Unmasking the Anarchists: Occupy Oakland Returns

Photo illustration by Andrew J. Nilsen.

Just before noon, the explosive echo of a deployed tear gas canister rings through Frank Ogawa Plaza. Moments before, demonstrators — some wearing black bloc garb, others with their faces uncovered — had been munching on free cupcakes. Now they dash into the intersection to confront riot police.

It's May 1. If you had somehow missed the banners and signs, or the panicky press coverage, the protesters charging into a high noon skirmish with the cops should be an instant giveaway — this is Occupy Oakland.

Anarchist organizer Barucha Peller skirts the back of the crowd. She seems to know everyone, stopping again and again to ask, “What happened?” No one who's hanging back knows; it seems everyone who witnessed whatever initiated the tear gas is surging north, forcing a team of riot police up Broadway.

They chant: “We are not afraid.”

As Peller disappears into the action, a young woman stumbles away from it, sobbing. Her hair is wet and matted against the side of her head. A painter's mask, spattered with blood, dangles around her neck.

Matt Edwards — an Occupy Oakland medic, anarchist, and Ph.D. student who studies violence in social movements — pulls the wounded protester back into the plaza, where he props her against a wall. He's wearing a black bodysuit with a red cross on the sleeve. Beneath that is full body armor that he says will stop anything except a bullet. He yanks gauze from his backpack and peels the woman's hair back to expose the gash on her scalp.

“A cop hit me with a baton,” she cries. These Occupiers have no trouble believing that the Oakland Police Department might have violated its crowd control policy, which expressly prohibits striking any person in the head with a baton unless the officer is threatened with serious injury or death. (By press time, the OPD had not responded to SF Weekly's request for comment.)

As the girl tries to explain exactly what happened, another bang reverberates down Broadway.

“Stay together,” Edwards advises the two medics flanking him. They hoist their patient to her feet and guide her from the tangy stink of tear gas to a bus shelter on 14th Street. Edwards holds her head in his palms.

“It's superficial,” Edwards says. He can tell the severity of the injury by the color and shade of her blood, which is congealing on her skin in purplish trails. Light-colored, bright blood, he says, would indicate an arterial wound. Still, he shakes his head. “Motherfuckers.”

One of the other medics pulls gauze from his backpack; Edwards directs him to bandage her head. Her tears have slowed to a trickle. Friends of the girl — who is just 19 — crowd into the bus shelter. White tearstains ring their eyes, signs of a homemade tear gas remedy that Oakland Occupiers have shared since police first evicted their camp in October.

“She needs to go to the hospital to get checked out,” Edwards tells them. They nod and usher her away. “Here,” he offers wet wipes as a final gesture, “to clean up the blood.”

Back on Broadway, the cops have been chased off, but not before making a few arrests. The only signs of them are the granules of tempered glass littering the street, smashed from the windows of their van. Last fall, banks were the primary targets of vandalism, in keeping with Occupy's desire to mete out justice to financial institutions. On May Day, marchers briefly picketed banks, and broke several windows later that night, but the primary targets of vandalism were police vehicles and even the officers themselves, who were splattered with paint as the day wore into evening.

Today it's clear that anarchism has always thrived at the heart of Occupy, guiding many Occupiers' goals and tactics and even providing the organizational structure for local chapters. Barucha Peller points out that anarchist traditions inspired the movement's general assemblies and consensus decisions, its principles of solidarity and mutual aid, its principled lack of leadership, and its ingrained anti-capitalism.

She explains, “Anarchists know you have to cooperate and take action to organize your lives and get your needs met. What's happened in this movement is that that understanding has amplified.”

As Edwards puts it, “Occupy is the cloak covering an anarchist.”

