Occupy Oakland May Day General Strike
On Tuesday, May 1, Occupy Oakland organized a series of events around the city, all as part of what they deemed a "General Strike" in commemoration of May Day, International Workers' Day.
Ooooh, looks very exciting, doesn't it?
Well, actually, no. Despite Occupy Oakland's earnest attempts to stir things up and to attract attention, or at least pose (as in the picture above) for the cameras in such a way that it looks like their protest is newsworthy, in the end very little happened, by Oakland standards at least. Some windows were smashed, some businesses vandalized, a few people were arrested, but that was it — your typical Oakland protest, in other words.
But was there indeed a "general strike"? Did business as usual shut down? Nope. Not even close.
The central rendezvous point for the day's "General Strike" events was Frank Ogawa Plaza in front of City Hall, which the Occupiers have renamed "Oscar Grant Plaza." In the morning, there were several "decentralized srike actions" around the city, in which the various Occupy committees would act on specific ideological agendas. For example, the "anti-capitalist" group vandalized banks, the Chamber of Commerce, and other symbols of capitalism; the "anti-gentrification" group tried to force local businesses to obey Occupy's demand that they shut down for the day's "General Strike"; and so forth.
After convening at the plaza for a noontime break to rally the troops, in the afternoon everyone would then once again scatter throughout the city wreaking havoc, before meeting up at Fruitvale BART for a mid-afternoon "Decolonization March" back to the plaza, where everyone would rest up for the night's vandalism.
It was all very confusing and scatterbrained, and there was simply no way one person could keep on top of it all. So (like most of the protesters) I made Oscar Grant Plaza my home base, and monitored the comings and goings from there.
Just as I had assumed, there were several minor street battles on Broadway near the plaza throughout the day. There was no purpose or goal to any of these confrontations; in fact, the act of confrontation was the goal. Everyone would mill around waiting for something to happen, and then some cops would show up, and the crowd would go into a frenzy, for no apparent reason. The mere presence of a policeman is all that it takes to send an Oakland Occupier into either blind rage or a life-affirming adrenaline rush.
This brief video of two random street confrontations (shot by a contributor who wishes to remain anonymous) illustrate the kind of flare-ups that went on all day around downtown Oakland:
In the first half of the video, a small group of police showed up, causing the crowd of Occupiers to swarm like a disturbed hornet's nest; in the second half, everyone scatters after some anarchist set off a small incendiary device in the crowd.
Neither of these two specific incidents were significant in and of themselves; rather, the video is just illustrative of innumerable similar scenes that played out all day and all night across Oakland.
The Occupiers were all hoping that one of these flare-ups would escalate into a full-fledged riot, but (as far as I could tell at least) that never happened.
The whole day had a very Rashomon-quality to it; each person, depending on where he or she was standing, might have a completely different impression of what happened. For example: After hearing what sounded like a brewing fracas nearby, I rushed past this (then intact) news van to see the action; but the fracas quickly fizzled, and I heard a crunching sound behind me. Thirty seconds later, I returned and took this picture of the van's smashed windshield, having missed the moment of destruction by just a few yards and a few seconds. The perpetrator was long gone (or perhaps was standing right next to me -- who knew?). Yet someone else could very well have been randomly at "the right place at the right time" and witnessed the whole thing.
Similarly, several times throughout the day I was caught up in the middle of various meaningless crowd-swarms in which people would rush at the police, and then retreat, and swirl around and rush again; projectiles would fly overhead; explosions would go off nearby; people would scream and cry and call out for medics; and yet even though I was in the middle of it all, I couldn't really tell what was happening. It was sheer chaos. Later I would see news videos of police getting hit by paint-bombs, or Occupiers getting arrested, and realize I had been just steps away from the focal point of the action, and yet had not been able to see through the morass of people to the white-hot center of confrontation.
Here, for example, an Occupier threw some kind of smoke bomb over my head, and it landed nearby and exploded. It happened so suddenly that I didn't see who threw it, nor could I see exactly where it landed, nor at whom it was aimed. Perhaps if the bomb had landed next to me, this would have seemed like a significant incident; but since it landed 40 feet away, it felt like just another trivial and purposeless act of social vandalism barely meriting a mention.
Like I said: Rashomon.
Here's generally how the day's ebb and flow played out:
First, a squad of cops would line up on the street.
Next, a line of ludicrous poseur anarchists would face off against them, mainly for the purpose of trying to look cool for the cameras.
