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Some Notes on Occupy Oakland and the Police

February 1, 2012


Just a quick look into the recent throng of Occupy protests is enough to conclude that Occupy Oakland has been an interesting outlier, if not prophet, into what is plausibly going to appear in the very near political terrain for other sites of struggle. Augmenting this conclusion is a demonstrable local history that, due to flagrant police abuse that spans across decades and a longstanding economic hemorrhaging of the local area, has allowed for a semblance of radical agency to appear. But, as history often shown, these moments of opportunity leave us just as quickly as they come. What’s important are the strategic determinations that are made in the moment: those brief passages of time that soar by leaving no traces outside of the decisions of political agents. It is within this realm that Occupy Oakland has accelerated, as the political decisions made have aided in the elucidation of antagonisms that, within other Occupy sites, are typically more incoherent and less defined. As we we have seen with Occupy Oakland’s unsuccessful move-in that occurred this past weekend (Jan. 28th), this does not mean that Occupy Oakland has effectively sealed its fate. However, for other regions of struggle whose material world will most likely find itself in a situation similar to that of Oakland (ie ongoing economic depravity coupled with an increase in police repression) the strategic decisions are important to investigate, as they contain important insights for other regions of struggle. Of those decisions, most decisive has proved to be Occupy Oakland’s antagonistic positioning towards the police–a relation that has proved to be foundational for it’s ongoing success. Without it, tomorrow’s large scale take over would certainly not have materialized.

Since Occupy Oakland’s inception, it was decided that law enforcement officers, along with anyone who had actively worked with them, would not be allowed within the space. The legitimization for this was clear: that contrary to the PR campaigns espoused by police organizations, the cops had actually made for spaces to be less safe. For Oakland, this came as no real revelation. Such was particularly clear in the aftermath of the execution of Oscar Grant by BART police officers and it’s subsequent explosion into social unrest. Police presence, with their long standing history of racial, gender, and class discrimination were correctly viewed as a deterrent for those aforementioned subjectivities.

Largest at stake, then, was the potential for a highly racialized class-based split between the diffuse compositions of what now makes up Occupy Oakland. The Occupy movement in general has benefited from the degeneration of formerly white, middle class individuals who, prior to 2008, would not have associated themselves with any sort of economic criticism. Living the “good life” prior to the economic meltdown, their rationality to police has been marked with a tenuous yet ongoing affinity. As the arbiters of class privilege, the cops acted as a buffer between their middle class lives, and the others who, as Marx had called them, were among the “lumpen” or down and out sector of the working class.

In the end, the anti-police policy was successful in that it allowed for a certain radicalization to occur within the camp. The atypical white-middle class-liberal triad that has plagued American politics for quite some time was effectively destabilized and continually challenged by those who had much more experience with oppositional forces such as the police. Simultaneously, the confrontational positioning of the camp towards the police allowed for a playing out of those very antagonisms that are perhaps difficult to see from the perspective of those whom had previously been thickly shielded by class privilege. The result was an accelerated radicalization of those who are often among the most reactionary, as the liberal myth of civil society quickly found itself entirely unassailable when the police were pushed to their structural limits.

The strategic determination to exclude police from the space of the plaza was essentially a decision that made lucid the antagonism that exists between state power and a social movement whose focus rests on economic inequalities that cannot, and will not, be ameliorated within capitalist social relations. With this principal instituted, every interaction with police became transformed from an everyday interaction, indeed a ritualized affair in Oakland, into a highly politicized one. The result of this was clear: that police could no longer function as they typically might have, and their subsequent hassling of anyone inside or near the camp was deemed as unacceptable. Sorely lacking within other occupy sites was just this fact, as scores of individuals succumbed to the seductive liberal logic of equating the police as those who exist within their own ranks.

It remains to be said that without this principal, the current movement towards the illegal taking over of abandoned buildings would continue as it has now. Legality, the police, and, more seductively, the representative political apparatus, find themselves more integrated into capitalist social relations than ever before. There are many entryways into bringing out this reality, and we’ve seen it happening on an automatic basis in regards to foreclosures and unemployment. Silent, however, are those instances where due to systemic economic problems also come new strategic possibilities, and perhaps we have just arrived at yet another–the attack on private property relations, and thus the further exposure of the role of the police in its maintenance.

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