How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.

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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

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory: “What’s Left?” March 2012, MRR #346

Victory is the main object in war. If this is long delayed, weapons are blunted and morale is depressed.

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Call me old fashioned, but I think winning is important. At least once in a while. It’s why I no longer call myself an anarchist. And why I hang onto the moniker of left communist by the skin of my teeth.

I’m not going to waste space detailing my critique of the “beautiful losers” attitude of both these political currents, an attitude that prides itself with time and again “snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.” I’ve done so in past columns, to no avail, and this sorry behavior just infuriates me because history is littered with the wreckage of too many crushed revolutions and too many corpses. In turn, recent modest successes by Occupy Oakland, which I described in my two previous columns, allow me to considerably narrow the focus of this discussion, allowing me the opportunity to be constructive and not give in to my outrage.

Sun Tzu minced no words when he wrote that victory is the main goal in war. A particular plan of action, involving collections of tactics, toward the goal of victory, is called a strategy. And tactics are the specific techniques that use weapons and personnel in various combinations to engage and defeat an enemy in battle. Goal, strategy to achieve goal, and tactics to implement strategy; it’s actually a simple hierarchy. It’s the same, whether playing a game of chess, defeating the Third Reich, or overthrowing the capitalist ruling class. And central to this whole affair is tactical and strategic flexibility in order to achieve your goal.

Occasionally, a natural disaster wipes out the enemy’s forces, or a spontaneous mass insurrection takes down the government, and you are left victorious by default. You still have to hold on to your victory, which still requires tactical and strategic flexibility. It’s the lack of this flexibility that, more often then not, brings about defeat. And nothing guarantees inflexibility more than an iron commitment to principle. Anarchists, and to a lesser degree, left communists were so committed to their libertarian principles that they preferred seeing their respective revolutions go down to smoking ruin rather than compromise those principles. We’ll return to this point later on in this column.

Occupy Oakland’s modest accomplishments—the reoccupation of Frank Ogawa Plaza a day after brutal OPD repression, the total shutdown of Oakland’s Port on November 2, the attempted communization of the TAS building that evening, and the partial shutdown of west coast ports on December 12—happened almost despite a movement riven over tactics. On one side, there were your classic peacenik types insisting on nonviolence and, on the other side, black-clad anarchos itching to riot. At one extreme, humor-challenged pacifists who inserted themselves between rioting anarchos and the Oakland Whole Foods, and who wanted to shut down everything, the whole march to the Port of Oakland, the instant the black bloc started breaking bank windows. At the other extreme, fashion-challenged black blocsters who insisted on “diversity of tactics,” to the point of shouting down any opposition at General Assemblies, and who were committed to “making revolution” by fucking shit up through the streets of downtown Oakland. These are the folks wedded to their principles at either extremity unwilling to compromise their tactics, who in fact are more than willing to shoot down the main event if they don’t get their way on particulars. Somewhere in between these poles (and aside from the opportunists like union/party hacks intent on policing demonstrators into faux nonviolent conformity, or the provocateurs of various persuasions interested in violence for other than revolutionary reasons) there are the people willing to be flexible, willing to be nonviolent at the moment, but also willing to resort to a little more aggression when necessary.

Boots Riley, of The Coup and Street Sweeper Social Club fame, as well as a prominent organizer of Occupy Oakland, made the following excellent observation on his Facebook page with respect to pacifists threatening to bolt due to anarcho violence:

