Self-Occupied Oakland
A city’s political culture welcomes anarchy and violence

Occupiers march through Oakland, February 4, 2012 (Noah Berger/AP)


On February 6, in Frank Ogawa Plaza, Occupy held an “anti-repression rally” and used an illegal public-address system. When the police arrived to remove the speakers, the protesters attempted to block their way, chanting “No justice, no peace, f*** the police!” The 20-year-old owner of the equipment, Brian Glasscock, admitted that he hadn’t bothered to apply for a permit, but said he was “pretty p***ed” and thought it “really unfair” that the police were “trying to quash the ideas of Occupy Oakland” by enforcing the law. To me, he explained that he didn’t believe he should receive a citation, because “we don’t believe in laws that restrict free expression.” He contended that the citation was “an example of Oakland’s heavy-handed policing, which doesn’t just happen to protesters . . . it happens to people in East Oakland.”

As for the police department, the protests are a huge distraction from its ordinary work. The president of the Oakland Police Officer’s Association, Sergeant Barry Donelan, a tall and imposing Irish immigrant and two-decade Oakland resident, explains that — despite widespread violent crime — his force has had to endure significant cuts in recent years, from 837 officers in 2009 to approximately 650 now: “Our officers would love to be out in the communities we signed up to serve; instead, we’re downtown dealing with protesters.” Given these challenges for the department, he believes the city needs a “consistent political strategy”: “The problem is the political leadership. They’re populating both sides of the skirmish line.”

On February 9, Mayor Quan delivered her state-of-the-city address. She didn’t mention Occupy explicitly, let alone condemn it. Her one indirect mention of Occupy came after she paraphrased President Obama’s American-flag metaphor in his State of the Union address, when she quipped, “We’ve had a little trouble with flags in Oakland lately” — making light of how, just one week earlier, outside the chamber in which she spoke, protesters had burned an American flag. (When an anti-Occupy speaker mentioned this act at a city-council meeting, he was shouted down by Occupiers, who, for once, were legally correct: Flag-burning, unlike rioting, is constitutionally protected speech.)

The city council has now twice voted down a resolution, proposed by council member Ignacio De La Fuente, directing the mayor and city administrator to make use of proper, lawful means to prevent any future port shutdowns. Port officials note that without this guarantee, given the supply-chain expenses of even a short shutdown, there is a real risk that customers will abandon Oakland.

If city officials are underreacting, the same cannot be said of Oakland’s remaining Occupiers, whose paranoia can scarcely be overstated. After supervising a large, unpermitted march down Broadway to Wiley Manuel County Courthouse, the Oakland police abandoned the Occupiers to their chants and speeches, but several Occupiers maintained that the government, whether the CIA or the FBI, was surely still lurking in their midst. The delusions run so deep that protesters frequently argue that new or parallel “people’s” institutions are needed. Sometimes this argument takes the form of the rather silly claim that Occupy has provided real benefits to the city, including distressingly disorganized attempts at outdoor soup kitchens, day care in Frank Ogawa Plaza, and, in the spirit of universal health care, free spiritual healing, meditation, and massages. Brian Glasscock, deprived of his PA system, charged that the police’s actions would prevent Occupy from “building infrastructure, providing the city services.”

Oakland is the home of the Black Panther Party, and its ghosts are never far from Occupy: Several supportive speakers at a city-council meeting cited their Panther background, and even Mayor Quan, when listing great Oaklanders in her state-of-the-city speech, profusely praised Huey Newton, the founder of the Panthers, who was convicted of murder (but had the conviction overturned).

At a courthouse rally for protesters arrested in January, two members of the Black Riders Liberation Party, Jabari and Tim, held a crowd of Occupiers spellbound, calling for a “militarization of the people” and making impassioned appeals to the heritage of black radicalism. When I asked Jabari whether he felt that the Occupy movement was addressing the sad situation of the black community in Oakland, he said yes, the Occupiers’ demands almost precisely match the Black Panthers’ ten-point plan. His comrades then pointed out that, “at first, the Occupy movement wasn’t for the release of political prisoners,” a key Panther issue, but in the end it was happy to endorse their demands. The Black Panther Party, besides its defense of “political prisoners” (most of them violent criminals such as Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jalil Abdul Muntaqim), was famous for its efforts in Oakland to organize night patrols by armed citizens in place of police beats. Many Occupiers cited the Panthers’ efforts to build a “people’s police” as a real framework for reform.

March 5, 2012    |     Volume LXIV, No. 4

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  • The glory of the A-10 Thunderbolt II.
  • Elizabeth II, a monarch of whom Britain can be proud.
Books, Arts & Manners
  • Arthur Herman reviews Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.
  • Daniel J. Mahoney reviews It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway: Russia and the Communist Past, by David Satter.
  • Joe Carter reviews The Case for Polarized Politics: Why America Needs Social Conservatism, by Jeffrey Bell.
  • Eugene Schlanger reviews Head Off & Split: Poems, by Nikky Finney.
  • Ross Douthat reviews The Woman in Black.
  • John Derbyshire tells a story from World War II.
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
The Bent Pin  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .