Knowing when to fight. Some thoughts on recent police attacks on Occupy Oakland.

He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious. —Sun Tzu

Summary: The police attacks on Occupy Oakland’s vigil and tree sit last Friday, December 30th were disasters for the movement, sapping scarce energy and resources, generating bad press and putting a dozen occupiers behind bars. This happened because we gave our opponents exactly the fight that they had come prepared for. In this sense, we are fighting dumb, engaging in confrontation that we can only lose, on political and legal terrain where we are weak. A more effective response to the OPD’s attack-and-disrupt strategy would be to deprive them of their goals by refusing to engage. When they attack, we fade back and disperse, depriving them of a target. When they grab for substance, we flow away like water.

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The longer version:

Last Friday, December 30th, the Oakland Police Department conducted another of their embarrassingly unprofessional attacks on the Occupy Oakland vigil in Oscar Grant/Frank Ogawa Plaza. Ostensibly arriving to clear the vigil area after giving a 2pm deadline, they instead began random arrests. The situation immediately degenerated as they chased two people northward to 16th St. with the yelling crowd in hot pursuit. After numerous arrestees were loaded into vehicles and driven away, the police began a disorganized departure via 16th westward toward Clay.

The scene on 16th St. was pure chaos and confusion: cops arbitrarily arresting people and protesters yelling and confronting cops. The short, narrow block quickly became a jumble of cops, cops cars, protesters and an occasional vehicle or bystander who unfortunately wandered into the melee. Neither the police nor the protesters ever regained full control over the situation or their own respective ranks. The police chain of command seemed uncoordinated, with officers at times appearing to act individually and randomly. Only at the very end did they make a clear effort to leave in an orderly way and they never returned to their originally stated task of clearing the plaza.

The protesters, for their part, were no less disorganized and unfocused, reacting to each new arrest by running toward the scene, surrounding the cops and yelling, or massing behind the cars screaming at the cops. The day was long on screaming, short on thinking.

Eventually this clusterfuck worked its way out to Clay where the cops got in one more arrest when someone apparently kicked the green unmarked car. They grabbed a woman who, according to the people pleading with the cops to let her go, was not the one who did it. Most likely they had an empty seat in the back of a car and wanted to fill it with someone. It really didn’t matter whom or for what.

When the green car drove off, a call went out to regroup at the plaza and the crowd, somewhat spent and reeling from what had just happened, filtered back to the vigil. Below is one of the videos I shot of the events on 16th St.

My take on this is that the police were directed to engage in as much disruption for the sake of disruption of Occupy Oakland as possible, knowing that removing the vigil entirely would require significantly more personnel, planning and equipment. They did not arrive equipped to remove the entire vigil set up. They did arrive equipped to do exactly what they did: disrupt and demoralize.

This was a larger version of what the OPD had done a couple hours earlier at the tree sit across the plaza, arresting three people on the ground for minor, fabricated crimes. The point was not to evict the tree sitter, nor to prevent resupply, since they let someone throw up small supplies a short while later and made no real attempt to sustain a blockade of the sitter. It was pure disruption and it worked quite well.

This strategy of somewhat random attacks by the OPD contrasts to their two previous large-scale, military-style sweeps of the camps and the mass arrests of demonstrators the night of November 2nd, very close to where the vigil now is. All those occasions entailed phalanxes of riot cops, a full-scale incident command structure, helicopter surveillance, support staff, trucks to remove property and a clear end game. Officers involved in these recent tactical raids have worn normal duty uniforms, arrived in small groups (a dozen or less) and have behaved unpredictably and arbitrarily, often provoking conflict where none existed previously.

These repeated arrests sap movement resources, goodwill, energy and morale. Individual activists are taken out of commission either by incarceration or by restrictive pretrial release agreements. Scarce legal support resources are systematically drained. Finances are drained by having to bail out high-risk prisoners and material resources are depleted each time the cops confiscate property. With the large, brutal over-reactions of the police at prior events, public support swelled, but now, with the repeated hit and run attacks, public support is harder to drum up. [1/4/12 update: the vigil has been moved to the more public area around 14th and Broadway and it seems from Twitter reports that people have been coming down to support.]

OPD is engaging in what are known as spoiling attacks, small offensive moves designed to disrupt our ability to organize and mount an effective assault. They can’t make us go away, but they can disrupt us into bankruptcy and ineffectiveness.

And we’re playing right into it.

Let’s go back to Sun Tzu, the 2,500 year old Chinese strategist and putative author of The Art Of War, quoted above. In my opinion, our problem is that we don’t understand the relative strengths and weakness of either Occupy Oakland or the OPD and therefore don’t recognize when or how to fight effectively. Fighting to win means, among other things, never engaging in the battle the enemy has come prepared for, since that will be their strongest front. The other side of that is that you never attack from a position of weakness.

On December 30, in both attacks I observed at close range—the tree sit and the vigil—Occupiers handed over exactly the fight the police had come for. The OPD wanted to provoke a confrontation as a pretext to arrest people and we gave them that confrontation, apparently not realizing that confronting and arguing with cops is not our strength. Every move we made got more people arrested. We fought a fight we could not win, from a position of weakness, where the enemy had stacked the deck in their favor.

