Bay Area protest politics. “[W]e saw the rise of T.A.C., or the Tactical Action Committee, who also helped popularize the black bloc tactic through weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, as well as the growth of a radical squatting scene in West Oakland, the degree in which I have not seen in any major metropolitan city in the US … [B]lack bloc type actions helped to express solidarity and expand sites of resistance … Lastly, ‘black bloc’ type actions have also been an ongoing facet of militant feminist, queer, and trans revolt in the bay as well.” This extension of the black bloc outside the anarchist ghetto has meant that the tactic is here to stay, and that its use will only grow as riot and insurrection in this country increase.

Note that I have not gone into the vitriol between the 99%ers or Decolonize and Occupy Oakland or the Oakland Commune. Note that I have not delved into the puerile criticisms of “insignificant groupuscules” like the miniscule Anarchist Anti-Defamation Caucus of the Anti-Bureaucratic Bloc. Note that I haven’t enumerated the myriad personal fights that mask themselves as principled political disagreements within Occupy Oakland. This welter of division and infighting illustrates one fact all too well. Whereas Occupy Oakland was once able to mobilize 10 to 20,000 people to shut down the Port of Oakland during the November 3, 2011 General Strike, nowadays Occupy Oakland’s “General Assembly no longer has large enough attendance to reach quorum–requiring at least 75 people” according to an Occupy Oakland Tribune article.

Which is a shame. OO generated a great deal of collective energy that went into work with labor, both organized and unorganized, community occupations, squatting and anti-foreclosure efforts, anti-corporate/bank campaigns, efforts to help threatened schools and libraries, debt forgiveness, campaigns to monitor police abuse, even work in communities of color. If nothing else “[d]uring the week of the raid on the [OO] encampment, crime in Oakland dropped 19 percent overall” according to Eric K. Arnold in his article on infighting among OO factions marking OO’s first anniversary on October 25. Despite the squabbling and bickering that was decisive in Occupy Oakland’s demise, Oakland remains a cutting edge laboratory for radical politics and practice.

But to use the term “Oakland Commune” implies some positive comparison to the 1871 Paris Commune or the 1927 Shanghai Commune, which is embarrassing. That’s because Occupy Oakland was far from a revolution, even a failed one. The metaphor of “Saturn devouring its own children” thus does not apply to the infighting and factionalism that has torn apart OO. A more apt metaphor might be a shark feeding frenzy, in which the creatures wound each other fighting over food and then proceed to rip each other to shreds. Except that OO’s trivial factions hardly merit a comparison to sharks. Perhaps a feeding frenzy among venomous, vindictive piranha is more to the point.
Hooligan Temp

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