Alum Describes Chaos at Occupy Oakland

Ben Master

The massive day of action organized by Occupy Oakland on Nov. 2 both inspired and troubled me. As has been the case with most of my involvement with the Occupation, I left in awe of Oakland’s persistent and passionate mobilization against economic injustice. At the same time, I was dismayed by incidents of anti-worker and needlessly violent behavior. The black-masked radicals who perpetrated these actions endanger our movement by directing the public attention toward sensationalist stories about reckless kids, instead of the unifying theme of economic equality. If we do not develop an organizational structure that can help contain these elements, our claim to represent the 99 percent will lose credibility and our message will be obscured.

Wednesday’s actions started off with a bang. By 9 a.m., art, music and delicious food filled Oscar Grant Plaza. Every couple of hours, impressive crowds convened at 14th and Broadway before taking off for a march on a downtown bank or a corporation like Whole Foods, which promised to fire any workers who decided to strike on Wednesday. Members of the Service Employees International Union and community groups volunteered to patrol some of the early bank actions. These makeshift security officers guarded ATM machines and large glass windows, which have become common targets of destructive black-masked youths. Even this tiny bit of organization limited the acts of vandalism that hijacked later events.

A total lack of organization was on full display at the ports in the early evening. Nobody bothered to explain what we should actually do once we reached the ports, so the motley crowds had no idea which entrances and exits were imperative to block. Due to the lack of communication, self-styled radicals took things into their own hands. Some protesters apparently believed that blocking rank and file workers from returning home at the end of their shifts somehow struck a blow against capitalism, even though it would have no impact on our stated goal of shutting down port commerce.

At one intersection, I witnessed obdurate protesters drive two female truck drivers to tears by ignoring their repeated pleas to pass so they could pick up their kids. Fellow protesters could not talk sense into these rebels without a cause. We begged them to let these working people — supposedly our allies in the 99 percent — go home, but were met only by indignation. “Which side are you on?” one asked me, as if I had to choose between protesters and workers. “These people should have respected the strike,” said another, a comment that would surely offend the large majority of Oaklanders who went to work on Wednesday, the people we were claiming to represent. One gentleman on a bike pantomimed wiping away tears with a handkerchief to mock the frustrated workers.

I found the antipathy toward these workers deeply disheartening. And what made the problem even worse was the lack of any kind of legitimate leadership that could censure these misguided protesters. In other actions during the day, anarchists broke windows, sprayed graffiti, splattered paint and started fires in the street without any fear of punishment from the Occupy movement. Many of us condemned these actions to the press, but there is no organizational structure that can weed out these miscreants and prevent destruction in the future. The nearly religious emphasis on keeping the movement leaderless signals to the most radical protesters that they can act with impunity.

Disruption for the sake of disruption continued into the early morning on Thursday as protesters scuffled with arriving truck drivers and longshoremen at the ports. With little dialogue between the Occupiers and leaders of the East Bay labor movement, it is no surprise that union members, most of whom probably support our cause, are responding with rage. The disconnect between some Occupiers and “middle America” is reminiscent of radicals in the 1960s and 1970s who thought they could transform society without the support of the vast majority of working people. As former Weather Underground member Mark Rudd recently wrote, the violent tactics, anti-cop rhetoric (even calling the cops “pigs”) and other controversial strategies used by some on the New Left — strategies that too many Occupiers repeat today — alienated potential allies and undermined the movement.

I do not mean to discredit Occupy Oakland or to mark its Nov. 2 action as a failure. It was clearly a historic day and this is clearly a historic movement. But if a strong leadership that can temper the worst excesses of the anarchists and set up genuine links with working people does not emerge soon, fringe elements may redirect attention to a less appealing face of Occupy Oakland. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about the sustainability of capitalism and the theoretical merits of violence versus nonviolence in bringing down an unjust system. But it is obvious that the American proletariat is not on the verge of taking up arms against the 1 percent. If we want to generate a truly broad-based movement that can bring about real changes for struggling Americans — which might take the form of legislation, even though government is a dirty word for many Occupiers — then we need to rein in proponents of violence and those who are blind to the day-to-day concerns of working people. This might be difficult to do, but establishing a leadership that has some accountability and some power to control these angry mobs is a step in the right direction.