Slingshots, Anyone? : Long Live the Oakland Commune

After a fitful night of hobo-ing it up at a rest stop on the outskirts of town, I was dropped off hitchhiking at 7 am in downtown Oakland. My first inclination, as it was on my arrival in the Bay weeks prior, was to pay a visit to Oscar Grant Plaza. Only this time around it wasn’t as inspiring as that previous visit. Where once stood a veritable tent city of occupiers now lay a swath of muddy grass. Barely could one discern the buffed graffiti announcing the “Oakland Commune” near the BART station; and only scant remnants of splattered red paint still haunt the intersections of 14th and Broadway in the wake of the General Strike. Despite the inverted American flag draped in a tree above the city workers pressure-washing the sidewalk, and despite the presence of a few obstinate campers, there was but a glimmer of what once was. An unsettling absence looms in the shadow of City Hall.

Wednesday November 2nd was the General Strike of Oakland. The first since December of 1946, when truck drivers, bus and streetcar operators abandoned their posts and took control of the city for over two days. Some might claim November 2nd was not a “general strike” in the true sense of the word, as it is estimated that under 15% of the workforce participated, but it must also be noted that this event was executed with little more than a week’s planning. Picture, if you will, thousands packed into the intersections of 14th and Broadway at 9 in the morning. Imagine standing within this mass as speakers from all backgrounds– from high school students to union organizers– delivered speeches atop an outfitted truck bed. The most notable of these being that of black feminist professor and activist Angela Davis, beginning with a request for the “peoples’ mic” and concluding– exhilaratingly– with the resounding words of black poet June Jordan: We are the ones we have been waiting for!

A lot of people would say rioters “trash” the city; vandalism, it’s true, can be ugly. But vandalism is a product, a visceral response, to a society that is already marred by hideousness. And personally, I’d rather look upon the ugliness of a world of real human expression than the ugliness of a dead corporate one.

The events I was most excited for, however, took place later in the day. The Anticapitalist March departed the Plaza at 2 pm, led by a raucous black bloc of 100 strong. A few actions to close down the still-operating banks and corporate stores had been occurring since the morning, but none with the intensity or audacity delivered by the A-squad. As the march gained momentum, someone announced over the megaphone that Whole Foods had barred employees from upholding the strike (a rumor I later heard was untrue, but they’re still an anti-union mega-corporation, so whatever). So the march wound its way toward 27th to shut it down. As the throng descended, a masked person unleashed a fire extinguisher loaded with silver paint, splattering the word STRIKEĀ  in 15-foot-tall letters across the storefront. Another anonymous activist immediately followed this up with a pole to the window. They (I’ll use the gender neutral pronoun here) were interrupted, however, when a wild-eyed man clad in shoulder pads and an orange helmet tackled them to the ground. This individual was ostensibly not a cop, but a “pacifist” intervening to protect corporate property. A small group fought him off and delivered their comrade to safety while more confrontations broke out between those in the march. The black bloc, meanwhile, had set to ripping apart the white picket fence– a distasteful representation of whitey bourgeoisie, I might add– when another “peace police” wrestled a pole from an anarchist and began swinging it like a ninja! Another infuriated man wielded a chair with intent to bash anyone transgressing the rules of their “peaceful protest.” Seriously, what kind of dualistic “nonviolence” are they advocating here? Are these people on drugs?! Why do they wish to manage and dictate the desires and perceptions of thousands of autonomous individuals? Undaunted, the mob began launching the patio chairs and tables with a frenetic precision. Have you ever run headlong into a cluster of scattering birds? Me neither. But I imagine this is kind of what it’s like. Apparently in the aftermath of the Oscar Grant riots last year, this particular Whole Foods had replaced their windows with fortified glass. A pyramid of juice bottles lay shimmering just beyond the glass, and as the chairs flew I had a vision of them cascading down into the store; but the projectiles just bounced off with a bewildering thud.

“Strike, occupy, shut it down! Oakland doesn’t fuck around!” So went the chorus as the march snaked its way to greet the banks. And predictably, the contingent of “peaceful” protesters began their own wails of condemnation. A quirky Bay Area activist, understanding this was not the time to argue tactics, countered with the eloquent chant– “When I say something, you say something…” Not long after this a rogue dumpster went rolling through the streets, bounding like a people’s chariot. “Whose dumpster?” someone screamed. “Our dumpster!” the crowd shouted back. This was some nihilism I could really get behind– a demand-less, untenable and decidedly anti-soundbite revolutionary struggle!