To these two, the window-smashing that grabs headlines is far from the key tenet of Occupy Oakland's strain of anarchism. Instead, it's looking to fellow citizens to meet one's needs instead of to the government. This philosophy spurs Occupy to avoid making demands, and keeps Occupy Oakland from negotiating with the city or allowing politicians to speak at general assemblies. “[Occupiers] feel like the system has failed them, and they feel like Occupy Oakland is providing something that wouldn't otherwise be provided,” says Leo Ritz-Barr, a member of Occupy Oakland's Events Committee. It's also why an Occupier like Edwards is the first to treat injured protesters, rather than paramedics. Occupiers want to rely on each other more than any existing system or service.

Occupy Oakland has become infamous for its nonchalance toward militant protest tactics. Since the first camp sprang up in New York's Zuccotti Park last fall, most iterations of the movement, including Occupy S.F., have endorsed nonviolence; Oakland's chapter has refused to do so. (Of course, Occupy S.F.'s nonviolent pledge didn't stop one protester from allegedly lobbing a brick off a roof at police during May Day actions.) Instead, Occupy Oakland supports what's known among Occupiers as “diversity of tactics.”

Edwards explains, “Typically, 'diversity of tactics' has been code for breaking windows.” It encompasses more than just that, he says, listing: “Property destruction, militant direct action, as well as nonviolent civil disobedience and strategic direct action.”

During November's general strike, anti-capitalist marchers smashed windows and sprayed paint at major banks and Whole Foods. This was the “black bloc” — a controversial protest tactic supported under diversity of tactics, one that entails dressing in black clothing and covering faces in order to conceal identity, and moving as a unit. Most black bloc people don't actually vandalize, Occupiers say; they're just there so the vandals have a crowd to disappear into.


After a whopping 400 arrests on Jan. 28 and amid continued allegations of police misconduct, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan demanded that Occupy “stop using Oakland as its playground.” In a Chronicle op-ed, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley called its actions “violent, senseless, and criminal.” City Councilmember Ignacio De La Fuente accused Occupiers of participating in “domestic terrorism.”

Peller retorts, “If you beat people and use violence against them in order to extract a negotiation, that's terrorism.”

These black bloc tactics also upset some Occupiers, who feel that vandalism steals the spotlight from Occupy Oakland's many nonviolent marches and events — and allows critics to smear the movement. Quan was quick to attribute window-smashing and vandalism to “a very quick takeover by the organized anarchists.”

While Occupy Oakland does not deny its use of these tactics, the trouble with labeling all protesters clad in head-to-toe black as “anarchists” representative of the whole movement is that the costume by design makes it difficult to tell who is underneath it. A black outfit alone isn't proof of membership or ideology, and some Occupiers claim the most destructive black bloc instigators are actually police infiltrators hoping to discredit Occupy itself.

Peller says pointing the finger at anarchists is misplacing the blame: “No anarchists come like vampires in the middle of the night and swoop down and fuck everything up.” She doesn't denounce vandalism outright, but she says that thinking of anarchists merely in terms of broken windows is ignorant and reductive, and insists that ideology alone isn't enough to compel people to risk beatings or arrest. It takes more than anarchist inklings to inspire militancy, she believes. Instead, she says, “People revolt for survival.”

Such dire views have led some Occupiers to argue that Occupy Oakland's tactics are different because Oakland itself is different. Edwards says, “In Oakland, you have a history of poverty, crime, drugs, a nonexistent social safety net.” Peller concurs: “In Oakland, the hatred of the police and the need to protect each other and to take direct action has gotten very amplified.”

Both believe that Oakland had been experiencing the kinds of economic and social injustices that inspired the national movement since long before the recession, so patience there for less direct protest methods is already thin. Combined with a history of radical political movements, like the Black Panthers and the Berkeley student movement, as well as the riots following the killing of Oscar Grant, Oakland has powerful historical precedent for direct action — and bleeding 19-year-olds.

“It's the successor of Emma Goldman,” an Occupier jokes, as Peller strides into the little park at 19th Street and Telegraph in Oakland on the Sunday in March when planning for the May Day actions began. Occupy Oakland has been holding general assemblies here, as well as at Frank Ogawa Plaza, ever since some Occupiers were slapped with temporary restraining orders that forbade them from coming within 300 yards of City Hall.

