Occupy Oakland General Assembly debates violent “black bloc” tactics
on November 10, 2011
Amid rumors circulating of a police raid later that night, several hundred people packed the steps and floor of Frank Ogawa Plaza on Wednesday evening for an Occupy Oakland General Assembly meeting. During the four-hour meeting, protesters voted to march in solidarity with Egyptian activists this Saturday and considered whether to endorse or disavow violent “black bloc” tactics within the ongoing protests.
About 700 people were present, many holding candles in paper cups that illuminated the amphitheater. While the solidarity march was approved with over 90 percent of the vote, debates over so-called black bloc tactics were prolonged and heated.
“Violence and vandalism only leads to one thing,” one middle-aged protester with long hair said from the stage during the “pro and con” portion of the meeting. “They escalate, we escalate, and this thing does not end well.”
“We can’t start developing ways to police people’s behavior,” said another man from the stage.
Widely associated with anarchist protesters, black bloc is a tactic originating in Germany and popularized in the US in which protesters wear all black clothing, hoods and masks to conceal their faces, making themselves difficult to distinguish by police and invoking a sense of solidarity among participants.
During the General Strike on Nov. 2—which culminated in a march to the Port of Oakland—some protesters, dressed in black and wearing masks, vandalized businesses, especially banks, in downtown Oakland and nearby neighborhoods.
“We urge protesters using black bloc tactics to use appropriate restraint and discipline,” said the man who introduced the proposal. “If our intent is to get to know the community, breaking windows is probably not a good way to do that.”
Discussion of violence and tactics took on an added sense of urgency during the meeting, as rumors circulated that police would launch a raid on the encampment that night. The rumors were bolstered by events during the day, including a raucous press conference in the afternoon, at which four city councilmembers expressed their desire to see the Occupy encampment evicted immediately, and a large-scale “Occupy Cal” demonstration at UC Berkeley, which culminated in a confrontation with UC police, Oakland police, and officers from the Alameda County Sheriff dressed in riot gear.
In the afternoon, the San Francisco Chronicle also reported that Oakland Police had canceled all training events for the week. An unnamed source within the department was quoted in the story, saying that the schedule change was a “pretty good indication” that police were planning to raid the camp within the week.
In a statement from councilmembers Ignacio De La Fuente (District 5), Desley Brooks (District 6) and Libby Schaaf (District 4) and Council President Harry Reid (District 7), the councilmembers expressed extreme impatience with the Occupy protesters. Listed among their grievances was a failure on part of the protesters to control outbreaks of violence during recent demonstrations, as well the camp’s drain on local business.
Underscoring the frustration with the protesters themselves was the business community’s ongoing discussion with the city government to deal with the encampment effectively.
In an interview on Wednesday about the eviction of camp residents on October 25, Paul Junge, Public Policy Director for the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, said, “The city did a very effective job of clearing the park.” But since then, he said, the chamber has received “mixed messages” from the city, when Quan expressed her intolerance for the camp but allowed it to re-establish itself anyway
Schaaf said the camp had violated any trust the city government might have had in them. “This camp has been here for a month now,” she said in a phone interview with Oakland North following the press conference. “The mayor has given the camp ample opportunity to prove that it can be responsible, and it has failed.”
The statement was presented at the Lake Merritt press conference in the afternoon, but the event quickly devolved into a protest itself, with audience members yelling phrases referencing “the 99 percent” over the speakers and eventually crowding the podium
Both Schaaf and Junge said the behavior of the crowd at Wednesday’s press conference was indicative of the protesters’ unwillingness to cooperate with the city.
“What happened today did not give me any reason to believe that these people there today—and again, I don’t think they represent the majority—that those people do or say anything that has the interests of the 99 percent at heart,” Schaaf said.
As the press conference was wrapping up, students were gathering at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus to protest recent fee hikes. By late afternoon, police were on the plaza while three helicopters hovered above the campus.
Communications were exchanged between Occupy Oakland organizers and Occupy Berkeley throughout the General Assembly meeting via twitter and in person. An Occupy Cal spokesperson informed the General Assembly at around 9 p.m. that at least five students had been arrested and taken into police custody, and that the protesting students had reclaimed their encampment on a grassy space bordering Sproul Plaza.
The spokesperson urged Occupy Oakland protesters to bolster the ranks of the students, and bring tents and supplies if they were able.
The General Assembly also voted to approve a march in solidarity with Egyptian activists protesting military trials of civilians in Egypt, some of whom had earlier marched in solidarity with Occupy Oakland protesters after the October 25 raid. The march to the Ronald V. Dellums Federal Building in downtown Oakland and a detention center will take place on Saturday, November 12.
While that proposal passed with little debate, the ambiguous proposal on dealing effectively with the black bloc contingent within the protesters took much more time to be decided
As has been the case at other General Assemblies, raising the issue of violence as a method of protest invited an array of comment from people on the nature of violence itself, with many arguing that poverty or capitalism were forms of violence.
But some questioned whether it would be possible to regulate or isolate the black bloc element at all.
“Even if the General Assembly disavowed black bloc tactics, who’s to say individuals wouldn’t employ them anyway, or that the media wouldn’t misrepresent Occupy anyway?” asked one general assembly participant.
Other participants added that because of Occupy Oakland’s officially leaderless and inclusive organizational structure, it could not prevent various factions or groups from acting autonomously.
“If this is going to be a populist movement, we have to be inclusive of everybody,” one participant said.
Text and reporting by Alex Park, Byrhonda Lyons and Megan Molteni.
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