Santa Rita, I Hate Every Inch of You
Twenty-four hours into my incarceration in Santa Rita Jail, I found myself in yet another tactical conversation, dissecting the numerous failures that had led to the kettling and mass arrests of about 400 Occupy Oakland demonstrators. This is one of the few upsides of a mass arrest. After getting the rowdy activists off the streets, the police find themselves hosting a three-day strategy conference inside the jail. Whenever a conversation begins to get stale, the guards show up and shuffle people into new discussion groups, and the debate begins afresh.
For the most part, the atmosphere in my cell was not one of defeat, but rather of rigorous self-criticism. This is a necessary moment in the growth of any movement – coming up against the limits of the premises that underlie a practice – and it seemed to be getting underway just hours after that practice had collapsed on the streets of Oakland. This was decidedly not the unreflecting group of militants that Chris Hedges has recently accused of a pathological aversion to strategic thought.
This logic broke down on Oak Street. Saturday clearly demonstrated the limits of a mode of organizing that has thus far been successful. Up until now, Occupy has involved a contradictory and unstable mixture of liberal and more radical elements held together by a thin tissue of stories of injustice and violated “rights.” This fact has led to endless unproductive disputes about the role of “violence” in our movement, of which Chris Hedges is just the most recent and banal example. The problem is that if our unity can be reduced to our shared victimization, we are reliant on police and civic officials to continually give us these stories. As police tactics adapt, and as the demands we make of the system become more radical, this will become increasingly difficult. The basis of the connections we make within the movement must involve a deeper sort of radicalization. The central antagonism is not between the police state and the people, but between labor and capital. The anti-police repression marches that are now happening weekly in Oakland, while focused on a crucial issue, tend to sideline this larger point. To the extent that this discourse dominates our practice, we are operating with exactly the same limited and moralizing conception of our movement’s unity as our liberal critics. The romanticized picture of the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrators that Hedges fetishizes is on a continuum with the images of victimization in many of our own actions. We need to tell a new story.
After we experienced the material limits of this type of organizing, some very necessary conversations began in Santa Rita in earnest. The focus on the brutality has its uses, but to the extent that it stands in as a substitute for this more substantial self-criticism, it allows the tenuous alliance between adventurism and humanitarian liberalism to persist. While we are all justifiably angry at the Oakland Police Department and the Alameda County Sheriffs, what comes out of this experience needs to be more than simply a strengthened conviction that we hate the cops. If we don’t swiftly move towards the self-criticism that we need, the opportunity will be missed.