“It’s Okay to Take Off Your Gas Mask”–Occupy Oakland: Are We Being Childish?
WEEKEND EDITION FEBRUARY 3-5, 2012
by OSHA NEUMANN
“The Bay Area Occupy Movement has got to stop using Oakland as their playground,” said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, speaking at a press conference Saturday evening after a day of demonstrations called by Occupy Oakland that saw approximately 400 arrests, multiple injuries, and numerous confrontations with police. She ticked off the damage that had been done when a group of protesters broke into City Hall, overturning a scale model of the building, vandalizing a children’s art exhibit, and burning an American flag. The next day in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, she returned to her talking point: “It’s like a tantrum . . . They’re treating us like a playground.”
For the first time since October when the Oakland police violently evicted the occupation from Frank Ogawa Plaza after renaming it in honor of Oscar Grant, Mayor Quan, her protesting days behind her, looked genuinely comfortable in the role of champion of law and order. It was as if by trashing City Hall, Occupy had done her a favor. She was the adult, genuinely concerned with the well-being of the city. We were children, playing childish games, oblivious to the serious real-world consequences of our actions.
Occupy’s response to the mayor’s scolding was predictable. On KPFA the next day, Marie, speaking as a representative of the movement, was unapologetic. “The war in the streets is a visible manifestation of the invisible war on the poor . . . the violence of the capitalist system.” In a statement put out by the Occupy Oakland media committee, Cathy Jones, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, is quoted as saying: “Never have I felt so helpless and enraged as I do tonight. These kids are heroes, and the rest of the country needs to open its collective eyes and grab what remains of its civil rights, because they are evaporating, quickly.” She agrees with Mayor Quan that those of us who were in the forefront in the confronting the police were “kids,” but for her they were “heroic.” For Mayor Quan they were just bratty.
Power always represents itself as adult, rationale and in control. The socially sanctioned definition of what it is to be adult includes the ability to be compliant with the self-repression required of an obedient and productive member of society. Since those of us in opposition have no desire to be obedient and less to be productive cogs in the machine, it’s no wonder we fall into the role of defiant children.
It may be inevitable that in the confrontation between radical movements and the systems they oppose there are echoes of the conflict between child and adult. We who march in the streets in defiance of the orders of the police have legitimate reason to rage against the system. It in no way negates the legitimacy of that rage to say that it may also have an “infantile” component.
Occupy is not a monolith. On Saturday within the motley of demonstrators one group stood out. They were the “kids” with the black bandannas and hoodies. Some carried makeshift shields constructed from segments of plastic trash cans painted black with peace signs spray-painted in white on the front. Some carried impressive movable barricades composed of rectangular sheets of strong corrugated steel, screwed to wooden frames to which handles had been attached so that three or four people could hunker behind them and push them into lines of police. It was this group that was in the forefront in the attempt to pull down the chain-link fence around the Kaiser Convention Center. A takeover of that center had been announced as the goal of the demonstration. Thwarted in that effort, the group got into a confrontation with a line of police blocking Oak Street south of the intersection with 12th. This black block of anarchist youth tends to identify with insurrectionist anarchism. They are our militants who will be the first to challenge the police, and who proudly proclaim their disrespect for property rights. I imagine that for them the rest of us appear as somewhat compromised and a bit timid, for we are unwilling to go as far as they in our commitment to the revolution. Here something of the dynamic between child and adult reemerges as a political division within the movement. We who do not come to demonstrations dressed in black become the model of a not quite legitimate “maturity;” the purest revolutionary energies are represented by those who reject this maturity, as a fraud — the heroic kids.
Jean Quan’s insinuates that we act like children. I say “we”, because the black bloc is part of us; we cannot disown them. Infuriating as her charge may be, I think it contains something worth looking at. Her version of being grown-up is compromised. If to be a grownup means to live forever within the confines of the system, let us all be Peter Pans. But in our righteous rejection of her version of adulthood there lies a danger. The danger is that without being aware of it, we are unable truly to imagine winning; that we remain heroic “kids,” endlessly reenacting a drama in which we are abused by the authorities. (It might be worthwhile looking at whether we get a masochistic pleasure in being fucked over by them.)
At 7:37 PM on Saturday, I was relaxing at home when I got a text message from the Occupy Oakland alert system: “People have broken into City Hall. Standoff with police. Support needed.” I got into my car and drove downtown. By the time I arrived, the police had surrounded the building. I walked in an unguarded side door and caught a glimpse of a hallway strewn with overturned wastebaskets before a squad of police arrived and demanded that I leave.
