Taking stock: Occupy in late January by Jeffrey Masko

With wind and rain, OWSW ushered in a new phase of Occupy with the January 20th day of actions in the financial district of San Francisco. Any claim that Occupy is dead or in decline has been proven to be premature. Only the likes of Fox news would say it’s dead, but a good case can be made for its shifting into another phase. This seems to be the third stage after the initial protests and the escalation arising from police actions. In the momentary pause of this transition, reflections on the movement in public forums, journals, and voluminous online blogs and websites have appeared along with cinematic media in analyzing the recent events.  All as organizers struggle with overt and covert repression amid the fight to keep the movement viable and visible. January 20th was advertised as a day-long nonviolent Mass Occupation on the eve of the anniversary of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. Bullet points on posters and flyers stated goals of ending corporate personhood, saving homes from evictions and foreclosures and stopping attacks on democracy, education, and livelihoods as part of their agenda. These can be subsumed under an umbrella of anti-capitalism, but it is not necessary. It would be sufficient to be anti-corruption and/or anti-corporate while remaining capitalist to achieve these goals. Much of the current configuration now rests on two galvanizing forces;one is anti-capitalism and the other is concerned with riddinggovernment/business of corruption. Of course, anti-capitalists can agree on tossing out corruption, but those who see anti-corruption as the main solution are more likely to try and reform capitalism. If these two can remain compatible, then Occupy might have a chance at being a non-dogmatic horizontal organization capable of sustaining a continuity of drive and action. The feeling of overall solidarity last Friday gives hope that the challenge to maintain communication and common purpose will be met head on.

Finding ways for those who are active in Occupy and those who support the goals and actions of the movement to join together in coalitions in order to move towards those goals and in organizing those not yet involved are the first steps.  January 20th was a significant step in setting out to accomplish a foundation to build on as more groups become involved.

The Occupy Wall St West occupation of San Francisco’s Financial District along with 55 community groups was, in part, an attempt to move Occupy back into the public eye. A bad storm had moved into the area the day before and threatened to keep numbers down; while some may have balked at the weather, the fortitude of those who braved it is a comment to the level of dedication in the movement here. It was planned as an affinity group based action with various groups organizing actions all over the downtown and financial district. A lot of street theater took place, organized and impromptu. We took over public/private spaces in banks, hotel lobbies, and financial/corporate office spaces with the purpose of shutting down business as usual. On the way home, a few other comrades and I held a teach-in and discussion on a bus stuck in traffic because of the protests,explaining to the annoyed commuters what was going on and why. We shut down Wells-Fargo for eight-plus hours; while some commentators opined that Wells paid back the bailout payments and paid them back first, we were there to draw attention to the number of foreclosures they are making on a daily basis. I think there were 15 or so actions starting at 6am and going until the mass march at 5pm at Bradley Manning Plaza(formerly known as Justin Herman Plaza) and ending in the occupation of the Cathedral Hotel.

My participation began with the Iraq Veterans Against the War action group at 50 Beale Street, home of Bechtel, at 10:30 in the morning. The vets “arrested” protesters on terrorism charges. It was small but spirited like many of the smaller actions throughout the day; the number of vets was not overwhelming, but the fact that they were there
at all gave other protesters a lift. The police did not seem to want to bother with the vets and while this action was generally peaceful,there were many other instances during the day where confrontations between protesters and police got heated.

At 5pm people from the various actions gathered together at Bradley Manning Plaza to gain numbers and listen to various speakers. Among the crowd you could hear and see the diversity of protesters; community groups, unions, students, political activists, and workers. Some came organized, others coming alone or in small groups; all were passionate and motivated to show solidarity with the goal of opposing corporate influence in politics and in our daily lives.

Things began to get more chaotic as the 5pm convergence march moved out of Bradley Plaza to 555 California to support those who had chained themselves to the doors to prevent the business from opening,six hours before.  As people poured up from the embarcadero, a bus of protesters that had been stopped by the police and was in the process of being cited (one policemen I overheard said the bus was going to be impounded) was “liberated” by the crowd by overwhelming the police and forcing a retreat. As the crowd surged forward, we were accompanied by phalanxes of riot police taking up positions at every possible target we passed (mostly ATM’s) until we arrived at the Wells Fargo to offer support for those chained to the doors.

No support was needed since the police were content to let them stay chained; it appeared that the stop was to let other elements of the protest catch up so the numbers marching up to the State building would be greater. The march met up with the group organizing the building occupation about 7pm before going on to an undisclosed vacant building.

