An Open Letter to Joan Walsh in Response to “On the Eve of Destruction”

by zunguzungu

(by a guest writer, my friend L. E. Long, also known as @beingtherwith

I found myself a bit unnerved on Monday reading your article about Occupy Oakland. I wish you had waited to write the article, as you had promised yourself. Having missed the high points and arriving with a raid looming all but literally on the horizon, your assessments are steeped in much more than your bias in favor nonviolence. As I’ve seen the tone of the whole camp change over hours, let alone days, I would encourage you to return as often as your schedule and sanity allow, and I would encourage you to engage.

Until then… It is very much true. Occupy Oakland has been unable to get the thousands of people passing through Oscar Grant Plaza to agree to the principle of nonviolence. This is a significant fact and defining characteristic of the Occupy movements, which are not defined by a commonly held belief but by the act of expressing exasperation. Your specific frustration over this presents two common and inextricably linked misunderstandings of what is taking place in front of City Hall in downtown Oakland: the unending discussion of “diversity of tactics” and how consensus, as opposed to majority, functions (to be addressed under separate cover).

As someone who was present when the first tents went up, who walked through clouds of chemical agents and stun grenades, who heard a crowd of thousands call for strike, who spent countless hours in organizational meetings, who sat on the plaza watching the day of the strike collapse into some sort of mayhem, and who is embarking on a third incarnation of the camp, I would like to share my comments in two parts.

Part One: On Non-violence

The concepts of violence and what is not that cover orders and spectrums too broad to submitted to a group of five people to agree upon, let alone how many thousands who pass through Oscar Grant plaza.

As recently as November 9, students and professors linked arms to protect a camp and were nudged and pulled by their hair to the ground after offering their wrists for arrest. This act of linking arms was deemed by UC Berkeley Chancellor Birgenau to be “not nonviolent.”

Two weeks before that, Oakland fought police property damage with a thousands-strong peaceful march. The same officers released the crowd dispersal tactics that nearly killed Scott Olsen and injured those who attempted to help him, all in response to three or so water bottles thrown at police lines. This was deemed professional behavior by city administrators.

In between Oakland fought police property damage and physical harm, economic injustice, austerity measures, and systematic sexism, racism, and homophobia with the first general strike in continental U.S. history since 1946 – a strike that happened in Oakland – by coming together for a day long block party that covered downtown in the same location where that harm took place.

In the afternoon, the anti-capitalist march, organized by an autonomous group caused property damage to bank windows and a Whole Foods while shouting and shoving took place (both ways) between the perpetrators and those attempting, to steer the march in a nonviolent direction. That same afternoon, over ten thousand marched to the Ports of Oakland, without notable property damage or confrontation, preventing the flow of millions of dollars in capital, which – in addition to the untold numbers who refused to work that day – is not insignificant economic damage.

Later, an autonomous group unveiled a building, which once served the homeless of Oakland, that they had broken into and repainted with the intent of opening a foreclosed space with the intent of having it serve as a community free school, library, and additional organizing and housing space for the coming winter. A dance party in the streets was replaced with barriers and fires to counteract the anticipated use of teargas as word of the approach of police spread. Over 100 were arrested that night, including medics, journalists, and legal observers; only a small fraction were charged with anything more than being present, while at least two ended up in the hospital.

And as it continues, the city has dipped into budget reserves to spend millions clearing camps that rebuild within days and put people in hospitals and already crowded prisons, while shuttering five elementary schools in underserved Oakland communities. The difference is that I’ve seen the conversations in which participants in Occupy Oakland have debated tactics and failures, including those present for the building occupation, and I have seen them take care of each other and clean up after each other without complaint. I have not once seen the city so much as flinch, only rewrite the narratives of their actions.

So what is and what is not violence among these tactics? I challenge you to put a random sample of 100 people in a room and find 90 who could agree on how to designate any one action. Between individual opinion and PR spin, the term nonviolence has been rendered an empty gesture.

The question of diversity of tactics becomes, then, not one of endorsement or division. It is a question of, and a testament to, radical inclusion. How can a group so large and so expansive (many participants refer to Oscar Grant plaza as the most diverse block in Oakland) unite to denounce such an indefinable other? Instead, the acceptance of diversity of tactics is the acknowledgment that people will not now, nor ever agree as to what constitutes violence versus non, and that we must continue to work together in spite of this.

The tension over this issue was most palpable to me on Monday’s post-raid convergence at the library. In alternating turns, speakers would propose steps forward or turn the conversation to ideology and condemnation. One speaker in favor will emphatically claim that we must all denounce a group of people invested in the same political struggle, while the speaker who proposes that this conversations be tabled beseeches the crowd to work together because no one person or group owns what is Occupy, we each only own our actions, and those must be righteous.

This only means that we must continue the conversation, no matter how tense. And we must find a way to agree on how we move forward.