The truth is that while almost everyone I know in Occupy Oakland (including myself) thinks that breaking windows is tactically the wrong thing to do and very stupid, many people do not agree with non-violent philosophy. If you kicked those folks out then you would have a body of folks that wouldn’t have been radical enough to even call for a General Strike. Occupy Oakland, on the whole, has a radical analysis that leads us to campaigns that others wouldn’t and which also capture people’s imagination. For instance, as I’ve said before, Gandhi was vocally against strikes because physically stopping someone from what they want to do is violent. Occupy Oakland has called for a diversity of tactics–which is different than our New York comrades, however I don’t think that is supposed to mean that you use every tactic every time. We are so large here precisely because our actions have teeth. If the police blockaded at the port–we would have had 2 choices. The first would have been to let them stop us from getting there–with them thereby calling a victory against OO. The second choice was for us to quietly push through them with the shields we had in the front of the march and using our power in numbers to get through. That would, technically, not fall into non-violent philosophy. I think it is the fact that police knew that we had tens of thousands and we would push through there if necessary, that caused them to stay away. Also, everyone here seems to be inspired by Arab Spring, Greek movements, and other similar movements in Europe. None of those were non-violent in nature. The Egyptian folks burned down a police station, for instance. Everyone I know thinks that tactics like that here would cause the movement to be crushed, so those tactics are not on the table–I’m just pointing out that people are saying that this is emulating a movement which was pretty violent. But, I think the discussion is about tactics, not about adopting non-violent philosophy. On November 2nd, a large group of people with many contradictions successfully shut down the city in the biggest action with an overt class analysis in 60 years. People all over the world, all over the country, all over Oakland–are excited by this. If you are threatening to leave because, in the midst of this mass action some people broke windows and we are all trying to figure out how to work together, then you’re missing the point and you’ll be missing out on history. Don’t let the media frame the discussion. The average everyday person was empowered by what happened on November 2nd. Every movement has contradictions, we aren’t told about them so we think this movement should be different–there was violence during the Civil Rights movement. The pastor that had MLK’s job before him at Ebeneezer Baptist Church had just made all of his congregation buy shotguns. The NAACP had an ARMED chapter in North Carolina. You can wait 50 more years for your perfect movement, or you can realize that it’s here.

I thought it important to quote Boots in full regarding the need for tactical, and by extension, strategic flexibility. One thing he doesn’t touch on, but which is of equal importance, is the need to use experience, past practice, and history to determine which tactics, and what strategy, to apply under any given set of circumstances at any particular time. Gene Sharp wrote a powerful, three-volume magnum opus The Politics of Nonviolent Action, in which he details historical incidents of civil disobedience being used effectively against a variety of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, including Hitler’s Germany and the Soviet Union. And while nonviolence is underutilized as a method to achieve social change, there’s little doubt that it also has its limits. A strong argument can be made that, without Federal government intervention in Birmingham, Alabama and the rest of the south, the likes of Bull Connor would still be turning fire hoses and siccing German shepherds on the likes of Martin Luther King and fellow Civil Rights activists to this day.

Last column, I criticized insurrectionary anarchism for its rigid commitment to black bloc tactics when I discussed the occupation of the TAS building in Oakland on December 12. While I praised the attempt to communalize this space, I disparaged the hackneyed, formulaic confrontation with the OPD that resulted in a massive rout and wholesale arrest of those involved. During the mass antiwar demonstrations in San Francisco in March of 2003, when hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets to disrupt “business as usual” in the heart of the city, anarchos engaged in a number of black bloc breakaways that attempted to use the larger demonstrations as cover for their mayhem. On March 20, several hundred black-clad youth tried just such a breakaway march and were bamboozled by the SFPD which, with their own tactical rigidity, resulted in the breakaway being corralled and most of its members arrested. These examples of the inflexible engagement by anarchos in a set of unoriginal, dare I say tired actions, despite experience and history to the contrary, illustrate that insurrectionism has its limits as well.

I’ll leave the final word to Sun Tzu, from The Art of War: Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing.

Whither Occupy Oakland: “What’s Left?” February 2012, MRR #345

I’m not too proud to admit that I fucked up last column in my across the board criticism of Occupy Wall Street. My wife rightly took me and my column to task and pointed out that the Occupy movement has raised some important issues—wealth inequality, corporate greed, political corruption—into the realm of public debate, and therefore doesn’t deserve my inordinately pessimistic take on the movement as a whole. The fact that various folks my age and older who haven’t been to a demonstration in the past couple of decades are suddenly dropping by their local Occupy encampment to participate has given credence to her argument.

I ended my last column just as Occupy Oakland was taken down for the first time. The orgy of police violence, and in particular the injury of Iraqi war veteran Scott Olsen, triggered a massive burst of organizing energy that saw the reoccupation of the plaza in front of Oakland city hall, and the call for a general strike in the city of Oakland on November 2.

