Above: Jan van Bijlert, Heraclitus and Democritus, ca. 1640
The atmosphere suggested a dress rehearsal for a production of “Revolution: the Musical.” In the warm afternoon of Indian Summer, a black-clad anarchist splashed paint on the windows of a Whole Foods. The General Strike pantomime began. One section of the crowd began to chant, “Peaceful Protest.” The anarchists responded: “Union Busting is Disgusting.” Everyone seemed to have lost grip on reality. The worse the actors play their roles, the more questionable the social script that lends the roles their substance becomes, the more potent the theatre.
As millions tune in on their preferred Internet-enabled device, we turn to an ancient dilemma. What face should the critical mind adopt when it ventures into public? Should we follow the laughing philosopher, Democritus, who “found the human condition to be ridiculous and vain, and wore only a mocking smiley face in public”? Or should the same human condition render us “full of compassion and pity,” like the weeping philosopher, Heraclitus, who wore “ a perpetually sad face with eyes full of tears”? The old is new again for a movement that photographs itself on its iPhone, that logs in to Facebook every morning to compare the masks it wears in the light of day with those it puts on at night.
For a moment, let’s abandon the predictable political lessons or denunciations for a fragmentary montage of juxtapositions and antagonisms, a few flights of fancy and conversations with the dead. After all, the All Souls’ demonstration unfolded as much in the misty realms of human imagination as on the cold hard concrete of the Port of Oakland.
Handicapped Vietnam vets marched alongside able-bodied sixteen-year-olds at their first protest. A stroller brigade of moms linked arms with hipsters wearing skull paint. Labor activists, community leaders, communist intellectuals, old hippies, liberal Obama defectors and members of the Black Panther Party USA had all celebrated, according to every account, a fabulous carnival at sunset, todos santos. After dark: a shadow theater played out its drama: clashes between riot cops and black bloc, both hiding behind shields of various insignia. Shattered windows, graffitti, rocks and broken bottles lined the streets. How to react? What is the meaning of peace and violence, and who gets to decide?
We’re haunted by the question whether or not there is a constant force of progress within human history. How could we tell? What might be a sign? Maybe enthusiasm is all that counts -- maybe the emotional and intellectual excitement that drives us towards revolutionary events is itself the sign of human progress. Maybe “what matters is the way the revolution creates a spectacle, the way it’s welcomed by spectators who don’t participate, but who see it, who witness it and who, for better or for worse, allow themselves to be carried away by it.”
Some have criticized the occupation movement for being long on childish spectacles and short on programs. However, its youthfulness may also be its greatest strength. Perhaps “what is truly revolutionary in effect is not the propaganda of ideas that here and there excites actions that cannot be consummated, and which are dismissed at the theater exit in the first sober moments of reflection. What is truly revolutionary in effect is the secret signal of what will come to be, which speaks from the gesture of children.”
Kids climbed on top of shipping containers. The port became a jungle gym, production a playground. “Just as the first act of the Bolsheviks was to raise the red flag so their first instinct was to organize children.” At the Port of Oakland, youth did both to the tune of a ukulele.
“I’m streaming this live to twenty thousand people around the world,” shouted a tall, wide-set African-American man with a contagious laugh and a big grin. “Go ahead. Gas us again. Your audience is getting bored!” Someone among the crowd didn’t understand that such provocations were a joke. His eyes, tearing up from police gas attacks, were full of fury. How could someone possibly encourage police violence? “Shut up you stupid fuck!” he screamed. “If you provoke them, they’ll only hurt more people.”
The police are afraid. You can see it in their puzzled faces and nervous gestures. Walking the line early Thursday morning at 15th and Broadway, I watched hands shaking, feet shifting, and eyes growing wide with uncertainty. Have they outlived their function in society, they’re wondering. Is someone tweeting an image of their front doors? How real is their uniform?
“Would you shoot rubber bullets at this crowd if your own mothers were in it?” a young Arab-American man screamed at the cops that night. He later told me he was studying political science at UC Berkeley and wanted to attend law school at NYU. “Would you fire gas into a crowd with your grandmothers in it?” The line of riot police stood still, refusing to answer his questions. “Don’t you have wives who you can go home to and make love with?”
Why are some gatherings declared unlawful assemblies and others celebrated as valid expressions of free speech? Why do both outcomes seem so predictable? Why does force continue to decide?