Then the cops would start to move forward, and everyone would scatter and scream in outrage.
Then some knucklehead would throw a smoke bomb or a paint bomb or a bottle or some kind of incendiary device at the cops, and everyone would rush around taking photos and screaming "Medic!" because someone got hit by friendly fire or got trampled by the crowd.
Then the cops would arrest someone and retreat, and everyone would wander away, leaving the street deserted just moments after it had been the scene of what felt like a brewing major battle.
This exact same series of steps happened over and over and over throughout the day, to the point where it felt repetitive.
So, what was the purpose of all of this? Nothing. Excitement for the teenage rioters. Moral outrage for the Occupy organizers. Overtime for the cops. Boarded-up windows for the businesses. And higher bills for the taxpayers.
After one of the meaningless battles, I took some photos of the impact points where the Occupiers' homemade explosives landed.
This one hit a garbage can.
A paint-bomb that missed its mark, though you can see the "splatter shadow" of someone's foot at the upper right.
There was perhaps less violence this time around because the Oakland police employed a new strategy today; instead of trying to control the whole crowd, they'd just zip in and quickly arrest individual malefactors, and then retreat. The Occupiers tried to stop the arrests, which they dubbed "snatches," to little avail.
SFGate captured photos of a few arrests, as part of their summary of the day's events, which they characterized as "a kaleidoscopic variety of protests ranging from skirmishes with police to dancing, chanting throngs of demonstrators peacefully waving signs."
The "Bay Area Strike" twitter feed archive is a essentially a list of each individual clash, recorded in real-time.
But enough of these pointless skirmishes! Let's retire back to Oscar Grant Plaza where a colorful parade of eccentric characters and eccentric messages provided entertainment for the whole family.
Some douchebag carried a homemade banner with Obama's new campaign slogan "Forward," while in the background a different douchebag waved an upside-down American flag. Nice juxtaposition!
One of the Occupy security team members behind the main stage wore a shirt that said "Defend Oakland" and pictured an AK-47.
He showed off a rather sharp-looking flip-knife which he carried around -- just in case.
To the left of the stage, someone hung up a police-pig piñata, while yet another douchebag rang a Tibetan singing bowl, to get us all in a peaceful Buddhist hypnotic trance before taking out our rage on the piñata scapegoat.
The Fuck Police were on hand to put the kibosh on any hanky-panky. But not to worry...
Captain Anarchy is here to save the day!
It dawned on me during this rally why the current "Occupy" movement feels so grating and unpleasant compared to our idealized collective memory of the 1960s: back then, they had great music as the soundtrack to the revolution. But where is the K-Tel-worthy soundtrack for the Occupation? Where is our Bob Dylan, our Jefferson Airplane, our Country Joe and the Fish?
I don't know who this guy is, but he was actually pretty talented. I nominate the song that he sings here, "We Are the Ninety-Nine Percent" as the official theme song of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
I guarantee you will be humming it long after reading this report!
Behind the stage someone hung up a huge (but still managing to be barely legible) "Death to Capitalism" banner.
Speaking of which...I won't harp on this, but overt anti-capitalism was the theme of the day, and all sorts of unsubtle messages and groups were on display. A small sampling:
Our friend Karl. (Disorientingly, someone held up a somewhat out-of-place Tea-Party-esque "We have taxation without representation" sign in the background.)
Our friend Ho Chi Minh (with Mr. Obama-motto "Forward" in background; the guy has a talent for juxtaposition!).
A bovine (in all senses of the word) fan of the FMLN, the Salvadoran communist group.
Someone hawking Red Flag, to "Mobilize the Masses for Communism."
Needless to say, the Revolutionary Communist Party showed up, as they always do at every Occupy event. Do take note of their globe, which depicts either a polar ice cap extending as far south as Italy, or perhaps is it a hurricane centered on the North Pole? Are they implying that the Earth is headed for a new ice age?
And of course, Che.
But it wasn't all communists. Mostly it was anarchists, or just generic anti-capitalists who haven't given much thought as to what might conceivably replace capitalism.
This sign had me really scratching my head. If capitalism is the end of human infancy, and if we're all supposed to grow up, does that mean he wants us all to embrace capitalism? I think he probably meant that "The end of capitalism would be the end of human infancy," but let's not clue him in that his sign means the opposite of what he thinks it means.
