By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Erin Sherbert
By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
Ritz-Barr knows Occupy Oakland needs its allies. When the march approached, he directed Occupy Oakland into the street to greet it, chanting "Sí se puede!" The assembled Occupiers formed human walls on either side of the street, creating a passage for the march to proceed through to the park, providing symbolic, if not entirely practical, protection from the police.
Occupy Oakland is rife with the belief — idealistic as it may seem — that the movement can instigate systemic change. But Occupiers are not willing to wait out the usual within-the-system methods. City leaders like Quan, O'Malley, and De La Fuente are perceived as the puppets of the 1 percent rather than voices of the people.
And so, in the impatience for change, there's tacit acceptance of the black bloc.
Occupiers explain the choice to smash windows in a variety of ways. One woman, who declined to give her name, participated in the black bloc on Nov. 2, and declared that her actions were intended to "send a message."
"You can read all the texts that Ghandi was reading, that King was reading, and you can see they're not talking about violence against property," she said, nodding to her thick wooden dowel with a black flag knotted to the top, the weapon of choice for black bloc-style window-smashing during November's general strike. Instead, she interpreted the texts as "talking about violence of the soul, violence of the spirit, and violence against humanity," crimes that she thinks can't be committed against a window.
Edwards cites the civil rights and Indian nationalist movements. "There's this constant battle to reach the moral high ground. That's typically the nonviolent strategy." It's a strategy he doesn't find effective. "The state, either the United States or the British government, chose to negotiate with the pacifists as opposed to face the consequences of a prolonged struggle against the militants. And they negotiated for reforms that weren't that awesome." His logic is that Occupy Oakland's militancy will generate change by driving leaders to the negotiation table.
For example, the window-smashing and Dumpster-burning of Nov. 2 was used as justification for a heavy-handed police reaction with tear gas, flash-bang grenades, and rubber bullets. Outrage at this nudged the Oakland Police Department closer to being placed under federal receivership, and led to reform of its crowd-control policy.
It's not the widespread, systemic change Occupiers hope for, and it's not holding financial institutions accountable, but it represents a small change nevertheless.
However, the militancy of Occupiers and police alike drove many supporters away from the movement, which Ritz-Barr acknowledges is a problem, especially since Occupy Oakland is judged by its ability to attract large numbers to its days of action. "On the eve of our greatest victory, there were clouds of tear gas. And these fair-weather activists all fucking fled after that."
In November, the black bloc was a quick costume change: a black bandanna an Occupier tied around his or her face while vandalism was committed, and removed soon after. On May Day, all-black clothes and masks were worn throughout the day, whether the protesters were on an anti-capitalist march or lounging in the shade at the plaza. This is something of a reversal. Putting on black masks might disguise protesters' identities, but it also makes them less hidden; they become a well-recognized symbol of destruction to fellow protesters, media, and police.
The intentions for suiting up in black appear to have changed as well. As opposed to the vandalism of November's anti-capitalist march, May Day's morning stroll didn't leave a trail of broken glass behind — just a line of watchful riot police. The emphasis on May Day seemed to be on concealing identity, especially as many Occupiers fret about one particular aspect of the Oakland Police Department's crowd-control reforms. Occupiers refer to it as "snatch and grab," a new policy that sends small, mobile teams of officers into crowds to extract specific troublesome protesters, rather than kettling large groups, as the department has done in the past.
"This is the problem with organizing," Ritz-Barr says. "You can't be on the front line without risking getting snatched." During the noon melee following the march, a masked man approached Edwards, asking for duct tape; the heel of his boot had come loose. "Sorry," Edwards responded, "I only have red tape. You don't want that." Anything that will make a protester stand out has become cause for concern, making the unifying aspect of black bloc appealing.
On May Day, that becomes especially clear as the light fades, the crowd thins, and the morning's police confrontation replays. Once again, something in the intersection triggers the remaining demonstrators to run toward police — a difference between Oakland and San Francisco, where demonstrators scattered before police lines during January protests.
The crowd is eager to take on the cops, but Peller isn't. Her experiences with foreign police have made her especially skittish; she expects to be targeted for her organizational role in the movement, and fears the injuries she might sustain in an arrest. As the crowd rushes away, she says, "The first thing you do is look behind you." Sure enough, three police officers are just yards away, behind her, strapping on their riot helmets.