Further, the chaotic nature of the confrontations did not help us in the public support department. Whereas the OPD gassing of peaceful protesters on the night of October 25th and the U.C.B. police beating of nonviolent students at U.C. Berkeley were clear cases of unjustified police violence that drew huge crowds of supporters in response, the melee on 16th Street likely presented to most of the public as confusion and fit into mainstream media reporting like this line from CBS/San Francisco: “[the police spokeswoman] said officers were called in to assist and protesters became “hostile and violent towards police.” Like it or not, but most people watching the videos, including the ones I shot, probably found this description plausible. We haven’t seen a huge outcry and rallying of support.

Before anyone gets all riled up about the tired violence/nonviolence debate or makes specious claims about self-defense against police violence, let me ask you this: Do you want to be right or do you want to win? You simply can’t have both in this case. It is a matter of knowing when you can fight and when you cannot. Despite all the chaos, confrontation and noise on the 30th, at both locations, not one person was unarrested, public support did not grow and nothing else good came out of the confrontations. That was not the place to fight—at least not with the tools we were using.

Let’s look at my favorite strategist again.

Thus, what is of supreme importance in war is to attack the enemy’s strategy. —Sun Tzu

Our problem is that while we might collectively recognize and acknowledge OPD’s strategy of disruption, we haven’t adapted our response to it. Sun Tzu’s use of “attack” can refer to both the defense and offense. Right now, Occupy is on the defensive, therefore, we “attack” and foil the OPD’s strategy by defensive maneuvers. When they want a fight, we refuse to fight. When they want to provoke, we refuse to be provoked. When they want to steal our property, we remove it before they get there. When they want us to look violent, we look extremely friendly or humorous. When they push forward, we withdraw at double-speed. When they grab for us, we flow away like water.

So, what might it have looked like if we hadn’t played right along? Maybe something like this:

At news of the 2pm deadline, the vigil is packed up and removed from the plaza completely, either by vehicle or by hand. Supporters with cars and trucks are asked to rush down to help clean up or a small moving van is rented for half a day. When the cops arrive, there are people sweeping up the plaza area. If occupiers choose to stay, the only property remaining is protest signs being held in people’s hands, an unambiguously defensible exercise of First Amendment freedoms.

Everyone behaves politely. All police orders are complied with to the letter, no matter how illegal. If the cops get confrontational, people disperse in multiple directions in twos and threes, with a prearrangement to reconvene three hours later. Those who want to stick up for their First Amendment rights to carry a sign in the public square, continue to do so until arrested. Once the police leave, the vigil returns and sets up shop.

Net result: no arrests or fewer arrests and only minimal disruption. (And the place gets the good cleaning it needs, ahem.) The arrests for holding signs are the types of blatant Constitutional violations that result in dropped charges and effective countersuits and injunctions against police abuse. The images the public sees are not the ones that serve police interests, but ones that serve our interests. And, in the end, the vigil is back.

I understand that remaining nonconfrontational, packing up everything and obeying unlawful orders of arbitrary authority will be abhorrent to many, but the question is about knowing when you can fight and when you cannot and finding a way to disrupt and attack the enemy’s strategy. What I described is a much stronger form of resistance than screaming in cops’ faces and kicking cars, which, at the end of the day, did little more than provide the pretexts for more movement-draining arrests. While nominally “passive,” in this case, what I’m describing is an active defense, active in that it disrupts and neutralizes enemy intentions and gets us what we want with minimal damage.

Most importantly, in my opinion, it takes us out of victim role. We become active agents in movement strategy, not whining victims of police abuse. I’m not excusing police excess, but saying that we need to not let victimhood define us or play into that role when it is presented to us.

Given that there was an Egyptian women’s solidarity rally planned at the plaza for an hour or so after the raid on Friday, packing everything up and leaving like I suggested wouldn’t have necessarily been the thing to do that particular day. Still, avoiding the confrontations that we could not win, cleaning up the plaza as much as possible and dispersing when they arrived and regrouping later would have been a much smarter game plan.

By standing up to the 1%, in whatever way we choose, we are picking a fight. In doing so, we can expect the system to fight back, with either direct violence or, at minimum, violations of First Amendment rights to speech and assembly. Being victorious means we have to make sure that it happens on our terms, where it makes us stronger and weakens them.

The first step to doing that is knowing where we can fight and were we cannot.

3 thoughts on “Knowing when to fight. Some thoughts on recent police attacks on Occupy Oakland.

  1. Yes, in fact I had been meaning to post a link back when I first saw it. Thanks for the link and reminder.

    I take issue with some of his assertions, though, so I’m going to do a short commentary post soon.

    I was going to suggest skipping all the author’s “theory” about infantry at the beginning, as it’s a bit off and not really necessary to understanding the point. The important material in that article starts below the second photo.

  2. Nice post, Mikal. I agree that this constant bickering with the police is doing nothing to endear Occupy Oakland to the public. Rather than talking about the real issues of Occupy Wall Street, it’s become a constant argument over First Amendment rights. The 1% must love this. :)

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