I was at the State building with others waiting for the bulk of the march to show up when I heard grumbling about secret meetings and the sentiment that OccupySF is being co-opted by OWSW. This coupled with the inevitable claims of authenticity and the fight to the front to be the vanguard is just the surface of the discontent. Disputes over co-option have not been limited to Occupy, some union officials and rank and file have expressed reservations about working with Occupy. This is the first time in over a month I’ve talked with active OccupySF members but I’m not surprised as there is significant distance between theory and what is going on in the streets.

It is evident that many of the Occupy organizers/leaders are not immune from the individualism of capitalist culture; yet fail to recognize this in themselves. The same paternalism is true of many of the college occupy and union activists in their condescending attitudes toward the workers who are not yet organized or politically conscious. The issue of transparency is linked to organization from above, with the lack of transparency and the establishment of goals and tactics by professional activists and organizers creating divisions of labor.

I talked with several union members and some knew greater planning details than others; I got the targeted property from one well before the general mass of protesters knew. I asked how they found out and a smile was the only reply. The fact that the unions knew the targeted site of the occupation, yet withheld this information to the membership is significant, but not as significant as the fact that the police seemed to know where we were going and our plans. I am not suggesting any direct collusion or anything untoward; this information may have been obtained in a number of ways, but how the police are getting their information is a question that should be answered.

Rumors have been circulating for weeks among workers that Occupy leaders have been infiltrated and bought off by business interests to domesticate the protests. Why else, do they argue, are the protests contained to the business centers of our cities and college campuses? I was asked by an Iraq war veteran who was deported back to Mexico after serving in the marines, “Why aren’t you going to the houses and lawns of the wealthy and occupying their neighborhoods?” I couldn’t answer him.

After we marched through downtown San Francisco, snarling traffic throughout, we headed up Van Ness Avenue, a huge six-lane thoroughfare, not far from city hall at 2000 strong. We commanded the roadway chanting “Whose Street Our Street!” winding our way to the intersection of Geary and Franklin outside of the Cathedral Hotel. The hotel has been closed and is owned by California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC), who has been fighting the nurses union, the California Nurses Association, in a series of union busting tactics for years. This site is due to be demolished for a hospital that will not serve the area’s residents (among the poorest in the city), nor compensate them. Additionally it will help CPMC gut the nurse’s union by moving the number of union members working at another hospital, the unionized St Luke’s, to weaken the worker’s strength. In addition, they will not allow the union at the new hospital, instead relying on a workers’ vote that they can manage by manipulating the number of union members there by only hiring new employees who are hostile to the union.

Thus, the occupation had very real issues behind it to bring to light and was not an exercise in adventuring. Yet the action seemed unorganized and not well focused; the issues behind the action were worthwhile, as the California Nurses Association has been a strong supporter here in the bay area, but many in the crowd seemed confused as to why this particular property was chosen. The fact that the police were organized and well ahead of the protesters was confusing to the crowd as we attempted to push our way past no more than 20 officers; the crowd could have easily overcome them with simple techniques, yet no one was organized to do this. Some black bloc members tried to force their way through and when the riot police responded very conservatively with pepper spray and baton strikes, the crowd quickly backed off. Perhaps this was in holding with the notion of a non-violent day of action, perhaps it was simply fear but everyone mostly dissipated as the police asked.

At this point, many disbanded and it was during this time that the Bentley car dealership was vandalized. Some were decrying the “violence” but others were openly questioning a total commitment to non-violence. This is becoming again a talking point in the bay area as the weekly Friday night “Fuck The Police” marches are becoming more popular. I heard many comments about the disorganization of the march as it started heading around the block; the apparent lack of aim put many off and they headed for home. I did too as I had been pepper sprayed in the earlier confrontation and was now having trouble with my eyes burning.

On my way home, I saw the march circling around back to the hotel and wondered if they were making an end around. Sure enough, by the time I made it home 20 minutes later they had taken the hotel. Exactly how this occurred, I don’t know, but the website implored people to come and join the house party, but to come prepared. I inferred they meant be prepared for arrest and further confrontation with the police. Shortly before the police had cleared the building a tweet came through saying police were letting in corporate journalists (like the Fox affiliate that had traveled with us throughout the day) but not citizen journalists. This made sense since I saw the police photographer conferring with this news crew throughout the day at flashpoints. As I was on the frontline or in the crowd, I made sure to keep my face covered in defiance of dictums circulating that all those with masks should be considered agent provocateurs. Without it, I not only would have been immobilized by pepper spray, but also catalogued in the SFPD intelligence unit. I’m wondering now how many in the building were photographed and am now on a bulletin board somewhere in police headquarters. There were a visible contingent of black bloc throughout the day and in the march to the hotel and they were not turned into the police or shunned as some have suggested. Here is a collection of feeds from Ustream documenting what the MSM (mainstream media) missed or ignored that day.

