By any other name: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?”, August 2021

I picked up an archaic paper flyer pinned to an obsolete cork board in the now-defunct Market Street branch of FLAX Art Supplies. The handbill advertised a web designer and mobile app developer—Daniel Goodwyn—who offered to teach virtually any platform or software. I wanted to learn social media to prepare for self-publishing my novel 1% Free, so I called. He was cheap. We arranged to meet at Philz Coffee on 24th Street.

“I only drink Philz coffee,” Daniel said.

We met six or seven times at the end of 2015, beginning of 2016. Daniel was an evangelical Christian favorable to fundamentalism, but he wore his religious beliefs close to the vest. He didn’t proselytize. Instead, he would produce his worn King James Bible from his backpack before starting each lesson. I pulled out my Handbook of Denominations by Mead, Hill and Atwood our third meeting and we were off discussing Christianity between social media tutoring. We talked dispensationalism, cessationism, and biblical inerrancy. He’d attended 24/7 worship and prayer events, and would soon do web design for the messianic Jews for Jesus organization. Continue reading

Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984 Continue reading

Crossing the line: “What’s Left?” March 2019, MRR #430

[The Motherfuckers are] a street gang with analysis.
—Osha Neumann

Fuck shit up!
—hardcore punk catchphrase

Conservatives are the new punk.
—alt-right-lite catchphrase

When I read Michael “Bommi” Baumann’s political memoir Wie Alles Anfing/How It All Began in 1979, about his experiences as a West German urban guerrilla, I took to heart his slogan: “Words cannot save us! Words don’t break chains! The deed alone makes us free! Destroy what destroys you!” The feeling behind his words resonated with the aggressive, direct action-oriented anarchism I’d developed since 1968, but by the late ‘80s I’d abbreviated those sentiments into the phrase “fuck shit up.” Fuck shit up was a hardcore punk war cry. Bands from Useless Pieces of Shit to Blatz wrote songs with the saying in the title and the lyrics. There’s no more punk an expression than “fuck shit up,” which is abbreviated FSU in graffiti. Continue reading

Protest vs Violence vs Terrorism: “What’s Left?” February 2018, MRR #417

“Today on the Galloping Gourmet we will be preparing smoke bomb flambeau.”

Scott stood over the grimy stove in the shotgun shack off Ventura Avenue holding a beer in one hand and a saucepan in the other. He had that rakish, Graham Kerr attitude down, although his hippy hair and attire belied his bon vivant pose. Tom and I stood over a tiny formica table piled with a large sack of granulated sugar, an equally large smoked glass bottle of sodium nitrate, several boxes of “strike anywhere” matches, more pots, pans, and bowls, and a copy of Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book open to the section on “People’s Chemistry.” Scott directed our work with a wave of the pan and a swig of beer.

“First, thoroughly mix together six parts saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate, with four parts sugar. Sodium nitrate may be used in a pinch. Then pour the mixture into a medium pan and place it over a very low flame. Heat it slowly and carefully until it starts to melt and blend into a plastic like substance.” Continue reading

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.