The range of extreme ideologies led to some hilarious vignettes. Here, for example, a guy from the ultra-libertarian anti-federal government conspiracy site InfoWars somehow convinced a guy with a "Single Payer Health Care" hat to sign a petition -- even though one advocates the abolition of governmental authority and the other advocates the exact opposite, a totally centralized economy and power structure. WTF???
Nostalgia for the '60s (in this case, the Paris uprising of May, 1968) underpinned the whole atmosphere.
And then there was nostalgia for the 1880s, when anarchism first exploded onto the political scene. Here, a woman carefully reads the history of the Haymarket Riot, which is glorified and glamorized in the Occupy version of history; a golden moment that we all seek to re-create.
Speaking of which...
Back on the main stage, a member of "Modesto Anarcho," a notoriously militant and violent anarchist group, gave a rousing speech that was so extreme it even started making some of the girls in the audience a little nervous. The video of his speech is four minutes long, but well worth a listen. In it, he savagely attacks the Occupy movement as being too moderate, too passive, and too open to being co-opted by lily-livered liberals and totalitarian communists. In his mind, Occupy is already contaminated by acquiescence to the status quo, and needs to be discarded. We need to skip any intervening steps and rush straight to the end of civilization right now: smash it all, tear everything down, eliminate all existing rules, laws and customs of society and start again.
If this was the '60s, then Occupy would be the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and this guy would be Bill Ayers, trying to transform it into a terrorist army like the Weather Underground. Amazing how history repeats and repeats and repeats.
When I get a spare moment, I'll try to do a transcript; until then: watch the video, to see where our future lies.
And here's the opposing viewpoint. Par-tay!!!
And to get that party started, we can have a "Free Pussy Riot." I'm not sure I even want to visualize what that might be like. (Update: Commenters have noted that this shirt is likely a reference to the Russian anti-Putin punk band "Pussy Riot".)
But one group must be excluded from all that partying: No fun for you, GOP!
How about this for a new fashion fad: Noose necklaces! You saw it here first.
More fashion trend-spotting from the rally: Anti-capitalist pirate...
...Black Panther gun moll...
...Euro-chic class warrior...
...and anarchist mime.
After the revolution, this is what your medical care will look like. Out: Doctors. In: Druidic Occupy medics!
There was a grand total of one counter-protester: a guy from the paleo-conservative Constitution Party tried to bait the anarchists with a sign that said "Occupy Attacks Working People," but strangely, everyone mostly just ignored him.
Even when some of the street battles raged around him, he only managed to attract a couple of opponents.
If you're curious about what was written on the upside-down flag shown earlier: it said "Imperialism in Distress." I was amazed that an Occupier actually knew that an upside-down flag was traditionally a distress signal, and not just a generic way to indicate one's anti-Americanism, as protesters these days universally assume.
Unlike at previous Occupy Oakland outbursts, there was very little mention of race this time around. But a poster advertising an upcoming "Court of Black Justice" by a Black Nationalist group reminded everyone that the issue was not to be forgotten.
The Israel/Palestinian conflict also made precisely one appearance, in the form of a young woman riffing on the problem of the whole "occupy" definition (i.e. it's good in Oakland but bad in Palestine).
So...every criminal is rich? Really. It's strange how so many of them seem poor. What I think he meant was "All rich people are criminals," but in his attempt to be clever, it came out sideways.
Yeah, stealing a cop's badge will suddenly grant you the authority he once possessed! Yes, it's that easy.
After a while, some cops lined up in front City Hall, and within a minute all the Occupiers rushed over there for a big cop-hating jamboree.
I just love this highway patrolman's expression. "Why'd I have to get called for riot duty in Oakland again? Sigh...."
As we saw in the essay's first photo above, all the little teenage pretend-anarchists with their cute homemade garbage-can riot shields lined up bravely against the big mean fascist pigs.
Then someone turned on a song called "Fuck the Police" and everyone went into a frenzy of obscenities.
"Fuck the po-lice fuck the po-lice fuck the po-lice!!!!"
Behind this wall of rage, a clique of nerdy pagan Occupiers performed a maypole dance.
What will we teach our kids? We will teach them education!
If even the teachers can't grasp grammar, it's no wonder our society is descending into illiteracy.
So, criminal street gangs are the vanguard of the revolution? I'll note that down for later reference.
All in all, it's just doo doo pants.
This is just Part 1 of my Occupy Oakland May Day coverage. To see the rest of the day's shenanigans, click on through to Part 2:
Occupy that link!