While the signs that OccupySF is suffering ego pains and that other organizers and political groups are becoming trapped in ideological corners, there was and is much to be positive about. The pouting is more than made up for in the continued vitality of the movement and evolving iterations that are finding expressions outside the “authentic” Occupy.

The coordinated actions on January 20th, along with Occupy groups like Occupy 4 Prisoners, Occupy Bernal Heights (which was successful on Friday in halting a foreclosure auction of neighbor Maria Davila’sproperty) and the move to found an Occupy the Hood in San Francisco’s Hunter’s Point are trying to bring a larger inclusion of working class and people of color into the movement. Occupy 4 Prisoners is holding an action next month at San Quentin in solidarity with prisoner inside who will be holding simultaneous protests. This is part of a series of actions that are planned for the next coming months.  There is a
continued mobilization for the Longview action against EGT until they sign a contract as bay area Occupy’s attempts to forge connections between labor unions. Active work between Occupy’s everywhere and the UAW, ILWU, SEIU, UniteHere!, Teamsters and more are now laying the foundations for future actions.

A major offensive of Occupy in the Bay Area and beyond will be the attack on education in California; among these are a weeklong series in the first week of March. I am working with OccupyCCSF on some of these actions including protesting a Student Success Task Force recommendation that will have a profoundly negative effect on higher education in California by reformulating many of the policies guiding city, community and junior colleges.  OccupyEducation, a coalition of various Occupy’s, has been meeting at the Berkeley campus (at the UniteHere! Local) and is focused on California specifically.
OccupyStudentDebt is geared toward the national problem of student debt and is beginning to reach out to bay area college and university students.

Occupy is factionalizing and splitting and that has up sides and down sides. It is harmful when vanguard groups are busy elbowing each other to be in the front with those behind losing interest with all the squabbling. It is helpful when various groups work under a rubric on a variety of needs and concerns and this is what is happening to some extent here in the bay area. However, this can easily fall apart: in 2008 here in California, we had a larger student/faculty mobilization against the budget cuts that generated a lot of boots on the ground, but squandered the chance with in-fighting. It’s crucial this does not
happen again; moves from above will only destroy the faith of those below.  Maintaining autonomy and finding common ground with orgs, parties and individuals will be as important as finding new orgs,parties, and individuals.

As the initial phases of Occupy start to become more diffuse, with working groups and political factions breaking off, so has the media coverage become more spread out over a larger terrain over time.  The tactics of brownout (giving minimal coverage, often ridiculing and/or reducing the complexity of the event) or blackout (no, or practically invisible coverage) are used in mainstream media often to reorder the impact of the event.

With the hard work of organizing discontent and frustration among the underclasses ahead, the role of cultural production of class-consciousness becomes central. Media, especially visual media, is playing a major role in spotlighting particular aspects of the Occupy movement. How the media frames the story, whose story is told and for what reason are not the only questions; how the media can be used to support protest, what is the best way for media scholars to educate the public on the issues and what is the role of the citizen journalist and filmmaker are questions coming to the forefront. How
these questions have been framed, thus how they can be answered has historically been the strength of the right with nearly the whole of media industry might behind them. The left has not challenged this dominance since the sixties; this error cannot be repeated.

Media scholars have not been as visible as they need to be in helping construct a clear analysis of the issues and concerns. They need to become more involved in projects like OccupyHistory that was started by historians to offer resources to Occupy movements to provide a history of protest; this includes a film and media resource. Help on this and similar projects will not only help those active in the movement, but also involve more in becoming active.

Several articles about Friday’s actions illustrate how the media is a major frontline of the battle to define Occupy. First, the view of Occupy that much of middle America is getting is typified in a Spokane (Washington State) Conservative Examiner post dated January 23, 2012 and titled “Occupy Wall Street protesters steal from one church, urinate on cross in another”. Never mind that this has nothing to do with anything that happened in San Francisco, this item pops up third when you search Occupy Wall St West. If you are somehow unsure of the underlying message, check the other articles suggested by Spokane’s Joe Newby:
 · Lawlessness escalates at ‘Occupy’ protests as poll says 31% advocate violence
· From New York to LA, Occupy protests devolving into anarchy and violence
· Video shows Occupy Seattle protester defecating on public sidewalk
· Video shows Occupy Seattle protesters hurling bricks, flares at police
· The legacy of the Occupy protests: Rape, anarchy and violence

This is not unexpected, although it is a little over the top; now let’s see how Salon does it. In a post titled, “Occupy San Francisco gets down to business: After a brief hibernation, a refocused movement takes aim at corporate America”, Gary Kayima deftly positions Salon as sympathetic while reinforcing a view of Occupy as contained and business-like, thus negating any real structural critiques. This is an example of how the liberal press is complicit in trying to defuse any meaningful protest into two-party politics and needs challenged as much as any right-wing attack.