What does it even mean, as one communique promoting the General Strike read, “to take occupation to private property itself”? Oakland would, in the words of another, “stop the flow of capital” by smashing a few ATMs downtown and disrupt work shifts at the port. Such are the solipsistic hallucinations of the occupy everything movement -- communism realized at Frank Ogawa plaza, the “totality” appearing like Godzilla to do battle with occupiers at the port of Oakland -- as if the wheels of commerce could be allowed to stop, as if fixing up a fixed gear bike were the same as running a globally integrated food production and distribution system.
Each moment of a political sequence is an education. Blockading a major transshipment point for international trade is a factory tour for people who have never really noticed shipping containers or the tools of intermodal transport, never given much thought to how “made in China” gets on trucks. The sham parliaments of the “general assemblies” that convened in front of the isolated individual gates of the Port of Oakland at seven and eight at night, as a union arbitration deadline approached and an unprepared crowd got hungry and thirsty and started to drift away, with their twinkle fingers and people’s mic and irrelevant elephant -- an arm gesture signaling that the speaker’s comments are not germane to the matter at hand -- are an educational theatre, a democracy game for people who have no experience of deliberation or decision, agenda or committee.
On the other hand, perhaps a general strike can only ever be an “energizing myth,” instilling a revolutionary élan among those who experience the effects of protracted economic decline the most -- the global poor, the unemployed, semi-employed and youth.
A friend posted photos of five rubber bullet wounds to his chest on his Facebook profile, as evidence of the sort of less-than-lethal force being deployed to evict occupiers from a Homeless Shelter closed due to budget cuts.
If only Michelle Malkin had it right, and the mobs in black were made entirely of professional agitators (if you can call unemployed kids from Portland professional anything) and leftists, if only the people being gassed did not worry about their 401ks, if only none of them were engineers and programmers and literate, the outcome of all of this would be far more certain and unambiguous.
One of the protesters offered me a toke from his pipe. “Shit is fucked up. The police just shot a homeless man on the other side of the plaza. I carried him to a medic tent.” I asked if he was shot with a bean bag. “Yeah man, the thing got him in the ankle and shot right up his leg.” How could police set themselves up, deploy the same weapons they’d critically wounded a veteran with the week before? “I guess they’ve learned not to shoot us in the faces,” I said. “That’s progress.”
A shouting match broke out in the street between a young white woman and a young black man, both wearing masks, and the crowd rushed in to break it up. The woman fled the huddle and collapsed into the arms of a Cal student, sobbing. “I told him to stop throwing rocks at the cops. It only makes things worse. He accused me of being a rich white bitch from the suburbs. He told me to get out of his city. But I’m a poor college student. I’m on SSI. I’m about to fail my classes because I spend all my time here. I want an education, but I believe in this movement and I’m desperate.”
If History (capital H) is a nightmare, then the process of coming to terms with its contradictions is that of waking up from this terrifying dream. How do we separate the phantoms and slippages in roles from what is real?
Just before sunrise: a group rapping over the beat of a bass drum. The flow quickly turned introspective, autobiographical, about broken homes and lost childhoods, failing to measure up to societal expectations, and the personal struggle to grasp hold of a broken world without losing your mind. Without turning into the monsters that you claim to fight.
The crowd spotted an officer with a beanbag gun among the cops assembled. Shouts for someone with a camera to be sure to photograph his name and badge number. Demands to know where this man pointing a gun at the citizens of Oakland was from. Others circulating to calm the crowd. After five minutes, the man with the gun retreated from the police line.
A game plays out. “Anarchists”: handicraft riot gear, shields, gas masks, all black outfits, weirdly fashion-forward. Vandalism is important, despite everything -- both ways. It teaches people to be outlaws cheaply, and it shuts off the sympathy of the great Mittelstand.
Not all who wear the clothes are sabbateurs. Masking tape crosses mark the medics, tending to the wounded, breaking up fights, dispensing water and vinegar to neutralize gas. They wear black in solidarity with those who are willing to do battle with police.
When you don’t have health insurance, that takes real courage.
Then, finally, there was the building, 520 16th Street. (Because the Indian summer passed with the beauty of that day, and it is cold in the East Bay in November.) Presented without comment:
The city spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect one landlord's right to earn a few thousand every month. Why is this? Whereas the blockade of the port – an action which caused millions of dollars of losses – met with no resistance, the attempt to take one single building, a building that was unused, met with the most brutal and swift response. The answer: they fear this logical next step from the movement more than anything else. They fear it because they know now how much appeal it will have.
A second serviceman is reported to be in intensive care after being beaten by police. Kayvan Sabeghi served in Iraq and Afghanistan and is a small businessman in El Cerrito. He will undergo surgery for a lacerated spleen.