No, of course, it was not an actual general strike, for a number of reasons. For one, only a small fraction of Oakland’s workforce left their workplaces without permission. The bulk of Oakland’s businesses apart from the downtown area remained open and the city was not shut down. Union members, such as the California Nurses Association, used sick days to participate, while the Oakland City government gave their workers permission to join in. Even the supremely militant longshoreman’s union, the ILWU, required protestors to block port gates before official mediators would approve the cancellation of a port workers’ shift. An earlier shift of ILWU workers went to work during the day of the general strike. Finally, of the 50,000 plus demonstrators who did march to block the gates and shut down the Port of Oakland, many were not city residents or working class. To argue that the composition of the working class in 2011 is different from that of 1946, or that this was actually a social strike because the social relations in downtown Oakland were entirely altered on that day is simply to play semantic games.

Still, 50,000 plus demonstrators did turn out on that gloriously sunny day, a powerful turnout, and a stupendous culmination to Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike. The boisterous, festive atmosphere of the crowds blocking the port gates, the interaction between the crowds and the troqueros, the independent truckers, detained by those crowds, and ultimately the decision by the health and safety arbitrator that dockworkers didn’t have to cross an unsafe picket line; the triumph of the port march foreshadowed one of the turns the Occupy movement has made of late, towards an engagement with organized labor. In no way could this mass protest replace or “substitute” for mass working class action, yet it was impressive in its own right. To make these points, and to put this protest in perspective, remember that between 150,000, and 200,000 demonstrators turned out on February 16, 2003 in San Francisco to protest America’s invasion of Iraq, disrupting the financial district’s “business as usual” and the city’s “social relations as usual” in a far more dramatic fashion.

The second important highlight of November 2 was the black bloc’s action. Not the midday smashy smashy of bank windows, the spray paint attack on Whole Foods, or the schoolyard skirmishing between black masked anarchos and the peace police. All that was silly bullshit. Even though the Oakland PD had purposefully kept its distance during the daytime’s various activities, including the black bloc rampage, the black bloc’s tactics were tired and entirely predictable. If every time you play a game of chess you make the same moves, eventually your opponent is going to realize this vulnerability and wipe you off the board. Ironically, the OPD did just that when the anarchos attempted their most daring, and provocative, stunt—the one deed worth admiration and praise—the takeover of the former Travelers Aid Society building.

An abandoned and foreclosed structure, the TAS building was occupied that evening by the black bloc and a healthy mix of Oakland youth, who ostensibly wanted to communalize it and turn it into a community center. To be part shelter for youth and the homeless, learning center, workspace, and library, these plans were dashed by a mammoth police assault completely unanticipated by the occupiers. The black bloc built a pair of barricades, a pathetic defense even under the best of circumstances, but made particularly ludicrous given that the OPD is better armed than many Third World countries. Wave after wave of riot police came in, swinging batons, firing tear gas canisters, tossing flashbang grenades, and shooting rubber bullets, to completely rout the building occupation and arrest many of its participants. But despite this defeat, the actual building occupation presaged another turn that the Occupy movement has recently made in its solidarity with various anti-foreclosure movements around the country. It also heralded a resurgence of squatting activism in Oakland and beyond. In this sense, the black bloc action was avant garde in the best sense of that word, and provided the most effective argument against charges of anti-democratic substitutionalism leveled against this powerful deed.

To conclude, my column header is an homage to “ancient” history, the now defunct anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001. Launched with the brilliant shutdown of the WTO in the 1999 battle for Seattle, the movement eventually devolved into chic protest tourism that gave us horrendous riots in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Genoa, Italy, before being strangled by the international security clampdown promulgated after September 11, 2001. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its tent/park occupation phase, hasn’t lasted three months, nor could it last two years, in part because of the intense militarization of local police forces as a consequence of 9/11. Even the movement’s initiator, Adbusters, has suggested that it is time for Occupy Wall Street to move on and find other directions.

Occupy’s engagement with organized labor and anti-foreclosure activities is thus a positive development, denunciations of “union pie cards” or “middle class property owners” to the contrary. The diffuse “Occupy Our Homes” campaign from Brooklyn to Oakland was matched by the only partly successful west coast port shutdown actions of December 12. Oakland was completely closed, and partial disruptions were effected in Portland, Oregon and Longview, Washington. But Seattle and San Diego experienced severe police repression, and the region’s largest ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles, were almost entirely unaffected by the protest. Couple these spotty results with mixed support from the ILWU rank-and-file, and independent truckers, and it is clear that the Occupy movement has a long way to go in achieving a working solidarity with organized labor.

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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