Outside in the plaza people were milling about. I overheard someone say that the tires of a Channel 5 television truck had been slashed and an unsuccessful effort had been made to pull the camera from the shoulder of a cameraman. An ambulance pulled up on 12th St., its lights flashing. Photographers swarmed around it as paramedics wheeled up a gurney and loaded an injured person into the back. I heard someone shout, “This is what the police did.” A newspaper the next day reported that the person on the gurney was a pregnant woman who’d been jabbed in the spleen by the police. I hope she does not lose her spleen. I hope she does not lose her child. If we are playing games, they are dangerous games.
After the ambulance left, a woman dressed in black took a bullhorn, stood at the top of the steps at the edge of the plaza and shouted: “Mike check. Who wants to go on a Fuck the Police March?” A good part of the crowd ignored her, but a number of fists shot into the air, and there were shouts of approval. A group of about150 people started to move into the intersection at 14th and Telegraph.
It is at this point that my attention was drawn to a boy who walked out into the street to join the group assembling for the march. He looked to be between eight and ten years old. His wore a gas mask that completely concealed his face and a metal helmet. From his belt hung a pair of leather gloves. The gas mask was odd, because there was only one police officer in the area and he was sitting nonchalantly on his motorcycle. None of the other demonstrators were wearing gas masks. The boy didn’t swagger, nor did he show any signs of timidity. He was holding a small digital camera and taking photographs. I looked around to see whether there was an adult with him, but he appeared to be completely alone. What was he doing there? Where were his parents? Why was nobody paying any attention to him?
My old man’s heart went out to that boy. I was tired after marching, around half a day. I felt a bit intimidated by the unwillingness I sensed in the boy’s manner to be treated as a child. The Fuck the Police march was about to take off. I didn’t do what I wanted to do — go over and talk to him. He was a child, trying to act like an adult, and in many ways pulling it off, while the adults around him were playing their dangerous games in the playground of the revolution.
Later, when I got home, I had another thought, tangentially related in my mind to the problem posed for me by the little boy and that big girl, Jean Quan, with her playground analogy. We need to be a movement that, while remaining militant, demonstrates clearly it has overcome its self absorption, and can reach out to those who have lived a lot of life, suffered and managed against all odds to preserve some dignity, who have remained afloat in a sea of troubles, who care for the young, the old and the sick, for neighbors families and friends. On Saturday, I looked around as we marched through the streets. We were, a few gray hairs excepted, overwhelmingly young. We were primarily, though by no means exclusively white. We did not look much like a cross-section of the blighted neighborhoods of Oakland where an ever present struggle is taking place against poverty and hopelessness, where foreclosed houses stand empty, and the unemployed idle on the corner under the watchful eye of the police.
I believe we need to be a movement against repression that can be self regulating. We need a movement that is capable at the same time of proclaiming “Freedom now,” and “Freedom not quite yet.” In its best moments the Occupy movement has been that. But sometimes it has been unable to maintain the balance. Saturday was one of the days when things got out of whack.
How could it have been different? The goal of taking over the Kaiser Center for community use was admirable, even brilliant, but in the end the point of what was billed as “Move-in day” got lost in meaningless rumbles with the police and the trashing of City Hall. (A note of caution here: Since no was arrested in the City Hall trashing, we cannot rule out that it was the work of agents provocateurs. Be that as it may, the failure to obtain our objective and to control the meaning of our actions cannot be blamed on infiltrators.) What if, instead of a group within Occupy picking a target and then calling for a day of action, we had initiated a campaign to make that building available for community use? We could have gone out into the neighborhoods, held meetings, where we would discuss whether people liked the idea of occupying the building and what they would like to see happen in the space. With our numbers swelled and diversified by those we had organized, we could make demands to the mayor and the city council in the name of the people. We could legitimately say our movement represented the 99%. Those whom we had been organized would speak eloquently. If we succeeded and were given the space for the community, it would be a great victory. If, as is more likely, our eloquence fell on deaf ears, thenwe could have our day of action; we would bring thousands into the streets, we would march on the Center, we would not have to conceal the location of our target till the last moment. Perhaps during the night a clandestine group would have broken into the building. We would ring the building in great numbers. Now would be the time for militancy, for tearing down fences, for breaking through police lines, as well as perhaps for nonviolent sit-ins.
This scenario might not be acceptable to insurrectionist anarchists who do not wish to make any demands on government. No doubt, it is open to criticism. I admit it’s an example of backstreet movement driving. But I think if we could more effectively combine organizing and militancy it would be much more difficult to make the case that we were treating Oakland like our playground. Those who really treat this country like their playground are the 1%. And somewhere in the mix of organizing and action that I imagine, I see a place for that little boy. I see a movement that would look after him, and gently tell him “It’s okay to take off your gas mask.” Come with us.
Osha Neumann is the author of Up Against the Wall MotherF**ker: a Memoir of the 60s with Notes for Next Time. He is a lawyer in Berkeley California who specializes in the civil rights of people who are homeless.