Although Peller doesn't have Goldman's lifelong legacy as an anarchist writer and leader, she certainly knows how to get herself to the center of social and political movements. Traveling to Lebanon, Oaxaca, and Greece, she's made anarchist organizing and activism her vocation. “When the uprising got violently put down,” she says, recalling the 2006 Oaxaca uprising that occupied the city for months, “it took me years to get over it. I missed being at the barricades with the comrades.”

When she started with Occupy, she found that sense of community she'd lost in Mexico. Peller played an integral role in organizing both of Occupy Oakland's port shutdowns — actions that have been touted by activists and critics alike as the local movement's greatest successes. The first port shutdown, during last year's general strike on Nov. 2, brought an approximately 7,000-strong march into the port at sunset to blockade the night shift. Images of demonstrators dancing atop 18-wheelers became the calling card of Occupy Oakland, a sign of what havoc the movement, with its radical refusal to pledge nonviolence and its staunch anti-cop stance, was capable of wreaking against its capitalist enemies.

It set the standard that May Day was expected to exceed, or at the very least, match.

Since the introduction of International Workers' Day in the 1890s, May Day has been celebrated around the world with strikes, protests, and marches in the name of labor. (Emma Goldman's initial interest in anarchism was fueled by the Haymarket labor riots, the bloody events that inspired May Day over a century ago and helped institute the eight-hour workday.) In the last few months, the Occupy movement has staked claim to it, not only for its history, but also as the date of a spring rebirth after camps across the nation were cleared last fall, and winter cold discouraged urban camping.

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.

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.

“The second thing is look for exits.” She points out several options across the plaza, then heads briskly for the one furthest from the crowd. Before she's gotten across the grass, lines of riot police swell out of the exit she had targeted. She doubles back, heading for another gap between buildings.

A police officer's amplified voice reaches faintly across the plaza. “Did you hear that? It's a dispersal order.”

She steps out onto Broadway. The crowd isn't scattering; it's only a matter of time before the police will resort to tear gas.

Peller moves quickly away. While not dressed as black bloc, she is wearing a black windbreaker, which she now strips away, just to be safe.

A few blocks from the mayhem, she paces the sidewalk in front of a bar. She hopes to duck inside in case the cops roll by or the crowd heads in her direction. Her phone rings incessantly — calls from Occupiers asking her to advise safe routes away from the plaza. They begin to arrive on the curb, steadily building to a crowd of 15.

Squad cars arrive as Peller presents her passport to the bouncer.

He won't accept it.

“Please,” she asks.

He nods grudgingly, but still won't let her inside. “I need to search your backpack.”

Unable to move herself and her fellow Occupiers off the sidewalk, Peller makes a quick decision: Find a more welcoming place. “Walk slowly,” she commands, setting out for a second bar.

There, a bouncer recognizes her and waves her inside. To Peller, this is the most important part of organizing — the small interactions that build trust and solidarity with the community in downtown Oakland. She calls it “organizing the class.” Although Occupy Oakland is inevitably judged by its most visible evidence of success — the ability to bring crowds into the street for days of action — the real work lies in small, day-to-day organizing among locals. Ritz-Barr agrees; the big rallies, while exciting and sometimes thrilling in their danger, aren't Occupy's first priority, he says: “A one-day action — it's not changing the system.” Both are looking forward to getting back to smaller organizing after May Day ends — organizing that will hopefully instigate improvements that don't disappear when the crowd goes home and the black bloc unmasks.

A crowd of Occupiers stands on the sidewalk, smoking, tracking their comrades' actions on Twitter. A cloud of gas billows suddenly from the end of the block like a quick-moving curtain of fog. “Is that tear gas?” someone asks, tasting the air for the familiar tang. The bouncer waves everyone in and locks the door behind them. Peller peers through the window as the air outside turns white.


Music thumps from the speakers as Occupiers, anarchists, and their neighbors order another round and settle in to wait out the night.

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