The turn to violent adventurism by a group of self-identified anarchists in Oakland presents a challenge to the Occupy movement. According to the Oakland Tribune, an empty building which had been a homeless shelter was broken into by a group of about 100 protesters early on Thursday morning, following Wednesday’s successful general strike, who hung a banner that said “Occupy Everything.” “The taken-over building that formerly housed the Traveler’s Aid Society was foreclosed upon, according to the flier distributed by protesters. ‘Since then, the space sat vacant, as though it were disposable to those with the keys,’ the flier reads. ‘To us this space is invaluable. We are reclaiming it for the people. It is now open for our use’.”
The Guardian gives a detailed description of the scene: “Scores of protesters entered the building as loud music was played downstairs, some climbing onto the roof while others assessed the internet capabilities. By midnight a street party was in full swing outside the fresh property – but the hi-jinks were to be short-lived. Sporadic reports of a growing police presence had been sweeping through the crowd, and finally about 200 police gathered at 19th Street and Broadway in full riot gear, walking slowly down to protesters. Some demonstrators, keen to keep hold of their new occupation, had created a barricade of wooden pallets and rubbish bins at the corner of 16th Street and Broadway, and as police approached these were set alight. Police stopped around 100m away before advancing again, with some protesters walking forward to meet them. Officers then deployed teargas and about three explosive devices, which were described by some present as flashbang grenades.”
It’s important to distinguish who is who in this account. Occupy Oakland had in fact dealt with many anarchist provocations during the day and had kept the marches orderly and peaceful. “Throughout Wednesday, members of the crowd had attempted to redirect and dissuade those self-described anarchists. When they broke windows and defaced several banks with graffiti, some Occupy Oakland protesters returned to scrub the walls of a Wells Fargo bank branch. Another placed a sign on the shattered window of a Chase bank branch that read, ‘We are better than this’.”
The Occupy movement is using its own security teams to prevent incidents getting out of control: BagNews analyzes a video clip from the day’s events where “a group of protesters approach a Bank of America where they begin to violently bang on the window. The aggression is too much for the first Occupy security guy to handle, but very quickly and sure-handedly, a second Occupy security guy (the one with the green hat) steps in and takes control. In a second, these two guys, along with a woman, apparently affiliated with a local union, are calmly protecting the bank, the situation de-escalating so fast that, in the next instant, we see a girl standing where the rabble-rousers were eating a popsicle as the demonstrators rejoin the march.”
It was only in the small hours of the morning following the main demonstrations that the anarchist group occupied the building and set the barricade on fire, which allowed police to retaliate with “non-lethal” force without risking the public reaction which had led to the success of the general strike during the day. The police succeeded in clearing the building by 2:00 a.m., arresting dozens of protesters, including non-violent protesters who had been caught up in the assault. People involved with the Occupy movement told the Oakland Tribune they were “very sad and kind of angry” that this had happened. Graffiti near to stores which had had windows shattered said “This act of vandalism was not authorized by the general assembly. Peaceful protest.”
So far, nonviolent protest has attracted mass public support for the Occupy movement, which has stymied attempts to close the occupations down by force. That is why it is important to take into account that the OWS movement has gained significant political victories in Albany, where police officials refused to enforce a curfew, and Oakland where there is a split between the police and the mayor. The main occupation has survived in Zuccotti Park partly because local officials pressured the owners to cancel the planned “clean-up” of the park.
The anarchists don’t recognize these gains because they consider that the success of Occupy Wall Street stems solely from its own actions in confronting state forces. They ignore altogether the political influence of public support, in effect substituting their own actions for the mass movement. They believe that direct confrontation of state forces is revolutionary. However, the experience of Thursday morning’s events in Oakland shows that, far from resulting in revolution, the arrogance of their actions strengthens the hand of the state.
The philosophy of anarchism rejects any kind of external authority: any form of state is equivalent to a violent suppression of the individual. That makes it impossible for them to distinguish between different types of state, between a police-military dictatorship and a democratic state. Whatever changes have taken place in America since 9/11, the state’s legitimacy is still based on democracy – otherwise the one percent wouldn’t bother to spend their resources pushing through legislation that favors them. It makes a difference how the state distributes resources within society.
In New York, there is pressure to shut down the main occupation, using as political cover the infiltration of mentally-disturbed homeless people into the encampment, which police are said to be encouraging. On Thursday a front-page editorial in the New York Post called on the mayor to evict the OWS camp, claiming it had been “hijacked by crazies and criminals.” The anarchists in Oakland are giving similar political cover to the police, enabling them to take repressive actions against the occupation.
True revolutionary practice consists in first establishing the actual position of social forces engaged in struggle, judging their relative strengths at a given time, and taking advantage of every opportunity available in a democracy to carry out political activity oriented to the majority of Americans. Divisions in the state, radicalization of army veterans, even the support of elected representatives presents many such opportunities. The success of every action must be judged in terms of how far it strengthens and advances the mass movement.