Occupy Oakland Embraces Nonviolence, but Debates 'Black Bloc' Tactics

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Noah Berger / AP

An anarchy symbol is painted onto the glass entrance to an office building in Oakland, California, early Nov. 3, 2011. After a mainly peaceful day-long rally by thousands of anti-Wall Street demonstrators, several hundred reconvened during the night with a few painting graffiti, breaking windows and setting fire to garbage cans.

While work crews were busy replacing smashed windows and scrubbing graffiti off downtown walls late last week, Christopher Goodwin, 30, held up a copy of the Oakland Tribune with the headline "Violence, Vandals Divide a Movement" to a group of mostly first-time visitors to the occupied City Hall plaza. "The media can be our biggest ally or our biggest enemy, and right now they're tying to figure out which route to take," he declared, adding that he was going to propose a holding press conference to denounce violent tactics being used in the name of the Occupy movement. "That might be harder than it sounds," interjected a skinny young man in the crowd, with noticeable irritation in his voice. "I'm 100 percent committed to nonviolence; I would never throw a rock at a police officer," Paul, 21, a self-described anarchist from Los Angeles, explained afterward. "But at the same time, while I wouldn't condone those tactics, I don't delegitimize them either ... a lot of [social] change was brought about by violence." He cited the American Revolution and Civil War as examples.

Whether they be liberal, pacifist, marxist or anarchist, protesters in Oakland agree that the initial police crackdown of Oct. 25 backfired in a big way for the authorities. The publicity windfall generated when riot police shot projectiles that seriously injured an Iraq war veteran thrust the Oakland campaign to the forefront of the Occupy movement. That momentum gained more traction last Wednesday during the city's general strike, when thousands turned out to march against economic inequality and police brutality and shut down the country's fourth largest port — only to falter at night as the streets caught fire. Clashes broke out between police and masked agitators that saw more than a hundred people arrested and dozens of businesses damaged, including some that had actively supported the protests.

A majority of longtime Occupy participants have insisted the second confrontation was provoked by an unruly 1% of the 99%, bent on hijacking a nonviolent movement. A larger question looms, though, as to how the movement's image may suffer if such outbreaks continue, and what can be done to prevent them. Kim Voss, head of the sociology department at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that radical elements of movements sometimes have a "net positive effect" at first because they draw greater support to more moderate groups and give authorities incentives to offer concessions. The defensiveness of city officials post–Oct. 25, when they allowed protesters to retake the plaza in front of City Hall, is a case in point. "However," she adds, "the opposite dynamics also occur, in which the radical elements erode support for movements and additionally justify repression."

The stakes are putting solidarity to the test. Over the weekend, some complained that a meeting scheduled to discuss the meaning of the violence and a strategy to contain it had been canceled, then hastily rescheduled, causing many to miss the gathering. Debate nonetheless carries on inside tents and along sidewalks about what the next steps might be. "You have to have some sort of leadership. Don't confuse leadership with dictatorship," says Alonzo, 24, a Black Panther activist. "When you put that leader thing in front of [someone], he's gonna have an ego," counters Ali, 38, who instead argues that individuals should take more initiative on their own when trouble is on the verge. Next time a major action is held, he says, he would form an ad hoc group to protect businesses around the plaza and pull the masks down of anyone wearing a bandana to ensure accountability. Rasta, another camp resident, is less conciliatory: "These anarchists are going to f--- this up; we need to stop them by any means necessary," he says, making a slicing motion with his hand.

Video footage taken of the strike-day vandalism at a Whole Foods store and in the streets overnight shows some people in black hooded sweatshirts and bandanas, the trademark of Black Bloc anarchist tactics. A fixture at anticapitalist demonstrations around the world, Black Bloc-ers observe a nearly uniform dress code designed to make participants look alike and prevent authorities from gauging who did what when unlawful acts are committed. Some advocates, however, say anarchists are being stigmatized by being painted in the same shades as violent Black Bloc-ers; anarchists, they point out, come in all stripes, many of them nonviolent. Others argue that Black Bloc tactics are not tantamount to violence and can be a form of self-defense. "It's for safety, from the cops who came looking to fight," equipped with body armor and tear gas, says Jack, 24, a protester who was shot in the leg with a projectile during the last melee and who claims no affiliation.

Still, the day before the strike, members of a so-called Oakland Liberation Front (OLF) passed out a darkly cynical flyer that mocked peaceful protesters as "unpaid soldiers" of the state and called for violent measures. "The streets are no place for the practice of inculcating society with your hateful message of conservative morality," it read. "There are Sundays for that."

While the OLF message was clear, no one knows who its members are. Kevin 18, an anarchist and onetime Black Bloc-er who says he knows most of the "tight-knit" Bay Area radical community, says neither he nor any of his hard-core friends have ever heard of the OLF and concludes it must be a shell group looking to capitalize on the moment. "If it was local, we would know something by now," he says. His suspicions about outsider "drive-bys" is heightened, he says, because shops like Tully's Coffee, which has provided free coffee and wireless Internet access to protesters, were targeted. (According to police, about three-quarters of arrestees were locals.) Either way, their actions have harmed the efforts of "nonviolent anarchists," who he says have been a backbone of the protests from the start. "Liberals are now saying they should take us and beat us up; it's the same kind of behavior they're fighting against," he grumbles, pointing out that the soundman at the general assembly, a fellow anarchist, was on strike over threats made against his fellow anarchists, forcing speakers to shout across the plaza.

Violence and the potential for more has given Occupy Oakland an internal dynamic of debate and an external one of allure in the eyes of the popular media. But it is one of almost excruciating contradiction for participants. On Friday afternoon, in a small but emblematic moment, a middle-aged protester banged his fist against an unmarked white van idling in the plaza that held a Fox News TV crew. "I have had enough! I dare you to tell the truth," he furiously shouted, drawing a concerned crowd of Occupy protesters. One of them stepped forward: "Hey brother, I'm totally with you, but this footage of you ranting and raving is all they're gonna show. It's not helpful." The man, however, would not shut up. "I'm not radical, the truth is radical!" he blared on — and no one could stop him.