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On that March Sunday, Peller joined her fellow Occupiers to hear typical report-backs from committees. When Ritz-Barr, a charismatic organizer and recent college grad, announces the first planning meeting for May Day, he is met with a cheer. Another follows his signature sign-off, recited at the end of his announcements: "Long live the Oakland Commune, and fuck the police!" He too has an Occupier's résumé: Prior to organizing with Occupy Oakland, he worked with fellow students to occupy and shut down UC Santa Cruz in March 2010. Like many Oakland Occupiers, from key organizers like Peller to street medics like Edwards to occasional participants, he identifies with anarchist philosophy and sees the movement as an opportunity to put his beliefs into practice.
In many meetings and assemblies leading up to May Day, Occupy Oakland set upon a strategy: blockade the Golden Gate Bridge during the morning commute, coordinate strike stations throughout Oakland, and then reconvene after noon for a rally in the plaza before teaming up with an immigration rights march. The bridge blockade was the most spectacular action on the agenda — an extravagant event that had Occupiers excited and nervous.
The iconic span was a seductive target, one that guaranteed a showdown with police. The action was the brainchild of the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition, a collective of 14 unions, which is in a contract dispute over healthcare for its members. The coalition hit upon the idea to shut down the bridge and extended an invitation to Occupy in the hopes of bolstering its numbers. But plans changed on the weekend before May Day, when the coalition rescinded its support of the bridge blockade.
"I could see from a mile away that it was too good to be true," says Ritz-Barr. Occupy Oakland, which had agreed to participate only if it did so in conjunction with striking rank-and-file union members, ultimately denounced the action as well, claiming that the labor coalition had failed to follow through on its promises to strike.
Ritz-Barr contends that the labor coalition only wanted Occupy as a rent-a-mob to boost its credibility when declaring such an ambitious action — and then started to fret when it seemed Occupy might actually live up to its expectations.
"They're like, 'Wait, wait, we don't want you to be that militant, so we're not going to talk to you, we're going to organize behind closed doors, we're going to purposefully cut you out of tactical discussions,'" Ritz-Barr says of the unions.
It's just one of the many complications of diversity of tactics: Even the movement's activist allies can't decide what to make of it. Occupy Oakland's willingness to take direct action might appeal to frustrated unions, but another of Occupy's stipulations for getting involved was that the Labor Coalition not denounce them afterwards.
"They want us to be badass and threatening and, in a way, thuggish — you know, militant," Ritz-Barr says. And on the other hand, they're scared shitless of it. The whole point is that we're scary. That's why they come to us, right?"
There's a murkiness regarding which actions are acceptable and when they're appropriate. This makes attending Occupy Oakland's major days of action a risky endeavor. The atmosphere teeters manically between carnival and riot — as demonstrators charged yet another police line on May Day afternoon, a small group diligently pushed the sound system along at the rear of the crowd, blasting music for the confrontation. The moment encapsulated the movement's youthful, outlaw appeal: It gives participants the choice to dance or fight the cops — or both.
But not everyone in Oakland who wants to stand against the police feels they can risk doing so. For younger activists, an arrest in the name of a cause might not seem like much of an inconvenience. But those whose arrest records have added up over the course of the movement now face serious charges, and those who have sustained serious injuries at the hands of police — either here or in other cities — aren't eager to repeatedly jeopardize their health.
On May Day, the privilege of feeling free to protest is underscored by the complications surrounding the immigration rights march that Occupy Oakland joined in the afternoon. For this march, the organizers took the rare-for-anarchists step of obtaining a permit in order to keep police at bay and protect undocumented participants. Some Occupiers argued that this amounted to collaborating with the city, especially as the process involved sharing the march route with police. As the face of the Events Committee, Ritz-Barr was faced with the task of ensuring this collaboration went better than the one with the Golden Gate Bridge Labor Coalition. As Occupy Oakland prepared for the afternoon march in a park east of the city, he and others debated the best way to join the already-marching immigrant rights group, given the sizable police escort that had tailed the Occupiers from downtown.
"We need to make sure we don't get hyphy," Ritz-Barr told another Occupier. The man nodded. "I'll spread the word to other anarchists," he replied, before heading off across the park.