Let me start with the confessional preface: I’m not a protester. I used to be. I had my day, bandanaing-up on the streets of Edinburgh, say; or marching with thousands in the build-up to a war in Iraq whose inevitability proved more powerful than our collective will. I stopped not because I felt it was useless, though largely they seem to be. Or because they can be dreadfully boring, though all that talking and bombast, the avoidance of rhetorical landmines, it can certainly be tedious. I simply stopped, opting for different diversions, I suppose. I supported many a cause, mind you. Money here; pillows there. More than a few conversations. But I was no longer “on the ground,” as it were.
That stopped, at least for a night — beyond that, I don’t know — yesterday in Oakland. I’m not going to play maudlin. I kind of did that yesterday. But something snapped, or at least bent in a really awkward way, when I saw the Occupy Oakland camp upended the way it was. I had no real stake in that camp. I visited several times, and each time I joked that the medical tent needed to stock up on some more maximum strength deodorant. Moreover, I did not even think their presence would effect much, quite honestly. But I was happy they were there, and certainly planned to keep supporting them in spirit. Seeing the police trample through the remains of that spirit, lingering about and guarding it, protecting the occupants from themselves, was the official word, was simply too much. I commented elsewhere that at least rioters & looters have the good decency to leave after their destruction — that it takes a mob with a badge to honor its mayhem the way I saw yesterday. And, as I said then, I was angry. Angry enough to become once again a protester.
I was there last night, from 4 pm to midnight — longer than I was at my full-time job, oddly enough — and rarely have I been as proud of a group of protesters. There were some knuckleheads, yes. But it’s hard to have a dinner-party and not have at least one, let alone a gathering of some-2000 strong. There’s no reason to rehearse all that took place. The videos & photos are ample, and actually do a very good job telling the story. Nor will I even vilify the police (they do that well enough on their own, it seems) except to say I suspect they might’ve successfully radicalized the next generation of kids whose heads they’ll bash.
If I have anything to add to the conversations that follow all that went down, it is that we miss the point if our conversations about the police become either too strident or too narrowly focused. Protests haven’t changed much over history: they are each a kind of tango, between state power and those who feel oppressed by it. The cops are going to do what they do (whether it be conceding just enough to the theatrics of the moment, letting people scream themselves out, etc., or, well, what they did in Oakland [& Atlanta] last night). It is up to the protesters to take the lead in this tango whenever at all possible, though it will not be for the entire evening, on this you can be sure. As an example, the greatest moment of the protest last night was the improvisational snake march through the streets of downtown — used first to avoid a direct confrontation at 14th & Broadway (&, I’m told, an oncoming attempt at a kettling) — and then later to regroup. If there is something to learn from this it is that that there is always more than one way to move forward. Unless you’re defending territory that needs defending, keep moving.
None of this is to say we should, because we expect it, exonerate the abuses and ill-directed uses of police power. By all means, use them as motivation to keep going. Use them as propaganda. More importantly still, use them in your ever-growing arsenal of improvisation. But never forget: this is simply what they do — they have their own skill-sets after all. We should be outraged, but never surprised.
The need now is to respond to the police without our response being about the police. This is quite tricky. The images & videos we have are our greatest assets & worst temptations on this point. Yes, they bear witness to the fact that the police have declared themselves an enemy, but we (I first wrote “the protesters,” but fuck the third-person) would be wise to insure the police remain only this enemy’s symbol (whose destruction, I might add, is as useful — if, nevertheless, as vaguely satisfying — as burning a flag).