This is done by representing Occupy as maturing by dint of explicit demands and goals; never mind that these demands and goals were implicitly understood by those who position themselves as anti-capitalist. Kayima starts out by listing demands and goals then further legitimizes them by referring to “organizers” identified by MSM as authoritative; in this case it’s David Solnit, brother of Rebecca Solnit. He is referred to in the article (and others) much more than anyone else, leading the reader to believe he is the official voice of the movement; add to this fact that Rebecca is known for her advocacy of non-violent action and condemnation of any black bloc tactics and you see why David gets the limelight.

The article focus on non-violence and what they portray as an essentially passive character to a movement that has now that transitioned into a legitimate entity is accomplished by a series of references. First, the police are polite, yet under control” A policeman came up and politely informed them they were creating a public health risk and would be arrested if they didn’t leave.”  The crowd was pictured as mostly peaceful with a carnival-like atmosphere: “two gentle souls holding a big black banner that read, “Buddhist Peace and Justice League: May All Beings Be Happy and Secure”. Little time was given to ugly scenes. Even arrests were polite and orderly; no need for Middle America or their liberal cousins to worry here, “as protesters on the north side of the building were arrested, frisked and loaded into a paddy wagon”.  And when the confrontational aspects were discussed, the paternalism shone through; after witnessing protesters verbally assaulting riot police Gary wondered, “Why no one told them to can the Black Panther rhetoric?”  Whose duty was it to tell us what to say? And if there were any organization Occupy should be emulating, it should be the Panthers; I think Occupy could learn much about how to proceed by looking at the BPP in a very detailed way down to the cointelpro (FBI counter-intelligence programme) counteroffensive that scuttled their revolutionary project.

And what rhetoric should be used? Very obviously that of Gene Sharp, who is hyperlinked in the article, further evidence of the total reliance on non-violence civil disobedience. David Solnit is quoted in the article as saying that they have not exhausted all of Sharp’s methods yet. I wonder when they will get to the skywriting? It is a disservice to everyone in the movement who are willing to use whatever works to support the working classes to limit the discussion to Gene Sharp and his philosophy.

Non-violence is stressed in these articles as a way to reinforce the reform position; it is not capital, but the acts of a few unscrupulous individuals. Gary walks up to an older man who he describes as “definitely not the usual Occupy protester” who just happens to be the former head of the Pacific Stock Exchange, Warren Langley. He tells how he heard of the movement from Ben Cohen of Ben and Jerry’s (for real, this is a selling point!) and assures us the folks at Goldman Sachs are like the rest of us: just searching for answers and direction. Some may have lost their way, but they are not greedy or exploitive, merely mislead. The fact that Langley spoke at the Goldman Sachs action is not mentioned and it is implied that he was just another anonymous protester, yet he was profiled in other articles done on the march. When Kayima speaks of the nurses’ opposition to CPMC, it is framed as a response to the broken system of health care, neglecting to mention the union battles they are having with the company. Resorting to tactics that portray the protesters as composed of good capitalists; the article veers away from Occupy rejection of politics as usual to point the way.  After saluting the smart white folks leading the way, he tells us that Occupy “seems certain to play a role in the national discourse not just during this election season, but for a long time,” situating the protest as a tool in upcoming elections.

I will finish by pointing out that I am not speaking for the various Occupy sections in the bay area, not even those I am currently involved with like OccupyCCSF. I know that other Occupy’s are vital and growing; national occupy movements that connect on Internet platforms are providing more even space for growth. But I am concerned that the space for those not involved with the power struggles will be overshadowed and excluded by the revolutionary fetish of many organizers and activists. Whether or not Occupy fails or how it transforms itself will play a major role as wider protests become more common as the house of cards begins to fall. The question is not if there will be protests, but what they will look like. The Tea Party and Occupy are only the beginning of a new round of discontent in the U.S.

This entry was posted in Protest and mobilisation, The crisis beyond the Hexagon, The politics of crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

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