Despite the aggressive tactics of those to stop property destruction, Oakland set a precedent for the first successful black bloc deployment within the Occupy movement in North America. As the march reached the Wells Fargo, individuals unsheathed hammers and sent them crashing into the windows and corporate insignia. Camera-clutching journalists exploited this powerful display of resistance for a photo op, while cries of unbridled glee mingled with those of protest from the pesky liberals. At a general assembly following the strike, addressing a proposal for Occupy Oakland to publicly condemn the black bloc, a womyn spoke about “two narratives of violence.” There is the State’s narrative of violence, she explained: that anything that impedes the functions of capital is deemed “violence.” Then there is the people’s narrative of violence: that of occupying police forces, prisons, systematic inequality. “If those here accept capitalism’s narrative,” she concluded, “then I have no affinity with them.” I wagged my “spirit fingers” emphatically.

At 5 pm I left with the Feminist and Queer Bloc on a larger march to shut down the port of Oakland. We arrived just as the sun was descending and people by the thousands had gathered around the port. In a mood of celebration and festivity, many were perched atop gridlocked semi trucks and halted freight trains to bask in the fading light. It was a beautiful sight to behold– despite my back scolding me harshly, my toes inflamed with blisters and debilitating fatigue from the miles of walking. Those who decry demonstration as some pointless, ineffectual gesture– well, they clearly have never bore witness to the sight of thousands of living bodies blocking the arteries of commerce amidst a breathtaking sunset!

After milling around for a while, my friends and I ventured home for a much needed breather before making our way back to the Plaza, where an open building occupation was being staged. The Travellers Aid Society building on 16th had sat abandoned for years and the intent of this action was to take it over and restore it to its prior glory– and set up a squatted library and social center for the movement. When I arrived, hundreds were dancing riotously in the streets. The absence of police all afternoon had been no doubt a testament to the negative attention they’d received in the wake of the first camp eviction; but word went out that the police were arriving en masse to restore law and order. And, you know, crash the party. Unfortunately, the original plan to defend the space had sort of gotten lost as the formations of riot cops approached and the anarchists pulled on their gas masks, set the dumpster barricade aflame (to counteract the tear gas) and readied for the ensuing confrontation.

A drive around town the following day would tell the tale of events lasting until 3 am. It was surreal. The hours of lawlessness and police diversion begat a wondrous transformation, like weeds through the cement cracks. The tacky Men’s Warehouse window was boarded up and teams in day-glo vests were busy scrubbing graffiti from the marble walls. Shoppers casually strolled by as the massive SMASHY tag beamed bright red right above the doors of Rite Aid. A group of kids wearing respirators– whom we suspected were graffiti writers themselves doing community service– were pausing from their work of blackening the artwork above a storefront to gaze down at the scene and laugh at it all. So were we. A lot of people would say rioters “trash” the city; vandalism, it is true, can be pretty ugly. But vandalism is a product, a visceral response, to a society that is already marred by hideousness. And personally, I’d rather look upon the ugliness of a world of real human expression than the ugliness of a dead corporate one. The overturned dumpsters used to impede the police still lay at the edge of 16th Street, their charred contents spilling out into the street. Yes, in the words of that war correspondent, it became necessary to destroy the town to save it. The huge “Death to Capitalism” banner strung across 14th early on the morning of the strike had been cut down, but the one reading “Dykes on Strike,” picturing a woman with her tongue between her fingers, was still flapping triumphantly from its rooftop billboard a few blocks up Telegraph.

As far as a commentary on the state of Occupy, I’m unsure how to proceed. In the past weeks much has happened. The police staged three evictions– the second of Oscar Grant Plaza, another at Snow Park (a secondary campsite) and an effort by some to squat a foreclosed property. But if my introduction seemed grim, let me clarify. The number of campers may have declined following the strike, allowing the city officials an opportunity to more smoothly orchestrate an eviction, but the energy has far from dissipated. The movement has taken on an amorphous quality. It has embedded itself into the mainstream consciousness. The possibilities that have arisen from these campsites, however flawed they may be, are what’s important– even if it’s just creating a space for a dozen kids to skateboard in a place they couldn’t previously. I believe Oakland is in a process of recuperation, so that it may strike out twice as hard next time. This is far from over.

So with that I impart the rallying cry of this dormant beast: Long live the Oakland Commune! Hella Occupy!