Occupying Our Impasse by The Nowtopian / Chris Carlsson

The following article is an excerpt from The Nowtopian.


A wide coalition of housing activists, clergy, leftists, unionists, anarchists, and others in San Francisco staged an “Occupy Wall Street West” day of action in downtown San Francisco on Friday, January 20. (The Committee for Full Enjoyment was out too, including yours truly.) It was a cold and soggy day, but a couple of thousand people blockaded, sat in, and protested in front of more than a dozen corporate and government offices, notably Wells Fargo Bank headquarters, Bank of America’s west coast main office, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Then on Saturday, January 28, Occupy Oakland staged their “Move-In Day” and marched on the long-empty, publicly-owned Kaiser Auditorium, intending to make it their new social center. Famously now, the Oakland police used teargas and flashbang grenades to repel and disperse the Oakland occupiers. By the time the long day was over, over 400 people had been arrested, many of them in a blatantly illegal round-up of 200 people when police trapped them on Telegraph Avenue in front of the YMCA.

On both sides of the Bay the political confrontations sought to break the ice on the new year by reaching new stages for the local Occupy movement. A day of horizontal direct action and disruption in San Francisco; a dramatic attempt to claim an empty public building in Oakland., followed by a day of police violence. In local circles, while some participants are publicly confident that both efforts in SF and Oakland were “successful” in basic ways, many private conversations I’ve been in have wondered whether or not the local movements are losing broad support. Some people accept the mass media framing of the violence in Oakland as caused by the demonstrators, or at least blame protesters for answering police brutality with anything other passivity or evasion. Others find the tried-and-true sit-ins and blockades staged in San Francisco as ineffective symbolism or even as boring theater, and question the preponderance of left organizations, nonprofits, and unions.

Since the eviction of the Occupy camps late last year, thousands of people have been talking, planning, and wondering what would 2012 bring? How could the best of the past months’ experiences be carried forward and even expanded upon? How could we top the November 2 “General Strike” and Port protest that drew tens of thousands of people into a daylong festival that occupied a good part of Oakland’s downtown before heading over to the Port and stopping shipping for several shifts? Fewer people turned out for the December 12 Port Shutdown in Oakland, though it was still effective for part of the day, along with allied actions in a half dozen other cities. Still fewer came out in the January 20th rain in San Francisco, or a week later to “move in” to the Kaiser Auditorium in Oakland. Signs of trouble? or just to be expected, given the time of year, the nature of the events, etc.?

Maybe, maybe not, only time will tell for sure. But it’s possible that a concerted media campaign to amplify the militant self-defense actions of Oakland protesters has scared away some people and dismayed others. I saw a defender of militant action quoted on a Facebook post that said it was probably a good thing if it scared some people away, since “he couldn’t trust a lot of people politically anyway.” I wonder how prevalent this kind of vanguardist delusion is? What’s been interesting up until now is just how many people have been ready enthusiastically to embrace overtly anti-capitalist rhetoric, albeit amidst a great deal of traditional populism too.

The horizontalist San Francisco Day of Action found itself trapped in what one friend recently dubbed “Big Government Anarchism.” Dozens of self-organized affinity groups, committees, nonprofit activists, and some trade unionists staged their own interventions all over town. In seeking to “crack the corporate piggybank” the Wall Street West occupiers demanded an end to bank evictions and foreclosures, and to put an end to corporate personhood. Targeting threatened homes is practical and as real as it gets. But in the clamor for justice and fairness, there lurks an unspoken faith that social priorities can be changed by a change in government policy. If the government would radically reduce its spending on wars, overseas military bases, corrupt weapons systems, an ever-expanding spook bureaucracy, and a growing prison system, we’d be safer and we’d have money to spend on all kinds of social needs, from housing to health care and food security for all. Take away corporate personhood and an electoral democracy of over 300 million people can become genuinely representative. Really?

Isn’t this the kind of wishful thinking that leftism has crashed on for the past few decades? We already know how uninspiring existing left-wing politics has been for a long time, with repetitive demands for “Jobs” and “Peace” inevitably falling on deaf ears and dwindling turnouts. The Occupy Wall Street West effort took place alongside the remnants of Occupy SF and had some cross-participation, but broke no new ground. January 20 repeated a combination of techniques that stretch back to the Hall of Shame and Warchest Tours of the early 1980s combined with some of the blockading and protest styles from that same era that have traveled through history by way of the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 and the shutdown of San Francisco at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. These anarchistic interventions can effectively paralyze business as usual for some hours or even days, but fail to connect with a transformative politics. The direct action tactics are used to voice moral disapproval of speculation, profiting, war-mongering, ecological damage, now adding corporate personhood to the list.  But taken as a whole, the tone of these protests combine to suggest that in a different government we might find the answers, hence “big government anarchism.”

Occupy Oakland, by contrast, is populated with the self-proclaimed radical wing of the Occupy movement, and consists of many anarchists and small-c communists who avoid making demands that would reinforce the government/nonprofit paradigm of social change. They set out to get a building to have a new home for the Oakland occupation. Organizers hoped that they’d be able to gain entry to the Kaiser Auditorium and hold it for at least a few days to show what they could do with such a space. The authorities and especially the Oakland Police had no intention of allowing any autonomous space to get started. Occupiers had prepared for the now expected police violence by bringing shields and developing a high degree of internal solidarity among themselves. This served them well throughout the day, pulling people back from arrest from time to time, and managing several mass escapes from police encirclement. A lot of teargas and flashbang grenades were thrown by police that day, and hundreds of constitution-busting, pre-emptive mass arrests were made, most of which will never lead to any criminal charges being filed.


Chris Carlsson, executive director of the multimedia history project Shaping San Francisco, is a writer, publisher, editor, and community organizer. For the last twenty-five years, his activities have focused on the underlying themes of horizontal communications, organic communities and public space. He was one of the founders, editors and frequent contributors to the ground-breaking San Francisco magazine Processed World. He also helped launch the monthly bike-ins known as Critical Masst hat have spread to five continents and over 300 cities.

He has edited five book includings: Bad Attitude: The Processed World Anthology (Verso: 1990); Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture (City Lights: 1998, co-edited with James Brook and Nancy J. Peters); Critical Mass: Bicycling’s Defiant Celebration (AK Press: 2002);  The Political Edge (City Lights Foundation: 2004); and and Ten Years That Shook the City: San Francisco 1968-78 (City Lights: 2011). He is also the author After The Deluge (Full Enjoyment Books: 2004) and Nowtopia (AK Press 2008).

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