Let me start with a parable of sorts.
Imagine a man with a vicious dog on a 50′ chain, staked 10′ from his neighbor’s unfenced property line. The dog routinely runs 40′ onto the neighbor’s lawn, biting the neighbor as she’s trying to enjoy the yard that is hers to enjoy. When bitten, the neighbor runs out in the street screaming at how evil the dog and the owner are and how irresponsible the owner is being. Then she walks back into her yard and, feeling righteous in the legitimacy of her cause, asserts her right to walk on her own property, gets bit again and again runs up and down the street screaming. She repeats this several times, always to the same effect.
At what point do we say that she is responsible for this outcome? How long do we sympathize with her, fully aware that she is intentionally provoking the situation and the predictable results?
Does she have the law on her side? Of course. Along with morality and common decency. But at some level—let’s call it the “karmic level”—she has to take responsibility for her actions and the outcome. She, after all, is the one who keeps getting hurt.
No, this is not “blaming the victim.” By law, he’s the perpetrator. By morality, he’s the wrong-doer. In civil court, he’d lose the case. But “karmically,” for lack of a better term, it can be said that she’s failing to acknowledge what Buddhists would call the “what is” of the situation, the cold, hard, on-the-ground, bite-you-in-the-ass reality.
And, while we may feel sorry for someone’s situation, most people have limited patience for people who keep putting themselves in victim role by their own actions, no matter what happens to be right or wrong, legal or illegal, in that given situation.
The vicious dog is a metaphor for how I see the Oakland Police Department at the moment. The victim-y neighbor, Occupy Oakland.
Of course we have the right to stand around in the Plaza or on the sidewalk under the tree sit! Of course the cops are being totally outrageous, sending in 20 officers today to threaten to arrest one small woman sitting on a chalked “Occupy” slogan written on the bricks of Oscar Grant Plaza!* Of course the OPD is provoking people so as to have pretexts to arrest them for petty offenses! Of course they are wrong to do this!
Of course the woman has the right to knowingly go in her yard and confront the vicious dog. Of course she has the right to get bit. As many times as she wants, just to show how right she is. Even if the other neighbors have ceased to care or sympathize.
Occupy Oakland has been in this sort of downward spiraling loop since after the port shutdown on December 12th. At least four times now, the OPD has attacked the vigil at Oscar Grant Plaza, engaging in arbitrary arrests over the most minor or fabricated pretexts. Yesterday, during a protest at City Hall—protesting the previous outrageous raids on the vigilers—two more people were roughly and arbitrarily arrested with no warning in a “smash and grab” type arrest. So, on Saturday, there will be another “Fuck the police” protest march. Let’s see if I can keep this straight: it will be a protest to protest yesterday’s arrests at a protest about arrests at the previous protests.
My head is spinning.
What is the message here again?
Lacking a plan, we are filling in that vacuum with confrontation for the sake of confrontation, with predictable outcomes each time. By insisting on holding down a 24/7 quasi-encampment in the Plaza, we’re provoking the vicious OPD dog on the too-long chain—which, of course, we have the Constitutionally-protected right to do! When the inevitable bite happens, we’re running around screaming about police brutality and expecting sympathy.
At some point, we have to acknowledge the “what is” of the situation and thereby accept “karmic” responsibility—or more to the point, strategic responsibility—for these predictable and repetitive outcomes. If we try to hold the Plaza or the tree sit or, apparently now, engage in demonstrations at City Hall, we’ll get busted unjustly. The question is whether the arrests are worth the cost to the movement.
It is my position that they are not. I don’t think the vigil is that important, having become a protest for its own sake and not for any identifiable strategic interest. Let me distinguish these unplanned, random arrests from intentional civil disobedience-type arrests (or actions where arrest is an accepted risk), which are planned at both the tactical and strategic levels. (E.g. it may be a “symbolic” tactical blockade designed to strategically focus attention on a larger issue.) Those arrests have a certain amount of movement, or at least affinity group, consent that it is worth the time and hassle. Legal, PR, medical and other support people have come on board with the intention of supporting the action and it’s set up at a time and place advantageous to us. The result is our ability to get a message across at the least amount of cost to us.
On the contrary, recent arrests have had virtually none of these qualities and the result has been that they’ve cost us dearly for little gain.
In my previous post on this subject, I explained the ways the OPD’s campaign of harassment has been costing us. We simply cannot win a war of attrition with the OPD. Their resources are, practically speaking, infinite; ours are very finite and dwindling, especially our key asset: social capital and the ability to draw people out in numbers.
Whatever we do, the cops will try to aggressively interfere with. So, then let’s make our actions focused and effective, finding a way to either go around the vicious dog or build up enough support to force the owner to shorten its leash. At a minimum, if people feel the plaza vigil is important, take my advice about tactical retreats: fade back and avoid all confrontation with cops bent on confrontation, then regroup and return later.
When we do protests protesting the police abuse of other protests, we’re essentially using them as our mirror; we determine our actions based on them and their moves and not on our own strategy or dreams or big ideas. If this is not self-evidently a strategic mistake at this point, I’m not sure how much more I can say. Occupy has been about inspiring large masses of people to believe that change is possible, to dream that we might actually be able to work together to achieve some sort of political and economic democracy at last.
Those are the dreams that we need to be cultivating and reinvigorating in the vast sea of the 99%. The vigil is not doing that. The pointless, victim-y arrests are not doing it. The “fuck the police” marches are not doing it.
We need to start talking and thinking and figure out what will.
* * *
*After a couple-hour stand-off, the city maintenance workers eventually power-washed the area all around her and the cops left without arresting anyone. The entire thing was livestreamed and recorded on PFailBlog’s Ustream.tv account.