Friday, February 03, 2012

J28: week old thoughts on Move In Day

I was excited about the potential of Occupy Oakland (and/or any autonomous groups) occupying buildings ever since the popular idea of defending foreclosed homes came up. When the OO General Assembly confirmed that we would defend building occupations, it seemed like a no brainer to me.

I didn’t understand the criticisms levied against the occupation of the Travelers Aid Building (TAB) on the night of The Nov.2nd Oakland General Strike. Had we not already decided to defend it before it was even taken? Our ideas are not good enough in theory. They must be seen through to action. Sure, the media focused solely on the spectacle of the Building defense and subsequent arrests. I have no illusions that the corporate press is going to report positively on an event or a movement counter to its profits. I also do not feel that building occupation took away from the incredible general strike and port shutdown earlier the same day

Straight off the victory of the Dec.12th West Coast Port Shutdown, open meetings began to plan an OO community center. I believe, in part due to the internal criticism of the TAB occupation, this attempt was going to be done as publicly as possible. As everyone brainstormed at the initial Building Move In Committee meeting, many people really struggled against the location being “secret”. While it wasn’t exactly secret (a member of all officially recognized OO committees knew the location), it made sense to keep it guarded information. It seemed simple: If you think it will be difficult to occupy a building without community support for a specified location, try occupying that building when it is full of police!

I didn’t want to know the location. If I could find it out, anyone could. I got very nervous when mainstream media and even supposedly OO supporting blogs speculated on the location. Initially, I hoped the building was already taken and waiting for us. I was confused by the plan to bring huge pieces of furniture with us on the march. I figured it was for spectacle as I couldn’t imagine breaking police lines while carrying folding chairs and juicers. With all the police (and media) attention, I soon became aware that the building could not be held leading up to Move In Day but I hoped/assumed it had been cased and prepped by those in the know.

To be fair, I never joined any working groups and only attended Move In meetings sporadically. Most of the time, my nervous pessimism was erased by what seemed to be good tactical discussions at these meetings. People were thinking of ways to communicate from one point of the march to another, decoys, a march route that would not point directly to our intended home, scouts, etc. Almost none of which materialized on Jan.28th.

On the morning of J28, I was nervous but optimistic. The City’s open letter issued the day before seemed to offer no hope of non-engagement. They intended to stop us. Yet, seeing OPD guarding decoy locations gave me some naive hope that they could be diverted/distracted.

Skip forward to when our large march (of around 2,000) approached the area of Henry J. Kaiser Auditorium (HJK). The target seemed obvious at that point. I was unfamiliar with the area immediately surrounding HJK, in part, because it was fence after fence associated with road construction. The crowd was upbeat... until we reached Laney College. Probably the biggest tactical error of the entire day was going through Laney and the crowd knew it! We were essentially being funneled out to a creek and a tiny foot bridge. After the foot bridge, we ended up corralled in a “ravine” flanked by hills, fences, and OPD. Not enough of the crowd knew what we were supposed to do next. The OPD fired smoke grenades at us and that was all it took to scatter the crowd. Confused and concerned with evasion, I rushed out. From a block away, it seemed like an action contingent had decided to streetfight in front of the unattainable building.

Eventually the crowd retreated to Oscar Grant Plaza. The crowd was half of what it had been but those present still seemed up for any existing Plan B. Finally, it was announced that there was a Plan B and we took the streets. As we approached TAB, people got excited. The march slowed and we controlled the entire block including intersections. It was a good position to defend against surely coming police lines. I could see someone inside TAB but even as close as 10ft away, I was unable to determine if the building was the intended target. We slowly marched on. Without rehashing what has been told and retold a hundred times, we were kettled at 19th & Telegraph. OPD made no audible dispersal order nor did they allow people to leave. The crowd was still very smart and very brave and we began to push through the relatively small police line. Immediately, police fired flash grenades and tear gas into the crowd. Without thinking, we abandoned the break and fell back. Luckily, OPD left the fence open. The fence came down and for a second time that day, a kettle failed because of a flimsy fence. OPD will not make that mistake again and neither should we.

I went home. It seemed like there was no achievable back up plan. Furthermore, I felt like the crowd was angry, frustrated, and less focused on taking/holding a building (if the numbers even existed to do so at that point). I was very discouraged.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and I have no intention of pretending I have all the answers. This is not about focusing on would have, could have, should have, but didn’ts. This is about a criticism and maybe more so a self-criticism of Move In Day. It is safe to assume the police (and potentially state and federal agents) had the entire action including planning and location under surveillance. I am not pointing fingers or calling fellow occupiers agents of the state. However, the OPD’s internal communication as far back as 2009 notes special interest in anarchists. OPD internal communication also admits to having undercovers at the OGP camp and within other marches/actions. These undercover agents are of such value that OPD instructed them to not even break cover if shots are fired from within the crowd. Move In Day attempted to walk the fine line between secure secrecy and inviting openness. Credit must be given for that attempt.

From reviewing writings and videos of J28, I don’t believe the Laney College route was the intended route. As the sound truck instructed the crowd to go through Laney, I wonder if that backup had even been thought out because it was very dangerous. The police already had us surrounded in every direction and obviously knew the target. Would it have made more sense to keep the momentum, shape, and numbers of the crowd and face off at a different (originally intended) point?

That first shot of smoke grenade into the crowd before dispersal orders had one intended goal: to scatter the crowd (and possibly expose the bravest among us). It was successful. It now seems obvious that not everyone scattered and what initially seemed to me like a streetfighting stance was actually a very well executed (but ultimately failed) attempt to defend the crowd and approach HJK from a different angle.

The Plan B attempt on TAB makes me a little angry. If I was only 10ft away from the building and didn’t know that the attempt was tried and failed, how would anyone else know. (Also- I highly doubt regular contractors are installing windows late on a Saturday night.) I don’t know if a Plan C existed. It might have. Does responsibility exist to let the crowd know that an intended target was unsuccessful?

My initial discouragement has turned to a much more skeptical hope (I hate that word). I think everyone in the march on J28 learned something about police tactics and how to act. I am inspired by the brave bloc that defended everyone. I am appreciative of all the OO jail solidarity (inside and out). I am encouraged by the multitude of solidarity shown OO in the face of the law’s brutality and The City’s lies and pandering. J28 was a fight not just for control of HJK but between the forces that say property is sacred and those of us who put life and health above property and profit.